After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, many European societies turned inward for centuries and had limited contact with non-Europeans. Asian civilizations dominated global trade, commerce, and knowledge exchange during that time. However, by the 15th century, Europe experienced a Renaissance as new ideas and technology revolutionized European society. Europeans used new knowledge and technology to expand across the oceans. By the 19th century, Europeans or their descendants controlled nearly all of the earth’s landmass and global commerce.
European Monarchs Supported Maritime Explorations
European monarchs and states supported maritime exploration and conquest because it made them and their kingdoms more powerful.
European monarchs and states provided political, economic, and cultural support in the 15th and 16th centuries to establish new trade routes with Asia.
Kingdoms and royal families that supported maritime exploration:
The Netherlands (Dutch)
Reasons monarchs supported maritime exploration
European monarchs supported maritime exploration and the hunt for new trading routes because it benefited their power and strengthened their kingdoms.
Reason 1: competition
Western Europe is geographically small. During this period, the different kingdoms in the region engaged in intense competition for resources and influence on the continent. Maritime exploration and expansion increased monarchs’ power and prestige within Europe.
Reason 2: foreign trade monopolies
The Islamic Ottoman Empire and the Italian city-states controlled the trade of eastern goods in Western Europe. To bypass those monopolies, European monarchs sought new maritime trade routes directly connecting them with Asian traders.
Reason 3: resources and raw materials
Resources plundered from stolen native lands became immense sources of wealth for European states. Spanish wealth plundered and stolen from the Aztec and Inca civilizations made Spain the wealthiest kingdom in Europe and inspired other European monarchs to seek wealth in new lands.
Reason 4: tax revenue
Increased trade resulted in new sources of tax revenue—the money allowed European monarchs to invest in building more powerful militaries.
Throughout history, rulers have supported trade and commerce for the tax revenue it provides. Confucian China saw trade and merchant activity as dirty work because merchants did not produce anything themselves but made money off the hard work of other people. However, Chinese leaders did not suppress merchant activity because the Chinese state needed the tax revenue it provided.
Types of support provided by European monarchs to exploration
European monarchs provided various types of support for early maritime explorations and trade.
Gave direct financial support: Monarchs paid for many early explorations. The Portuguese financed the voyage of Bartolomeu Dias (1450 – 1500), who sailed to the tip of Southern Africa. When Christopher Columbus could not secure funding from the Portuguese monarchs, he went to Spain, where Queen Isabela and King Ferdinand agreed to finance his quest to access Asian markets by going west.
Supported pro-commerce laws: Maritime exploration and commerce were risky and expensive—merchants died on their journeys, pirates stole cargo, and weather shipwrecked many vessels. Decreasing these risks and expanding private money available to invest in trade was essential for encouraging more trade.
- In the 16th century, European monarchs began passing laws that expanded private property rights that helped protect merchant profits. Monarchs also supported new laws that made banking and commerce more available. Increased banking made storing and moving business profits easier.
- Stock markets, which allowed investors to invest in trading missions, began operating in the early 17th These markets increased the amount of private money available for financing trading missions. The first stock market opened in Amsterdam and was partially responsible for helping the Dutch become the center of European trade in the 16th century.
Supported mercantilist economic policies: European monarchs adopted mercantilist economic policies. Mercantilism was a theory that wealth was gained when an economy accumulated a positive trade balance (selling more goods to economies than buying from outside economies). European colonies were essential components of mercantilist systems because colonies became extensions of their mother countries’ economies. Colonies provided sources of raw materials to European mother countries without having to buy from other nations. Colonies also provided markets to sell finished goods made in the mother country.
Granted monopolies to trading companies: Trading monopolies were companies given the legal right to control trade and the supply of goods into and out of specific global regions. The idea behind trading monopolies was that because early ocean exploration and commerce were expensive and risky, allowing companies to hold trading monopolies would ensure profits for investors by limiting competition. The most famous trading company in history is the British East India Company, which was the only British company allowed to trade in South Asia. The Dutch, English, and French also had trading companies that operated in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
Political and legal support
Granted legal control over foreign lands: Monarchs gave colonists and traders control over the foreign lands they claimed. The Portuguese and Spanish granted lands to colonists and merchants throughout Latin America. The Dutch, French, and English did the same in North America. Monarchs also gave entire regions the size of modern countries to private businesses to run for profit. Until the mid-18th century, British monarchs granted control over large portions of South Asia and India to the British East India Company. The Dutch monarchy gave control of the Indonesian spice islands to the Dutch East India Company. It did not matter to Europeans that these were stolen lands and not theirs to give. It was a classic case of might makes right.
Justified exploration and conquest with religion: Monarchs also supported exploration and conquest as necessary to spread the Christian gospels and words of Christ. Rulers claimed to have been chosen by god, so it was easy to claim that god worked through decisions to spread Christianity. Claims of divine intervention and religious approval became cover and justification for the theft, conquest, and murder committed against native peoples.
Maritime explorers searched for direct connections to Asia
European maritime explorations resulted in Europeans engaging directly in Asian trade as well as coming into contact with the indigenous societies of the Americas.
With the financial support of western and northern European monarchs, the European Age of Discovery lasted from the late 15th to the early 17th century.
Portugal and Spain led the way
Access to the newest nautical science and technology allowed Portugal and Spain to be the earliest European states to explore non-European coastlines.
The Portuguese royal family supported the earliest European maritime expeditions.
