4.2C: The Economic Causes and Effects of European Maritime Exploration

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AP Theme

Economic Systems

Learning Objective 4C

Explain the economic causes and effects of maritime exploration by the various European states.

Historical Development 1

Portuguese development of maritime technology and navigational skills led to increased travel to and trade with Africa and Asia and resulted in the construction of a global trading-post empire.

Historical Development 2

Spanish sponsorship of the voyages of Columbus and subsequent voyages across the Atlantic and Pacific dramatically increased European interest in transoceanic travel and trade.

Historical Development 3

Northern Atlantic crossings were undertaken under English, French, and Dutch sponsorship, often to find alternative sailing routes to Asia.

Key ideas

European maritime explorations resulted from a variety of economic factors that inspired monarchs to seek out new maritime trade routes.

The Portuguese and Spanish were the first successful European maritime powers. Portugal in Africa and the Indian Ocean and Spain in the Americas and Philippines.

The Portuguese largely established trading post empires in Africa and Asia. Spain established colonial economies in the Americas and the Phillipines.

Northwestern European powers invested in maritime exploration. France, England, and the Dutch all sought a northwest passage to Asia.

Contents

The Economic Causes of Maritime Exploration and Conquest

Economic considerations resulted in increased maritime exploration as Europeans sought access to the riches and the east.

  1. Europeans desired spices and other Asian goods: European maritime expansion sought access to Asian markets. Portuguese mariners wanted to profit from importation into Europe of in-demand goods: gold, ivory, pepper, cotton, sugar, and slaves. 
  2. Europeans desired to circumvent Islamic control over trade: For centuries, Islamic powers had controlled exchange between the east and west. The rise of the Ottoman Empire increased Islamic control over trade, and Asian goods had to pass through Ottoman-controlled land trade routes and ports. To keep the prices of goods as high as possible, the Ottomans had granted trading monopolies with a few Italian city-state kingdoms. The most powerful trade monopoly was between the Venetian kingdom of Italy and the Ottomans. To bring down the cost of goods, non-Italian Europeans wanted to find maritime trade routes around Ottoman and Italian-controlled trade routes. 
  3. Europeans desired to circumvent Islamic control over trade: For centuries, Islamic powers had controlled exchange between the east and west. The rise of the Ottoman Empire increased Islamic control over trade, and Asian goods had to pass through Ottoman-controlled land trade routes and ports. To keep the prices of goods as high as possible, the Ottomans had granted trading monopolies with a few Italian city-state kingdoms. The most powerful trade monopoly was between the Venetian kingdom of Italy and the Ottomans. To bring down the cost of goods, non-Italian Europeans wanted to find maritime trade routes around Ottoman and Italian-controlled trade routes. 
  4. European monarchs wanted to establish trading and colonial empires: European monarchs wanted to establish bases that they controlled to trade with Asia. These trading bases would allow Europeans access to goods at lower prices while allowing European merchants to profit better from the trade. In the Indian Ocean, the Europeans used military might to force their way into established trade systems.
  5. European monarchs sought new tax revenue and wealth source: New wealth and tax revenue sources were important for European monarchs who sought to increase their centralized control over their states. With increased tax revenue from trade, European monarchs became less reliant on tax revenue from the nobility.
  6. European monarchs financially supported the development of new maritime technologies: Various European monarchs and royal families provided direct financial support for maritime voyages of exploration.
    • The start of the European age of conquest and exploration would not have been possible without the support of Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator. Henry was an early believer in the power of transoceanic voyages to reshape both Portugal and Europe.
    • His goal was to build Portugal’s maritime ability to explore Africa, conquer portions of the continent, exploit its wealth, and spread Christianity to its people.
    • Henry 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. Many Portuguese maritime technological advances such as more accurate maps, the development of lateen sail caravels, and the astrolabe’s refinement were partially developed by the school and those associated with it. 

