4.2B: State Support for Maritime Expansion

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Learning Objective 2B

Describe the role of states in the expansion of maritime exploration from 1450 to 1750.

Historical Development 1

 New state-supported transoceanic maritime exploration occurred in this period.

Key ideas

European monarchs supported maritime explorations.

Monarchs supported maritime exploration for the potential wealth, power, and prestige it could bring to them and their kingdoms.

Monarchs provided direct financial support to the earliest explorers. They also changed laws to create economic conditions that would allow long-distance maritime trade to prosper.

Explorations sponsored by European monarchs led to the conquest of the Americas and the first direct European maritime voyages around Africa and to Asia.


European Monarchs Provided State Support to Maritime Explorations.

For centuries after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Europeans had primarily remained confined to Europe. Civilizations in the Middle East and Central and Eastern Asia dominated global trade, commerce, and knowledge exchange. 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 out across the oceans. By the 19th century, Europeans or their descendants controlled nearly all the earth’s landmass and global commerce.

European monarchs supported transoceanic maritime exploration. Monarchs provided legal support and allowed explorers to conquer lands. Support was also financial, with monarchs providing direct funding to finance voyages.

Reasons monarchs provided state support for trade

  1. Competition between European kingdoms was intense.
  2.  Advancements in European maritime knowledge and technology prepared Europe for its age of global exploration and conquest. 
  3. The Islamic Ottoman Empire and the Italian city-states controlled the trade of eastern goods in Western Europe. European monarchs sought new maritime trade routes that directly connected them with trade in the east.
  4. Spanish wealth plundered and stolen from the Aztec and Inca civilizations inspired other European monarchs to seak wealth in new lands.
  5. Monarchs also desired new tax revenue from expanded trade and commerce.

Historical trend: Rulers across history have supported trade and commerce for the tax revenue that it provides. 

How did European monarchs support trade?

European monarchs provided various types of support for early maritime explorations.

Political and financial support for early exploration

European monarchs provided political and financial support for early explorations. 

Portugal: The Portuguese royal family supported the earliest European maritime expeditions. Prince Henry, known as Prince Henry the Navigator, used his wealth to sponsor early European voyages to the west coast of Africa. He also supported the creation of a school for navigation in Sagres, Portugal. The school employed and trained cartographers, shipbuilders, maritime instrument makers, and mariners. Scholars at the school developed many Portuguese marine advances such as more accurate maps, the development of lateen sail caravels, and the astrolabe’s refinement. 

Spain: Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand provided financial support for the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Columbus 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. A few decades later, Charles I sponsored the travels of Ferdinand Magellan. Magellan’s journey west to the spice islands was successful. After becoming aggressive with the native population in the Philippines, natives killed Magellan in a skirmish. 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. 

England: King Henry VII (1457 – 1509) sponsored England’s earliest known voyages when he financed John Cabot’s exploration of the North American east coast. These voyages were the earliest-known European exploration of coastal North America since the Norse Vikings in the 11th century. Henry’s granddaughters, Mary I (1516 – 1558) and Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603), supported voyages to find a northwest passage to Asia across the North Atlantic. While no northwest passage existed, these explorations led to the settlement of England’s North American colonies. 

France: French monarchs also sponsored exploration. Early French exploration also focused on finding a northwest passage to Asia. Francis I authorized the exploration of Jacques Cartier (1491 – 1557), who explored the Northeastern Canadian coast and claimed the land for France. Francis IV supported the voyages of Samuel de Champlain (1567 – 1635), who founded Quebec in Canada for France. 

The Netherlands: The Dutch monarchy also supported westward exploration into North America to find a  northwest passage to Asia. The Dutch monarchy supported the explorations of Henry Hudson (1565- 1611), who explored the northeastern coast of North America around New York. He also sailed further north and was the first European to sail the Hudson Straight in northern Canada. 

Monarchs supported new laws that were pro commerce

Starting in the 16th century, European monarchs accepted new expanded ideas of property rights that helped protect merchant profits. Monarchs also supported new laws that made banking and commerce easier and more accessible. Monarchs benefited from these changes as increased trade and commerce developed new sources of tax revenue for monarchs.

Monarchs granted monopolies to trading companies

Monarchs awarded trading monopolies. These monopolies gave specific companies the right to be the only legal supplier of goods from certain global regions into that monarch’s nation. The British East India Company was the only British company allowed to trade in the Indian Ocean region in England. Other trading monopolies included the French west and east India companies and the Dutch East and West India companies.

Monarchs granted legal control over foreign lands that belonged to native peoples

Monarchs gave colonists and traders control over land that they claimed for monarchies. English monarchs gave control over British-controlled India to the British East India company. The company controlled its own army and created its own governing systems to rule over the British portions of India. In the East Indies, the Dutch monarchy gave control of the Indonesian spice islands to the Dutch East India company. 

Monarchs 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). Mercantilist monarchs worked to limit imports and maximize exports. Imperial 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.