Chapter 16

Exploration or Exploitation?

In This Chapter

• The motives for European exploration

• Christopher Columbus and the New World

• The Spanish Empire

• The impact of European exploration

If the Mongols revitalized the interregional exchange among Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, it was the Europeans who developed the most interest in maintaining and developing these contacts. Thus the world was on the verge of a new era of history.

Means and Motives

The European states had several motives for wanting to explore other regions. While fighting in the Middle East, European crusaders discoveredthat they liked a lot of what the Muslims had, including spices and fine linens from the Far East. Of course, after many years of fighting with the Christians, the Muslims did not care to do business with the Europeans (except the Venetians!), so to acquire exotic goods from the Far East, European monarchs and merchants started to look for ways around the Middle East. The European states and the various churches also saw it as their duty to spread Christianity, and it was time to find some new prospects. And many explorers were out for the purely selfish goals of fortune and glory. Finally, Europe’s developing nation-states could not sit idle while a neighbor was exploring and gatheringincreased wealth, influence, territory, and revenue streams. Competition was intense and meant life or death.

This combination of motives and economic means developed rapidly after the last of feudalism was wiped out by the Black Death. Europe now had the right mix to begin the Age of Exploration.

First, Portugal

Portugal was the first European nation to make attempts at exploration by probingthe western coast of Africa with several expeditions beginning in 1420. Why Portugal and not some other nation of Europe? The debate will continue about the specific cultural, social, and geographic reasons, but one individual factor was Prince Henry the Navigator, who took a strong interest in exploration and sponsored the expeditions.

The expeditions discovered new sources of gold in a region in Africa and justifiably called it the Gold Coast. In 1488, Bartholomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Vasco da Gama went even farther, rounding the cape and sailing to India, returning to Portugal with a cargo hold filled with spices. For his labors, Vasco da Gama made over 1,000 percent in profits, making him a rich man and generating a lot of interest with Portuguese spice traders.

As the Portuguese spice trade grew, it conflicted with the already existent Muslim spice trade with India. In 1509, things came to a head, and a Portuguese fleet defeated a fleet of Turkish and Indian ships. From that point forward, Portugal was an active participant in the Indian spice trade with the Port of Goa on the western coast created for just that purpose.

The merchants of Portugal also saw money in the Southeast Asia nation of Melaka, so the admiral Albuquerque and his fleet forced it to submit to Portuguese rule. This gave Portugal a jumping-off point for trade with China and the Spice Islands, connectingit back to Portugal after stopping at India and the Cape of Good Hope. The first European trading empire had been created. It was not the last.

Next Comes Spain

Rather than compete with Portuguese interests in the East, Spain decided to explore westward, beginning with the voyages of Christopher Columbus. In 1492, Columbus, an Italian sailing for Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand, sailed the Atlantic Ocean in hopes of finding a direct route to Asia.

By October 1492, Columbus reached land and, thinking he had reached Asia, proceededto call the inhabitants he and his men met “Indians.” In reality, Columbus had reached the Caribbean Islands off of North America. In three more voyages he discovered all of the major islands of the Caribbean and Honduras, still believing he had reached Asia.

The Treaty of Tordesillas

The Catholic Church saw a possible conflict on the horizon between two Catholic nations, Portugal and Spain, who from all appearances had conflicting claims of territory in Asia. So in 1494 with the help of the Church, the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed by the two nations in hopes of averting a war. This treaty created an imaginary line north and south through the Atlantic Ocean and South America. The unexplored territories east of the line belonged to Portugal while the unexplored territorieswest of the line belonged to Spain. Of course, the parties of the treaty did not know until later that Columbus had discovereda “New World.” Thus, the treaty proved to be much more advantageous to Spain, because they acquired the majorityof the rights to America while Portugal only acquired rights to the trade route around Africa. Spain was set up to be the next leading European trading empire.

What in the World

The citrus industry in Florida has its origins in Columbus’ second voyage to America. Columbus carried with him citrusseeds that were planted in the West Indies and eventually spread to Mexico and finally Florida.

Racing Across the Americas

Christopher Columbus’ legacy has been questioned, but in his time Columbus was an inspiration. Many explorers from several different nations followed in his wake. John Cabot, who represented England, explored the area of New England during the early sixteenth century. The Portuguese captain, Pedro Cabral, led an expedition to explore parts of South America around the same time. And finally, Amerigo Vespucci, who used America in his letters to describe the voyages, explored even more of South America for Spain. These and other expeditions made one general conclusion: that the land they were exploring was not Asia but a “New World” that had never been seen by Europeans.

