The Age of Exploration

Mesopotamia is the cradle of human civilization, which spread across the Mediterranean and then expanded through Asia and Europe. Along with Africa, this was the extent of the known world till the 15th century. Over the next three centuries, we discovered the rest of the world, we found new islands, continents, and trading routes. How did this age of exploration come about?

The Renaissance was a period of discovery and innovation in the arts. A parallel burst of development was also occurring in technology. In particular, cartography, navigation, and shipbuilding experienced their own Renaissance. During this period, empires were competing for wealth and these new ideas and technologies gave them an edge over their competitors.

One such invention was the caravel, a type of ship developed in Iberia. This model helped explorers travel across the Atlantic safely. The first expedition was made by the Portuguese led by Prince Henry the Navigator. He discovered two islands: the Madeira Islands in 1419 and the Azores in 1427. However, the biggest discovery he made was finding a new route to West Africa. Henry the Navigator later started an institute to help explorers, merchants, and travelers navigate the open seas. He also talked about the latest discoveries in geography.

The Portuguese explored the western coast of Africa, slowly progressing south to find present-day Senegal in the 1440s. In 1487, Bartolomeu Dias traveled around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1498 Vasco da Gama used this route to reach India.

While the Portuguese were opening new sea routes along the African coast, the Spanish wanted to find sea routes of their own. They funded Christopher Columbus, an Italian, to travel further than Africa and the Indian Ocean. He wanted to discover an alternate route to Asia by traveling west. Instead of reaching India, he found North America in 1492. He also explored islands like Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti), the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean, and Cuba.

Columbus was initially disappointed with his discoveries. Unlike Africa and Asia, the Spanish did not know much about the Caribbean. The islands became the focus of colonization. After the continent was thoroughly explored, they found an abundance of gold. Soon it became a major mining spot for gold and silver.

The Portuguese reached the New World when Pedro Alvares Cabral explored Brazil, which caused conflict between Spain and Portugal. As a result, in 1494 the Treaty of Tordesillas divided the world in half. They divided the New World by drawing a boundary at approximately 46 degrees west– everything on the east of that line was claimed by Portugal. Spain claimed all lands west of that line. This treaty benefited both parties but completely ignored millions of people already living in the Americas.

As Spain and Portugal found new trading routes and lands, Great Britain and France also began exploring. In 1497, John Cabot, an Italian, funded by the English, reached present-day Newfoundland. After this, a number of French and English explorers followed, such as Samuel du Champlain who found Quebec City in 1608, and Henry Hudson who explored the island of Manhattan in 1609. The Treaty of Tordesillas was between Spain and Portugal and didn’t consider any other members. When other empires claimed parts of America, they simply ignored the treaty.

 A Dutch explorer, Willem Janszoon, found Australia in 1606. But the Dutch had little interest in this continent. A century later, Capt. James Cook explored Australia and Britain colonized it. 

After two centuries of learning and exploring, the world had grown to more than twice its size. The Europeans had explored the entire planet and had built technologies that helped them travel efficiently and easily across different continents. The age of exploration ended in the early 17th century, but the age of commerce and trade had just begun.

We are the inheritors of the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration. Today, our satellites have traveled to all the major bodies of the solar system and beyond. We have looked into the hearts of distant galaxies and to the beginnings of time. However, other than the moon, humanity is yet to physically travel to other worlds and there is no exploitation of those worlds. Are we on the cusp of a second wave of exploration?