Age of Discovery


Age of Discovery and Age of Exploration is an informal and loosely defined term for the early modern period, largely superimposed on the so-called “Age of Sail”, roughly from the 15th to the 18th century, in which European sailors explored regions around the world, most of which were already inhabited but unknown or almost unknown to their “discoverers”. More recently, some scholars have preferred to coin the nomenclature Contact Period or Age of European expansion.

Maritime exploration, led by the Portuguese, became a powerful factor in European culture, particularly the European encounter and colonization of the Americas. It also marks an increased adoption of colonialism as a government policy in several European states, as such is sometimes synonymous with the first wave of European colonization.

European exploration outside the Mediterranean began with Portugal”s maritime expeditions to the Canary Islands in 1336. Shortly thereafter, Portuguese discoveries of the Atlantic archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores (claimed by the Portuguese crown in 1419 and 1427 respectively), then the coast of West Africa after 1434 until the establishment of the sea route to India in 1498 by Vasco da Gama. The Crown of Castile (Spain) sponsored instead the transatlantic voyages of Christopher Columbus to the Americas (1492-1504) and the first circumnavigation of the globe (1519-1522) by Ferdinand Magellan (completed by Juan Sebastián Elcano). These discoveries led to numerous naval expeditions across the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans and land expeditions to the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Australia that continued until the late 19th century, followed by exploration of the polar regions in the 20th century.

European oceanic exploration generated international trade and colonial empires, contact between the Old World (Europe, Asia and Africa) and the New World (the Americas), as well as Australia, giving rise to the so-called “Columbian exchange”, an extensive transfer of plants, animals, food, human populations (including slaves), communicable diseases and culture between the eastern and western hemispheres. The Age of Discovery allowed for the mapping of the world, resulting in a new view of the globe and the contact of distant civilizations. At the same time, new diseases spread and decimated populations (basically Native Americans) that had never been in contact with the Old World. It was an era characterized by slavery, exploitation, military conquest and growing economic, technological and cultural influence of Europe on indigenous peoples.

The well-established term “Age of Discovery” is still commonly used. The concept of “discovery” has been scrutinized, critically highlighting the history of the central term in this periodization. Parry coined the alternative nomenclature of Age of Reconnaissance because it was not only the era of European explorations into hitherto unknown regions but also expanded geographical knowledge and scientific empiricism as it “also saw the first great victories of empirical inquiry over authority, the beginnings of that close association of science, technology, and daily work which is an essential feature of the modern Western world.” Pagden asserted that “for all Europeans, the events of October 1492 constituted a ”discovery.” Something of which they had no knowledge had suddenly presented itself to their gaze.” O”Gorman (the inspiration for Pagden”s work) argued that the physical and geographical encounter with new territories was less important than the Europeans” effort to integrate this new knowledge into their worldview-the so-called “Invention of America.” Pagden examined the origins of the terms “discovery” and “invention” in English and Romance forms. Discovery derives from “disco-operio”, i.e. “to uncover, reveal, expose to view”, implying the pre-existence of what is revealed, and it is not by chance that very few Europeans of the time used the term “invention” and not “discovery”, with the notable exception of Martin Waldseemüller, whose map first used the term “America”.

The central legal concept of the “Discovery Doctrine,” expounded by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1823, is based on claims of the right of European powers to claim land during their explorations. The concept of “discovery” was used to reinforce colonial claims and the age of discovery and was therefore loudly challenged by indigenous peoples as the concept and colonial claim of “discovery” on lands already characterized by indigenous presence.

The period, alternatively called the Age of Exploration, has also been interpreted in light of the concept of “exploration” itself. Its understanding and use, like science more generally, has been discussed as structured and used for colonial enterprises, discrimination, and exploitation, combining it with concepts such as “frontier” (as in frontierism) and manifest destiny, and to the contemporary era of space exploration.

Alternatively, the term and concept of “contact,” as in first contact, was used to blur the nomenclature of the period, which would then become Age

The Portuguese began the systematic exploration of the Atlantic coast of Africa in 1418, under the patronage of the Infante Enrico d”Aviz, known to posterity as Henry the Navigator. They developed a maneuverable, light and fast sailing ship, the caravel, with which to challenge not only the ocean currents, but also the ocean winds, exploiting which, in 1488, Bartholomew Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope, opening the sea route to the Indian Ocean.

In 1492, the Catholic Monarchs of Spain financed Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus” plan to sail west to reach the East Indies by crossing the Atlantic. Columbus encountered a continent unknown to most Europeans, although it had already been explored and temporarily colonized by the Norwegians some 500 years earlier, named “America” in honor of explorer Amerigo Vespucci, the first to realize that it was a “New World.” To prevent conflict between Portugal and Spain, four papal bulls were issued to divide the world into two regions of exploration

In 1498, a Portuguese expedition commanded by Vasco da Gama reached India by sailing around Africa, opening up direct trade with Asia. While other exploratory fleets were sent from Portugal to North America, in the following years the Portuguese armies in India also extended the eastern ocean route, sometimes touching South America and thus opening a circuit from the New World to Asia (starting in 1500, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral), and exploring the southern Atlantic and southern Indian Ocean islands. Soon, the Portuguese sailed further east, reaching the Spice Islands (1512) and China the following year. Japan, however, was not reached until 1543. In 1513, the Spaniard Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and reached the “other sea” from the New World, bringing Europe the first news of the Pacific Ocean. The western and eastern vectors of exploration overlapped in 1522, when a Spanish expedition led by the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan (later by the Basque Juan Sebastián Elcano) sailed westward to circumnavigate the world, while Spanish conquistadors explored the interior of the Americas and, later, some of the islands of the South Pacific.

From 1495, the French and English joined the race of exploration, challenging the Iberian monopoly on maritime trade and seeking new routes, first to the western coasts of North and South America, beginning with the first English expedition led by Giovanni Caboto in 1497, followed by French expeditions, and to the Pacific around South America. The Dutch joined the “contention” during the 16th century. Eventually, they emulated the Portuguese in the Africa-India route. They discovered Australia in 1606, New Zealand in 1642, and Hawaii in 1778. Meanwhile, from 1580 to 1640, the Russians explored and conquered nearly all of Siberia and, in the 1730s, reached Alaska.


A brief summary of the major milestones of the period follows:

Increase in European trade

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire disrupted much of the connections between Europe and Asia. Christian Europe was largely in economic stagnation.

Before the 12th century, the main obstacles to trade east of the Strait of Gibraltar were the Muslim control of vast areas, including the Iberian Peninsula, and the commercial monopolies of the so-called “Maritime Republics” of Italy, in particular the Republic of Venice and the Republic of Genoa. The Reconquista, however, broke the Muslim stranglehold on Gibraltar: Portugal emancipated itself from Arab control with the siege of Lisbon as early as 1147, while the remaining Iberian kingdoms began to systematically engage the Arabs. The decline in naval strength of the Fatimid caliphate, which began before the First Crusade, helped Venice, Genoa and Pisa to dominate trade in the eastern Mediterranean, creating new political realities in which merchants dominated politics. The maritime republics were also able to exploit the decline of Byzantine naval power following the death of Emperor Manuel I Comnenus (1180), the last of a dynasty that had concluded several important treaties with the Italians, monopolizing the Byzantine commercial network. The Norman conquest of England (1066) enabled peaceful trade in the North Sea. The Hanseatic League, a confederation of merchant guilds in northern Germany along the North Sea and the Baltic Sea was instrumental in the commercial development of the region. In the 12th century, Flanders, Hainault and Brabant produced the finest textiles in northern Europe, which encouraged Genoese and Venetian merchants to sail directly from the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar and up the Atlantic coast. Nicolòzzo Spinola made the first documented direct voyage from Genoa to Flanders in 1277.

Technology: the design of the ship and the compass

The technological advances that promoted the Age of Discovery were the adoption of the magnetic compass and the development of new types of ships.

The compass was an addition to the ancient method of navigation based on sightings of the sun and stars. Used by Chinese sailors from the eleventh century, it had been adopted by the Arabs in the Indian Ocean. It spread to Europe in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. Its use for navigation in the Indian Ocean is first mentioned in 1232. The first mention of its use in Europe dates back to 1180. Europeans used a “dry” compass, with a needle on a pivot. The wind chart was also a European invention.

The evolution of ships was more “strurttural” and produced a new generation of vessels different in propulsion and architecture. First of all, sail propulsion became predominant with the fundamental introduction of the triangular sail. The origin was certainly Asian. The Malays invented the so-called “junk sail”, made of woven mats reinforced by bamboo, several centuries before the Christian Era. By the time of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.), the Chinese were using such sails, having derived the technology from contacts with the Malays who visited their southern coast. They also used thirdsail or tanja sails. Such instruments made it possible to sail against the wind along the west coast of Africa. The innovation inspired the Arabs in the west and the Polynesians in the east in the development of the Latin sail proper and the “crab claw” sail, respectively.Also in Asia, ships grew in size. The Javanese built ocean-going merchant ships called Djong from at least the first century A.D., more than 50 meters long with a deadweight of 4-7 meters. They carried 700 people along with more than 10,000 hú (斛) of cargo, about 250-1000 tons according to current estimates. Constructed of multiple planks to withstand storms, they had 4 sails plus a mainsail. The Javanese reached the Ghanaian Empire as early as the 8th century with these ships.

The technological development of the rudder was fundamental. The old “oar” rudders, descendants of the so-called “steering oar”, were replaced by a rudder fixed to the sternpost with iron hinges. The innovation (already witnessed in twelfth-century England) reached its full potential only after the introduction of the vertical stern and the full-sailed ship in the fourteenth century. For years historians have believed that the technology of the stern-mounted rudder in Europe and the Islamic world, introduced by travelers in the Middle Ages, also came from China, but in recent times this hypothesis has been questioned noting the objective differences between the mounting system of the Chinese rudder from the European one. This evolutionary process led to new ships that net of their large size required small crews and could travel long distances without stopping. The costs of long distance shipping would therefore decrease significantly by the fourteenth century. More primitive but cheaper vessels, such as the North European coches or the Mediterranean merchant galleys, remained in use for a long time.

First geographic knowledge and maps

The Periplus Maris Erythraei (AD 40 or 60) described a newly discovered route across the Red Sea to India, detailing markets in cities around the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and in the Indian Ocean, also along the east coast of Africa, stating that “beyond these places the unexplored ocean curves westward, and running through the regions south of Ethiopia and Libya and Africa, merges with the western sea (Atlantic Ocean?).” Medieval European knowledge of Asia beyond Byzantium was derived from partial accounts, often obscured by legends, dating back to the time of the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Diadochi.

Another source was the Radhani Jewish trade networks established as intermediaries between Europe and the Muslim world during the period of the Crusader states.

In 1154, the Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi created a description of the world and a map of the world, the Tabula Rogeriana, at the court of King Roger II of Sicily but Africa was only partially described there because the Arabs themselves had only partial knowledge of it. There were reports of the great African Sahara but knowledge was limited for Europeans to the Mediterranean coast and little else because the Arab blockade of North Africa precluded exploration of the interior. Knowledge of the Atlantic coast of Africa was fragmented and derived primarily from ancient Greek and Roman maps in turn based on Carthaginian knowledge and Roman exploration of Mauritania. The Red Sea was little known and only the commercial contacts of the maritime republics (fond. Venice) favored the collection of accurate maritime knowledge.