Prince Henry the Navigator: Portuguese Prince Henry (1394 – 1460) used his wealth to sponsor early European voyages to the west coast of Africa. Henry was an early believer that maritime explorations would make Portugal powerful in Europe. Henry used his wealth to sponsor trips along the west coast of Africa to conquer portions of the coastline, spread Christianity, establish new trading relationships, and gain access to the region’s resources. Henry and the scholars and explorers in his social network developed more accurate maps, lateen sail caravels, and an updated version of the mariner’s astrolabe.
Vasco da Gama: Vasco da Gama (1460s – 1524) was a Portuguese explorer and the first European to reach India by sea. His first journey left Portugal in 1497 and went south around the Cape of Good Hope in Southern Africa before crossing the Indian Ocean. Da Gama took two other trips to India, dying in the city of Cochin on Christmas Eve in 1524 on his third journey.
Alfonso de Albuquerque: Alfonso de Albuquerque (c. 1453 – 1515) was a Portuguese military commander and political leader who helped build and lead Portugal’s Asian trading empire. In the early 16th century, he led the Portuguese forces in numerous battles, including the conquest of Goa, India, in 1510 and the capture of Malacca in 1511. Later in life, he became the governor of Portuguese India.
A few decades before the Portuguese began their explorations of the African coast, Chinese mariner Zheng He undertook his even explorations between 1405 and 1433. His expeditions took him as far as the coast of West Africa.
Not long after their Portuguese neighbors, Spanish monarchs began supporting maritime explorations.
Christopher Columbus: Queen Isabella (1451 – 1504) and King Ferdinand (1452 – 1516) provided financial support for the voyages of Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506), who sought a western route to the spice islands in Asia. While Columbus’ voyages rediscovered the Americas for the Europeans, Columbus did not reach the spice markets of Asia but the Americas.
Amerigo Vespucci: Amerigo Vespucci (1454 – 1512) was an Italian who sailed for the Portuguese and the Spanish. Vespucci reached the coast of North America sometime between 1497 and 1499 on one of his first two voyages to the Americas. Vespucci published several writings upon his return to Europe. In these writings, he argued that Portuguese and Spanish expeditions had not made it to Asia but had discovered a new continent unknown to Europeans, which he called the New World. Mapmakers named this new continent America in honor of Amerigo Vespucci.
Ferdinand Magellan: A few decades later, Charles I sponsored the travels of Ferdinand Magellan (1480 – 1521). Magellan’s journey west to the spice islands was successful. Magellan never made it back to Spain after he died fighting Philippine natives on the island of Cebu. However, Magellan’s fleet continued to sail west from Asia and returned to Spain in September 1522. This voyage showed that reaching Asia by traveling west was possible.
The Dutch, French, and English explore the North Atlantic and searched for a Northwest passage
The success of the Portuguese and Spanish voyages increased the interests of the Dutch, French, and English in maritime exploration. Initially, these other European states avoided areas of Portuguese and Spanish influence to minimize conflict. Moving down the African coast into the Indian Ocean risked conflict with the Portuguese while transiting around South America and across the Pacific risked confrontation with the Spanish. However, the North Atlantic remained unexplored by either power. As a result, Northern European explorations focused on the North American coastline and the waters above Canada, where they looked for an undiscovered northwest passage to Asia.
The Dutch became a significant European maritime power in the 17th century with an empire that spanned from the Americas to Southeast Asia. Their earliest explorations began along the east coast of North America.
Henry Hudson: Henry Hudson (1565-1611) was born an Englishman but explored the North American coastline for the Dutch. In 1609, Hudson landed in the area around modern-day New York City. He sailed up the Hudson River to Hudson Bay, north of Canada—the river and the bay are named after Hudson. Hudson’s explorations laid the foundation for Dutch colonization of the New Netherlands region in North America. Control of Dutch North America passed to the English following the victory of the Second Anglo-Dutch war (1665-1667).
French exploration of the Americas began in 1521 when Giovanni da Verrazzano (1485 – 1528) set sail from France to explore the Atlantic coast from Spanish Florida to New Brunswick in Canada. By 1750, the French claimed territory in the Americas from Northern Canada to the Northern coast of South America.
Jacques Cartier: In 1534, Francis I (1494 – 1547) of France sent Jacques Cartier (1491 – 1557) on the first three voyages Cartier took to the Americas. Cartier was the first European to explore inland in North America, which he did by navigating up the Saint Lawrence River. Cartier officially claimed Canada for France.
Samuel de Champlain: Decades after Jacques Cartier claimed Canada for France, Samuel de Champlain (1567 – 1635) returned and further explored the Saint Lawrence river and great lakes region. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec and New France in modern central Canada.
English exploration and colonization began in the 16th century with many failed attempts to establish permanent settlements in the Americas. Over the next few centuries, the British established colonies in the Americas, from Canada in the north to the Caribbean and Central America.
Sir Humphrey Gilbert: One of the first British land claims was in Newfoundland, Canada. It was made in August 1583 by Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539 – 1583), an explorer and English parliament member. Unable to establish a colony due to a lack of supplies, Gilbert set sail back to England. Gilbert’s ship never made it back to Europe and was lost at sea, with Gilbert presumed dead.
Sir Walter Raleigh: Queen Elizabeth I of England granted Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 – 1618) the authority to explore, colonize, and rule over any territory in the Americas not already ruled over by a Christian kingdom. Raleigh never actually went to North America, having spent most of his time in the New World in South America. However, under Raleigh’s orders, colonists established the first English North American colony in Roanoke, North Carolina. Two groups of colonists attempted to colonize Roanoke in 1585 and 1587—both attempts failed. The first thriving English colony in North America was Jamestown, established in 1607.