EXPLORATION AND DISCOVERY BEGINNINGS OF THE EXPANSION OF EUROPE
It was the opinion of Lord Acton, a great English historian, that the discovery of the New World was the greatest landmark in the transition from the Middle Ages to modern times. Certainly the movement of western Europeans beyond the narrow limits of their homelands out to both the East and the West, a movement that began in the fifteenth century, had momentous consequences. In time it led to the penetration of European influence, and in some cases European domination to every continent on the globe. "Europe has held sway on all the continents in succession....Europe has produced a civilisation which is being imitated by the whole world, whilst the converse has never happened."8 But the influence did not all move in one direction, and European life and thought were significantly affected by the outside world.
Why was it that the Europeans imposed their presence on the rest of the world to such an amazing degree? This is one of those historical questions whose fascination is in proportion to our inability to answer any of them, for no definitive answer is possible. The peoples who led the way were neither rich nor numerous, not only by our standards but also by comparison with China, the most powerful, wealthy, and civilized state in the world at the time the great expansion began. The Chinese Empire was a trading empire, regularly sending ships on distant commercial expeditions involving thousands of tons of shipping and thousands of men. The Moslems were, and had long been, engaged in active trade throughout the East. European trade and navigation had, by comparison, been relatively restricted during the Middle Ages.
Though we cannot expect to find the ultimate causes for the European expansion, we can acquaint ourselves with some of the conditions in which it began. In the first place, the movement is associated with a shift in European life from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic seaboard. Leadership in European political and economic life was coming more and more into the hands of Portugal, Spain, France, and England. These nations all had monarchies that were growing in strength, increasing their control over the various classes within the state, and consolidating their hold over the territories subject to them. They all had Atlantic coastlines, and led the way in seeking new trade routes and new lands. The Dutch joined in the race as their political independence grew. These rising states sought a way to counteract the long-standing Italian particularly Venetian monopoly of the eastern trade.
The economic impulse was no doubt dominant, but the missionary aspect was present too. Vasco da Gama was said to have named "Christians and spices" as the objects of his voyage to India. The desire to convert was linked to the crusading zeal, which lived on in the hearts of many Portuguese and Spanish as a legacy of their long conflicts with the Moors. To combine a profitable acquisition of new trade routes with a telling blow against the infidel was a potent combination in urging brave men on to daring enterprises. Nor was the desire to learn more about the world a negligible factor.
The state of technology was adequate to the task. At the start of the fifteenth century, European ships were inferior to those used by Arab and Chinese traders; but the Europeans learned fast, and within two hundred years they were building the best ships in the world. In 1400, European ships, though sometimes quite large, were clumsy. They usually had only one mast, though some larger ships had two or three. They were square-rigged, which limited their movement, and had only one sail to a mast, which meant large sails, difficult to handle. Thus these ships were difficult to maneuver and unsuited for long journeys or adverse winds.
These square-rigged ships, consequently, were not important in the early voyages of discovery. Instead, the Portuguese used a type whose construction they borrowed from Arab merchants, the two-master lateen caravel. The lateen sail was more or less triangular and capable of being adjusted to almost all winds. The Portuguese modified the caravel by combining the square-rig with the lateen sails and adding a mast, or sometimes two. As a result, the advantages of both types of ship were gained and the disadvantages eliminated. The Arab caravels could not attain the size or speed possible to square-rigged ships, but were superior for sailing close to the wind and much more easily steered. The new ships made feasible the long-distance voyages to the Far East and the New World.
Some instruments existed for the use of navigators. Compasses had been used by Europeans at least from the thirteenth century. To ascertain their latitude, sailors found the altitude of the heavenly bodies by means of the astrolabe; the quadrant was invented and used in the fifteenth century. There was no satisfactory means of finding longitude or speed.