Indian Ocean trade routes were a monopoly of the Arabs. Between 1405 and 1421, Emperor Yongle of Ming China sponsored a series of long-range tributary missions under the command of Zheng He (Cheng Ho). Fleets visited Arabia, East Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and Thailand, but the voyages, reported by Ma Huan, a Muslim traveler and translator, were abruptly discontinued after the emperor”s death and had no follow-up as the Ming dynasty initiated the so-called Haijin, a policy of isolationism (see below).

In 1400 a Latin translation of Ptolemy”s Geographia arrived in Italy from Constantinople. The rediscovery of Roman geographical knowledge was a revelation, both for map-making and worldview, although it reinforced the idea that the Indian Ocean was landlocked with other seas.

Medieval European trade (1241-1438)

The prelude to the Age of Discovery were the European expeditions that crossed Eurasia by land in the late Middle Ages. The Mongols had threatened Europe, but the Mongol states also unified much of Eurasia, and from 1206 onward, the Pax Mongolica allowed safe trade routes and extended lines of communication from the Middle East to China. European merchants took advantage of this to explore the East. Most were Italian, since trade between Europe and the Middle East was a monopoly of the maritime republics. Italy”s close ties with the Levant aroused great curiosity and commercial interest in the easternmost countries.

There are few records of merchants from North Africa and the Mediterranean region active in the Indian Ocean in the late Middle Ages.

The Christian embassies sent to Karakorum during the “Mongol Invasions of Syria” obtained more geographical information about the world. It was first John of Pian del Carpine, sent by Pope Innocent IV to the Great Khan, who traveled to Mongolia and returned (1241-1247). At the same time, the Russian prince Yaroslav of Vladimir, and later his sons Alexander Nevsky and Andrew II of Vladimir, traveled to the Mongolian capital. While their travels had strong political implications, they left no detailed accounts. Other travelers followed, such as the Frenchman André de Longjumeau and the Flemish William of Rubruck, who reached China via Central Asia. The Venetian Marco Polo dictated an account of travels throughout Asia from 1271 to 1295, claiming to have been a guest at the court of Kublai Khan”s Yuan dynasty known as The Million whose publishing success was European in scope.

The Muslim fleet guarding the Strait of Gibraltar was defeated in 1291 by the Genoese, who then attempted the first Atlantic exploration: brothers Ugolino and Vadino Vivaldi set sail from Genoa with two galleys but disappeared off the Moroccan coast, fueling fears of oceanic travel. From 1325 to 1354, a Moroccan scholar from Tangier, Ibn Battuta, traveled through North Africa, the Sahara Desert, West Africa, Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia to China. He then dictated an account of the enterprise, The Travels, to a scholar he met in Granada. Between 1357 and 1371, a book of supposed voyages compiled by John Mandeville gained extraordinary popularity. Despite the unreliable and often fanciful nature of its accounts, it was used as a reference for the Orient, Egypt, and the Levant in general, affirming the ancient belief that Jerusalem was the Axis mundi, the “center of the world.”

After the period of Timurid relations with Europe, in 1439 Niccolò Da Conti published an account of his travels as a Muslim merchant in India and Southeast Asia and, later in 1466-1472, the Russian Afanasij Nikitin of Tver” went to India and collected his experience in Choždenie za tri morja (it. “Journey across the three seas”).

These overland journeys had little immediate effect. The Mongol empire collapsed as quickly as it had formed, and the route eastward became difficult and dangerous again. The Black Death of the 14th century contributed to blocking travel and trade. Finally, the rise of the Ottoman Empire further limited the possibilities of European land trade with Asia.

Chinese Oceanic Expeditions (1405-1433)

The Chinese had extensive trade links, by land and sea, with Asia, the Middle East (especially Egypt), and East Africa since the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Between 1405 and 1421, the third Ming emperor, Yongle, sponsored a series of long-range tributary missions to the Indian Ocean under the command of Admiral Zheng He. Although important, these voyages did not lead to permanent connections with overseas territories due to China”s subsequent isolationist choice that put an end to the voyages and their knowledge.

A large fleet of new junks was prepared for these expeditions. The largest of these junks-which the Chinese called bao chuan (treasure ships)-may have measured 121 meters (400 feet) from stern to bow and had thousands of sailors. The first expedition set out in 1405. At least seven well-documented expeditions were launched, each larger and more expensive than the last. The fleets visited Arabia, East Africa, India, the Malay archipelago, and Thailand (then called Siam), trading goods along the way. They brought gifts of gold, silver, porcelain, and silk, which they traded for ostriches, zebras, camels, ivory, and giraffes. After the emperor”s death, Zheng He led a final expedition starting in Nanjing in 1431 and returning to Beijing in 1433. It is very likely that this last expedition went as far as Madagascar. The voyages described by the Muslim translator Ma Huan who accompanied Zheng He on three of the seven expeditions: the account was published as Yingya Shenglan (“Reconnaissance of the Oceanic Coasts”) in 1433.

The voyages had a significant and lasting effect in organizing a maritime network, utilizing and creating nodes and pipelines, thus restructuring international and cross-cultural relations and exchanges. It was particularly effective because no other political system had exercised naval dominance over all sectors of the Indian Ocean prior to these voyages. The Ming promoted alternative nodes as a strategy to establish control over the network. For example, because of Chinese involvement, ports such as Malacca (in Southeast Asia), Kochi (on the Malabar coast), and Malindi (on the Swahili coast) had grown as key alternatives to other important and established ports. The appearance of the Ming fleet generated further economic-political competition among the potentates involved in trade with China.

The voyages also led to the regional integration of the Western Ocean and the increased international movement of people, ideas, and goods. It provided support for cosmopolitan discourses that blossomed aboard the Ming treasure fleet, in the Ming capitals of Nanjing and Beijing, and at banquets organized by the Ming court for foreign representatives. Diverse groups of people from all ports gathered, interacted, and traveled together as the Ming treasure fleet sailed to and from China. For the first time in its history, the maritime region from China to Africa was under the rule of a single imperial power that created a cosmopolitan space.

These long-distance voyages were not followed up due to the introduction of the Haijin of the Ming, soon after Yongle”s death, as the Chinese lost interest in what they called barbarian lands, becoming involuntary, and successor emperors considered the expeditions detrimental to the state. Emperor Hongxi put an end to the expeditions, and Emperor Xuande suppressed much of the information about Zheng He”s travels.

From the eighth to the fifteenth century, the maritime republics held a monopoly on the European trade with the Middle East in silk and spices (i.e. food spices, incense, herbs, drugs and opium), benefiting enormously. Spices were among the most expensive and sought-after products of the Middle Ages, as they were used in medieval medicine, religious rituals, cosmetics and perfumery, as well as food additives and preservatives. They were all products imported from Asia and Africa.

Muslim traders from Yemen and Oman monopolized the sea routes of the Indian Ocean, from Ormus in the Persian Gulf and Jeddah in the Red Sea to the great trading emporiums of India, mainly Kozhikode, to the Far East. From the Middle East, caravan routes reached the Mediterranean coasts. Venetian merchants distributed goods throughout Europe until the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which conquered Constantinople in 1453 and excluded Europeans from important combined land-sea routes.

Forced to reduce their activities in the Black Sea because of the conflict with Venice, Genoa focused on the North African trade of wheat and olive oil (also appreciated as a source of energy) and on the search for silver and gold of which the Europeans had a constant deficit because the currency was unilaterally consumed to import products from the East. Several European mines were simultaneously exhausted and the lack of ingots led to the development of a complex banking system to manage risks in trade. The very first state bank, the Banco di San Giorgio, was founded in Genoa in 1407. Sailing as far as Bruges (Flanders) and England, the Genoese ended up establishing a community in Portugal that was able to profit from their enterprise and financial expertise.

European navigation had until then been reduced to simple cabotage guided by pilot books, nautical charts indicating only proven ocean routes guided by coastal landmarks: sailors started from a known point, followed the compass route and tried to identify their position according to the other landmarks. Western Europeans used the compass for early ocean exploration, advances in cartography and astronomy: Arabic navigational instruments such as the astrolabe and quadrant facilitated celestial navigation.

Portuguese exploration

In 1297, King Dionysius of Portugal took a personal interest in exports and in 1317 he made an agreement with the Genoese merchant Emanuele Pessagno (pt. Pessanha), appointing him first admiral of the Marinha Portuguesa, with the objective of defending the country from the incursions of Muslim pirates. The epidemics of bubonic plague led to a serious depopulation in the second half of the fourteenth century: only the sea offered alternatives and most of the population settled in coastal areas to fish and trade. Between 1325 and 1357 Alfonso IV of Portugal encouraged maritime trade and ordered the first explorations. The Canary Islands, already known to the Genoese, were declared officially discovered under the patronage of the Portuguese, but in 1344 Castile disputed them, widening the rivalry between the two Iberian kingdoms to the sea.

In order to guarantee their monopoly on Mediterranean trade, Europeans (starting with the Portuguese) tended to install a commercial system based on military force and intimidation to divert trade to controlled ports where it could be taxed. Thus it was that in 1415 John I of Portugal conquered Ceuta, the nerve center of trans-Saharan trade routes and trade along the African coast. One of John”s sons, the Infante Enrico the Navigator, realized in Ceuta the possibility of profiting from the trade in spices, gold and slaves, which for centuries had been a monopoly of the North African Moors.

Henry wanted to know how far the Muslim territories in Africa extended, hoping to bypass them and trade directly with West Africa by sea and find allies in the legendary Christian lands to the south like the mythical Priest Gianni and to explore the possibility of reaching the Indies, the source of the lucrative spice trade, by sea. He therefore sponsored voyages along the coast of Mauritania, bringing together merchants, ship owners and other interested parties in the search for new sea routes. Soon the Atlantic islands of Madeira (1419), colonized by João Gonçalves Zarco, and the Azores (1427) were reached. At that time, Europeans did not know what lay beyond Cape Non (present-day Cape Chaunar) on the African coast and whether it was possible to return once they had crossed it. Nautical myths warned of oceanic monsters and a world border, but Henry”s expeditions defied such beliefs and, beginning in 1421, systematic navigation went beyond it, reaching the much more hostile Cape Bojador which in 1434 one of Henry”s captains, Gil Eanes, rounded, debunking its black legend.

Enormous benefits were brought by the introduction of the caravel in the mid-fifteenth century, a small ship capable of sailing to the wind more than any other in Europe at the time. Evolved from fishing vessels, caravels were the first to be able to abandon cabotage and sail safely in the open Atlantic. For astronomical navigation, the Portuguese used the Ephemerides, which became very popular in the fifteenth century: they were astronomical charts that plotted the position of the stars in a distinct period of time. Published in 1496 by the Jewish astronomer, astrologer and mathematician Abraham Zacuto, the Perpetual Almanac included some of these tables for the movements of the stars that revolutionized navigation, allowing the calculation of latitude. The exact longitude, however, remained elusive and sailors struggled to determine it for centuries. Using the caravel, systematic exploration continued further and further south, advancing an average of one degree per year. Senegal and the Cape Verde Peninsula were reached in 1445, and in 1446 Álvaro Fernandes pushed almost as far as present-day Sierra Leone.

