The Age of Exploration in Europe

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Time Line

1487 Bartholomew Diaz rounds Cape of Good Hope
1492 Spanish-sponsored voyage of Columbus crosses Atlantic; begins cultural exchange
1497-99 Vasco da Gama reaches India
1513 Portuguese reach Southeast Asia
1517 Portuguese reach China
1539 Hernando de Soto explores southeastern North America
1565 Pedro Menendez de Áviles founds St. Augustine on Florida coast
1585 Raleigh establishes English colony on Roanoke Island, Virginia
1607 London Company establishes colony of Jamestown near Chesapeake Bay
1620 Mayflower reaches Cape Cod Bay; settlers sign Mayflower Compact
1629 Puritans found Massachusetts Bay Colony by royal charter
1776 British colonies in North America declare independence as United States of America
1781 Great Britain surrenders to United States at Yorktown


Age of Exploration in Europe

The age of monarchy goes hand in hand with the age of exploration and colonization. While European monarchs vied with one another to establish strong nation-states in Europe, they also began sponsoring voyages of exploration beyond the known world. The purposes were fourfold: trade, conquest and expansion, religious conversion, and curiosity. The primary reason for their stupendous success can be summed up in one word: guns.

Europeans had long been trading with Asia, but the overland routes were problematic. Going over land, goods could not be transported any faster than a horse could walk; ships, by contrast, could move much more quickly, and a single ship could carry far more goods than a team of horses. Additionally, the overland routes were dangerous. Traders were constantly vulnerable to robbery and attack, weather caused problems at most times of the year, and geographical features such as mountains created obstacles to a smooth passage. All these factors ate into profits and made the traders look around for water routes to Asia, since transport of goods by water was much easier, more efficient, and less hazardous.

The second motive was conquest and expansion. The story that has unfolded in the previous chapters of this book shows that European nations tended to have an aggressive foreign policy, constantly attacking one another in order to acquire valuable territory and expand their power bases. A larger population meant more revenue for the crown in taxes, more income for the Church in tithes, and more soldiers in the army. Therefore, three of the most powerful branches of society—the royal court, the clergy, and the military—were united in the desire to explore the seas and lands beyond Europe in the hope of establishing colonies that would make them richer and stronger than their neighbors.

The third motive, religious conversion, was a product of the universal Christian belief that non-Christians were heathens and that it was a Christian’s duty to convert them, thus saving their souls from eternal damnation after death. Just as a nation is politically and economically stronger with a larger population, a church is stronger with more believers; therefore, the European churches were eager to send missionaries to Asia, Africa, and the Americas to bring more souls into the fold.

The last motive, and a very powerful one, was a sense of adventure and curiosity—the urge to find out what lay beyond the horizon and the willingness to take the risk of finding out. This urge has characterized human beings since the beginning of civilization and is responsible for all scientific discovery and technological achievement. Just as the twentieth-century explorations of outer space could not have been accomplished without the fundamental human desire to see and learn about the unknown, the sixteenth- and seventeenth- century voyages of exploration could never have happened if a number of brave souls had not wanted to find out what was on the other side of the ocean.

Although the Chinese had invented gunpowder centuries before, there were no guns in the world that could match what the Europeans had developed by the 1500s. One of the most important axioms to understanding history is that in any conflict, the side with the greater firepower always wins. The Asians had much less sophisticated guns than the Europeans, and the Americans had no guns at all. This is almost certainly the main reason the Europeans were able to impose their will on the peoples of the other continents.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Age of Exploration in Europe Practice Test

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