The geographical picture of the world with which Europeans started their expansion was a fascinating mixture of fact and fantasy, based on the knowledge of the ancients, especially Ptolemy, as supplemented in the Middle Ages, largely by the Arabs. The spherical nature of the earth had been known as far back as the fifth century B.C., and the Hellenistic geographer Eratosthenes (c.276 c.195 B.C.) had measured the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy. The most influential of the ancient writers on geography, Ptolemy, was active in the first half of the second century A.D. Though his work on astronomy, the Almagest, was widely used by the Arabs, they neglected his Geography, which was not recovered until 1410. Ptolemy's picture of the world contained errors that affected navigation and discovery. He adopted a false estimate of the circumference of the earth, making it about one-sixth too small. He enclosed the Indian Ocean in a continent, which extended from Africa to China, and said that the whole southern hemisphere was too hot for navigation. The Arabs added some ideas of their own, including the belief that the Atlantic, or "Green Sea of Darkness," was unnavigable. This fear, imparted to the European nations, was an obstacle that had to be overcome. In the early Middle Ages, the greatest contributions to an increased knowledge of the world were made by the Vikings, or Norsemen. From around the year 1000 they were active in exploring North America, and their voyages there are recorded until the middle of the fourteenth century. Among Christian travelers in the Middle Ages, the greatest was Marco Polo, a member of the Venetian merchant aristocracy, who spent over twenty years in the East, seventeen of them in the service of Kublai Khan, ruler of the great Mongol Empire in Asia. After Polo's return to Europe in 1295, he wrote a book to describe what he had seen and heard.
Other travelers to the East, both before and after Marco Polo, some merchants and some missionaries, helped to spread a knowledge of Asia among the European reading public. Therefore, much was known about Asia long before the opening of the modern age of discoveries. From the middle of the thirteenth century to the beginning of the fifteenth, Italians, especially Genoese, were leaders in exploring activities, though they were not alone in the work. Italian and Catalan hydrographers drew the portolani, or coast-charts, which contained accurate outlines of the coasts of the Mediterranean and Black Seas, with some charts extending to northern Europe and the northern part of Africa. Genoese sailors reached the Barbary Coast late in the thirteenth century; an Englishman accidentally discovered the Madeira Islands around 1370; a French expedition reached the Canary Islands in 1402. Christian colonies were established in several places in the Canaries. The great age of exploration and discovery was inaugurated by the Portuguese, and the first important figure in the story is Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), a member of the royal family. In 1419, on the coast at Sagres, he built a palace, established his court, and set up a center for exploration. He gathered around himself sailors, astronomers, shipbuilders, mappers, and makers of instruments, and from here he sent out expeditions. His motives were religious, scientific, and patriotic: to carry on the crusade against Islam and spread the Christian faith, to explore the unknown seas and discover new lands, and to contribute to the greatness of his country.
Among his many accomplishments, Henry is best known for the expeditions he sent from 1420 to explore the coast of Africa. These voyages mark the beginning of continuous ocean sailing. In the process the Portuguese began the slave trade. While Henry was interested in the conversion of the captured African natives to Christianity, others were interested only in the profits to be made from them. With the discovery of gold as well, the continued support of African exploration was assured after Henry's death, when men with less noble motives would have to carry on his work. The last of Henry's voyages (though it actually did not take place until after the prince's death) reached a point somewhere on the coast of what is now Liberia. Though others were to go much farther, it was Henry's work that laid the foundation. He is considered the greatest figure in his country's history, just as the voyages to which he gave the decisive impulse are Portugal's most memorable achievement.
After Henry's death, sponsorship of the voyages was undertaken by the kings. Progress continued to be made toward reaching the southern tip of Africa, which was much farther south than was realized. The sailor who finally reached and rounded the southernmost point of the Continent was Bartolomeu Dias, sent out by King John II in 1487 with two ships. Blown off course by a storm in the neighborhood of Walfisch Bay, Dias reached the coast once more and rounded the tip without realizing it. He sailed eastward as far as the Great Fish River, five hundred miles beyond the Cape, when his men refused to go farther. He then turned back, and on the return voyage found that he had rounded the southern tip of Africa. When the king learned this, he changed the name of the cape to Cape of Good Hope (Dias had called it the Cape of Storms). In December 1488, after a voyage of over sixteen months, Dias returned to Lisbon.
In the following year, King John sent out Pro da Covilh by land to find out if it was possible to sail around Africa to the East. He established the fact that it was indeed possible, and became the first Portuguese to reach India. Under Manuel the Fortunate, king since the death of John II in 1495, Vasco da Gama took four Portuguese ships to India. With the help of an excellent Muslim pilot whom he picked up on the way, he reached Calicut on the west coast of India in May 1498, having left Lisbon the preceding July. He managed to acquire a rich cargo of spices at Calicut, with which he returned to Lisbon in September 1499. He had been gone over two years and lost a third of his men, but the Portuguese had attained their great objective, a sea route to India. The Portuguese set out to exploit their new route to eastern spices, but they met an obstacle in the Moslem merchants who largely controlled this trade in the East. There followed a bloody conflict between Portuguese and Moslems, in which the Europeans adopted the most ruthless methods to achieve their objectives.