In 1453 the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople was a severe blow to Christendom and the established trade relations it linked with the East. In 1455 Pope Nicholas V issued the bull Romanus Pontifex which reinforced the earlier Dum Diversas (1452), granting the lands and seas discovered beyond Cape Bojador to Alfonso V of Portugal and his successors, with rights of trade and conquest against Muslims and pagans, laying the foundation for the Lusitanian political vision of the Atlantic as Mare clausum. Alfonso commissioned the famous “Mappamondo di Fra Mauro” in 1459.

In 1456 Diogo Gomes reached the archipelago of Cape Verde and in the following decade several captains in the service of Henry (eg, the Genoese Antonio de Noli and the Venetian Alvise Da Mosto) discovered the remaining islands, occupied during the century, and by 1460 reached the Gulf of Guinea.

In 1460 Pedro da Sintra reached Sierra Leone. Henry the Navigator died in November of that year after which, given the meager revenues, the Crown entrusted the exploration to Lisbon merchant Fernão Gomes (1469) who, in exchange for a monopoly on trade in the Gulf of Guinea, was to explore 161 kilometers of coastline per year for five years. With his sponsorship, explorers João de Santarém, Pêro de Escobar, Lopo Gonçalves, Fernão do Pó, and Pedro de Sintra went far beyond their goal: They reached the southern hemisphere (they were now using the Southern Cross as a reference for celestial navigation) and the islands of the Gulf of Guinea, including São Tomé and Príncipe and Elmina in what came to be known as the “Gold Coast” in 1471 (present-day Ghana) because a thriving alluvial gold trade was found there among Arab and Berber natives and traders.

In 1478, during the War of the Castilian Succession, near the coast of Elmina, a great battle was fought between a Castilian fleet of 35 caravels and a Portuguese fleet for hegemony in the Guinea trade (gold, slaves, ivory and pepper). The victory went to the Portuguese, followed by the official recognition by the Catholic Monarchs of the sovereignty of Lusitania over most of the disputed territories of West Africa, sanctioned by the Treaty of Alcáçovas in 1479. This was the first “colonial war” between European powers.

In 1481, the newly crowned John II of Portugal built Elmina Castle to oversee the collection of gold. In 1482, the Congo River was explored by Diogo Cão, who continued on to Cape Cross (present-day Namibia) in 1486.

The next turning point was in 1488, when Bartholomew Diaz rounded the southern tip of Africa, which he called “Cape of Storms” (pt. Cabo das Tormentas), anchoring at Mossel Bay and then sailing eastward to the mouth of the Great Fish River, demonstrating that the Indian Ocean was accessible from the Atlantic contrary to what Ptolemy claimed. At the same time Pêro da Covilhã had secretly reached Ethiopia after collecting important information on the coast of the Red Sea and Quenia, in support of the imminent search for the sea route to the Indies. The Cape itself was renamed by King John “Cape of Good Hope” (pt. Cabo da Boa Esperança) for the great optimism that pervaded the Portuguese.

Based on later stories about the so-called “Ghost Island” or Bacalao and engravings on Dighton Rock, some speculate that Portuguese João Vaz Corte-Real arrived in Newfoundland in 1473 but these are unreliable sources and

Spanish Exploration: Columbus” Landing in the Americas

Portugal”s Iberian rival, the Kingdom of Castile and León, had begun to establish its dominion over the Canary Islands in 1402, but then became embroiled in civil strife and reopened the conflict with the Muslims for much of the fifteenth century. At the end of the century, thanks to the unification of the crowns of Castile and Aragon, Spain committed itself to the search for new commercial routes overseas. The Crown of Aragon had been an important maritime power in the Mediterranean, controlling territories in eastern Spain, southwestern France, Sicily, Malta, the Kingdom of Naples, Sardinia and even continental possessions in Greece. In 1492 the Catholic Monarchs of Spain conquered the Sultanate of Granada, which provided Castile with African goods through tribute, and decided to finance Christopher Columbus” expedition in the hope of bypassing Portugal”s monopoly on West African sea routes and reaching the “Indies” (East and South Asia) by a route to the west. Twice, in 1485 and 1488, Columbus had presented his project to John II of Portugal, who rejected it.

On the evening of August 3, 1492, Columbus departed from Palos de la Frontera with three ships: a nau, Santa María (also Gallega, i.e. “Galician”), and two caravels, Pinta (“Painted”) and Santa Clara later known as Niña (“Little”). She reached the Canary Islands, where she refueled for what turned out to be a five-week voyage across the ocean, crossing a section of the Atlantic that became known as the Sargasso Sea.

Land was sighted on October 12, 1492, and Columbus named the island (one of the islands in the Bahamas archipelago but which is still disputed) San Salvador, in what he thought was the East Indies. Columbus then explored the northeastern coast of Cuba (October 28) and the northern coast of Hispaniola by December 5. He was received by the cacicco of the Guacanagaríx who allowed him to build a settlement.Columbus left 39 men behind and founded La Navidad in what is now Haiti. Before returning to Spain, he kidnapped 10

On his return, a storm forced Columbus to dock in Lisbon (March 4, 1493) but after a week in Portugal he set sail for Spain and on March 15, 1493 arrived in Barcelona, where he reported to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. The news of his discovery of new lands quickly spread throughout Europe.

Columbus and other Spanish explorers were initially disappointed by their discoveries: unlike Africa or Asia, Caribbean islanders had little to trade. The islands thus became the focus of colonization efforts. It was not until the continent was explored that Spain found the wealth it was seeking.

Treaty of Tordesillas (1494)

Shortly after Columbus returned from what would later be called the “West Indies,” a division of influence became necessary to avoid conflict between the Spanish and Portuguese. On May 4, 1493, two months after Columbus” arrival, the Catholic Monarchs received the bull Inter Caetera from the Spanish Pope Alexander VI, which stated that all lands west and south of a pole-to-pole line 100 leagues west and south of the Azores or Cape Verde Islands belonged to Castile and, later, to all continents and islands then belonging to India. It did not mention Portugal, which could not claim newly discovered lands east of the line.

John II of Portugal was not satisfied with the agreement: it granted him too little land and hindered his route to India, his main goal. He negotiated directly with Ferdinand and Isabella to move the line west and thus claim the newly discovered lands east of it.

The agreement was reached in 1494 with the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the world between the two powers. The Portuguese received everything outside of Europe east of a line that ran 370 leagues west of Cape Verde to the islands discovered by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage, claimed for Castile and called Cipangu (present-day Cuba) and Antilia (present-day Hispaniola). This granted them control over Africa, Asia and eastern South America (Brazil). The Spanish received everything west of this line. At the time of negotiation, the treaty divided the known Atlantic islands roughly in half, with the dividing line about halfway between Portuguese Cape Verde and the Spanish Caribbean.

Pedro Álvares Cabral encountered what is now known as the Brazilian coast in the 1500s, originally thought to be a large island. Because it was east of the demarcation line, he claimed it for Portugal with Spanish approval. Portuguese ships sailed west into the Atlantic to get favorable winds for the voyage to India, and this is how Cabral arrived in Brazil. Some suspect that the Portuguese had secretly discovered Brazil earlier and that is why they moved the line west but there is no reliable evidence of this. Others suspect that Duarte Pacheco Pereira discovered Brazil as early as 1498 but this is not considered credible by mainstream historians.

Later Spanish territory would turn out to include vast continental areas of North and South America, while Portuguese Brazil would expand across the line. Other European powers then came to occupy territories already subject to the Treaty of Tordesillas, ignoring its provisions.

The Americas: the New World

Very little of the area divided by Tordesillas had actually been explored, since it was divided only by geographical parameters and not by actual political-military control. However, Columbus” first voyage in 1492 stimulated maritime exploration of the western Atlantic routes, and by 1497 a number of explorers were heading there.

The minor voyages or also called Andalusian voyages were a series of exploration voyages during the Age of Discovery, spanning from 1499 to 1500. Some historians extend this period to 1510, others to 1521.

They are identified as minor because they were not financed by the great empires but had a private initiative, with the aim of finding gold and expanding trade. Another objective was to verify the thesis of Christopher Columbus, firm in his thesis of having reached Cipango, therefore the East Indies, sometimes defining these lands as the earthly paradise, but that the reports of these trips did not find correspondence.

In 1497 the Italian Giovanni Caboto obtained letters patent from King Henry VII of England. Sailing from Bristol, probably supported by the local Society of Merchant Venturers, he crossed the Atlantic from a northern latitude hoping that the journey to the “West Indies” would be shorter and landed somewhere in North America, perhaps in Newfoundland. In 1499 João Fernandes Lavrador, with Pêro de Barcelos, sighted and baptized the Labrador on behalf of Portugal. He then went perhaps to Bristol to sail on behalf of England. Almost simultaneously (1499-1502), brothers Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real explored and baptized the coasts of Greenland and Newfoundland. Both explorations are reported in Cantino”s Planisphere of 1502.

In 1497, the newly crowned Manuel I of Portugal sent an exploratory fleet beyond the Cape of Good Hope, fulfilling John II”s plan to find a route to the Indies. In July 1499, news spread that the Portuguese had arrived in the “real Indies,” when King Manuel informed the Catholic Monarchs of the happy (or almost happy) return of Gama”s fleet.

Columbus” third expedition in 1498 meanwhile marked the beginning of the first successful Spanish colonization in the West Indies, on the island of Hispaniola. Despite growing doubts, Columbus refused to accept that he had not reached the Indies. During the voyage he discovered the mouth of the Orinoco River on the northern coast of South America (present-day Venezuela) and thought that that huge body of fresh water came from a continental landmass that he was certain was Asia.

As navigation between Seville and the West Indies increased, knowledge of the islands of the Caribbean, Central America, and the northern coast of South America grew. One of these Spanish fleets, that of Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci in 1499-1500, reached the coast of present-day Guyana, where the two explorers parted ways. Vespucci sailed south, discovering the mouth of the Amazon River in July 1499, and reaching 6°S, in present-day northeastern Brazil.

In the early 1500s, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón was blown off course by a storm and reached what is now the northeastern coast of Brazil on January 26, 1500, exploring as far south as the present state of Pernambuco. He was the first to fully enter the Amazon River estuary, which he named Río Santa María de la Mar Dulce (“Santa Maria River of the Freshwater Sea”). The land was too far east to be claimed by the Spanish according to Tordesillas but the discovery enticed Spain: a second voyage by Pinzon was organized in 1508 (he skirted the northern coast towards the Central American coast in search of a passage to the East) and a voyage in 1515-16 by Juan Díaz de Solís already a navigator of Pinzon. The 1515-16 expedition was spurred by reports of Portuguese exploration of the region (see below). It ended when Solís and some members of his crew disappeared while exploring a Río de la Plata by boat but what he found rekindled Spanish interest and colonization began in 1531.

