Why Did Europeans Expand Into America, Africa and Asia Between 1415 and 1715?

During the sixteenth century expansion became a key theme across the face of Early Modern Europe; this caused the sixteenth century to acquire the retrospective name of the Age of Expansion or Age of Discovery. According to the historian Richard Mackenney the cause of European expansion during this period can be explained in terms of three major symptoms: overseas discovery, population growth and price inflation all of which are tied together in a complex multiplicity making in difficult to isolate one symptom from the others. Alongside these three key factors is another two factors, Emperor Charles Habsburg’s (Charles V) call for expansion of Christendom by converting the natives of the New World and the desire for economic power through monopolising on the trading of specific commodities, mainly spices although this also including fabrics, foodstuffs, basic resources and curiosities.

Exploration had not been an entirely new concept to the world of Early Modern Europe. During the Middle Ages exploration had been overland and eastward, mostly dominated by tales of the Italian Marco Polo and his establishment of embassies with trading posts such as Constantinople and Samarkand along the illustrious Silk Road, which stretched all the way from Venice to China via Asia Minor, Persia and India. Come the turn of the fifteenth century, due to the advent of new navigational science replacing the dated classical geography of Ptolemy, discovery turned westward towards yet to be discovered America and south into what Ptolemy had called on his maps terra incognita, or lands unknown, which turned out to be the unchartered regions of Africa. Both these directions of exploration were partly in search of a viable sea-route in the Orient in order to break Venice’s iron-grip on the import of spices, silks and others goods from Africa and Asia. These projects were heavily dominated by Portugal and Spain since France was currently busy dealing with conflicts of both internal and external nature, Italy content with its monopoly over the Mediterranean sea-routes and imports brought in from the Silk Road and convinced that no other viable route were possible decided to sit out of overseas expansion. Finally the powers of England and the Netherlands attempts failed until the seventeenth century when they rose up to take over where Portugal and Spain were beginning to falter through lack of resources.

In 1415 Portugal captured the Moroccan city of Ceuta under King John I providing a strong post for exploration along the unknown African west coast, the promise of fame and fortune for being the first to chart the terra incognita filled King John’s son Henry with “inspiration which was to mould his whole life” , this venture was about to take Henry “down the African coast, even around Africa to India” via the Portugal’s discovery of the Cape of Good Hope. However whilst in Ceuta Henry learned from Moroccan Muslims about the riches waiting along the Gold Coast, ripe and ready, for whoever was first to discover them, thus Henry’s voyages were not entirely based on finding fame through discovery and exploration but partly on for gaining his nation financial benefits. By 1500 Portugal had also begun to turn its eye westward across the Atlantic to see what lay beyond the unknown waters and during this year, after hearing tales of the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus, Portugal sent several fleets in search of new lands and to Portugal’s success soon arrived upon Brazilian shores discovering the Incan Empire. Although this provoked disagreement with Spanish explorers who under the conquistador Hernando Cortés had worked south from Yucatan to conquer Peru, a disagreement that was settled by the Treaty of Tordesillas which declared that all lands further than “370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands” belonged to Portugal and everything less belonged to Spain. Fernão de Magalhães (Ferdinand Magellan) envisioned a way to reach the Moluccas faster than Portugal’s route via the Cape of Good Hope by venturing west beyond the Americas. Magellan took his proposal to Emperor Charles V who held the Spanish throne after the death of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Magellan voyage was perilous and led to his death having got caught up in a local dispute in the Philippines, his remaining crew decided against returning by the same route and opted for taking the better known but risky Portuguese guarded route around Africa. This gave Magellan his title as being the first man to circumnavigate the globe, and revolutionised cartography so that maps fell more in line with those of today

As Prince Henry held the true Christian conquistador spirit there was a third element to his African voyages “he [Henry] wanted to deal a body-blow to Islam” and expand the Christian Empire across the new found lands. Henry thought this could be achieved if he was able to capture the Orient and the Realm of Prester John, also known as Abyssinia. Holding these lands would have the Islamic Empire trapped in a pincer movement, surrounded by the Holy Roman Empire to the west and the Portuguese Empire to the south and east. Henry’s plans for a crusade against Islam looked promising as Portuguese missionaries managed to establish Christianity into the lands south of Congo in 1491 and later on captured Mozambique, which gave Portugal a firm position against Muslim fleets sailing in from the north and providing Portugal with a port of call on way to India. After King Ferdinand died in 1503 the Trastamara came to an end handed the Spanish Throne over to the Habsburgs, which Emperor Charles V gladly received. With Charles now at the throne Spanish exploration took a new flavour, eager to expand Christendom as far as possible Charles took advantage of Spain’s 700 year old tradition of crusading against Islam and used Spanish conquistadores to sail westward into the Americas. One of the key figures in Charles’ religious expansion in America was Hernando Cortés who arrived in Yucatan in 1519 where Cortés alongside Spanish missionaries began installing the Christian doctrine and Christian education and expanding the Spanish-Habsburg Empire south through the Aztec Empire until he reached Peru where expansion came to a halt having bumped into Portuguese explorers, Spanish expansion had to end here due to the 1493 Treaty to Tordesillas, which was drawn up the Pope Alexander VI as a way to ‘fairly’ divide the Americas between Portugal and Spain.