In 1500, another Portuguese sailor, Cabral, was sent out on the first commercial voyage to India. An unplanned result was the discovery of Brazil. One of his captains, becoming separated from the rest of the fleet in a storm, made other discoveries: the island of Madagascar and Somaliland in Africa. Cabral did reach India, and after his voyage the Portuguese began the practice of sending fleets there annually. The founder of Portuguese supremacy in the East was Albuquerque, who arrived there in 1503. He saw that to secure their interests, the Portuguese would need a permanent fleet in the Indian Ocean, with a naval base, fortresses, and a reserve supply of sailors. With the insight of genius, he chose as base locations Goa, Malacca, Ormuz, and Aden, all of which he took except Aden. From Malacca the Portuguese were able to reach China; one of their ships arrived in Canton in 1513. Eventually they were given permission to have a permanent settlement at Macao and engage in the China trade. They also reached the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, where through treaties with native rulers they were to procure spices. From their new bases they were able to sweep the vessels of the Mohammedans from the seas, block the trade routes to Moslem merchants traveling by land, and dominate the spice trade.
Early in their career as explorers, the Portuguese encountered Spanish rivalry. During the fifteenth century there were numerous disputes between Portugal and Castile involving trade and colonization. A treaty of 1479 granted the Portuguese a monopoly of trade, exploration, and settlement on the West African coast and all the Atlantic islands except the Canaries, which remained Spanish. It was in the West that Spain made important discoveries.
The first of the great discoverers who served the Spanish crown was Christopher Columbus, born in Genoa in 1451. He was a sailor from an early age, acquiring a great deal of maritime experience. He lived for a time in Portugal and later in the Madeira Islands. At some point he began to think seriously of a westward voyage to the Orient. From Toscanelli, a famous geographer, he acquired some wildly inaccurate figures based on Ptolemy on the size of the earth. To compound their misinformation, Columbus and Toscanelli believed that Asia extended far to the east, so that Columbus was finally led to conclude that Japan was about 2,400 nautical miles west of the Canary Islands, whereas the true figure is 10,600, well over four times his estimate.
His attempt to interest the king of Portugal, John II, in sponsoring his venture was a failure; the king turned his proposals over to a commission of experts, who in 1485 rejected them on the perfectly correct basis that Columbus's calculations were unsound. He went to Spain, where years of frustration followed as he endeavored to secure the backing of Queen Isabella. Finally, as he prepared to seek help from Charles VIII of France, Isabella decided to finance his expedition. She and Ferdinand, her husband, even yielded to Columbus's very extravagant demands for titles and offices over the territories that he should discover, as well as a tenth of all gold, silver, and other wealth that he should obtain there. In August of 1492 he set sail with three vessels. On October 12, land was reached; though Columbus thought it was Japan, or Cipangu, it was San Salvador, or Watling Island, in the Bahamas. Exploring the islands, he found Cuba, which he thought was part of China. On what is now Haiti he found gold, which encouraged his belief that he had reached the Orient. He named the island Hispaniola and decided to found a colony there.
On his return, Columbus was forced by bad winds to land in Portugal. The king, John II, learning of the voyage, laid claim to Columbus's discoveries, and the resultant dispute with the Spanish was settled by papal bulls and treaties between the two nations. In 1493, one of the bulls drew a line of demarcation running from north to south a hundred leagues west of the Azores and gave everything west of that line to Spain, while all that lay to the east was to be Portuguese. At the request of John II, this line was shifted to a point 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, thus giving Brazil to the Portuguese. This line was embodied in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Columbus made three more expeditions, in 1493-96, 1498-1500, and 1502-04. He made several more discoveries, and reached the coasts of South America and Central America without ever realizing that he was not in the Orient. His reputation as a great sailor was tarnished by his lack of success as a colonial governor; he was actually sent home in chains from his third voyage. He never received from the king and queen all that they had agreed to give him.