In April 1500, the Portuguese Second Armada of India, led by Pedro Álvares Cabral, with a crew of experienced captains, including Bartolomeu Dias and Nicolau Coelho, encountered the Brazilian coast as it swung westward into the Atlantic while executing a large “volta do mar” to avoid the becalming in the Gulf of Guinea. On April 21, 1500 a mountain was sighted and named Monte Pascoal, and on April 22 Cabral landed on the coast. On April 25, the entire fleet entered the harbor, christening it Porto Seguro (it. “Porto Sicuro”). Cabral understood that the new land was located east of the line of Tordesillas and sent to Portugal the famous “Letter on the discovery of Brazil” by Pêro Vaz de Caminha. Believing that the land was an island, he named it Ilha de Vera Cruz (“Island of the True Cross”). Some historians have suggested that the Portuguese may have encountered the South American bulge earlier while sailing on the “volta do mar,” hence John II”s insistence on moving the line west of Tordesillas in 1494, so his landing in Brazil may not have been an accident; although John”s motivation may have simply been to increase the possibility of claiming new lands in the Atlantic. From the east coast, the fleet then turned eastward to resume its journey to the southern tip of Africa and India. Cabral was the first captain to touch four continents, leading the first expedition to link and unite Europe, Africa, the New World, and Asia.

At the invitation of King Manuel I of Portugal, Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine who had worked for a branch of the Medici bank in Seville since 1491, set up oceanic expeditions and traveled twice to the Guianas with Juan de la Cosa in the service of Spain as an observer on these exploratory voyages to the east coast of South America. The expeditions became widely known in Europe after two accounts attributed to him, published between 1502 and 1504, suggested that the lands he had just discovered were not the Indies but a “New World” (lat. Mundus novus) as written by Vespucci to Lorenzo il Popolano in a letter that became very popular in Europe. It was soon realized that Columbus had not arrived in Asia but had found a new continent, the Americas, as they were named in 1507 by cartographers Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann in honor of Vespucci.

In 1501-1502, one of these Portuguese expeditions, led by Gonçalo Coelho (e

In 1503, Binot Paulmier de Gonneville, challenging the Portuguese policy of mare clausum, led one of the first French Norman and Breton expeditions to Brazil. He intended to sail to the East Indies, but near the Cape of Good Hope his ship was diverted to the west by a storm and landed in the current state of Santa Catarina (southern Brazil), on January 5, 1504.

In 1511-1512, the Portuguese João de Lisboa and Estevão de Fróis reached the estuary of the Río de la Plata, between Uruguay and Argentina, and went as far as the Golfo San Matias at 42° S, a feat recorded in the Newen Zeytung auss Pressilandt (“New News from the Land of Brazil”). The expedition reached a cape extending from north to south that they called the “Cape of Santa Maria” (after 40°S they found a “Cape” or “a point or place extending into the sea,” and a “Gulf” in June and July. After sailing nearly 300 km (186 mi) to get around the cape, they again sighted the continent on the other side and headed northwest but a storm prevented them from making any progress. Rejected by the north wind, they turned back. He also gives the first news of the White King and the “people of the mountains” in the interior (the Inca Empire), and a gift, a silver axe, obtained by the Charrúa on their return (“to the coast or side of Brazil”), and “to the West” (along the coast and the estuary of the Rio de la Plata), and offered to King Manuel I. Christopher de Haro, Flemish Sephardic Jew, financier of the expedition along with Dom Nuno Manuel, then in the service of the Spanish Crown after 1516, believed that the navigators had discovered a southern strait to the west and Asia.

In 1519, an expedition sent by the Spanish Crown to find a way to Asia was led by the experienced Portuguese navigator Magellan. The fleet explored rivers and bays while charting the South American coast until they found a way to the Pacific Ocean through the Strait of Magellan.

In 1524-1525, Alejo García, a Portuguese conquistador (possibly a veteran of Solís” 1516 troop), led a private expedition of Castilian and Portuguese adventurers and about 2,000 Guaraní Indians. They explored the territories of present-day southern Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia, using the native trail network, the Peabiru. They were the first Europeans to cross the Gran Chaco and reach the outer territories of the Inca Empire in the hills of the Andes, near Sucre.

Vasco da Gama”s route to India

Protected from direct Spanish competition by the Treaty of Tordesillas, Portuguese exploration and colonization eastward continued apace. Twice, in 1485 and 1488, Portugal officially rejected Columbus”s plan to reach India by sailing westward: both because King John II”s advisors considered Columbus”s estimate of a voyage distance of 2,400 miles (3,860 km) to be low, and because Bartolomeo Diaz set out in 1487 to round the southern tip of Africa, a route they considered shorter to India. The return of Diaz from the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and the voyage of Pêro da Covilhã to Ethiopia by land revealed that the riches of the Indian Ocean were accessible from the Atlantic and therefore an ad hoc expedition was prepared.

Under the patronage of King Manuel I of Portugal, a small exploratory fleet of four ships and about 170 men left Lisbon in July 1497 under the command of Vasco da Gama. In December, the fleet crossed the Great Fish River, where Diaz had stopped, and sailed into waters unknown to Europeans. In the Indian Ocean, Gama entered a maritime region that had three different and well-developed commercial circuits. The one Gama encountered connected Mogadishu on the east coast of Africa; Aden, at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula; the Persian port of Hormuz; Cambay, in northeastern India; and Calicut, in southeastern India. On May 20, 1498 he arrived in Calicut, but his efforts to obtain favorable commercial conditions were hampered by the low value of his goods compared to the valuable goods traded there.  Two years and two days after his departure, Gama and a surviving crew of 55 men returned in glory to Portugal as the first ships to sail directly from Europe to India.

The Second Army of India (Cabral, 1500), strong with thirteen ships and about 1500 men, first landed in Brazil, then reached India and discovered Madagascar (1501), partially explored by Tristão da Cunha in 1507. Mauritius was discovered in 1507. Socotra occupied in 1506. In the same year Lourenço de Almeida landed in Sri Lanka, the eastern island called “Taprobane” in remote accounts of Alexander the Great and the 4th century BC Greek geographer Megasthenes. On the Asian continent, the first feitorias were established in Kochi and Calicut (1501) and then in Goa, conquered by the Portuguese in 1510.

Spice Islands” and China

The Portuguese continued to sail eastward from India, entering a second Indian Ocean trade circuit that pointed from Calicut and Quillon in India to Southeast Asia: basically Malacca and Palembang. In 1511, Alfonso de Albuquerque conquered Malacca, then the center of Asian trade, and then sent diplomatic missions further east: e.g. Duarte Fernandes was the first European envoy to Siam (modern-day Thailand).

The Europeans thus learned the location of the phantom “Spice Islands”: the Moluccas, mainly the Banda Islands, then the world”s only source of nutmeg and cloves. Reaching these islands became the ultimate goal of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. Albuquerque sent an expedition led by António de Abreu to Banda (via Java and the Lesser Sunda Islands) that arrived there in early 1512, after touching the islands of Buru, Ambon, and Seram. From Banda, Abreu returned to Malacca, while his vice-captain Francisco Serrão, after a separation forced by a shipwreck, headed north and reached Ambon where he sank off Ternate but obtained permission to build a Portuguese fortress-factory: the Fort São João Baptista de Ternate which inaugurated the Portuguese presence in the Malaysian archipelago.

In May 1513, Jorge Álvares reached China. Although he was the first to land on Lintin Island in the Pearl River Delta, it was, however, Rafael Perestrello, a cousin of Christopher Columbus, who was the first European to land on the southern coast of mainland China and trade in Canton in 1516, commanding a Portuguese ship with a Malaysian crew taken from a junk boat in Malacca. Fernão Pires de Andrade visited Canton the following year (1517) and opened trade with China. The Portuguese were defeated by the Chinese in 1521 at the Battle of Tunmen and in 1522 at the Battle of Xicaowan, during which the Chinese captured Portuguese rear-loading cannons and decoded their technology, calling them the Cannons of the FranksT, 佛郎機P from the name “Folangji” (probably derived from the Persian “Farang”) used by the Chinese to refer to the Portuguese. After a few decades, hostilities between the Portuguese and Chinese ceased, and in 1557 the Chinese allowed the Portuguese to occupy Macau.

To enforce a trade monopoly, Mascate and Hormuz in the Persian Gulf were seized by Albuquerque in 1507 and 1515, respectively. He also entered into diplomatic relations with Persia. In 1513, while attempting to conquer Aden, an expedition led by Albuquerque crossed the Red Sea within the Bab el-Mandeb and took refuge on the island of Kamaran. In 1521, a force under António Correia conquered Bahrain, ushering in a period of nearly eighty years of Portuguese rule of the Gulf archipelago. In the Red Sea, Massawa was the northernmost point touched by the Portuguese in 1541, when a fleet under the command of Estevão da Gama reached Suez.

Balboa”s expedition in the Pacific Ocean

In 1513, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of Acandí, in present-day Colombia, Spaniard Vasco Núñez de Balboa received unexpected news of an “other sea” rich in gold. With few resources and using information provided by cacicchi, he crossed the Isthmus of Panama with 190 Spaniards, a few indigenous guides and a pack of dogs.

Using a small brig and ten canoes, they sailed down the coast and landed. On September 6, the expedition was reinforced by 1,000 men. It fought several battles, entered a dense jungle, and climbed the mountain range along the Chucunaque River from where this “other sea” could be seen. Balboa continued on and, before noon on September 25, saw an unknown sea on the horizon, becoming the first European to see or reach the Pacific from the New World. The expedition descended to the coast for a reconnaissance: they thus became the first Europeans to navigate the Pacific Ocean off the coast of the New World. After traveling more than 110 km (68 mi), Balboa named the bay where they ended up “San Miguel.” He called the new sea Mar del Sur (South Sea) since they had traveled south to reach it. Balboa”s main purpose in the expedition was to search for gold-rich kingdoms. To this end, he crossed the cacice lands to the islands, naming the largest Isla Rica (present Isla del Rey). He named the entire group Archipiélago de las Perlas, which they still preserve today.

Subsequent developments in the east

In 1515-1516, the Spanish fleet led by Solís sailed along the east coast of South America to the Río de la Plata, which Solís named shortly before his death while trying to find passage to the “South Sea.”

First circumnavigation

In 1516 several Portuguese navigators, in conflict with King Manuel I, gathered in Seville and offered their services to the newly crowned King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Charles of Habsburg: explorers Diogo and Duarte Barbosa, Esteban Gómez, Juan Serrano and Ferdinand Magellan; cartographers Jorge Reinel and Diego Ribero; cosmographers Francisco and Ruy Faleiro; and Flemish merchant Christopher de Haro. Magellan had sailed in India until 1513 and knew both the route to the Moluccas and Francisco Serrão who lived there, He hypothesized that the islands were in the Spanish area of Tordesillas, supported on studies by the Faleiro brothers.

Aware of Spanish efforts to find a route to India by sailing west, Magellan presented his plan to King Charles, who, with de Haro, financed the expedition. A fleet was formed and Spanish navigators such as Juan Sebastián Elcano joined the venture. On August 10, 1519 departed from Seville with a five ships (the flagship Trinidad under the command of Magellan, San Antonio, Concepcion, Santiago and Victoria, the first was a caravel and all others classified as caravels or “nau”) and a crew of about 237 men from different regions of Europe, with the aim of reaching the Moluccas traveling west and bring them under the economic and political sphere of Spain.

