Overview: Exploration and Discovery 1450-1699

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Overview: Exploration and Discovery 1450-1699

As the civilizations of the world developed and expanded, so, too, did man's desire to explore and conquer new lands and peoples. The Vikings were prime examples of this need to discover and conquer, first with their raids throughout Europe from the middle of the eighth century, and later with their epic voyages for the adventure of discovering new lands, which they did in North America in the late tenth century. Other civilizations that turned to exploration for the purpose of expanding their empires included Genghis Khan's (1162?-1227) Mongols, whose vast empire stretched across Asia. The Crusades of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries brought European military expeditions to the Holy Land, introducing Islamic culture (and the science of cartography) to the West. With the journeys of Marco Polo (1254-1324) in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the European spirit of exploration was further inspired. Polo's tales of the Great Khan and the wealth of the East—its silks and spices—spurred the nations of Europe into a period known as the Age of Discovery, with a focus on quests to seek out new lands and trade routes by sea.

Apart from the Norse voyagers, all official early European explorers had one goal: the discovery of a route to China and the Indies. The two main objectives of this goal were the riches of the Indies and the conversion of native "infidels" to Christianity. So began a tradition of European maritime discovery. The person who most encouraged fifteenth century sea exploration was Portuguese Prince Henry (1394-1460), known as Henry the Navigator, who established a "navigational" school at Sagres, near Cabo de São, Portugal. By the time of his death, expeditions under his sponsorship had explored southward along the coast of Africa as far as Gambia.

Explorer Bartolomeu Dias (1450?-1500) was the next great Portuguese navigator; he discovered the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 after he was blown around it while outrunning a storm. Others soon followed in his wake: Vasco da Gama (1460?-1524) rounded Africa and reached India in 1498, opening the Indian Ocean to trade; Christopher Columbus (1451?-1506) discovered the "New World" in 1492, but was convinced he had reached Asia; Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) rediscovered North America on his return voyage from Brazil; John Cabot (1450?-1499?), the first European since the Vikings to make landfall in the northern reaches of North America—Newfoundland and Nova Scotia—around 1497; and Ferdinand Magellan (1480?-1521) led the first circumnavigation of the globe (1519-1522), though was killed by natives in the Philippines before he could return. These expeditions rapidly added details to maps of the world, as did others in the Pacific Ocean in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century when Australia, New Zealand, and the Fiji Islands were discovered by Dutch sailors looking to expand lines of commerce for their nation.

The oceanic exploration begun with Henry the Navigator led to a quest for wealth and adventure and to the Spanish tradition of conquistadors—adventurers, part soldier, part sailor, interested in the myths and legends of gold, spices, and new lands to conquer. Their desire for conquest and the building of empires also concealed the objective of converting those they conquered to Christianity, thus beginning an era of colonization and commerce in the New World. The first Spaniard to disrupt an established New World civilization was Hernando Cortés (1485-1547), who conquered the Aztec empire in Mexico (1518). Eventually the Spanish occupied Mexico, sending out expeditions to the southwestern parts of North America, such as that of Francisco de Coronado (1510?-1554), who discovered the Grand Canyon (1540).

Overland exploration by the conquistadors led to critical geographic discoveries. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (1490?-1560?) and Hernando de Soto (1496?-1542) led expeditions to the southeastern sections of North America. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (1475-1519) and Diego de Almagro (1474?-1538) led expeditions to South America, where Francisco Pizarro (1475-1541) eventually conquered the Incas (1532). Two significant expeditions were conducted along the Amazon River, the first by Francisco de Orellana (1511?-1546), who made a 4,000-mile (6,437-km) journey along the Amazon to the Atlantic Ocean (1539-1541), and the second by Pedro Teixeira (1570?-1640), who in 1639 spent 10 months surveying the river. In addition to their contributions to geography and political expansion, the Spanish conquistadors also helped establish the first permanent European settlement on Cuba in 1512. In 1565 the first permanent European settlement in North America was founded in St. Augustine by the Spanish.

With the Spanish and Portuguese establishing settlements in South America and Mexico, the French, British, and Dutch looked to North America. As settlements were planned, explorers such as Henry Hudson (?-1611) ventured north and then inland, where Etienne Brulé (1592?-1632?) discovered and explored the Great Lakes—Huron (1611), Ontario (1615), and Superior (1621). In 1603 French explorer Samuel de Champlain (1567?-1635) founded the first settlement in Canada at Montreal. A few years later, the British founded Jamestown in Virginia (1607), followed by New Plymouth (1620), Salem (1628), and Boston (1630). The Dutch founded New Amsterdam, site of present-day New York City, in 1626. With the colonies came opportunities for trade and commerce, as new crops such as tobacco and sugar cane impacted the economies of Europe.

In North America attempts were made to reach the Pacific Ocean by traveling overland, including that of René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (1643-1687), who reached the Mississippi (1681) and followed it to the Gulf of Mexico to lay claim to Louisiana. Frenchman Jean Nicollet de Belleborne (1598?-1642) explored between the St. Lawrence and Mississippi rivers, and Belgian friar Louis Hennepin (1626-1705?) explored the upper Mississippi (1679) and was the first European to see Niagara Falls. At the end of the seventeenth century, the unknown territory west of the Mississippi would remain for later explorers to discover.

While explorers were beginning to establish settlements in North America, others were making the first attempts to explore the cold northern Atlantic—in search of a passage to the East. The first recorded attempt to discover the Northwest Passage was made by Italian Sebastian Cabot (1476?-1557) for British investors. While unsuccessful, his voyage spurred others such as Jacques Cartier (1491-1557), who discovered the Gulf of St. Lawrence (1534) and the St. Lawrence River (1535) during his search; Martin Frobisher (1540-1594), who sailed up the coast of Greenland toward what is now Baffin Island and shared the first meeting between Englishmen and Eskimos (1576); and John Davis (1550?-1650), who led three voyages to discover the Northwest Passage between 1585-87 and reached just over 1,100 miles (1,770 km) from the North Pole. In 1616 William Baffin (1586?-1622) came within 800 miles (1,287 km) of the North Pole on an expedition that resulted in the discovery of Baffin Bay and Baffin Island. Other expeditions searched for a Northeast sea route to China—and were as unsuccessful, though they resulted in trade routes between England and Russia. As with explorations further west in North America, it would remain for later explorers to discover answers to the mysteries of the Arctic.

In the 1700s European explorers had expanded their knowledge of the world, defining its boundaries and cataloging its natural shape. With much of the Atlantic Ocean and its coastlines surveyed, explorers turned to the larger Pacific Ocean and began to survey and lay claim to islands in its waters and adjoining lands. Expeditions ventured further into the interiors of North America and Africa. Others made great strides in compiling more accurate geographic and meteorological data and maps of the world. Exciting developments were made in the fields of archaeology, geology, anthropology, ethnology, and other natural sciences. By the end of the eighteenth century the world seemed smaller due to the knowledge gained by its explorers.


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Overview: Exploration and Discovery 1450-1699

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Overview: Exploration and Discovery 1450-1699