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Spanish and Portuguese Age of Exploration: Analytical Essay

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Since ancient times, humans have navigated the waters surrounding them. As centuries passed, mankind has spread farther and faster. The best example of this widespread cross-Atlantic exploration is a period from around 1450 to 1650, aptly named the Age of Exploration. In this age, the Spanish and Portuguese sailed to the New World, around the coast of Africa, and even around the planet. To accomplish this task, the various explorers used the newest technologies to find their way, be it ships, navigation instruments, or globes.

The caravel was one of the most important ships during the Spanish and Portuguese Age of Exploration. According to George Robert Schwartz, the caravel was developed by the Portuguese duke, Prince Henry the Navigator, to sail around the tip of Africa, into the Indian Ocean in order to monopolize trade in Asia. As it turned out, it was used for far more than its original intent. For instance, two of Christopher Columbus’s ships were caravels, while the third was a carrack, the precursor to the galleon. The caravel was designed to be a small, speedy boat, so it couldn’t sail upwind without the assistance of a technique known as beating. Beating is a technique in which the ship sails in a zigzag, so that they ride upwind indirectly. The caravel, and to a lesser extent, the galleon and carrack used this sailing technique. The caravel had a rudder at the back to steer left and right in order to accurately sail in a zig-zag. When it was first designed by Prince Henry the Navigator’s shipbuilders, it was based on an Islamic ship, the quarib.

The galleon is a larger counterpart to the caravel, bigger, but just as important. According to Ulrich Alertz, it was based off of the carrack, a trading ship, the galleon a larger ship than the caravel. It was used as an exploration flagship, and as a war vessel. Contrary to the caravel, the galleon used square sails and was carrack built, meaning that their planks didn’t overlap. Like the caravel, the galleon relied completely on the wind, which meant that naval battles fought on calm days would be rather anticlimactic. They were designed to be maneuverable, like the caravel, but bigger, stable, and much less emphasis was put onto speed. This meant that it was much less useful as anything other than a trade ship, a warship, or a flagship. Unlike the caravel, which was a small quick ship, designed to accompany the galleon, the galleon was a ship for the main captain. It was also too expensive to produce for an entire exploration fleet.

The galleon’s predecessor, the carrack was as large as the galleon and as widespread. The carrack was about 1000 tons, which was massive at the time. Like the caravel, the carrack was designed by the Portuguese (although not at the time of Prince Henry the Navigator) as a trading vessel, and it was used as a flagship by Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus, but it was not at the height of its popularity until the start of the 1500’s. They were continually used up until around the middle of the 16th century when the first galleons began being developed. Despite the overwhelming popularity of the galleon, carracks were used until the 17th century, although they were no longer the first choice. They were used as cheap trade ships for short voyages.

The crew of these ships navigated with instruments, like compasses, or astrolabes. The Ka-Mal, perhaps the simplest of the navigating instruments, was basically a piece of wood attached to some string. It was used to measure the elevation of Polaris around the equator, as if the user strayed too far north or south, Polaris would be too far up to measure. Instead, northern and southern sailors have to use an astrolabe. According to author Robert E Krebs, astrolabes were first developed by the Greeks. The Muslims developed it into an essential part of everyday life (to find Mecca), and Europeans took it around the 11th century AD. The Europeans didn’t change any aspect of it, but they used it for a while until it was superseded by the quadrant and sextant. The first quadrants were proposed by the Arabians, who used their quadrants to measure the angular height of stars, to try to foretell the future, or determine the next solar eclipse. Later, when the Europeans discovered it, they created their own variation. It was a kind of backstaff. It was similar to Muslim quadrants, except it had a lens and an half-protractor. The semi-protractor meant that it could slide, allowing the quadrant to be adjusted. The sextant, in contrast, used a combination of mirrors and lenses to allow a user to read the altitude of something by just looking at the dial. It was also put at a 60° angle instead of a 90°, to make it more compact. This allowed it to be more precise and more mobile.

The usage of these instruments was usually proportionally difficult to the complexity of the said instrument, with the exception of the compass. The Ka-Mal was the simplest. First, the user must line up the lower edge to the horizon. Then, “he/she must line up the upper edge with the star Polaris”. Finally, the user must slide the piece of wood past several knots, until the star fit exactly. The number knot on the string was the angle of the star. Each knot approximates to around 1½ degrees. The compass, although it used the principles of magnetic fields around the Earth, was much easier to use, with a simple needle pointing towards the nearest magnetic field, or if there were no magnets or lodestones near the compass, then it would point toward the magnetic North Pole, which varies slightly from day to day. This made the compass in long-distance navigation unreliable. The astrolabe was where the complexity began, but this was mostly in the construction. The usage was simple. First, the outside moving part needed to rotate until a ray of sunlight hits through the alidade. Second, the user would need to read the markings along the edge. This is rather easy, but sextants are much harder. First, the user must point the sextant to the horizon, then press the clamp for the second half, aligning it with the star with the horizon. Then, the user can read the angle marking, but first, he/she must swing the second clamp to verify the correct position. Most of these instruments(except for the compass) measures the angular height of the star, but they were also mostly invented in Portugal, where Prince Henry the Navigator lived.