The fleet sailed further and further south, avoiding Portuguese Brazil, and was the first to reach Tierra del Fuego at the tip of the Americas. On October 21, starting from Cape Virgenes, it began an arduous journey through a 373-mile (600 km) strait that Magellan named Estrecho de Todos los Santos, now the Strait of Magellan. On November 28, three ships entered the Pacific, then called the Pacífico Sea because of its apparent immobility, and crossed it. Magellan died in the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines, leaving Elcano to complete the voyage to the Moluccas reached in 1521. On September 6, 1522, the Victory returned to Spain, thus completing the first circumnavigation of the globe: only one of the five ships left returned home with only 18 crewmen! Another 17 men later arrived in Spain: 12 captured by the Portuguese in Cape Verde a few weeks earlier, and, between 1525 and 1527, 5 survived the Trinidad. The Venetian Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan”s assistant, kept an accurate journal of the voyage that is now the main source on the subject.

The circumnavigation gave Spain valuable knowledge of the world and its oceans, which later aided in the exploration and settlement of the Philippines. Although this was not a realistic alternative to the Portuguese route around Africa (the Strait of Magellan was too far south and the Pacific Ocean too vast to be covered in a single voyage from Spain) later Spanish expeditions used this information to explore the Pacific and discover routes between Acapulco, New Spain (present-day Mexico) and Manila in the Philippines: the so-called “Galleons of Manila”.

Westward and eastward explorations meet

As seen, having passed Magellan, the Portuguese rushed to capture its surviving crew and built a fort at Ternate. In 1525, Charles I sent another expedition westward to colonize the Moluccas, claiming that they were in his area of Tordesillas. The fleet of 7 ships and 450 men was led by García Jofre de Loaísa and included Spain”s most distinguished navigators: Juan Sebastián Elcano and Loaísa, who lost their lives, and the young Andrés de Urdaneta.

Near the Strait of Magellan, one of the ships was pushed south by a storm, reaching 56° S, where they believed they saw “the end of the earth”: for the first time Cape Horn was crossed. The expedition reached the Moluccas with great difficulty and docked at Tidore. The conflict with the Portuguese of Ternate was inevitable and opened a decade of skirmishes.

Since there was no eastern limit established by Tordesillas, both kingdoms organized meetings to resolve the issue. From 1524 to 1529 Portuguese and Spanish experts met in Badajoz-Elvas to find the exact location of the antimeridian of Tordesillas that would divide the world into two equal hemispheres. Each crown appointed three astronomers and cartographers, three pilots and three mathematicians. Lopo Homem, Portuguese cartographer and cosmographer was on the council, along with cartographer Diego Ribero of the Spanish delegation. The council met several times, without reaching an agreement: the knowledge at that time was insufficient for an accurate calculation of longitude and each group gave the islands to their sovereign. The issue was resolved only in 1529, after a long negotiation, with the signing of the Treaty of Zaragoza which attributed the Moluccas to Portugal and the Philippines to Spain.

Between 1525 and 1528, Portugal sent several expeditions around the Moluccas. Gomes de Sequeira and Diogo da Rocha were sent north by the governor of Ternate, Jorge de Menezes, and were the first Europeans to reach the Caroline Islands, which they called the “Islands of Sequeira.” In 1526, Menezes landed on the Biak and Waigeo Islands in Papua New Guinea. On these explorations is based the theory of the Portuguese discovery of Australia, one of many theories on the early discovery of Australia, supported by the Australian historian Kenneth McIntyre that it was discovered by Cristóvão de Mendonça and Gomes de Sequeira.

In 1527, Hernán Cortés, conqueror of Mexico, set up a fleet to find new lands in the “South Sea” (Pacific Ocean), asking his cousin Álvaro de Saavedra Cerón to take command. On October 31, Saavedra set sail from New Spain, crossed the Pacific, and headed north to New Guinea, then called Isla de Oro. In October 1528, one of the ships reached the Moluccas. In his attempt to return to New Spain he was diverted by the northeast trade winds, which repelled him, so he attempted to sail back south. He returned to New Guinea and sailed northeast, where he sighted the Marshall Islands and the Admiralty Islands, but was again surprised by the winds, which took him a third time to the Moluccas. This westward return route was difficult to find, but was eventually discovered by Andrés de Urdaneta in 1565.

Rumors of unknown islands northwest of Hispaniola had reached Spain by 1511, and King Ferdinand was interested in preventing further exploration. While the Portuguese were making huge gains in the Indian Ocean, the Spanish invested in exploring the interior for gold and other valuable resources. The members of these expeditions, the famous conquistadores, were not regular soldiers but soldiers of fortune: they came from a variety of backgrounds (artisans, merchants, clerics, lawyers, petty nobility, and even freed slaves), had to privately procure equipment, possibly with a credit on shares of the spoils, and usually had no professional military training, although some had previous experience in other expeditions.

In the American interior, the Spanish encountered indigenous empires as large and populous as those of Europe. Relatively small expeditions of conquistadors allied themselves with native rebels against these empires. Once Spanish sovereignty was established and major sources of wealth identified, the Spanish crown focused on replicating European state and church institutions in the Americas. A first key element was the so-called “spiritual conquest” of the natives through Christian evangelization. The economy was structured with the so-called encomienda in which the conquistadores received goods in tribute and the natives were forced into forced labor. Once the vast deposits of silver were discovered, not only were the colonial economies of Mexico and Peru transformed, but so was the European economy. The Spanish empire became a major world power. Global trade networks were established that included high-value crops from the Americas while Spanish-American silver became the engine of the world economy.

During this time, Eurasian pandemics such as smallpox decimated Native Americans.

In 1512, to reward Juan Ponce de León for the exploration of Puerto Rico (1508), King Ferdinand urged him to search at his own expense for new lands of which he would make him governor. With 3 ships and about 200 men, Léon left Puerto Rico in March 1513. In April he sighted Florida, so called because it was the Easter period (“Florida” in es.), which he believed to be an island but which earned him the title of the first European to touch the American continental soil. The landing place is disputed between St. Augustine, Ponce de León Inlet and Melbourne Beach. He headed south for further exploration and on April 8 encountered a current so strong that it pushed him backwards: this was the first encounter with the Gulf Stream that would soon become the main route for ships heading east leaving the Spanish Indies for Europe. He explored the coast reaching Biscayne Bay, Dry Tortugas and then sailed southwest in an attempt to go around Cuba, reaching Grand Bahama in July.

Mexico: Cortes and the Aztec Empire

In 1517, the governor of Cuba Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar sent a fleet under the command of Hernández de Córdoba to explore the Yucatán Peninsula. They reached the coast where the Maya invited them to disembark in order to attack them at night and almost exterminate them. Velázquez set up another expedition led by his nephew Juan de Grijalva that sailed south along the coast to Tabasco, part of the Aztec empire.

In 1518, Velázquez entrusted the mayor of the capital of Cuba, Hernán Cortés, with the command of an expedition to subdue the interior of Mexico, but he later withdrew because of personal differences. In February 1519, Cortes left anyway: with about 11 ships, 500 men, 13 horses and a small number of cannons he landed in Yucatán, in Mayan territory, claiming lands for Spain. From Trinidad he went to Tabasco and won a battle against the natives: among the prisoners there was Marina (La Malinche), his future lover, who knew both the Nahuatl (Aztec) and Maya and became as well as interpreter also valuable counselor. It was she who told Cortes about the Aztec riches.

In July, Cortés took control of Veracruz and placed himself under the direct orders of the new King Charles I of Spain. He asked for a meeting with the Aztec emperor Montezuma II, who repeatedly refused. Cortes then aimed at the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, and along the way allied himself with several tribes tired of the bloody Aztec tyranny. In October, accompanied by some 3,000 Tlaxcalteca, the conquistador marched to Cholula, the second largest city in central Mexico. Either to instill fear in the Aztecs who were waiting for him or (as he later claimed) wishing to set an example to the natives, he massacred thousands of unarmed notables gathered in the central square and partially burned the city.

Arrived in Tenochtitlan with a large army, on November 8 was received peacefully by Montezuma II, who deliberately let Cortes enter the heart of the Aztec empire, hoping to know it better and then annihilate it. The emperor gave him lavish gifts in gold that induced him to plunder large quantities. In his letters to King Charles, Cortes stated that the Aztecs believed him to be an emissary of the god Quetzalcoatl or the god himself, a belief disputed by some modern historians. Upon learning, however, that his men on the coast were being attacked by the Aztecs, he took Montezuma hostage in his palace, demanding a ransom as tribute for King Charles.

Velasquez sent another expedition in April 1520, 1,100 men led by Pánfilo de Narváez, to oppose Cortès, who left 200 men in Tenochtitlan and took the rest to confront Narvaez, defeating him and convincing his men to join him. In Tenochtitlán, however, one of his lieutenants committed a massacre in the Great Temple, sparking the rebellion. Cortes quickly returned and attempted to use Montezuma as a peacemaker, but the Aztec emperor was killed, possibly stoned to death by his subjects. The Spaniards fled during the so called “Noche Triste”, at the cost of the massacre of their rearguard and losing a good part of the treasure accumulated until then. After a battle in Otumba, they reached Tlaxcala, having lost 870 men. Assisted by allies and Cuban reinforcements, Cortes besieged Tenochtitlán and captured the new emperor Cuauhtémoc in August 1521. Having defeated the Aztec empire, Cortés claimed the city for Spain and renamed it Mexico City.

Peru: Pizarro and the Inca Empire

An early attempt to explore western South America was undertaken in 1522 by Pascual de Andagoya. The natives told him about a territory rich in gold around a river called “Pirú”. After reaching the San Juan River (Colombia), Andagoya fell ill and returned to Panama, where he spread news about the Pirú as the legendary El Dorado. These, along with Cortés” reports of success, attracted Pizarro”s attention.

Francisco Pizarro had accompanied Balboa Balboa in the crossing of the Isthmus of Panama. In 1524 he formed a company, the “Empresa del Levante”, with the priest Hernando de Luque and the soldier Diego de Almagro to explore the south, agreeing to share the profits: Pizarro was the commander, Almagro the stevedore and Luque the financier.

On September 13, 1524, the first of three expeditions to conquer Peru left with about 80 men and 40 horses. It was a disaster. They arrived in Colombia and succumbed to bad weather, hunger and skirmishes with the natives, in one of which Almagro lost an eye. The place names given along the way, Puerto deseado (desired port), Puerto del hambre (port of hunger) and Puerto quemado (burned port), attest to the difficulties of the journey. Two years later, in August 1526, a second expedition departed with the reluctant permission of the governor of Panama: two ships, 160 men and several horses. After reaching the San Juan River they parted ways, Pizarro remaining to explore the swampy coastline and Almagro turning back for reinforcements. Pizarro”s main pilot sailed south and, after crossing the equator, captured a raft from Tumbes: it contained textiles, pottery, and, most importantly, gold, silver, and emeralds. Upon Almagro”s return with reinforcements, they set off again and, after a difficult journey against strong winds and currents, reached Atacames where they found a large native population subject to the control of the Inca Empire but did not disembark.

Pizarro remained safe near the coast, while Almagro and Luque returned to ask for additional reinforcements with proof of the presence of gold. The new governor refused a third expedition and ordered two ships to take everyone back to Panama. Almagro and Luque took the opportunity to join Pizarro. When they arrived at the Isla de Gallo, Pizarro drew a line in the sand, saying, “There lies Peru with its riches; here, Panama and its poverty. Choose, each man, what best becomes a brave Castilian.” Thirteen men decided to stay and became known as the famous thirteen. They headed for Isla Gorgona where they stayed seven months before supplies arrived.

