European Exploration to the East
Exploration to the East
Europeans had been navigating the South Atlantic and the Mediterranean since ancient times, but it was only in the late fifteenth century that they began to explore the west coast of Africa and to look for ways to reach China and India by water. Europeans had traveled far to the East during the Crusades of the Middle Ages; there had also been solitary travelers like Marco Polo who brought back fabulous tales of sophisticated Eastern civilizations and tangible samples of Eastern luxuries in the form of spices, silks, and porcelain. Such items—especially the spices, which not only improved the taste of food but also helped to preserve it in the age before refrigeration—were highly valued in Europe, commanding high prices because of their scarcity. All the European nations knew there was great profit to be made from overseas trade—if one could establish an easy, efficient, and economical route.
Portuguese Exploration and Trade
Portugal’s long stretch of Atlantic coastline and its proximity to Africa placed it in an ideal geographical position to take the lead in these exploratory voyages. With the birth in 1394 of Prince Henry, Portugal also acquired the ideal sponsor for its seagoing ventures.
Prince Henry’s passion for ships and the sea, and the skills he acquired in his favorite subject, gave him the nickname Prince Henry the Navigator. Since Henry was not the heir to Portugal’s throne, he was free to indulge his time and money on ships and sailing. His fascination with the sea proved enormously profitable for the kingdom.
Henry oversaw and paid for the development of the caravel, a lighter, faster, and more maneuverable sailing ship than those generally used at the time. He sponsored exploratory voyages to West Africa and employed skilled cartographers to record the results. Henry’s own considerable skills in navigation were hugely beneficial to the Portuguese fleet.
During the late 1400s, Portuguese explorers made a series of voyages along the west coast of Africa. Their purpose was to gather information and perhaps to set up trading posts; at this time there was no attempt at invasion or con- quest. In 1487, one of these voyages stumbled accidentally on the only viable water route to the East.
Captain Bartholomew Diaz and his crew, having ventured almost to the southern tip of Africa, were blown off course during a storm. When the storm ended, Diaz realized that they had rounded Africa’s southern tip, which he promptly named Cape of Storms; later it became known as the Cape of Good Hope. This voyage established the viability of sailing to Asia by rounding Africa. (The Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean and Red seas and thus provides a much shorter shipping route, was not built until the mid-nineteenth century.)
The Portuguese lost no time in fitting out ships for a trade expedition to Asia. In 1498, Vasco da Gama became the first European to reach India by sea. He learned two facts of major importance on this first encounter. First, the Indians showed no interest in the European goods Da Gama offered to barter for their spices; they wanted money. Second, Arab traders already had control of a thriving spice trade in the area. Da Gama understood that the Portuguese would have to drive the Arabs out if their own trade ambitions were to succeed.
When Da Gama returned to Europe and sold a shipload of Indian pepper for sixty times the price he paid for it, it was clear that the thunderstorm that sent Diaz’s ship off course had been a great stroke of economic good fortune for Portugal.
As a small nation with a small population, Portugal was interested not in conquest but in trade. At this point in history, the Portuguese made no attempt to invade or colonize African or Asian nations. Their goals were commercial: to establish permanent trading posts with small staffs and to make money. Their first trading post in the area was in Calicut at the southern tip of India. In 1510, they managed to oust the Arab traders and establish their own presence in Malacca (on the Malay peninsula) and Goa (on India’s west coast). Arab traders would continue to operate in the area, but on a smaller scale; they were especially successful in continuing their trade with Venice, to which their ships had easy access via the Adriatic Sea.
During the 1540s, Portugal became the first European nation to make direct contact by sea with Japan, and by the 1550s the Portuguese had set up trading posts in China and throughout the Southeast Asian islands. In addition to purchasing Asian goods for export to Europe, the Portuguese made a handsome profit by carrying goods between Asian nations that traded with one another, such as China and Japan.
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