Henry was the fifth born son of King John I of Portugal. Raymond Beazley states that he was an essential part of the Age of Navigation and is widely credited with beginning the influx of explorers in the 15th to 17th century. His father captured a trading port when he was 21, which intrigued Henry enough to get him to begin exploring the coast of West Africa, mainly to find the source of African gold. To do this he had to invent a light, faster ship, as the Mediterranean ships of the time were too slow and heavy to make it down the coast of an entire continent. This lighter, faster ship was the caravel. Henry’s shipbuilders built ships using money given to them by Henry’s brother, King Edward of Portugal. The caravels were then used to explore, and Henry taxed 20% on all profits made by naval expeditions, which gave Portugal an additional source of income. The crew on these Portuguese ships were said to be trained at a maritime school sponsored by Henry the Navigator at the coastal town of Sagres. However, there is little evidence to support the existence of such a school. Later voyages got Portugal involved in the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Portuguese would pay an African leader in exchange for some slaves, which would then be used to plant sugar, most notably on the island of São Tomé. The Portuguese profited immensely from the sugar sold and continued this practice until 1836 when many European countries also ended slavery under pressure by Britain.

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Before the exploration of the rest of Africa during the Age of Exploration, Europeans knew only about the existence of European countries, Asian Countries participating in the spice trade, and since the exploration of the explorer Bartolomeu Dias, the coast of Africa. The existence of such knowledge about other continents was relatively new, but something that wasn’t new was the knowledge that the Earth was round. It was known even in Roman times. The mathematician/astronomer Eratosthenes calculated the Earth’s circumference to be around 28,950 miles. This is only about 1% off, which, although incorrect, is impressive for the limited accuracy of instruments that he had at the time. Later, when Columbus set sail, he used the circumference of the Earth based off of a map by the Italian mathematician Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, who estimated the earth’s circumference to be around a third shorter. This caused him to believe that he had reached the Indies, or as it is known today, Indonesia. He was incorrect, but if he had used the calculations of Eratosthenes, which he had access to, he would have known that he had either reached a small mid-ocean island or an entirely new landmass.

After Columbus’s famous voyage of 1492, everyone was essentially in a race to reach America first and colonize it. Many people saw an opportunity in this, and maps of the New World began coming out. To make these maps, they needed to either have explorers explore the New World or just make things up. Most early American cartographers chose the latter option, as it was easier. They usually portrayed America as a group of islands on the way to Asia, but the first cartographer to recognize America as a continent along the lines of Europe or Africa was Martin Waldseemüller. The Boston Globe testified that the Waldseemüller map was also the first map to put the word America on a map (Universalis Cosmographia) to honor the New World explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Although Waldseemüller later retracted this in his next map, instead opting for Terra Incognito, meaning unknown land in Latin, the name caught on. Despite the thin shape of Universalis Cosmographia’s America, it at least acknowledged the existence of the Pacific Ocean. Exploration of this new “America” surged, far outstripping exploration of the Indian Ocean. The only surviving copy of Universalis Cosmographia was in the possession of noted German polymath, Johannes Schöner, who also happens to be the creator of the first globe.

Schöner was a collector of maps, as well as a globe maker. His globes are some of the oldest in the world, and some feature landmarks which were not discovered at the time of Schöner, such as Antarctica and the Strait of Magellan. Schöner created the globes using almond shaped strips of paper, that were painstakingly painted with the area that it would later go in. The strips would then be pasted on a large wooden sphere. This provided if done correctly, a circular model of the Earth. However, globes were still not much use on explorations, except perhaps for entertainment on the open seas, as maps were much easier to use and accurate enough for circumvention of the Atlantic.

The vessel in which the explorer sailed was usually carvel-built, which meant that the planks of wood were not overlapping, which gave an advantage by reducing hydrodynamic drag. They also usually used lateen sails, which meant that the sails were triangular. This allowed the ship to sail upwind, through the use of a sailing technique called beating, which, as stated earlier, is sailing in a zig-zag in order to move the opposite way of the wind. Normal sails, which were square shaped, were much harder to turn so quickly. Common woods used in the creation of galleons and caravels were oak and pine, for the keel and mast respectively. Because of all of the expenses that went into the creation of the galleon (the creation of one usually took months or years of hard work), they were usually used as trade ships, to cover the costs of the work that went into its creation.

Even with the best ships that money could buy, no explorer would dare to navigate without instruments. These instruments would have to be crafted with great precision, as even a 1° drift may lead to a ship becoming thousands of miles off course, especially because the explorers of the time were sailing across such long distances. Therefore, astrolabes and sextants were exclusively crafted by specialized artisans. However, things like the compass were easier to make, so they could be made by the general instrument crafters, as were Ka-Mals, and simple quadrants. Taking compasses as an example, regardless of the quality of a compass, the way a compass is pointing may vary depending on where the user is. In some places, magnetic declination is unmeasurably small, while others are huge enough to cause an explorer to turn their ship around. To counteract this, adjustable compasses may be used, but one must know the local magnetic declination. Other instruments have similar deficiencies in their accuracies, such as the fact that Ka-Mals get less accurate the farther a user gets from the Equator.

Compasses were often used in conjunction with maps to determine the position of a ship. The maps were made by skilled cartographers, who would have to first gather information from explorers that have voyaged, usually either by the records of the explorer or the fact that they were an explorer themselves. The explorer, be it the cartographer or another one, would document the course of an expedition, the landscape, and features of the land. Then, using the time of the ship to go past part of the island, the speed of the ship, and their coordinates, a sailor could figure out the size of the island. After the collection of data, a cartographer would have to sit down, and painstakingly draw/paint every detail of the lands that were discovered. The amount of labor caused maps to be worth a lot of money, which is why some people just made things up or assumed things to sell their maps. This led to inaccuracies in voyages, most notably Christopher Columbus.

In conclusion, the Spanish and Portuguese Age of Exploration would not have been possible without the invention of many new and pioneering technologies that illuminated the path to the New World. The people who spent their lives working on the development of these technologies contributed much to the history and opening up of Americas to the rest of the world. This was made possible by the many who dedicated their lives to the furthering of technology, the people who sponsored them, and the explorers, adventuring into unknown lands, across uncharted waters.

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