They decided to sail south and, in April 1528, reached the northwestern Peruvian region of Tumbes where they were warmly welcomed by the indigenous Tumpis. Two of Pizarro”s men reported stories of incredible riches, including gold and silver decorations around the chief”s house. They first saw a llama that Pizarro called “little camels.” The natives called the Spaniards “Children of the Sun” because of their fair complexions and shining armor. They then decided to return to Panama to prepare for a final expedition. Before leaving they sailed south through territories they named as Cabo Blanco, Payta Harbor, Sechura, Punta de Aguja, Santa Cruz and Trujillo, reaching the 9th S.

In the spring of 1528, Pizarro set sail for Spain, where he had a conversation with Charles of Habsburg, who promised to support him after he finally had news of lands rich in gold and silver in South America. The Capitulación de Toledo authorized Pizarro to proceed to the conquest of Peru. Pizarro then managed to convince many friends and relatives to support him: his brothers Hernándo Pizarro, Juan Pizarro, Gonzalo Pizarro and even Francisco de Orellana, who would later explore the Amazon, as well as his cousin Pedro Pizarro.

Pizarro”s third and final expedition left Panama on December 27, 1530: 3 ships and 180 men. They landed near Ecuador and sailed for Tumbes, finding it destroyed. They marched inland and founded the first Spanish settlement in Peru, San Miguel de Piura. One of the men returned with an Inca envoy and an invitation for a meeting. The Incas were in the midst of civil war and Atahualpa had repaired to northern Peru after the defeat of his brother Huáscar. After marching for two months, the conquistadors reached Atahualpa. However, Atahualpa refused their help, saying that he would be “tributary to no one”. There were fewer than 200 Spaniards for his 80,000 soldiers, but Pizarro attacked and defeated the Inca army at the Battle of Cajamarca, capturing Atahualpa in the so-called “Hall of Ransom.” Despite fulfilling his promise to fill one room with gold and two with silver, Atahualpa was convicted of killing his brother and plotting against Pizarro and was executed.

In 1533, Pizarro invaded Cusco with indigenous troops and wrote to Charles I: ” This city is the largest and most beautiful ever seen in this country or in any other part of the Indies. it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would be remarkable even in Spain.” After the Spaniards had destroyed the Inca empire, Jauja in the fertile Mantaro valley was established as the provisional capital of Peru but it was too high up in the mountains and Pizarro then founded the city of Lima on January 18, 1535, an act he considered one of the most important of his life.

In 1543 three Portuguese traders accidentally became the first westerners to reach and trade with Japan. According to Fernão Mendes Pinto, an alleged witness of the facts, they arrived in Tanegashima where the natives were so impressed by the firearms that they immediately replicated the technology and then went on to mass produce it.

The Spanish conquest of the Philippines was ordered by Philip II of Spain and Andrés de Urdaneta was the designated commander. Urdaneta agreed to accompany the expedition but refused to command and Miguel López de Legazpi was appointed. The expedition set sail in November 1564. After spending some time on the islands, Legazpi sent Urdaneta back to find a better way back. Urdaneta sailed from San Miguel to Cebu on June 1, 1565 but had to go as far as the 38th parallel North to find favorable winds.

He then reasoned on the hypothesis that the trade winds of the Pacific would draw a vortex like those of the Atlantic, thus making it possible to replicate the Volta do mar in the Pacific, pointing north and catching favorable winds in an easterly direction for the Americas. He reached the coast near Cape Mendocino, California, and then descended to the south coast. He reached the port of Acapulco on October 8, 1565 after traveling 12,000 miles (19,312 kilometers) in 130 days: fourteen crewmen had died, and only Urdaneta and Felipe de Salcedo, nephew of López de Legazpi, had enough strength to drop anchors.

A Spanish route across the Pacific between Mexico and the Philippines was thus established. For a long time these routes were used by Manila galleons, thus creating a trade link that united China, the Americas and Europe through the combined transpacific and transatlantic routes.

The European nations did not recognize the Treaty of Tordesillas, nor did they recognize Pope Alexander VI”s donation of the New World to the Spanish. France, the Netherlands, and England each had a long maritime tradition of both commercial and privateering activities and were able, in due course, to get their hands on new Iberian technologies and maps.

After the failed marriage of Henry VIII of England and Catherine of Aragon, Tudor broke with the Roman Catholic Church and established himself as head of the Church of England, adding religious conflict to political conflict. When much of the Netherlands became Protestant, it sought political and religious independence from Catholic Spain. In 1568 the Dutch rebelled against the rule of Philip II of Spain, starting the Eighty Years” War (1568-1648), which was soon joined by the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604). In 1580 Philip II became king of Portugal creating the so called “Iberian Union”. Although he ruled Portugal and its empire as separate from the Spanish, the union of the crowns produced a Catholic superpower that England and the Netherlands challenged.

During the eighty years of the Dutch War of Independence, Philip”s troops captured the important trading cities of Bruges and Ghent. Antwerp, then the most important port in the world, fell in 1585. The Protestant population had two years to settle their affairs before leaving the city. Many settled in Amsterdam. They were mainly skilled craftsmen, wealthy merchants from the port cities, and refugees who had fled religious persecution, particularly Portuguese and Spanish Sephardic Jews and French Huguenots. The Pilgrim Fathers also spent time there before leaving for the New World. This mass immigration was an important driving force: a small port in 1585, Amsterdam quickly became one of the most important commercial centers in the world. After the defeat of the Invincible Army in 1588 there was an enormous expansion of maritime trade but the defeat of the so-called “English Armada” confirmed Spanish maritime supremacy over its competitors.

The emergence of Dutch maritime power was rapid and remarkable: for years in fact the Dutch had participated in the Portuguese voyages to the east, both as skilled sailors and as cartographers. In 1592, Cornelis de Houtman was sent by the Dutch to Lisbon to collect as much information as possible on the Spice Islands. In 1595, the merchant and explorer Jan Huygen van Linschoten, after having traveled the Indian Ocean in the service of the Portuguese, published a travel report in Amsterdam, the “Reys-gheschrift vande navigatien der Portugaloysers in Orienten” (“Report of travel through the navigations of the Portuguese in the East”) with extensive travel directions from Portugal to the East Indies to Japan. In the same year, Houtman led the first Dutch exploratory voyage and discovered a new sea route, from Madagascar to the Sunda Strait in Indonesia, and signed a treaty with Sultan Banten.

Dutch and British interest, fueled by new information, led to a movement of commercial expansion and the founding of English (1600) and Dutch (1602) Privileged Trading Companies. The Dutch, French, and English sent ships that opposed the Portuguese monopoly, concentrated mainly in coastal areas, which proved unable to defend themselves against such a vast and dispersed enterprise.

Exploration of North America

The English expedition of 1497 authorized by Henry VII of England was led by the Venetian Giovanni Caboto: the first of a series of French and English missions that explored North America. Italian sailors undoubtedly played an important role in the first explorations, in particular the Genoese Christopher Columbus, whose discoveries gave Spain access to the silver mines of Central and South America. The northern European expeditions aimed to find the so-called “Northwest Passage” for the Asian trade. It was never discovered but allowed new possibilities to develop, though nothing on the scale of the spectacular ones of the Spanish. In the early seventeenth century, settlers from many northern European states began to settle on the east coast of North America. In 1520-1521 the Portuguese João Álvares Fagundes, accompanied by couples from mainland Portugal and the Azores, explored Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, probably reaching the Bay of Fundy in the Minas Basin, and established a fishing colony on Cape Breton Island that would last at least until about 1570.

In 1524, the Italian Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed for Francis I of France, motivated by outrage over the division of the world between the Portuguese and the Spanish. He explored the Atlantic coast of North America, from South Carolina to Newfoundland, and was the first European to visit what would later become the colony of Virginia and the United States. That same year, Esteban Gómez, a Portuguese cartographer formerly of Magellan”s fleet, explored Nova Scotia, sailing south through Maine, where he entered what is now New York Harbor, into the Hudson River, and finally reached Florida in August 1525. As a result of his expedition, Diego Ribero”s 1529 map of the world almost perfectly delineates the east coast of North America. From 1534 to 1536, the Frenchman Jacques Cartier, who is believed to have accompanied Verrazano to Nova Scotia and Brazil, was the first European to travel inland in North America, describing the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which he called “The Country of the Canadas,” after Iroquois names, claiming what is now Canada for Francis I of France.

Europeans explored the Pacific coast beginning in the mid-16th century. Spaniard Francisco de Ulloa explored the west coast of Mexico, including the Gulf of California, showing that Lower California (e.g., Baja California) was a peninsula. Despite his report based on first-hand information, the myth that California was an island persisted in Europe. It was still Ulloa who first used the name “California”. Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese in the service of Spain, was the first European to set foot there on September 28, 1542 on the shores of San Diego Bay and claiming it for Spain. He then landed at San Miguel Island, one of the Channel Islands, and continued north to Point Reyes on the mainland. After his death, the crew continued to explore as far as Oregon.

Privateer Francis Drake sailed along the coast in 1579 north of Cabrillo”s landing site while circumnavigating the world. Drake had a long and very successful career attacking Spanish settlements in the Caribbean and the American mainland. He also played an important role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada at Gravelinga, but then led the English army that tried in vain to wrest the Caribbean from Spain and was soundly defeated. On June 5, 1579, Drake briefly landed at South Cove, Cape Arago, just south of Coos Bay in Oregon, then sailed south in search of a suitable port to repair his damaged ship. On June 17, he found a sheltered bay on the Northern California coast near Point Reyes. While ashore, he claimed the area for Queen Elizabeth I of England by christening it New Albion (“New Albion”) and leaving an engraved brass plate there. Drake”s landings on the west coast of North America are a small part of his 1577-1580 circumnavigation of the globe. The privateer died in 1596 off the coast of Panama, as a result of injuries sustained in a raid.

Between 1609 and 1611, after several voyages on behalf of English merchants in search of the Northwest Passage, Henry Hudson, under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), explored the region around present-day New York City. He explored the Hudson River and laid the groundwork for Dutch colonization of the region. Hudson”s last expedition moved further north in search of the “Passage,” leading to the discovery of Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay. After wintering in James Bay, Hudson attempted to continue his voyage in the spring of 1611 but his crew mutinied and killed him, casting him adrift.

The search for the “Northwest Passage” (1533-1611)

France, the Netherlands, and England, inhibited from sailing along South America and Africa, had no route to Asia. Having ascertained that there was no route through the American interior, attention turned to the possibility of a passage through northern waters. The desire to chart such a route, the so-called “Northwest Passage,” drove much of the European exploration of the Arctic coasts of North America and Russia. In Russia, the idea of a possible sea route linking the Atlantic and Pacific was first advanced by diplomat Dmitry Gerasimov in 1525, although Russian settlers on the White Sea coast, the Pomory, had been exploring parts of the route since the 11th century.

