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Early Cultural Interaction, European Exploration

Scandinavian Vikings, unlikely candidates, Italian navigator, Verrazzano, Francisco Pizarro

In the century before Columbus sailed to America, Western Europeans were unlikely candidates for worldwide exploration. The Chinese possessed the wealth and the seafaring skills that would have enabled them to explore, but they had little interest in the world outside of China. The Arabs and other Islamic peoples also possessed wealth and skills. But they expanded into territories that were next to them—and not across uncharted oceans. The Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 and by the 1520s had nearly reached Vienna. These conquests gave them control over the overland trade routes to Asia as well as the sea route through the Persian Gulf. The conquests also gave them an expanding empire to occupy their attention.

Western Europeans, on the other hand, were developing the necessary wealth and technology and a compelling need to explore. A group of new monarchs were making nation-states in Britain and in continental Europe—states with unprecedentedly large treasuries and military establishments. The population of Western European nations was growing, providing a tax base and a labor force for new classes of large landholders. These “elites” provided markets for goods that were available only through trade with Asia. When the expansion of Islam gave control of eastern trade routes to Islamic middlemen, Western Europeans had strong incentives to find other ways to get to Asia.

They were also developing sailing technology and knowledge of currents and winds to travel long distances on the open sea. The Portuguese led the way. They copied and improved upon the designs of Arab sailing ships and learned to mount cannons on those ships. In the 15th century they began exploring the west coast of Africa—bypassing Arab merchants to trade directly for African gold and slaves. They also colonized the Madeira Islands, the Azores, and the Cape Verde Islands and turned them into the first European slave plantations.

The European explorers were all looking for an ocean route to Asia. Christopher Columbus sailed for the monarchs of Spain in 1492. He used the familiar prevailing winds to the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa, and then sailed on. In about two months he landed in the Caribbean on an island in the Bahamas, thinking he had reached the East Indies. Columbus made three more voyages. He died in 1506, still believing that he had discovered a water route to Asia.

The Spanish investigated further. Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci sailed to the northern coast of South America in 1499 and pronounced the land a new continent. European mapmakers named it America in his honor. Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and in 1513 became the first of the European explorers of America to see the Pacific Ocean. That same year another Spaniard, Juan Ponce de Leon, explored the Bahamas and Florida in search of the fountain of youth.

The first European voyages to the northern coast of America were old and forgotten: The Norsemen (Scandinavian Vikings) sailed from Greenland and stayed in Newfoundland for a time around 1000. Some scholars argue that European fishermen had discovered the fishing waters off eastern Canada by 1480. But the first recorded voyage was made by John Cabot, an Italian navigator in the service of England, who sailed from England to Newfoundland in 1497. Giovanni da Verrazzano, in 1524, and Jacques Cartier, in 1534, explored nearly the whole Atlantic coast of the present United States for France. By that time, Europeans had scouted the American coast from Newfoundland to Brazil. While they continued to look for shortcuts to Asia, Europeans began to think of America for its own sake. Spain again led the way: Hernan Cortes invaded Mexico in 1519, and Francisco Pizarro did the same in Peru in 1532—nearly a full century before English or French colonization began.

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