The Old World and New World: Why Europeans Sailed to the Americas

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  • 0:05 Reasons for Exploration
  • 0:51 Spirit of Adventure
  • 1:56 Saving Souls
  • 2:55 Desire for Wealth
  • 6:15 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 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.

Saving Souls

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.

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