In 1553 English explorer Hugh Willoughby and chief pilot Richard Chancellor were sent with three ships in search of passage from the London Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands. During the voyage across the Barents Sea, Willoughby thought he saw islands to the north and islands called Willoughby”s Land were shown on maps published by Plancius and Mercator in 1640. The ships were separated by “terrible whirlwinds” in the Norwegian Sea, and Willoughby sailed into a bay near the present Finnish-Russian border. His ships with their frozen crews, including Willoughby and his journal, were found by Russian fishermen a year later. Chancellor dropped anchor in the White Sea, came overland to Moscow to the court of Tsar Ivan IV of Russia, and began trading with Russia, making the Company of Merchant Adventurers the Moscow Company.

In June 1576, Englishman Martin Frobisher led an expedition of three ships and 35 men in search of a northeast passage around North America. The voyage was supported always by the Muscovy Company. Violent storms sank one ship and forced another to turn back but Frobisher and the other ship reached the Labrador coast in July. A few days later they arrived at the mouth of what is now Frobisher Bay. Frobisher believed it was the entrance to the Northwest Passage and named it “Frobisher”s Strait” and claimed Baffin Island for Queen Elizabeth. After some preliminary exploration, he returned to England. He commanded two subsequent voyages in 1577 and 1578 but was unable to find the “Passage”. He returned to England with ships loaded with ore but was deemed useless and damaged his reputation as an explorer. He remains an important historical figure in Canada.

On June 5, 1594, the Dutch cartographer Willem Barentsz left Texel with three ships to enter the Kara Sea, hoping to find the Passage over Siberia. At Williams Island the crew encountered for the first time a polar bear: they brought it on board but the bear became angry and was killed. Barentsz reached the west coast of Novaja Zemlja and followed it northwards, before being forced to turn back by icebergs.

The following year, Maurice of Nassau appointed him chief pilot of a new expedition of six ships, loaded with goods the Dutch hoped to trade with China. The group ran into the “wild men” of Samoyed, but eventually turned back after discovering that the Kara Sea was frozen. In 1596, the States General offered a high reward to anyone who found the Passage. Amsterdam purchased and equipped two small ships, captained by Jan Rijp and Jacob van Heemskerck, to search for the elusive channel, under the command of Barents. They left in May and in June discovered Bear Island and Spitsbergen, sighting its northwestern coast. They saw a large bay, later called Raudfjorden and entered the Magdalenefjorden that they called Tusk Bay, sailing in the northern entrance of Forlandsundet that they called Keerwyck, but they were forced to turn back because of a shoal. On June 28 they rounded the northern tip of Prins Karls Forland which they called Vogelhoek because of the large number of birds and pointed south, passing Isfjorden and Bellsund, shown on the Barentsz chart as Grooten Inwyck and Inwyck.

The ships reached Bear Island again on July 1 and disputes arose. They separated, with Barentsz continuing to the northeast, while Rijp headed north. Barentsz reached Novaja Zemlja and, to avoid being trapped in the ice, headed for the Vaigatch Strait but became stuck inside the icebergs and shoals. Stranded, the 16-man crew had to spend the winter on the ice. They used the ship”s lumber to build a shelter they called Het Behouden Huys (The Kept House). Facing the extreme cold, they used merchant fabrics to make extra blankets and clothing and caught Arctic foxes in primitive traps as well as polar bears. When June arrived and the ice had not yet loosened its grip on the ship, the scurvy survivors launched two small boats. Barentsz died at sea on June 20, 1597 while studying nautical charts. It took another seven weeks for the boats to reach Kola where they were rescued by a Russian merchant ship. Only 12 crew members survived, reaching Amsterdam in November. Two of Barentsz”s crew members, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten who had accompanied him on the first two voyages and Gerrit de Veer who had served as ship”s carpenter on the last, later published their diaries of the misadventure.

In 1608, Henry Hudson made a second attempt, trying to pass from over Russia: he arrived at Novaja Zemlja but was forced to turn back. Between 1609 and 1611, after several voyages for the English to find a route from the North Sea to India, he explored the environs of modern New York City while sailing in search of the Passage on behalf of seeking a western route to Asia under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company (VOC).

Dutch Australia and New Zealand

The Terra Australis Ignota (it. “Unknown Southern Land”) was a hypothetical continent that appeared on European maps from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, theorized centuries ago by Aristotle. Depicted in Dieppe Maps of the mid-sixteenth century, its coastline appeared just south of the East Indian Islands and was often elaborately plotted, with a wealth of fictitious detail. Discoveries reduced the area in which this continent could be found; however, many cartographers supported the Aristotelian view, such as Gerardus Mercator (1569) and Alexander Dalrymple even until 1767 supported its existence, arguing for the need for a large continental mass in the southern hemisphere as a counterweight to the northern continental masses. As new lands were discovered, they were often thought to be part of this hypothetical continent.

Juan Fernandez, sailing from Chile in 1576, claimed to have discovered the southern continent. Galician Luis Váez de Torres demonstrated the existence of a passage south of New Guinea, now known as Torres Strait. Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, a Portuguese in the service of Spain, saw a large island south of New Guinea in 1606 that he named La Australia del Espiritu Santo. He described it to the king of Spain as Terra Australis incognita. In reality, it was not Australia but an island in present-day Vanuatu.

Dutch navigator and colonial governor, Willem Janszoon sailed from the Netherlands to the East Indies for the third time on December 18, 1603, as captain of the Duyfken (or Duijfken, meaning “Little Dove”), one of twelve ships in Steven van der Hagen”s great fleet. Once in the Indies, Janszoon was sent in search of other trading outlets, particularly in the “great land of New Guinea and other eastern and southern lands.” On November 18, 1605, the Duyfken sailed from Bantam to the coast of western New Guinea. Janszoon crossed the eastern end of the Arafura Sea, without seeing Torres Strait in the Gulf of Carpentaria. On February 26, 1606 he landed at the Pennefather River on the western shore of Cape York in Queensland, near the modern town of Weipa: the first recorded European landing on the Australian continent. Janszoon proceeded to chart some 320 kilometers (199 miles) of coastline that he thought was a southern extension of New Guinea. In 1615, Jacob le Maire and Willem Schouten”s tour of Cape Horn demonstrated that Tierra del Fuego was a relatively small island.

In 1642-1644 Abel Tasman, also a Dutch explorer and merchant in the service of the VOC, circumnavigated New Holland and proved that Australia was not part of the mythical southern continent. He was the first known European expedition to reach the islands of Van Diemen”s Land (now Tasmania) and New Zealand and to sight Fiji in 1643. Tasman, his navigator Visscher, and his merchant Gilsemans also mapped substantial portions of Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands.

In the middle of the 16th century, the Tsar of Russia conquered the Tatar Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan, thus annexing the entire Volga region and opening the way to the Ural Mountains. The colonization of Russia”s new easternmost lands and further assault eastward were led by the wealthy merchants Stroganov. Tsar Ivan IV granted vast estates near the Urals and tax privileges to Anikey Stroganov, who organized large-scale migration to these lands. The Stroganovs developed agriculture, hunting, saltworks, fishing, and mineral extraction on the Urals and established trade with Siberian tribes.

Conquest of the Khanate of Sibir

Around 1577, Semyon Stroganov and other sons of Anikey Stroganov hired a Cossack leader named Ermak Timofeevič to protect their lands from attacks by Küçüm of Siberian Khan. In 1580 Stroganov and Ermak had the idea of a military expedition to Siberia, to fight Küçüm in his own land. In 1581 Ermak began his journey into the depths of Siberia. After a few victories over the khan”s army, Ermak”s people defeated Küçüm”s main forces on the Irtysh River in the 3-day battle of Cape Čuvaš in 1582. The remnants of the khan”s army retreated to the steppes, and Ermak conquered the khanate including its capital, Qashiliq, near modern Tobol”sk. However, Küçüm was still strong enough to counterattack, and in 1585, in a night attack, he massacred his enemies. Wounded, Ermak tried to swim across the Wagay river, tributary of the Irtysh, but he drowned under the weight of his chain mail. The Cossacks had to retreat completely from Siberia, but thanks to Ermak”s exploration of all the main river routes of western Siberia, the Russians successfully recaptured all these lands years later.

Siberian river routes

At the beginning of the 17th century, the eastward movement of the Russians was slowed down by the country”s internal problems during the so-called “Turmoil Period” (1598-1613). With the rise of the Romanov Dynasty, the exploration and colonization of the immense territories of Siberia soon resumed. The Cossacks, hunting for precious furs and ivory, continued with their land penetration from the southern Urals. A second exploratory vector arrived instead from the Arctic Ocean by the Pomorys of northern Russia, who had been trading furs by sea for a long time with Mangazeja, in the north of western Siberia. In 1607 was founded the settlement of Turuchansk, on the northern Enisej river, near the mouth of Lower Tunguska, and in 1619 was founded the ostrog (lit. “Fort”) of Enisejsk on the middle Yenisei, at the mouth of Upper Tunguska. Exploiting a type of ship in use since the eleventh century, the Koč, the Pomory had laid the foundation for maritime exploration circumpolar. Thanks to the leather hull planking (ru. koca) and the special configuration of the hull and rudder, the Koč could navigate without damage in waters with blocks and floating ice floes: it was the only vessel of its kind for centuries, the ancestor of modern icebreakers.

Between 1620 and 1624, a group of fur trappers led by Demid Pyanda left Turuchansk and explored about 1 430 miles (2 301 kilometers) of Lower Tunguska, wintering near the Viljuj and Lena rivers. According to later legendary accounts, Pyanda discovered the Lena River. Presumably, he explored about 1 500 miles (2 414 kilometers) of its length, reaching as far as central Yakutia. He returned to the Lena until it became too rocky and shallow and moved on to the Angara River. Pyanda may have been the first Russian to encounter jakuti and buriati. He built new boats and explored about 870 miles (1 400 kilometers) of the Angara, eventually reaching Yeniseysk and discovering that the Angara (a Buryat name) and the Upper Tunguska (ru. Verkhnyaya Tunguska) were the same river.

In 1627 Pyotr Ivanovič Beketov was appointed Yenisei Voivoda in Siberia. He successfully traveled to the Zabaykalye Buryat to collect taxes there, becoming the first Russian to set foot in Buryatia. Here he founded the first Russian settlement, Rybinsky ostrog. Beketov was sent to the Lena River in 1631, where he founded Jakutsk in 1632 and sent his Cossacks to explore the Aldan and lower Lena, to establish forts and collect taxes there. Jakutsk soon became the starting point for further Russian expeditions to the east, south, and north. Maksim Perfilyev, already one of the founders of Enisejsk, founded Bratsky”s ostrog on the Angara in 1631 and in 1638 became the first Russian to enter Transbajkal, traveling from Yakutsk. In 1643 Kurbat Afanas”evič Ivanov led a group of Cossacks from Jakutsk to the south of the Bajkal Mountains and discovered Lake Bajkal, visiting Ol”chon Island. Subsequently, he made the first chart and description of Baikal.

Russians reach the Pacific

In 1639 a group of explorers led by Ivan Jur”evič Moskvitin were the first Russians to reach the Pacific Ocean and discover the Ochotsk Sea, having built a winter camp on its shore at the mouth of the Ulya River. The Cossacks learned from the natives of the great Amur River to the south. In 1640 they apparently sailed south, explored the southeastern coast of the Sea of Okhotsk, perhaps reaching the mouth of the Amur and perhaps discovering the Šantar Islands on the way back. Based on Moskvitin”s account, Kurbat Afanas”evič Ivanov drew the first Russian map of the Far East in 1642.

