During the 15th century, European traders began searching for a new water route to Asia. These merchants were interested in trading and purchasing goods like silk, spices, and precious metals from Asia and India. The existing routes were treacherous and dangerous, so traders believed that if they could find a safer route over water, they could import more items from the East. Along the way, they made some discoveries that changed the world as they knew it.
Discovering the Treasures of the East
In the late 13th and early 14th century, Italian explorer Marco Polo made extensive travels to the East, including what is now China and Mongolia. Along his travels, he learned about the wealth of exotic goods that this area had to offer, from silks and spices to new foods and ideas.
Polo wrote extensively about his travels and what he discovered during his years abroad. Polo’s book Travels became an inspiration for would-be traders and explorers for generations to come. Christopher Columbus reportedly carried a copy of that book with him on his journey that would eventually take him to the Americas.
Problems Along the Existing Trade Routes
The routes that traders had used before exploring the seas were fraught with danger. The overland routes involved terrain that was unforgiving and dangerous, and merchants couldn’t trust that they would always be safe.
Ottoman Turks controlled much of the land routes to the East, and they initially charged exorbitant taxes for traders to get through. Eventually they blocked access altogether. Venetians controlled much of the Mediterranean routes, and they made travel in that area difficult.
An Easier Way to the East
As time went on, merchants and traders believed that they could find an easier route to the East that could save time, avoid Turk-controlled lands, and ensure safety. Portuguese explorers began sailing around the coast of Africa looking for a better way to Asia. By 1498, Vasco de Gama made his way to India by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope and northeast from there.
Italian-born explorer Christopher Columbus became fascinated by a theory that one could sail west and find a way to India and Asia. He searched for backers to finance his journey, and Spanish monarchs King Ferdiand and Queen Isabella were willing to fund his attempts. He didn’t make it all the way to Asia, but Columbus and his crew made another world-changing discovery.
The New World
Christopher Columbus set sail toward the west with a crew and three ships in August 1492. He first landed in the Bahamas a few weeks later and thought he had landed in Japan. He explored as far as Cuba and Haiti, convinced that he had found Asia. He brought back many strange, new delights—items like coconut, potatoes, and sweet corn, for example, but he and his crew didn’t find gold or silver.
Subsequent journeys continued to convince Columbus that he had found his way to Asia, but further explorers realized that what Columbus had happened upon was indeed a “New World.”
Territorial Disputes and a New Name
After Columbus had journeyed to the New World and claimed it for Spain, the Portuguese became angry and claimed that Columbus had actually discovered territories that belonged to their nation. They took their claim to the Vatican, and while Pope Alexander II sided with Spain, the two countries signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, which delineated the boundaries of the two empires.
Meanwhile, another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, claimed that he landed in the New World before Columbus, which led to German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller giving the New World a name: America.
After Columbus, more explorers made their way to America under the Spanish flag. Juan Ponce de León traveled throughout what is now Florida, but other explorers went further. Vasco Núñez de Balboa made his way to the Pacific Ocean through Panama, while Ferdinand Magellan sailed around the coast of South America and became the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe.
Other Spanish explorers like Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro traveled through Mexico, Central America, and South America and helped establish the vast empire that allowed Spain to become the dominant international power for a time.
The Checkered Legacy of Exploration
Brave European explorers risked their lives to find a new route to Asia, but their journeys revealed something more than they expected—the New World. The discovery of the Americas paved the way for more settlers, including British and French pioneers, to make their home in the New World.
However, claims abound that these explorers treated the inhabitants of this “New” World badly. According to historians, they brought new diseases which devastated indigenous people throughout the Americas, and they abused and exploited the native population out of both cruelty and greed. So while we can still appreciate the achievements of the legendary explorers who braved large oceans to widen their world, it’s important to also understand the cost to those who inhabited America first.