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Mapping the World, Seaborne Commerce & Piracy

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  • 0:05 Description of Age of…
  • 1:01 Mapping the New World
  • 2:57 Seaborne Commerce
  • 3:52 Early Privateers
  • 4:40 English Sea Dogs
  • 7:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on the improvement of maps, the growth of seaborne commerce, and the piracy that occurred during the Age of Exploration. It will also highlight the famous Sea Dogs of England.

Description of Age of Exploration

Treasure hunts and pirates still capture the imaginations of children and adults alike. Just take a look at the box office and you'll see this to be true. For some reason, no matter what our age, some of us never get enough of these long-haired villains. Lucky for those of us who like this stuff, it's the topic of today's lesson!

Before we get to the dastardly deeds of these sea scoundrels, let's take a look at the time in which they terrorized the oceans. It was known as the Age of Exploration, a time in which Europe took to the seas looking for wealth and new lands.

With the coming of the Age of Exploration, people began wanting answers about the worlds beyond the 'Green Seas of Darkness.' No longer were they willing to believe the unknown was a place where monsters lived and the sun burned so hot that skin would boil black. They were ready to test the waters!

Mapping the New World

One Renaissance man willing to foot the bill for excursions into the unknown was Prince Henry of Portugal. Henry, known to our world as 'Henry the Navigator,' began the first school of oceanic navigation and also sponsored countless expeditions into the dark seas. Although Henry never actually joined any expeditions, he helped to create maps used by later explorers while also whetting the appetite of all of Europe with the spirit of exploration.

Henry wasn't the only guy playing cartographer, the fancy word for 'mapmaker.' When news reached Europe that the Italian navigator and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci had reported the West Indies were not part of Asia but were in fact a new continent, all of Europe became atwitter.

In the early 1500s, King Ferdinand promoted Vespucci to chief navigator of Spain and commissioned him to begin a school of navigation. In this position, Vespucci strove to improve standard navigation techniques. Being very good at his job, he even developed a fairly primitive but rather accurate method of determining longitude, which advanced European cartography.

While Vespucci was busy with his projects, others were taking his works to a new level. Sometime in the early 1500s, Ringmann and Waldseemuller, two cartographers, produced a new map calling the New World 'America.' On this map, Old World Europe was depicted as most people were accustomed to seeing it; however, the left side of the map now held a strange new continent with the word 'America,' after Amerigo Vespucci, written across it.

With maps beginning to flow freely, Europeans flocked to the seas, looking for wealth along the trade routes of the New World.

Seaborne Commerce

In the early stages of exploration, Spain and Portugal would probably have to share the medal for first place. Shortly after Columbus's first voyages, trading vessels were racing across the seas. Using new and improved maps, these two empires developed a vigorous seaborne trade system.

During this time, the bulk of Spain's wealth came from gold and silver mined from the Americas. However, the Americas also supplied important agricultural products, which helped line the pockets of Spain. While Spain increased her trade with the Americas, she also grew her Oriental and Indian trading franchise.

Oddly, in the first stages of this new seaborne commerce, most of Europe stayed out of Spain and Portugal's way, choosing to cross the Atlantic in the north. In fact, as early as the 1490s, John Cabot discovered the fish-filled waters off the coast of Newfoundland.

Early Privateers

However, fish aren't nearly as exciting as gold, and soon the rest of Europe wanted a piece of Spain's actions. This brings us to piracy!

Some of the first acts of piracy during this era were committed by the French against the Spanish in the waters off the Azores, a group of islands off the coast of Lisbon. During these raids, French privateers, which were basically government-sanctioned pirates, boarded and raided Spanish ships carrying wealth and treasure.

Along with the French, the Dutch got involved with their own breed of privateers, known to history as Sea Beggars. Although these Dutch pirates were a nuisance to Spain, they were nothing compared to the famous Sea Dogs of England, arguably the most skilled pirates of the Age.

English Sea Dogs

In the mid-16th century, John Hawkins emerged as the de facto leader of the English Sea Dogs. Hawkins spent his time at sea raiding Spanish ships across the Caribbean while also dabbling in the African slave trade. After a close call in which several of his fleet's ships were captured and destroyed, Hawkins pulled back a bit from his pirating, making way for his cousin, Sir Francis Drake, to take the reins as England's premier privateer!

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