Antigua, an island in the West Indies, was not reached by Columbus on any of his voyages to the New World; photo credit Miller.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, European mastery of certain technological innovation (compass, astrolabe, ship-building, weaponry) allowed Europeans to sail the open oceans, without having to follow coastlines. It was not long before Europeans had ventured far, far abroad and established a presence around the world.
European contact with non-European societies took many different forms. In Central and South America, the European presence meant the extermination of native societies; while in China, Europeans traded with a much more advanced society. True, it was not long before Europeans were able to dominate much of the world, largely with the help of gunpowder. The European age of exploration and expansion also fueled the dynamic economy of Europe and promoted the evolution of capitalism. The discoveries would lead to profound changes in European society and economy.
Suddenly, in the fifteenth century, Europe was confronted by the stark fact that it was not the only civilization in the world. In fact, some societies, such as in China, had reached intellectual and economic heights that were unimaginable to Europeans. For the first time the western church also had to acknowledge the existence of other religions. However, the adjustment required by Europe and the church did not come easily, and in many cases a very crude chauvinistic attitude developed.
The Age of Exploration ran simultaneously with the Renaissance and Reformation, and the three movements serve as the dividing line between the Middle Ages and the Modern world. While Michelangelo was reviewing his painting of the Sistine Chapel and Luther was tacking up his 95 Theses, Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) was preparing to set sail for his trip around the world.
The great age of discovery and exploration is usually framed by these two events:
There are many reasons/motives for the overseas explorations:
The Spanish and Portuguese empires were very different. Portugal largely controlled territory through its trading outposts, while Spain actually set up a "plantation" structure, Portugal, largely conducted through trading, Spain actually set up "plantations" (encomienda) relying on tribute and forced labor.
Finally, one important effect of the discoveries was to increase the likelihood that European powers were going to go to war. While there were plenty of issues in Europe itself, the overseas scramble for empires created another source of friction that could (and would) lead to war.
Some recommended online lectures and websites:
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