by María Jesús Campos

At the beginning of the 15th century, Europeans knew very little about the world. They still believed it was flat and that horizon was a straight line marking the edge of the world.
The existence of India, China and Japan was shown by Marco Polo`s journeys and the trade routes that brought silk and spices to Europe. However, not very much was known about these lands.

Marco Polo
Marco Polo

In the Middle Ages, Europeans divided the world into Christian and Muslim countries. Since most Europeans were Christians, they called Europe “Christendom”. The Muslim Empire stretched from Spain to India. They were great traders. Their ships sailed across the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. For centuries there had been constant wars between the Christians and the Muslims. This made it difficult for Europeans to travel in Muslim countries.
As they couldn’t trade with Asia, Europeans decided to explore the world and find new routes. They were afraid to go exploring because they believed that the earth was flat and they feared that if they sailed out too far from the coast they might fall off the edge of the world. They were afraid to go south because they believed that the sea got hotter and hotter until it boiled. They were afraid of sea monsters, which they believed could swallow a ship whole.

1.- Reasons to explore:

In the 15th century, European countries launched many maritime expeditions. There were different reasons for this:

a. The need to find new trade routes to the East

Because the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks interrupted the trade routes between Europe and Asia, trade was the main reason for exploration. At that time Europeans grew their own food and made their own clothes. But rich people wanted luxury items that could not be found in Europe, for example, spices like pepper, cloves, ginger which were used to preserve and flavour foods and to make medicines; or silk, which wealthy people love to wear (it came from China); or jewels, like emeralds and rubies that came from India.
Muslim traders brought these goods to the Mediterranean. They travelled on camels across the desert or on small boats across the Indian Ocean. Qhen they reached the Mediterranean ports, they sold the goods to Italian merchants, who then sold them to the rest of Europe. But wars between Christians and Muslims could stop trade. The conquest of Constantinople pushed up the price. European monarchs began to wonder if there was another way to reach the Spice Islands.

b. Spreading Christianity

Many Christian rulers felt it was their duty to convert all peoples to Christianity so they should take over non-Christian parts of the world.

c. Conquering new lands

As authoritarian monarchs strengthened, they wanted to become more powerful by conquering new territories. The growing population of Europe also meant that there was a demand for new land.

Expeditions were possible thanks to a number of technical advances and improvements in ships that made it possible to go further:

New maps called portulan charts that showed the coastline and any obstacles at sea.

Navigational instrumentssuch as the compass, the astrolabe and the quadrant.

New ships as caravels that could travel longer distances, were faster and easier to manoeuvre.

2.- Portuguese expeditions:

The first people to look for new trade routes were the Portuguese. They traded with the Muslims of North Africa. They got gold from Muslim traders so they knew gold came from the south along the African coast. They considered exploring the coast to see if they could find it for themselves.

The man who began this exploration was Prince Henry the Navigator, the third son of the king of Portugal. He led a war against the Muslims of North Africa and became interested in exploring. He also heard a legend of a Christian king called Prester John who lived in the centre of Africa. He thought that if he could link up with Prester John, they could defeat the Muslims. He brought astronomers, ship-builders, sea captains and mapmakers and employed Muslim sea captains to tell the Portuguese about their sailing methods.

Portuguese began to explore the coast of Africa. Year after year they edged further south. They discovered the Madeira Islands, the Canary Islands and the Azores. Henry insisted that his sailors make maps of the places they reached. These were called “portolanos”. The captain on each voyage also had to keep a diary called a “log”. In it he described their discoveries and any problems they encountered.

As they explored the coast of Africa, the Portuguese began to wonder if they could sail around it to the Spice Islands. The first big challenge was to pass Cape Bojador. It took about 15 expeditions before a ship finally reached it. The sailors returned home safely, proving that the sea did not boil that far south. After that the Portuguese thought that they had only a short distance to go to the end of Africa. But Africa was much bigger than they realised.

In 1488, Bartolomeu Diaz left Portugal. His mission was to find how far south the African coast went. After 9 months a gale blew them out to sea and for 13 days the crew completely lost sight of land. When they saw land again it was north of them. Diaz realised that at last they had found the tip of Africa. He named it “the Cape of Storms” but the king renamed the cape as “the Cape of Good Hope” because Portugal now had “good hope” of reaching the East. Bartolomeu Diaz was the first one who rounded the southern tip of Africa. Nevertheless, it was 10 years before anyone returned there.

In 1498, Vasco da Gama planned to sail around Africa and discover a new way to India. He could only hire prisoners that had been sentenced to death because sailors were too frightened to volunteer. Instead of sailing down the coast of Africa, he used Diaz`s map to take a shortcut across the open sea. He reached the tip of Africa much faster. After he rounded the tip he hired an Arab pilot to guide him across the Indian Ocean to India. Da Gama filled his ships with spices and silks. Thanks to Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese had, at last, found their trading route to the East.

The Portuguese established trading posts along new routes. Portugal created a great empire and became a world power.