Notable Quotable

"They are credulous and aware that there is a god in heaven and convinced that we come from there. And they repeat very quickly any prayer we tell them and make the sign of the cross. So your Highness should resolve to make them Christians.”

—Christopher Columbus, letter to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1492

The Spanish Empire

According to the Treaty of Tordesillas, the New World that explorers were discoveringbelonged to Spain, so Spain had an instant empire. As far as Europeans were concerned, an empire was something to control and exploit for the benefit of the mother country. So Spain sent men calledconquistadors to subdue or conquer the natives of their empire, bringing with them weapons that the native Americans had not seen: muskets, horses, and, most devastatingly, infectious diseases.

Cortés and Pizarro

Hernan Cortés was the first man to make it to the New World with conquest as his objective, not exploration, as his main objective. Cortés and his small army of Spanish conquistadors landed in Central America in 1518, coming from the nearby Caribbean Islands. To motivate his men, he burned all of his ships, so there could be no turning back.

After some quick reconnaissance, Cortés found out that he was in the middle of the large empire of the Aztecs. Using the discontentment of neighboring native tribes as allies, Cortés and his men were able to subdue the whole powerful Aztec Empire and conquer its capital city of Tenochtitlan by 1521. By 1550, the Spanish controlled a majority of Central America. Much of the success a few hundred Spanish soldiers had in subjugating an entire nation was due to the muskets and horses that the Aztecs did not have.

Another reason for the Spanish success was the diseases they unintentionally brought to the New World. Native Americans had no immunities to smallpox, measles, typhus, and influenza. These diseases came with the Spanish and spread quickly through the Native American population, decimating the entire continent.

Francisco Pizarro followed in Cortés’ footsteps. Setting out from Panama in 1531, he and his small army of conquistadors crossed the mountains into the empire of the Incas. By 1533, Pizarro had defeated the Incas and killed the Incan emperor, Athahualpa. Afterward he built a capital at the city of Lima and set up a puppet monarchyto rule the territory.

To Administer an Empire

After the conquests of Cortés and Pizarro, the Spanish created a complex colonial administration system to control their empire. One of the first actions was to declare all Native Americans subjects of Spain.

Although they were subjects, they did not receive many rights. The system of encomienda allowed Spanish settlers to use Native Americans as forced labor. Eventually this policy of forced labor, combined with disease and starvation, took a heavy toll on the native population. Close to half of the natives died from smallpox, measles, typhus, and influenza. There was a concerted effort by Catholic missionaries to convert the Native Americans in hopes of protecting them. Hundreds of thousandswere converted to Christianity, which only hastened the destruction of Native American social and political structures, to be abruptly replaced with alien European structures.

The Impact of Exploration

Spain, Portugal, and the other European nations saw several benefits of their explorations.Gold and silver found in the New World flowed to Spain, making it one of the richest and most powerful nations of Europe. Portugal became the chief entry point of spices into Europe, displacing the Venetians from that rich and important role. All of Europe acquired new agricultural products—potatoes, corn, tobacco, and coffee—which became staple and luxury crops for Europeans in the modern period. This trading exchange is sometimes referred to as the Columbian Exchange. Finally a new competition developed among sixteenth-century European nation-states.


The Columbian Exchange was an exchange of goods, plants, animals, and also diseasesthat followed Columbus’ initial connection of Europe and the Americas. Agricultural staples such as potatoes and corn were introduced to Europe, while wheat production was brought to the Americas. Animals such as horses, sheep, goats, and cattle were brought to the Americas, while Europe received the turkey and squirrel. Diseases were also exchanged with the Europeans spreading smallpox, typhus, influenza, and measles among the Native Americans.

Finally, the English, Dutch, and French

The English, Dutch, and French did not sit idly by as the competition started to heat up. These nations did not recognize the validity of the Treaty of Tordesillas for a variety of religious and political reasons, so they also funded explorations with varyingdegrees of success.

The English were able to establish themselves in both Asia and the Americas in the seventeenth century. In Asia, England explored the region of northwest India, stayingclear of Portuguese claims as much as possible. In North America, the colony at Jamestown, Virginia, was founded in 1607 and by 1700, with its success, English colonies dotted the eastern seaboard of North America.

The Dutch were also able to set up colonies in both Asia and the Americas. In 1595, they set up their first trading colony in India, administered by a company created to oversee trade in Asia called the East India Company. A similar company was founded to conduct trade in America called the West India Company. It financed the colonizationof the Dutch colony of the New Netherlands in the Hudson Valley.

