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Impact of the Voyages of Explorers on European Commerce and Economies: Analytical Essay

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This period of discovery lasted from about 1418 to 1620. During this time, European explorers made many daring voyages that changed world history. A major reason for these voyages was the desire to find sea routes to East Asia, which Europeans called the Indies. When Christopher Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic Ocean, he was looking for such a route. Instead, he landed in the Americas. Columbus thought he had reached the Indies. In time, Europeans would realize that he had found what they called the ‘New World.’ European nations soon rushed to claim lands in the Americas for themselves.

Early explorers often suffered terrible hard ships. In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan set out with three ships to cross the Pacific Ocean from South America. He had guessed, correctly, that the Indies lay on the other side of the Pacific. But Magellan had no idea how vast the ocean really was. He thought his crew would be sailing for a few weeks at most. Instead, the crossing took three months. While the ships were still at sea, the crew ran out of food. One sailor wrote about this terrible time. ‘We ate biscuit’ swarming with worms’. We drank yellow water that had been putrid [rotten] for days… and often we ate sawdust from boards.’

The age of exploration emanated from several factors such as, to find new trade routes to Asia, this was the dominant motive at the time, advances in knowledge and technology, religion, renaissance, trade, and glory and expansion.

Trade and Finding of New trade routes

For early explorers, one of the main motives for exploration was the desire to find new trade routes to Asia. By the 1400s, merchants and crusaders had brought many goods to Europe from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Demand for these goods increased the desire for trade.

Europeans were especially interested in spices from Asia. They had learned to use spices to help preserve food during winter and to cover up the taste of food that was no longer fresh. Trade with the East, however, was expensive and difficult. Muslims and Italians controlled the flow of trade. Muslim traders carried goods to the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Italian merchants then brought the goods to Europe. Problems arose when Muslim rulers sometimes closed the trade routes from Asia to Europe. Also, the goods went through many hands, and each trading party raised their price.

European monarchs and merchants wanted to break the hold that Muslims and Italians had on trade. One way to do so was to find a sea route to Asia. Portuguese sailors looked for a route that went around Africa. Christopher Columbus tried to reach Asia by sailing west across the Atlantic. Other motives also came into play. This motive led to several adventures and discovery, such as the discovery of the Americas, which Columbus thought was the Indies.

Portugal’s explorers changed Europeans’ understanding of the world in several ways. They explored the coasts of Africa and brought back gold and slaves. They also found a sea route to India. From India, explorers brought back spices like cinnamon and pepper and goods such as porcelain, incense, jewels, and silk. Examples of Portuguese explorers where; Bartolomeu Dias, in 1488, Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to go around the southern tip of Africa. Later, Dias died in a storm at sea. Another explorer was Vasco Da Gama, In July 1497; Vasco da Gama set sail with four ships to chart a sea route to India. Da Gama’s ships rounded Africa’s southern tip and then sailed up the east coast of the continent. With the help of a sailor who knew the route to India, they crossed the Indian Ocean. Da Gama arrived in the port of Calicut, India, in May 1498. Portugal’s control of the Indian Ocean broke the hold of Muslims and Italians on Asian trade. The prices of Asian goods like spices and fabrics dropped, and more people in Europe could afford to buy them.

The Renaissance

Secondly, another factor that led to the age of exploration was the Renaissance. It is common knowledge that the Renaissance was one of the greatest and most flourishing periods in the history of human kind. It was an era of unimaginable cultural wealth, both in arts, crafts and technology. Scholars, scientists, artists and craftsmen in all the countries of Europe worked for the betterment of mankind. The invention of things such as the compass and telescope came about during this period. The increase in trade during this period also led to the Age of exploration.

The Age of Exploration began in the midst of the Renaissance, a time of new learning. A number of advances made it easier for explorers to venture into the unknown. One key advance was in cartography, the art and science of mapmaking. In the early 1400s, an Italian scholar translated an ancient book called Guide to Geography from Greek into Latin. The book had been written by Ptolemy in the second century C.E. Printed copies of the book inspired new interest in cartography. European mapmakers used Ptolemy’s work to draw more accurate maps.

Advances in Knowledge and Technology

Another factor that led to the age of exploration was also with the advancement in knowledge and Technology. Â Many people were excited by the opportunity for new knowledge. Discoveries by explorers gave mapmakers new information to work with. The result was a dramatic change in Europeans’ view of the world. By the 1500s, globes showed Earth as a sphere, or ball. In 1507, a German cartographer made the first map that clearly showed North and South America separated from Asia. In turn, better maps helped explorers by making navigation easier. The most important Renaissance geographer, Gerardus Mercator, created maps using improved lines of longitude and latitude. Mercator’s mapmaking technique was a great help to navigators.