The death of Isabella in 1504 was a blow to his hopes, leaving him at the tender mercies of Ferdinand, a slippery character who could be counted on to do nothing unless he could see his own advantage in it. On the other hand, Columbus was by this time a wealthy man, and it could be argued that some of his demands were exorbitant. What really bothered him most was that he was not treated with the respect that he considered his due; he was a proud and sensitive man. In 1505 he went to court to press his claims. The king might have been willing to be generous if Columbus for his part had been willing to abate his demands. Columbus, however, would not compromise, and in the end received nothing. He was still following the court and hoping for a settlement when he died, obscurely, in 1506. The name America was first used for the new continent in 1507. It was based on the name of Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine who took part in four voyages to Central and South America between 1497 and 1503 in Spanish and later in Portuguese service, and whose writings, widely read, added much to what was known about the New World.
The Spanish did not at first appreciate their new world as much as they coveted a share of the eastern spices, which were being exploited by the Portuguese. It was the Spanish hope that if the line of demarcation were extended around the world at a distance of 180 , some of the Spice Islands would be found on the Spanish side. This hope (which was actually false) impelled King Charles I of Spain (Emperor Charles V) to finance an expedition led by Ferdinand Magellan, a native Portuguese now in Spanish service, who had proposed to reach the Spice Islands by sailing westward, thus avoiding any conflict with Portugal.
Magellan set out with five ships in September 1519. He had to face mutiny, shipwreck, and terrible weather the passage through the straits that now bear his name took thirty-eight days before breaking out into the Pacific. Supplies ran out, and the men were at one point eating rats and leather. Eventually landings were made in some of the Pacific Islands. Magellan himself was killed in the Philippines, having gotten involved in some obscure war between natives. Juan Sebasti n del Cano, left in command, returned with his one remaining ship to Spain in September 1522 after a three-year voyage. It was the first circumnavigation of the world, and one of the greatest of all voyages. Yet it did not do the Spanish much good; the Portuguese retained their dominance in the East, and in 1529, by the Treaty of Saragossa, Charles sold to Portugal his rights in the Moluccas.
Even before the death of Columbus and to his great chagrin other Spanish expeditions were exploring the New World. In the first half of the sixteenth century, Spain laid the foundations of her great empire in the West. The isthmus of Central America was conquered by 1520. In 1513, Balboa marched across it and sighted the Pacific, which he called the South Sea. (Actually a Portuguese had entered the previous year, so that Balboa was not its discoverer.) It was Magellan, a few years later, who gave it the name Pacific.
In 1519 Hernán Cortés sailed with about six hundred men from Cuba to begin the conquest of Mexico. Here the Spaniards found themselves confronted by the rich and, in many ways, advanced civilization of the Aztecs. Taking advantage of discontent among subject peoples unhappy with Aztec rule, Cortés with his small band of men was able to conquer an empire with a population of millions. The chief advantages of the Spanish were the extraordinary courage of Cortés and his men and their superior discipline. Although they had firearms, these seem not to have been a major factor, since they made little use of them and relied chiefly on swords, pikes, and crossbows. By 1521 the Spaniards had succeeded in taking the capital, located on the site of what is now Mexico City, and from there Spanish rule spread out in all directions.
Balboa had heard of a great empire to the south, rich in gold, but he had died before being able to investigate it. This must have been the vast empire of the Incas in Peru, stretching along the Andes from what is now southern Colombia to central Chile, with a population estimated at between six and eight million and, like the Aztecs, a highly developed civilization. It was indeed rich in gold, and in silver as well. This empire was conquered with even fewer men than in Mexico, and the leader was Francisco Pizarro, a disagreeable character of humble origin and no education. He did not succeed in his objective of conquering Peru until his third attempt, after going to Spain and getting the backing of the king, who in 1529 appointed him governor of Peru for life. In 1530 Pizarro, with fewer than two hundred men set out on what was to prove the conquest of Peru. Like Corts, he found a political situation that he could exploit, a war over succession to the throne. Consequently, Pizarro was able to rise to power and wealth. However, the Spanish, having become dominant, began to fight among themselves, ushering in a period of civil war that lasted for nearly twenty years and cost Pizarro his life. Spain finally restored order. In spite of the tumult, towns were established and the political and economic organization of the conquest took place. Lima was founded in 1535, and its university in 1555, the same year as the University of Mexico. These were the two earliest institutions of higher learning in the New World.
