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Exploration had begun long before Christopher Columbus started off. Some studies indicate that the European explorers had discovered the New World before Columbus did in 1492. They note that the explorers of Viking Norsemen had already settled in northeast Canada around 1000 A.D. However, the exploration, or the settlement of the Viking Norsemen, had little effects on the lives of the Native Americans because these explorers soon sailed back across the Atlantic and to Europe.
After the age of the Viking Norsemen explorations, the Age of Exploration started at around the fifteenth century until the seventeenth century. Occasionally, some historians refer to this period as the Age of Discovery. It refers to the period when “Europeans began exploring the world by sea in search of trading partners, new goods, and new trade routes”.1 Other Europeans wanted to discover much information about the new world. The pieces of information these explorers gathered during this period have been useful in enhancing geographical knowledge and understanding the world. We can only attribute this period with advancement and discoveries in human history.
Most individual explorers got sponsorship from their own countries. The states wanted to explore and establish themselves in the New World. Every territory the explorers discovered was claimed by the nations as their own, which is the main contribution of the explorers in the wide context during this period. The nations that sponsored their explorers included Spain, England, Portugal, Netherland, and France among others.
Factors that favored exploration
European explorers became the leading players in the discovery of the New World. There were a number of factors that favored their exploration efforts which included the following.
First, growth of commerce and towns in European nations gave incentives for explorations. Europeans looked for goods and luxuries such as spices and gold from Asian countries. They also wanted to show their cultures to others in foreign land. The development of towns led to changes in lifestyles as secular topics dominated, and geography and humanism were among them. Explorers wanted to challenge the existing knowledge in geography.
Second, we can also attribute explorations to the religious fervor in Europe. Most of the explorers, including Christopher Columbus, Magella, and Vasco da Gama, were Christians who believed in God’s guidance during their journeys. They believed that it was their obligation to spread Christianity and win converts in the new land. Europeans also had the notion that the world was their property.2
Third, European explorers also found favors in the geographical locations of their countries. The extreme end position allowed ease of access to the East, which also encouraged trade among numerous middlemen. We can remember Ottoman Empire for establishing such strong trade routes with the East.
Some of the disadvantaged European nations had incentives to find new trade routes to the Far East because Muslim nations tended to dominate European trade. Europe also had a strategic position for exploring both Africa and other Asian countries. Still, they had the opportunities of setting voyage across Atlantic Ocean to America.
Fourth, the growth of the ship and navigation technologies encouraged Europeans to set voyages and discover the New World. The development of a compass gave sailors certainties regarding their directions. They could also calculate the latitude through the North Star and the sun using quadrants, astrolabes, and cross staff.
Technological innovations also led to the invention of a chronometer for even more accurate measurements. The ship development improved with varieties of choices and strong options to resist rocking and strong winds and waves. Shipwrights could choose from Mediterranean or Atlantic styles. Ships also had stern rudder and clinker-built hulls.
Maps also played significant roles in explorations. The medieval maps had little to offer explorers. However, there were advanced improvements in maps showing locations and coastal lines. Still, such maps (portolan charts) could only serve Europe. Most sailors used lore to guide their routes. They could read the movements of birds, observe changes in color of the water, vegetation, and skies. It was not until 1500 when some decent maps came along, but sailors guarded their information.3
Key Figures in Exploration
The governments of different nations had interests in foreign and new lands. Consequently, they funded and provided supplies for explorers willing to explore new areas. Explorers also had personal curiosities and interests to explore and discover unknown places.
Trade in luxury goods also encouraged exploration. During this very period, nations were interested in luxury goods like gold, silk, and spices among others. Most of these nations’ interests were to find new trade routes for luxury commodities. During the period of Ottoman Empire, Europeans had no access to most areas in the Far East. This action restricted European trade with the Far East.
People from Portugal were the first known explorers under Prince Henry, the Navigator during The Age of Exploration. These explorers traveled many and across wide areas. This is the time when sailors depended on portolan charts which only showed coastlines near land.