In 1643, Vasily Danilovič Poyarkov crossed the Stanovoj Mountains and reached the upper Zeya River in the country of the Daur who paid tribute to the Manchus. After wintering, in 1644 Poyarkov descended the Zeya and was the first Russian to reach the Amur, which he sailed to its mouth. Because his Cossacks caused the enmity of the natives, Poyarkov chose another route back. They built boats and in 1645 sailed along the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk to the Ulya River and spent the next winter in the huts that had been built by Ivan Jur”evič Moskvitin six years earlier. In 1646 they returned to Yakutsk.

In 1644 Mikhail Staduchin discovered the Kolyma River and founded Srednekolymsk. A merchant named Fedot Alekseevič Popov organized an expedition eastward, and Semën Ivanovič Dežnëv became captain of one of the kočs. In 1648 they sailed from Srednekolymsk to the Arctic and after some time rounded Cape Dežnëv, thus becoming the first explorers to pass through the Bering Strait and discover the Chukki Peninsula and the Bering Sea. All of their koč and most of their men (including Popov himself) were lost in storms and clashes with the natives. A small group led by Dezhnyov reached the mouth of the Anadyr River and sailed up it in 1649, after building new boats from the wreckage. They founded Anadyrsk and were stranded there until Stadukhin, arriving from Kolyma by land, found them again. Stadukhin pointed south in 1651 and discovered Penžina Bay on the northern coast of the Ochotsk Sea. He may also have explored the western coast of Kamčatka.

In 1649-50 Erofej Pavlovič Chabarov became the second Russian to explore the Amur River. Traversing the Olëkma, Tungur, and Šilka rivers, he reached Amur (Transbajkal), returned to Jakutsk, and then back to Amur with a larger force in 1650-1653, encountering armed resistance. He built winter quarters at Albazin, then sailed down the Amur and found Achansk preceding present-day Chabarovsk, defeating or evading large armies of Chinese and Koreans, Daurians, and Manchus along the way. He traced the Amur in his Amur River Project. The Russians held the Amur region until 1689, when the Treaty of Nerčinsk assigned it to the Chinese Empire (it was returned by the Treaty of Aigun in 1858).

In 1659-1665 Kurbat Afanas”evič Ivanov was the head of Anadyrsky ostrog after Dežnëv. In 1660 he sailed from Anadyr” Gulf to Cape Dežnëv. Ivanov is credited with the creation of the first map of the Chukci Peninsula and the Bering Strait, which was the first to show on paper (in a very schematic way) the still unknown Wrangel Island, the Diomede Islands, and Alaska, based on data collected from the natives of Chukotka.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Russians had more or less mapped out their country”s current borders and explored almost all of Siberia, except for eastern Kamchatka and some regions north of the Arctic Circle. The conquest of Kamchatka would be achieved in the early 1700s by Vladimir Vasil”evič Atlasov, while the discovery of the Arctic coast and Alaska would be completed by the Second Expedition to Kamčatka in 1733-1743.

The European expansion overseas led to the contact between the Old and the New World producing the so called “Columbian Exchange”. The first commercial globalization was linked to silver (XVI-XVIII century) and had as a consequence the European involvement in the Chinese porcelain trade. Unique goods began to be transferred en masse from one hemisphere of the planet to another. Europeans brought cattle, horses, and sheep to the New World and obtained tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes, and corn. Important items and raw materials in global trade were tobacco, sugar cane and cotton from the Americas, along with gold and silver brought from the American continent not only to Europe but elsewhere in the Old World.

The formation of new transoceanic ties and the subsequent expansion of European influence led to the age of imperialism, a historical period that began during the Age of Discovery in which European colonial powers gradually subjugated most of the planet. European demand for trade, goods, colonies and slaves drastically impacted the rest of the world: during the European colonization of the Americas, European powers conquered and colonized numerous indigenous nations and cultures, conducted forced conversions and attempted forced cultural assimilation. Combined with the introduction of infectious diseases from Europe, these events led to a drastic decrease in the indigenous American population. Indigenous accounts of European colonization have been summarized by scholar Peter C. Mancall as such, “the arrival of Europeans brought death, deportation, pain, and despair to Native Americans.” In some areas such as North America, Central America, Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina, indigenous people were mistreated and driven from most of their lands, being reduced to small, dependent minorities.

Similarly, in West and East Africa, local states satisfied the appetite of European slave traders, changing the structure of coastal African states and fundamentally altering the nature of slavery in Africa, with drastic impacts on inland societies and economies.

Corn and cassava were introduced to Africa in the 16th century by the Portuguese. They are now important staple foods, alternatives to native crops. Alfred W. Crosby hypothesized that increased production of corn, cassava and other New World crops led to greater concentrations of population in the hunting grounds of slaveholders.

The new crops that came to Asia from the Americas via the Spanish in the 16th century contributed to the growth of the Asian population. Although most of the imports to China were silver, the Chinese also purchased provisions from the New World: sweet potatoes, corn, and peanuts. These foods could be grown in lands where traditional Chinese staple crops (wheat, millet and rice) did not grow, thus facilitating an increase in Chinese population: by the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), rice had become the staple food of the poor but was supplanted by sweet potatoes introduced around 1560.

The arrival of the Portuguese in Japan in 1543 initiated the so-called “Nanban Trade Period” of Japanese history. The Japanese adopted several European technologies and cultural practices: the arquebus, plate armor, European ships, Christianity, decorative art, and language. After the Chinese had forbidden direct trade with Japan to their merchants, the Portuguese filled this void as intermediaries between China and Japan: they bought Chinese silk and sold it to the Japanese in exchange for their silver, which was highly valued in China and could guarantee the purchase of larger quantities of silk. In 1573, after the Spanish established a base in Manila, the Portuguese intermediary trade was crushed by the arrival of Spanish-American silver in China. Although China acted as a cog in the wheel of global trade in the 16th and 18th centuries, Japan”s enormous contribution in silver exports to China was critical to the world economy and to the liquidity and availability of Chinese goods.

Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) was the first European to enter the Forbidden City. He taught the Chinese how to make and play the spinet, translated Chinese texts into Latin and vice versa, and worked closely with the Chinese Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) on mathematical studies.

Economic impact in Europe

As a wider variety of global luxury goods entered European markets by sea, previous European luxury markets stagnated. The Atlantic trade largely supplanted the maritime republics and hanse and their trade network with the Baltics, Russians, and Islam. The new raw materials also caused social development, as sugar, spices, silks, and porcelain entered the luxury markets of Europe.

Europe”s economic center shifted from the Mediterranean to Western Europe. The city of Antwerp, part of the Duchy of Brabant, became “the center of the entire international economy,” and the richest city in Europe at this time. Concentrated first in Antwerp and then in Amsterdam, the so-called “Dutch Golden Age” was closely linked to the Age of Discovery. Francesco Guicciardini, a Venetian envoy, stated that hundreds of ships passed through Antwerp every day and that 2,000 wagons entered the city every week. Portuguese ships laden with pepper and cinnamon would unload there. With many foreign merchants residing in the city and a dominant oligarchy of banker-aristocrats who were forbidden to engage in trade, Antwerp”s economy was controlled by foreigners, which made the city very international, with merchants and traders from Venice, Ragusa, Spain, and Portugal and a policy of tolerance that attracted a large Orthodox Jewish community. The city experienced three booms during its golden age, the first based on the pepper market, the second on New World silver from Seville (ended by the Spanish bankruptcy of 1557), and a third, after the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559), on the textile industry.

Despite initial hostilities, by 1549 the Portuguese were sending annual trade missions to Shangchuan Island, China. In 1557 they succeeded in persuading the Ming to agree to a legal port treaty establishing Macau as an official Portuguese trading colony. The Portuguese friar Gaspar da Cruz (c. 1520, February 5, 1570) wrote the first comprehensive book on China and the Ming dynasty to be published in Europe; it included information on its geography, provinces, royalty, official class, bureaucracy, navigation, architecture, agriculture, crafts, mercantile affairs, clothing, religious and social customs, music and instruments, writing, education, and justice.

From China, the major exports were silk and porcelain, adapted to European tastes. Chinese export porcelain was held in such high regard in Europe that, in English, china became a commonly used synonym for porcelain. Kraak porcelain, which is believed to take its name from the Portuguese caravans in which it was transported, was among the first Chinese ceramics to arrive in Europe en masse. Only the very wealthy could afford these early imports and Kraak was often featured in Dutch still lifes. Soon the Dutch East India Company established a brisk trade with the East, importing 6 million porcelain items from China into Europe between the years 1602 and 1682. Chinese workmanship impressed many. Between 1575 and 1587 the Medici Porcelain of Florence was the first successful attempt to imitate kraak. Although Dutch potters did not immediately imitate Chinese porcelain, they began to do so when the supply in Europe was interrupted by the death of Emperor Wanli in 1620. Kraak, primarily the blue and white type, was imitated around the world by potters in Arita, Japan and Persia, where Dutch merchants turned when the fall of the Ming made Chinese originals unavailable, and finally in Delftware. Dutch and later English Delft wares inspired by Chinese designs persisted from about 1630 until the mid-18th century, along with European designs.

Antonio de Morga (1559-1636), a Spanish official in Manila, listed an inventory of goods that were traded from Ming China at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, noting that there were “rarities which, I refer to all of them, I would never finish, nor have paper enough to do so.” After noting the variety of silk goods traded with Europeans, Ebrey writes of the considerable size of the trade transactions: In one instance a Spanish galleon from the New World carried over 50,000 pairs of silk stockings. In return, China imported from Manila primarily silver from Peruvian and Mexican mines. Chinese merchants were active in these trade ventures and many emigrated to places like the Philippines and Borneo to take advantage of the opportunities.

The increase in gold and silver experienced by Spain coincided with a major European-wide inflationary cycle known as the price revolution. Spain had accumulated large amounts of gold and silver from the New World. In 1540, large-scale mining of silver from Guanajuato began. With the opening of the Zacatecas and Potosí silver mines in Bolivia in 1546, large shipments of silver became the legendary source of Spanish wealth. During the 16th century, Spain held the equivalent of US$1.5 trillion (1990 estimates) in gold and silver from New Spain. As Europe”s most powerful monarch in an era filled with wars and religious conflicts, Spain”s king spent the wealth on wars and the arts throughout Europe. “I learned a proverb here,” said a French traveler in 1603: “Everything is dear in Spain except silver.” The spent silver, suddenly spread across a previously money-starved Europe, caused widespread inflation, compounded by population growth with a static level of production, low wages, and a rising cost of living to the detriment of local industry. Spain became increasingly dependent on revenue from the mercantile empire in the Americas and experienced its first bankruptcy in 1557 due to rising military costs. Philip II of Spain defaulted on debt payments in 1557, 1560, 1575, and 1596. Rising prices due to monetary circulation fueled the growth of the commercial middle class in Europe, the bourgeoisie, which came to influence the politics and culture of many countries in the following centuries.

One effect of inflation, particularly in Britain, was a decrease in rent for tenants who held long-term leases from lords. Some lords chose to sell their leased land, spawning a new class of small farmers such as the Yeomans and “country gentlemen.”


  1. Età delle scoperte
  2. Age of Discovery