The French tailed the English and the Dutch and were unable to colonize the Americas until the eighteenth century. It was then, spurred by the French exploration of the Mississippi River valley, that the French created a colonial territory in present-dayCanada.

Mercantilism, or What Can You Do for Me?

As the colonization of the New World and Asia continued, the European nations developed a new economic policy regarding the colonies. Called mercantilism, the policy was very simple. The colonies were linked to the mother country through trade and governmental control, to make sure that the colony served the mother country’s interests with a favorable balanceof trade in which the mother country imported raw materials from the colony and exported finished goods back.

To maintain that favorable balance, the mother country used high tariffs on foreign goods so the colonists could only afford goods from the mother country. Does this seem fair? The colonists didn’t think much of it, either, and eventually it came back on the European nations.


Mercantilism is an economic policy that many European governments pursued during the eighteenth and nineteenth century in which a nation was to export more valuable goods than they imported. Theoretically, the pursuit of this policy made a nation rich and powerful by keeping the economicresources in the country.

The Impact of Exploration on Africa

We examined the impact of exploration on the Americas and Europe, but another continent was profoundly affected by the exploration of the European nations: Africa.

The Beginnings of Slavery in the New World

During the sixteenth century, sugar cane plantations flourished in the Caribbean Islands and South America as people in Europe acquired a taste for sweets. These plantations needed a large number of workers to operate, but the Native American population had been severely depleted. They needed a new work force, so in 1518 the first load of African slaves was brought to the Americas.

Slavery had existed for centuries in Africa prior to the European contact. Traditionally, Africans traded slaves, mostly acquired as prisoners of war, with each other and Arab traders in small numbers. The Portuguese and Spanish were the first to purchase these slaves in small numbers at coastal trading ports. As demand for them increased from the plantations, the Europeans went farther inland to acquire more and more slaves.

What in the World

The composer of the famous Christian hymn “Amazing Grace,” John Newton, was a former slave trader. In the hymn, John described his spiritual journey from an abusive slave trader to a Christian. Later, Newton became involved with William Wilberforce in the slavery abolition movement.

It is estimated that over 10 million slaves were brought to America from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. This forced migration to America was known as the Middle Passage. Slaves often did not make it because of the poor conditions of the cargo holds of the European ships. Disease, starvation, and despair accompanied this group to the New World.

The Triangular Trade Network

The slave trade from Africa to the Americas was the starting point of a trading systemcalled the triangular trade network. Manufactured goods like guns and cloth were traded in Africa for slaves; slaves were shipped to the Americas where they were exchanged for sugar, tobacco, and raw cotton; and those products were shipped to Europe to be made into finished goods that either went back to the colonies or to Africa to begin the trading network again.

The End Result in Africa

The expansion of the slave trade in Africa had effects that still resonate in the continentinto the modern age. Socially, the trade tore the fabric of African society, creating conflict and war in the African people as they competed for the slave market.Coupled with the exportation of Africans as slaves, these conflicts depopulated the African continent. The conflicts also brought into question African cultural values, causing their rapid deterioration. As trade routes shifted to the coast, the old Songhai Empire weakened considerably, which helped to strengthen the Moroccan dynasty that emerged in the later sixteenthcentury to destroy the empire of Songhai.

Notable Quotable

"Some gentleman may, indeed, object to the slave trade as inhuman and impious; let us consider that if our colonies are to be maintained and cultivated… [it] can only be done by African Negroes.”

—Temple Luttrell, speech to British House of Commons, 1777

With all of these changes, some things in Africa continuedregardless. The traditional monarchial form of government remained highly centralized in most African kingdoms. Christianity remained constant in South Africa and Ethiopia, while Islam continued to spread throughout the remaining portions of Africa.

The Global Impact of Exploration

In the end, what was the global impact of European exploration? First and foremost, earlier interregional connections were solidified to create a truly global economy. Regional trade networks were disrupted and declined in importance, which allowed for a shift in trade dominance, with Europe now the center of the global market. Naturally the shift in trade brought a shift in political power, and the European nations became the global political powers for next 400 years.

The Least You Need to Know

• European exploration was facilitated by the revitalization of interregional connectionsbetween Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

• Portugal was the first European nation to make substantial efforts at exploration and creating a trading empire.

• Christopher Columbus, sailing for the Spanish, discovered the New World, establishing Spain as a world power.

• Other European nations followed the example of Spain exploring North America.

• European exploration established those nations as the dominant world powers for the next 400 years.

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