The Age of Exploration

This was a period of time when a number of different forces inspired Europeans to venture into the unknown, to discover new trade routes, new lands, new groups of people.

What motivated Europeans to go on voyages of discovery? You can see from the map that they knew little of the world outside Europe.
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THE BACKGROUND TO THE AGE OF Exploration – how it developed

Life in the Middle Ages
· In the early Middle Ages most people were subsistence farmers who knew very little of life outside their village.
· By 1100 most European countries were reasonably settled. Trade between European countries began to flourish.

The impact of the Crusade on trade routes
· In the 11th century the Seljuk Turks conquered Palestine and would not allow Christians to visit the Holy Land. As a result Pope Urban II launched the Crusades which failed to change the situation.
· The Crusades were important for other reasons, because the Crusaders came into contact with Muslims who were more advanced than the Europeans in areas such as medicine, mathematics, science, and geography.
· Arab explorers had travelled as far as China by 850 AD and had trading routes to India and China.
· After the Crusades European merchants travelled to places like Constantinople to buy goods from Arab traders who came back from the East. These goods included spices, silks, sugar, precious stones, dyes for cloth and exotic carpets, all regarded as exotic in those times.
· At a time when there was no refrigeration, spices in particular were in great demand as they covered up the unpleasant taste of meat which had been poorly preserved in salt.

The China Trade
· By 1200 European merchants were making their own way to China overland. The Mongolian leader, Genghis Khan, who had conquered China, encouraged merchants from other countries to trade and travel within the large Mongolian Empire.
· The most famous European trader to visit China was Marco Polo. His tales encouraged others to travel east overland.

Far-fetched travel stories which encouraged superstitions
· Sometimes travellers’ tales were exaggerated and this prevented European sailors from exploring further because fear of the unknown, such as
- Andaman Islanders were described as having heads like dogs
- horrible monsters and hideous humans inhabited unexplored territory
- uncharted seas were full of dragons which devoured ships.
- seas near the equator boiled and the sun burned men black.
- the earth was flat and if one sailed too close to the edge one could fall off.

  • They knew little about the seas they were exploring or the lands they were trying to discover
  • Maps at that time were of little use. Religious mapmakers customarily showed Jerusalem as the centre of the world.

The situation by the 1400s
· Some people began to think it was possible to reach the Indies by sea but they did not have the navigational knowledge nor suitable ships.
· In the mid-1400s things changed:
- the Mongol Empire collapsed making overland travel to China dangerous
- Constantinople, on the most important trade route into Europe from the east, was finally captured by the Ottoman Turks. Any trading concessions granted to European merchants was now in favour of the Turks and traders were disadvantaged.


The Solution to the Problem of closed trade routes.

· A sea route from western Europe to the Indies had to be found, and suitable ships had to be designed and built for the voyage.
· The lead in the search for a new route was taken by Portugal, which was ideally suited for coastal exploration. Portuguese sailors were used to sailing in the rough waters of the Atlantic.
· Portugal also had a far-sighted, enthusiastic prince (the third son of the King John I) who recognised the opportunity to make Portugal a major European power. Prince Henry (the Navigator) was a very important facilitator of all things naval in Portugal.

The First Portuguese Explorers