What Were the Reasons Behind European Exploration?

The reasons behind the so-called European “Age of Exploration” included scouting for trade routes, investigating foreign lands and acquiring wealth. Many explorers were also looking for adventure, spurred on by tales of the earlier Viking expeditions to the New World.

Three major developments in Europe made such exploration possible. The first was the Protestant Reformation, a religious movement characterized by direct, individual relationships with God. Coupled with other cultural developments, such as the Renaissance and its emphasis on self-determination, this laid a strong ideological foundation for exploratory expeditions abroad.

The second development was the consolidation of power within European countries, allowing funds that were previously spent on domestic power struggles to be spent on exploration instead. Columbus’s sponsors, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, for example, had recently defeated the Moors.

The third development was technological; the inventions of the astrolabe and magnetic compass were invaluable for reliable navigation, and a new type of ship, the caravel, allowed for greater speeds and therefore shorter, more efficient voyages.

Like other explorers of the time, many of whom sought to find a shipping route to India, Christopher Columbus wanted to sail to the East via the West. When he reached the Bahamas, he imagined that Japan was close and, upon landing in Cuba, that he had reached China. The term “Indian” (as in, native of the Indian Ocean region) was applied to the people he encountered because of this error.