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This implies that earlier explorers never had the opportunities of sailing away from the coastlines. However, Portuguese explorers moved further “into the sea and discovered island like the Azores in 1427”.4 Portuguese explorers also had interests in West Africa, but they needed alternative routes so as to avoid the Sahara Desert.
Christopher Columbus was also famous during the Age of Exploration. Columbus’ interest was in establishing a trade route to Far East through trade routes in the west. The voyage landed him in America in 1492. Columbus shared the information with the rest of European nations. Pedro Cabral of Portugal followed and explored Brazil. This set the conflict between Portugal and Spain in claiming the new land and led to the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.5
There were also Captain Cook that went to Alaska mapping new areas and Ferdinand Magellan who tried to go “around the world in his attempts to establish trade route to Asia from the Northwest Passage”.6
The diminishing of the Age of Exploration
The Age of Discovery came to an end during the early periods of 17th century. This was the period after increased technological discoveries and easy navigation by Europeans across the globe. Traders established settlements along the coasts of newly discovered areas. This allowed for smooth trade and communication and marked the end of looking for trade routes.
Kidner and others note: “Though the Age of Exploration ended in the 17th century, it did not stop completely during this time”.7 There were some areas that remained unexplored. These included Africa, some parts of Asia, eastern Australia, Antarctic, and Arctic.
The Importance of the Age of Exploration to Geography
Most of the explorations took place in efforts to find and establish new trade routes. However, the impacts of explorations affected geography significantly. Explorers who traveled to different destinations around the globe acquired new knowledge about the New World. Consequently, these explorers brought back with them this knowledge to Europe.
Explorers also met new people, new land, and new cultures. Such knowledge enlightened Europe about other existing cultures. Later, Europeans wanted to spread their domination to these new people, land, and cultures.
The Age of Exploration improved geographical knowledge in areas of mapping and portolan charts. For instance, Prince Henry the Navigator could sail away from the shorelines using a new nautical chart. This enabled the subsequent sailors to travel away from the land. This also resulted into the creation of the nautical map. It was the effort of explorers like Cabral, Columbus, and De Gama that polished the first nautical map.
The Age of Exploration improved geographical knowledge significantly. A number of people could study new areas and expand the existing knowledge about geography. Therefore, discoveries of the explorers formed the foundation of modern geography.
This period also set the pace for the European colonization and the spread Christianity. Slaves experienced the negative consequences of slavery, such as displacements, wars, starvation, and increased slave trade. Diseases also claimed several lives of slaves. The population of the natives also reduced dramatically as death and displacement resulted in a diminishing number of people.
Europeans also spread their culture of Christianity to other land and people. This made Christianity the world’s largest religion until today. Christianity became the main strategy of colonization Europeans used to capture new territories and form their colonies.8
Casas Las De, Bartolome. Apologetic History of the Indies (1566): Sources of the West, Volume I. Edited by Mark A. Kishlansky New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.
Columbus, Christopher. Letter from the First Voyage (1493): Sources of the West, Volume I. Edited by Mark A. Kishlansky. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.
Hugh, Thomas. Rivers of gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2003.
Kidner, Frank et al. “Europe’s Age of Expansion 1450-1550”. Making Europe, People, Politics, and Culture, Volume I to 1790. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2009.
Schneider, Thomas. Brutal journey: the epic story of the first crossing of north America. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co., 2006.
1 Thomas Schneider, Brutal journey: the epic story of the first crossing of north America (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co., 2006), 139
2 Christopher Columbus, Letter from the First Voyage (1493): Sources of the West, Volume I, ed. Mark A. Kishlansky (New York: Pearson Longman, 2006), 244-247.
3 Bartolome Casas Las De, Apologetic History of the Indies (1566): Sources of the West, Volume I, ed. Mark A. Kishlansky (New York: Pearson Longman, 2006), 251-255.
4 Thomas Hugh, Rivers of gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan (New York: Random House, 2003), 280-289.
5 See note 1 above
6 See note 4 above
7 Frank Kidner et al, “Europe’s Age of Expansion 1450-1550”. Making Europe, People, Politics, and Culture, Volume I to 1790 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2009), 348-379.
8 See note 7 above