From Peru the process of conquest was carried on in many directions. Most of Chile was conquered, Ecuador was penetrated, and Orellana, a lieutenant of Pizarro, in 1541 sailed all the way down the great river that he named the Amazon because he thought he saw women warriors along the banks. Colombia was penetrated and explored. Venezuela (Little Venice) was also acquired; for a while Charles leased it to Germans as security for a loan, until the cruelty of the lessees to the natives caused the cancellation of the grant. In 1535 Buenos Aires was founded, in the search for silver (the name Argentina is based on the Latin word for silver), and Asunción in Paraguay in 1537. The chief motive of the Spaniards was the search for gold and silver, and they pushed their quest into North America as well. There were tales of wonders to be found there, like the Fountain of Youth that Juan Ponce de León sought in Florida. In 1539, Hernando de Soto, governor of Cuba, began to explore inland from Florida with six hundred men. They discovered and crossed the Mississippi; De Soto, who died on the trip, was buried in the river. Coronado, with about a thousand Spaniards and Indians, set out in 1540 to look for the Seven Cities of Cibola, and explored parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Kansas. Others explored the west coast as far north as Oregon.
By the middle of the sixteenth century, Spanish rule was established throughout Central and South America, and the work of governing a colonial empire was under way. To the soldier and the priest was added an official of the crown. The crown established its sovereignty over the conquered territories in spite of resistance from the conquerors, who would have preferred in some cases to remain independent rulers. The Indies, it was decided, were to be regarded as kingdoms under the crown of Castile, administered separately from the Spanish kingdoms and with their own council. The natives, or Indians, were to be regarded as free men, directly under the crown. They were subject to Spanish law and Spanish courts, but their own laws were to be respected when not barbarous or in conflict with Spanish law, and they were not to be deprived of their property.
The colonists were granted encomiendas, a system of tributory labor, which did not include legal jurisdiction over the natives or territorial lordship. They had to pay native laborers according to a wage scale fixed by the government, and, while the natives were subject to forced labor, the compulsion was to be supplied by the legal authorities and not by the colonists. The colonists or grantees (encomenderos) had to perform military service and pay the salaries of parish priests. Over each province was a governor appointed by the crown. These governors were watched carefully to make sure that they could not assert any real independence. Usually their terms were short, and they were checked by their advisory councils, or audiencias, which reported on them to Spain and heard appeals from their decisions. Locally, town councils looked after the interests of the colonists. By the second half of the sixteenth century, the members had come to purchase their offices from the crown and hold them for life. They were not truly representative, but spoke for the local ruling class.
Among the first Spaniards to arrive in the New World were missionaries. Soon churches and monasteries were established, dioceses were set up, and the work of conversion of the natives was undertaken with great vigor, and often with great success. Many natives became devout Christians, even saints; others proved recalcitrant, and some of the priests suffered martyrdom at their hands. But the missionaries met resistance from the colonists, who were determined to exploit the natives for their own benefit. Though the natives were legally free, in practice they were often treated like slaves. There was a terrible decline in the native population. In Cuba, for example, in a twenty-year period the number of natives is estimated to have shrunk from fifty thousand to fourteen thousand; in parts of Mexico, all were wiped out. Had it not been for the church, and the brave priests who spoke out against these abuses, the fate of the Indians would have been even worse. The most famous of these priests was Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566), a Dominican. For many years, Las Casas devoted himself to the attempt to improve the condition of the natives. He preached, persuaded, and wrote, meeting powerful opposition from the vested interests whose wealth and privileges he was attacking. After several trips to Spain, he got the attention of Charles, who issued laws to prevent the injustices that Las Casas had denounced, and made him a bishop. But distances were great, abuses continued, and Las Casas continued to protest. His record as a humanitarian is marred by his willingness to condone the enslavement of black Africans in order to spare the Indians. In time, the Jesuits entered the missionary field, with important results that are discussed elsewhere in this book.
The Spanish and Portuguese could not permanently keep other nations from challenging their asserted monopoly on exploration and discovery, but the other nations started later and their efforts are beyond the scope of this chapter. It might be worthwhile here to mention one early French explorer, Jacques Cartier, who sailed to the New World with the backing of the king, Francis I. His first voyage started in 1534, and he reached Newfoundland, Labrador, and the Gasp Basin. The following year he returned and sailed up the St. Lawrence River until he found his way blocked by rapids at the site of an Indian town, which he renamed Montreal. In 1541, again with royal backing, he came back to Canada. This time he attempted to found a colony on the site of what became Quebec, but failed. He had laid the foundation for the great work of the French in Canada, but the enterprise did not flourish until the following century.