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An improved ship design also helped explorers. By the 1400s, Portuguese and Spanish shipbuilders were making caravels. These ships were small, fast, and easy to maneuverer. Their shallow bottoms made it easier for explorers to travel along coastlines where the water was not deep. Caravels also used lateen (triangular) sails, an idea borrowed from Muslim ships. These sails could be positioned to take advantage of the wind no matter which way it blew. Along with better ships, new navigational tools helped sailors to travel more safely on the open seas. By the end of the 15th century, the compass was much improved. Sailors used compasses to find their bearing, or direction of travel. The astrolabe helped sailors figure out their distance north or south from the equator. An example of someone who helped in the advancement of new knowledge of the sea and new technology was Prince Henry, the son of King John I. Nicknamed ‘the Navigator,’ Henry was not an explorer himself. Instead, he encouraged exploration and directed many important expeditions. Beginning in about 1418, Henry sent explorers to sea almost every year. He also started a school of navigation where sailors and mapmakers could learn their trades. His cartographers made new maps based on the information captains brought back.


Another Motive for the age of exploration was the desire to spread Christianity. The Christian faith greatly influenced the European Age of Exploration (15th century to the 18th century). The Catholic Church started a major effort to spread Christianity around the world. Spiritual motivations also justified European conquest of foreign lands. Medieval religious fervour made captains feel it was their duty to convert everyone they met to Christianity.

Both Protestant and Catholic nations were eager to make new converts. Missionaries followed the path blazed by explorers, sometimes using force to bring native peoples into their faiths. An example was the Portuguese colonial conquest of Brazil. During the 1500s, Portugal also began to establish colonies in Brazil. The native people of Brazil suffered greatly as a result. The Portuguese tried to get the native people to give up their religion and convert to Christianity. They also forced them to work on sugar plantations. Missionaries sometimes tried to protect them from abuse, but countless numbers died from overwork and European diseases. Others fled into the interior of Brazil.

People from Europe also wanted religious freedom. They were known as the Protestants and they decided that moving to the Americas, they felt the new world would give them that freedom to practice any religion they wanted.

Glory and Expansion

Another factor of the age of exploration was that Europeans rushed to explore the whole world to expand their countries as well as bring Glory and wealth to it. The age of exploration brought about a lot of wealth to European countries that explored and found lands which they took for their own. They were able to find new raw materials as well as food which they sold and made money from. In order for countries to get this wealth, they had to sponsor explorations in order to claim lands for themselves. A good example can be seen in Spain’s early exploration. In the late 1400s, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain were determined to make their country a powerful force in Europe. One way to do this was to sponsor explorations and claim new lands for Spain.

It was Ferdinand and Isabella who sponsored the voyages of Christopher Columbus. The Italian-born Columbus thought that the Indies, or eastern Asia, lay on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. He believed sailing west would be the easiest route to the Indies. When Columbus failed to win Portuguese support for his idea, he turned to Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to pay for the risky voyage. They wanted to beat Portugal in the race to control the wealth of Asia.

Columbus’s voyages were the beginning of Spanish settlement in the West Indies. Spain earned great wealth from its settlements. Settlers mined for precious minerals and started sugar plantations. The Spanish also sent Europe new crops, such as sweet potatoes and pineapples. For the native people of the West Indies, Spanish settlement was devastating. Priests forced many of them to become Christians. Native people were forced to work as slaves in the mines and on the plantations. When the Spanish arrived, perhaps 1 or 2 million Taino lived on the islands. Within 50 years, fewer than 500 were left. The rest had died of starvation, overwork, or European diseases. Like Portugal, Spain looked to West Africa for new sources of labourers. From 1518 through the mid-1800s, the Spanish brought millions of enslaved Africans to work in their American colonies.

After Columbus’s voyages, Spain was eager to claim lands in the New World. To explore and conquer ‘New Spain,’ the Spanish turned to adventurers called conquistadors (conquerors). The conquistadors were allowed to establish settlements and seize the wealth of natives. In return, the Spanish government claimed one fifth of the treasures they found. The explorations and conquests of the conquistadors transformed Spain. The Spanish rapidly expanded foreign trade and overseas colonization. For a time, wealth from the Americas made Spain one of the world’s richest and most powerful countries. Besides gold and silver, ships brought corn and potatoes from the New World to Spain. These crops grew well in Europe. By increasing the food supply, they helped spur a population boom. Conquistadors also introduced Europeans to new luxury items, such as chocolate and tobacco.


The age of exploration extended to the discovery of the new world and emanated from several related factors associated with a further understanding of sea travel. However, these factors brought about a lot of impacts to Europe, the new world as well as Africa.

The voyages of explorers had a dramatic impact on European commerce and economies. As a result of exploration, more goods, raw materials, and precious metals entered Europe. Mapmakers carefully charted trade routes and the locations of newly discovered lands. By the 1700s, European ships travelled trade routes that spanned the globe. New centres of commerce developed in the port cities of the Netherlands and England, which had colonies and trading posts in faraway lands. The Portuguese explored Africa’s coasts, charted a sea route to Asia, and claimed Brazil. The voyages of Christopher Columbus led to Spanish colonization in the Americas. England, France, and the Netherlands sent explorers to North America.

However, Millions of people living in the Americas died as a result of European colonization and conquest. The Inca and Aztec Empires were destroyed. West Africans suffered greatly when they were brought to the Americas to work as slaves. For the Americas and Africans, the age of exploration had negative impacts in their lives. Their lands where conquered, they were killed or forced to work as slaves; they also died as a result of new diseases the Europeans brought to their lives.

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