Early Economic Effects of Maritime Exploration and Conquest

European maritime exploration resulted in significant changes global changes. In the Americas, native civilizations were politically, socially, and economically subjugated to various European powers. In Asia and Africa, there was some early colonization in places like the Philippines. However, until the 18th century, most European activity in the region centered around establishing trading post empires. European powers later used these trading post empires as launchpads for establishing direct colonial control across Asia and Africa. 

The Portuguese established a trading post empire

Before Portugal’s arrival, commerce within the Indian Ocean flowed freely. While there were pirates, no military used weapons to dominate trade. The Portuguese took advantage of this environment. Superior firepower from their armed ships allowed Portugal to establish a trading post empire across Africa and the Indian Ocean region. From these bases, Portuguese vessels diverted foreign trade vessels through their ports.

Portuguese commander Afonso de Albuquerque established the Portuguese trading post empire in the Indian Ocean in the early 16th century. By the mid-16th century, the Portuguese had over 50 trading posts between West Africa and East Asia.

The Spanish colonized the Americas.

The 1479 treaty of Tordesillas signed by Spain and Portugal gave the Portuguese exploration, trading, and conquest rights over Africa and the Indian Ocean region. The treaty awarded Spain rights in the Americas and the Pacific. With Africa and the Indian Ocean region closed to Spain, Spain turned its attention west when Spain dispatched a series of maritime explorations into the Americas.

Voyages of discovery

Voyages of discovery did not set out to engage in direct conquest but exploration and the establishment of trade and maritime routes. 

Christopher Columbus (1492-1504): Christopher Columbus reached the Bahamas in the Caribbean in 1492. Later voyages brought Columbus to the coast of Latin America and the northern coast of South America, and he claimed each of these areas for the Spanish crown.

Amerigo Vespucci (1497-1504): Amerigo Vespucci was an Italian who later acquired Spanish citizenship in 1505. 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.

Voyages of conquest

Conquistadors later led Spanish maritime explorations of the Americas. These conquistadors conquered the Aztec and Inca societies.

Hernan Cortes (1511-1547): Hernan Cortes was a Spanish Conquistador who led the expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of mainland Mexico under Spanish rule in the early 16th century. Cortes was part of the generation of Spanish explorers and conquistadors who began the first phase of the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Cortes served twice as the governor of New Spain between 1521 and 1524.

Francisco Pizarro (1509-1541): Francisco Pizarro was a Spanish conquistador who led the Spanish conquest of the Inca in 1532. Pizarro was the governor of New Castille in Spanish Peru from 1529 to 1541.

Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521): Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to reach Asia by sailing west. While Magellan was Portuguese, he sailed west under the Spanish flag. Magellan set sail from Spain in 1519. Magellan found the passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean in October of 1520. By March 1521, Magellan and his crew had crossed the Pacific and landed on the Philippine Island of Cebu. After engaging in a skirmish with natives on the nearby island of Mactan, Magellan died. Following Magellan’s death, the Vittoria, one of his ships, continued west across the Indian Ocean. On September 6, 1522, the Vittoria returned to the Spanish, making it the first ship to circumnavigate (go around) the globe.

Impacts of Spanish conquest
  1. Following the Spanish conquest of the Aztec and Inca civilizations, the wealth of Spain and the Spanish monarchy increased rapidly. The chief source of wealth was the silver mines in Spanish America that used forced labor and slave systems to mine vast quantities of gold for Spain. The most famous of these mines was Potosi in modern Bolivia. At one point, the Spanish mined the vast majority of the world’s silver supply from Potosi.  
  2. The Spanish conquered the Philippines in the Western Pacific. 
  3. Spain’s vast wealth made them the dominant European power of the 16th and early 17th centuries. 
  4. Envious of Spanish power, other European states, including the French, the English, and the Dutch, invested in supporting overseas exploration, trade, and conquest across the Atlantic.

European powers invested in trans-Atlantic crossings

Spanish sponsorship of Columbus’s voyages and subsequent voyages across the Atlantic and Pacific dramatically increased European interest in transoceanic travel and trade. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch, English, and French began sponsoring maritime voyages to the Americas, where they claimed territory in the name of the monarchs.