From the sixteenth century the population of the European powers began to boom, this was not helped by the Portuguese who having “claimed Madeira (1420), the Azores (1439), and the Cape Verde Islands (1460s)” were importing slaves back home where they were to receive a Christian education, in hope of converting them, and eventually become recognised as Portuguese citizens. In 1500 the combined population of Spain and Portugal was 9.3 million, 7 million of which were Spanish citizens, with Italy having 10.5 million citizens, Germany 12 million, France 16.4 and England putting forward another 4.4 million to the total population of these five major European powers . A century later the population of these six countries had risen significantly from somewhere in the region of 21.7% to 23.4% bringing the total population of western Europe (not taking into account the United Provinces or other small nations) up to approximately 64.5 million, with one third belonging to Germany. This boom in the population put pressure on the limited resources Europe could provide especially with a trend of poor harvests between 1526 and 1580 which plagued Europe causing inflation to such a point where in some areas such as Vivarias “breed was unobtainable at any price and local people were forced to eat acorns” and even in prosperous Venice “there almost certainly were not enough working days in the year to enable a builder’s journeyman to buy sufficient bread for a family of four” . Not just foodstuffs but also other basic resources, such as timber, leather and wool were falling into short supply adding to the problem of inflation and creating extra urgency for nations to seek new suppliers from overseas in order to maintain their empires back home and keep the people at peace, this was one problem Germany found difficult since famine had led to a peasants revolt in 1525 as well as a rise in fatal diseases such as bubonic plague, pneumonia and septicaemia. Another contributing factor to European inflation was the surge of gold and silver being brought in by Spain and Portugal during their economic exploitation of the newly discovered lands.

One prominent factor behind Europe’s overseas ventures, and one that tainted each of the four powers which took to the seas, was the promise of economic power through conquering important sea-routes and commodity markets. The capture of Ceuta gave Portugal an opportunity to break into African trade routes granting them access to commodities that would otherwise have to pass through Venice and the Ottoman Empire who would impose tariffs on all passing trade. Prince Henry saw this opportunity and used it as a means to obtain rare commodities at a cheaper rate than overland routes were charging. In 1485 “Castile was in financial trouble due to its ongoing struggle against the Iberian Muslims” so when Christopher Columbus, having been previously turned down by England, France and Portugal, put forward his proposal that he could navigate a viable trade route to the Indies by crossing the Atlantic, allowing Spain to conquer the thriving spice-market, Spain decided to support Columbus by supplying him with ninety men and three ships which later departed from Palos on the August 2nd 1492, it was Columbus’ three voyages to the Americas which allowed Spain to secure a stable revenue for its declining treasury. Columbus’ ventures also provided Spain with slaves which were used to establish an overseas Empire “that could rival its Iberian neighbour” . In the later half of the sixteenth century England started to seek trade via the seas after Englishman Anthony Jenkinson had obtained “privileges of trade” within the Ottoman Empire during an interview with the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and letters of recommendation from Tsar Ivan the Terrible of Russia, these letters and privilages allowed England access into an exclusive group in which only members were able to trade along Volga and in the Caspian sea, it was within these waters that Jenkinson sealed a deal with Persian Governor Abdullah Khan whereby English wool would be exchanged for Persian silk. Towards the end of the sixteenth century late arrivals the Dutch entered the seafaring scene sending three fleets along the northeast passage down the Volga into Asia, two fleets across the Atlantic to the Americas and several vessels down the southeast route through the Cape of Good Hope to India in order to establish embassies overseas so that the Dutch could join in with Portugal, Spain and England in exploiting lucrative trading posts.

To conclude it is possible to break down the reasons behind Europe’s overseas expansion during the years 1415-1715 into four symptoms: the acquisition of fame through discovery, the expansion of Christendom through crusades, the urgency for basic resources brought on by population pressure, and finally the desire for wealth and economic power. However each of these symptoms are not entirely independent since Spain’s importing of silver from America spurred inflation which contributed to the need for cheap basic resources, as Portugal’s importing of African slaves contribute to the population pressure. Also Prince Henry The Navigator’s voyages were composed of several factors including the economic, religious and explorative. It is only with England and the Dutch that it becomes clearer as to the incentives for their voyages as both powers journeys to these exotic lands were based solely on economic grounds.

• Brotton. J, ‘The Renaissance a Very Short Introduction’, Oxford University Press, 2006
• Mackenney. R, ‘Sixteenth Century Europe: Expansion and Conflict’, Macmillan, 1993
• Maczak. A, ‘Travel in Early Modern Europe’, Polity Press, 1995
• Mols. R, ‘Population in Europe, 1500-1700’, Fontana, 1972
• Penrose. B, ‘Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance 1420-1620’, Harvard University Press, 1963
• Raudzens. G, ‘Military Revolution or Maritime Evolution? Military Superiorities or Transportation Advantages as Main Causes of European Colonial Conquests to 1788’, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 63, No. 3 (July 1999), pp. 631-641
• Global population statistics for year 1500 http://www.worldmapper.org/posters/worldmapper_map8_ver5.pdf (accessed at 23:36 28/02/2009)
• European population statistics for year 1600 http://www.enotes.com/peoples-chronology/year-1600/population (accessed at 23:47 26/02/2009)
• Gastaldi’s 1546 Universale Map of the World http://lazarus.elte.hu/~zoltorok/Cartartweb/gastaldi_col.jpg (accessed at 23:27 26/02/2009)
• Ptolemy’s World Map http://www.bl.uk/learning/images/mappinghist/ptolemy-lg.jpg (accessed at 22:57 26/02/2009)


Posted on March 2, 2011, in historical and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. This was helpful to me. Thanks

  2. Thanks yo

  3. Many thanks for this. Admittedly my research into the field is limited however I shall look into further materials to re-write this post in the future.

  1. Pingback: The European Conquest in the Americas « Humanities II – World History

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