This lesson will focus on the Age of Exploration. It will explain the main reasons why Europeans explored the New World. It will highlight their spirit of adventure, the religious desire to see natives converted, and the chance to acquire wealth.
Reasons for Exploration
The mid-to-late 15th century is known to history as the Age of Exploration, the time in which Europeans dared to venture beyond the coastal waters of Old World Europe to the new world of the Americas. It was an era when Spanish and Portuguese ships led the way but were soon followed by the French, the British, and the Dutch.
Today, as we delve into this Age of Exploration, we'll discuss three reasons why Europe took to the seas. They are the spirit of adventure, the religious desire to save souls, and, of course, wealth! When we're finished, it'll be up to you decide which title fits best: the Age of Exploration or the Age of Exploitation.
Spirit of Adventure
Let's take a look at our first reason for exploration, the spirit of adventure. The Age of Exploration overlapped the Renaissance, a time when people traded in the silly superstitions of medieval times for the excitement of experiencing and observing. With this, people began wanting answers about the world 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. With no pun intended, they were ready to test the waters!
One Renaissance man willing to risk his life - well, not really his own life, mind you, but the lives of the guys he sent out - 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 create maps used by later explorers while also whetting the appetite of all Europe with the spirit of adventure.
This brings us to our next reason for exploration - the religious desire to save souls. Just like during the Crusades, in which Christian Europe tried to reclaim the Holy Lands, the monarchs of Europe still desired to spread Christianity. When it comes to the desire to save souls, the journals of Christopher Columbus speak for themselves. As he wrote to his financial backers, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain: 'As Catholic Christians, and princes who love and promote the holy Christian faith, and are enemies of infidels, idolatry, and all heresy, you have determined to send me to India. There I will see these new people, learn of their ways, and find the proper way to commit them to our holy faith!'
Kino of Italy was a Catholic priest who also expressed the desire to save native souls. He wrote: 'Thousands will be gathered into the heart of our sweet, most holy, Mother Church.'
Desire for Wealth
Although this all sounds very benign, let's let Columbus introduce our last reason for exploration, wealth. Take a listen to another of his paraphrased quotes: 'But in truth, should I meet with great quantities of gold or spices, I'll remain till I collect as much as possible, and for this purpose I am proceeding SOLELY in the quest of them.' Without a doubt, wealth was a huge objective in exploration of the New World, so let's dig a little bit deeper.
At the time of exploration, Western Europe was enthralled with the wealth of the Far East brought home by European soldiers returning from the Crusades. In their minds, the spices (which Europe used to cure meats) and the luxury of silk flowed like milk and honey in the lands of the East. If only there were a faster way to get there! Enter Christopher Columbus, who thought he had found just that. Once Europe finally realized Columbus had tripped upon a 'New World,' or as the Europeans soon came to call it, the Mundus Novus, the desire for spices was joined by the desire for gold.
In all fairness to Columbus, he wasn't the only guy with his sights set on riches. During his time, a nation's wealth was determined mainly by how much gold they had in their coffers. As Old Worlders heard tales of the New World's cities of gold, all of Europe became atwitter. The Spanish explorers De Soto, who explored Florida, and Coronado, who explored the areas of New Mexico, were just a few who sought after the legendary cities full of gold. Although the cities remained elusive, gold itself was found and quickly exported back to Europe. Some estimates purport over seven million ounces were taken from the Americas between 1580 and 1596.
Fortunately for Europe but not so much for the Americas, the New World also offered lands and crops. Nicolas Le Challeux, a Frenchman, came to the New World craving land for his homeland. However, France wasn't alone in its need for space and natural resources. Competition in Europe was fierce, while land was limited. Most of Europe jumped on this bandwagon, taking over land, growing crops, and exporting gold from the Americas.
Since this all might be sounding a bit one-sided, we should probably discuss the positive things Europe brought to the New World. While Europeans returned home with new crops, like maize, potatoes, and tomatoes, they introduced horses, pigs, and other domesticated livestock to the New World. This exchange of goods between the Old and New Worlds is known as the Columbian Exchange or the Grand Exchange. Sadly, this exchange also included smallpox and several other infectious diseases brought to the New World - all in all, not a very grand trade. Add to this that Columbus' second voyage saw the enslavement of several hundred natives and it's not hard to see why many choose the title 'Age of Exploitation.' Again, Columbus' words read, paraphrased: 'The people here are very unskilled in arms. With only 50 men they could all be subjected to do all that one wished!'
As history looks back at the Age of Exploration, wealth seems to win first place as its main catalyst. However, it can't be denied that the desire to save souls also played a role - perhaps a twisted role, but a role all the same. European explorers were also motivated by the simple spirit of adventure inherited from the curious age of the Renaissance.
Regardless of the reasons or motivations, the Age of Exploration changed the face of the globe. It opened up new trade routes, increased European wealth, and forever changed the Americas. Whether for better or for worse, that's for you to decide. Was it the Age of Exploration or the Age of Exploitation?
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- List the three main reasons Europeans started traveling to America in the 15th century
- Explain why wealth seemed to be the biggest motivator and identify some of the explorers who sought it in the New World
- Describe the Columbian Exchange
- Understand why the Age of Exploration is sometimes called the Age of Exploitation