Early English explorations in the Americas

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 from modern-day Canada through the Caribbean and South America. The most successful British overseas territory in the Americas were the 13 North American colonies. British colonies traded a variety of foodstuffs, tobacco, and wood. They also exported furs and skins bought from native Americans. 

Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539-1583): Sir Humphrey Gilbert was an explorer and member of the English parliament that claimed Newfoundland in Canada for the English crown in August 1583. 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 (1552-1618): Sir Walter Raleigh was an English explorer in the Americas.  Queen Elizabeth of England had granted him the authority to explore, colonize, and rule over any territory in the Americas not already ruled over by a Christian kingdom. Raleigh never himself went to North America, having spent most of his time in the New World in South America. However, colonists established the first English North American colony in Roanoke, North Carolina, under Raleigh’s orders. While 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, which colonists established in 1607. 

Early French explorations in the Americas

Major French exploration of the Americas began in 1521 when Giovanni da Verrazzano 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 spanned from New France in Eastern Canada through the center of North America to the Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), to French Guyana along the Northern coast of South America. 

Jacques Cartier (1491-1557): In 1534, Francis I of France sent Jacques Cartier on the first of three voyages that Cartier would take to the Americas. Cartier was the first European to explore inland in North Americas, which he did by navigating up the Saint Lawrence River. Cartier officially claimed Canada for France and founded new France on the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec Province, Canada.

Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635): In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec and New France in modern central Canada. Champlain made over twenty journeys across the Atlantic between France and the Americas. In 1620, French King Louis VIII ordered Champlain to return to New France and devote himself to the administration and expansion of New France. 

Early Dutch explorations in the Americas

The Dutch were also a European trading and colonizing power, and they built an empire that stretched from the Americas to East Asia. In the Americas, the Dutch controlled territories on the northeastern coast of North America, in the Caribbean, and along the northern coast of South America. 

Henry Hudson (1565-1611): Henry Hudson 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 further sailed up the Hudson River and made it to Hudson Bay north of Canada. Hudson was the first recorded European to see and explore Hudson bay. Both the Hudson River and Hudson Bay are named after Henry Hudson. Hudson’s explorations of the region laid the foundation for Dutch colonization of the New Netherlands region. The English added Dutch North America to their American colonies following their victory in the Second Anglo-Dutch war (1665-1667).  

Northern European Powers Sought the Northwest Passage to Asia

The original European intent of crossing the Atlantic was to find maritime routes to Asia. When Columbus first landed in the Caribbean, he thought he had reached Asia. However, when later voyages uncovered no large-scale maritime commerce, Europeans realized they had not reached Asia but had found a land unknown to Europeans. While exploration and conquest of the Americas began, attempts to find routes to Asia beyond the Americas continued.

Other European states also sought a passage to the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean. Most looked for the rumored northwest passage to allow mariners to reach the Pacific Ocean from the north. While boats could reach the Pacific through the Atlantic, sea ice prevented Europeans from using the Northwest Passage. Only recently has global warming melted enough ice to one day make maritime activity in this region possible.

John Cabot (1450-1501): John Cabot was an Italian explorer living in England, and he was the first European to seek a northwest passage to Asia in 1497. In 1498, King Henry VII authorized a second expedition for Cabot to seek a northwest passage. Cabot and his crew never returned from this second mission.

Jacques Cartier (1491-1557): On Cartier’s second voyage between 1535 to 1536, he sailed up the Saint Lawrence River as far as the area near modern Quebec. Unable to go further up the river due to rough weather conditions, Cartier believed that the Saint Lawrence River was the Northwest Passage to China. However, he was incorrect. The river ends at Lake Ontario.

Henry Hudson (1565-1611): In 1609, Henry Hudson landed in the area around modern-day New York City. He further sailed up the Hudson River and made it to Hudson Bay north of Canada. Hudson was the first recorded European to see and explore Hudson bay. Both the Hudson River and Hudson Bay are named after Henry Hudson.