European exploration of other parts of the world

12. Nov. 18, 20 exploration and Reformation

Tuesday: Kishlansky 57. Christopher Columbus, Letter from the First Voyage (1493).

Thursday: Kishlansky 62. Martin Luther. The Freedom of a Christian (1520) and Marriage and Celibacy

Bulliet, Ch. 12; Ch. 17


(Finish Renaissance – Art – see previous lecture notes)

•I.  Preconditions of European exploration:


–Rediscovery of ancient geography

–New technology

•II. Exploration of Africa and Asia

•(III. Exploration and conquest of the Americas)



Implications of “Renaissance” for European exploration:

Europeans had discovered the power of the human mind to manipulate the world around them.

Aggressive aspect to the new emphasis on man

For Machiavelli, goal of princes was to successfully maintain power – not to exercise this power in a Christian way.

Even on a personal level, legitimate goals of life (according to humanists) were to succeed – to raise your status and gain money and power - not to devote yourself to God.

            Greed now seen as good for the state (Machiavelli – prince should promote economic enterprises)


The questions for us today are


            Why not the Arabs?

            Why not the Chinese?




A. But in order to do so, Europeans had to get over some serious obstacles to ocean navigation:

            The belief that if you sailed over the ocean, you would fall off the end of the earth.

            And difficulty navigating on the open sea.

In the Middle Ages, Europeans had conceived of the earth like this:


            The earth was a circular disc (rather like a frisbee)

            All the land was surrounded by water (the ocean) - and if you crossed this ocean, you fell off edge of world.

            Maps were oriented to the East (not the North) because the East was where Jerusalem was.

            Only three continents were depicted - Asia, Africa, and Europe (no knowledge of America)

            The water bodies which divided them were the Mediterranean Sea - the Nile river, and the Hellespont/Black Sea - shown here as forming a Cross.

You can see how religion dominated the way people viewed the world in the Middle Ages -

Now actual experience forced people to modify this idealized tripartite schema during the high Middle Ages.

Here is a 11th century map .

It is also oriented to the East; the Ocean flows around on the rim of the Frisbee

But the bodies of water are more realistically portayed - you can see the Nile, the Adriatic, etc.

Still, this map is horribly inaccurate.

            Doesn't show the existence of China

            India is much too small

            Subsaharan Africa is almost unknown - except for mythical "Antipodes"

What allowed Europeans to get a more accurate knowledge of geography was the rediscovery of classical geography.


B. Rediscovery of ancient geography  - Ptolemy

During the 14th and 15th centuries, when all of these other classical texts were being rediscovered in Europe, the classical geographers were also being discovered.

The Greeks and Romans had a better idea of the shape of the earth than medieval Europeans (or Moslems)

- For one, the ancient Greeks had known that the earth was a globe, not a flat disc.

- And they better understood the shape of Africa and Asia (in part because both the Hellenistic and Roman Empires had included North Africa and western Asia).



The most important ancient geographer had been Ptolemy -

 a scholar from Alexandria who wrote in 2nd century AD - during the Roman Empire.



            How does Ptolemy's map differ from the medieval map?

                        (recognizes that earth is sphere - though for purpose of map, modifies sphere)

            Ptolemy's most important contribution was imposing a grid-pattern on the globe in order to aid navigation -  origin of our longitude and latitude

(shape of continents - Europe, Asia, Africa more to scale

            No knowledge of Americas

            Belief that land - not water - circles south of Africa.

By 14th century - Ptolemy was being to read again in Europe.


Impact on navigation:

Merchants and princes now knew that the earth was a globe - not a disc: You wouldn't fall off the globe if you sailed the oceans.

Sailors began to use latitude to judge distances - (they could measure latitude by the angle of the sun) - this allowed them to sail open oceans (instead of just hugging the coast).

And some navigators suspected that it would be possible to get to Asia by going west as well as east.

            Christopher Columbus would be one of them.


C. NEW TECHNOLOGY of 14th and 15th centuries

 In addition to rediscovering Ptolemy, European exploration was made possible by new technology.

Throughout most of human history - new technology traveled from Asia and Africa into Europe - not the other way around.

Only in the 14th century, did Europeans begin to make significance technological innovations (though they still tended to get original idea from the East)

Technology that helped European exploration:

- Gunpowder: We've already discussed gunpowder: Invented by the Chinese, turned into effective weapons by the Europeans

            (cannons will be an important element in the success of European world exploration)


- Portugese ship innovation: the caravel

new type of ship was developed, the caravel, that combined cargo capability, manoeuverability and seaworthiness,

It used a new sort of sail adapted from Arabs which could tack against headwinds


To sum up preconditions for European world exploration:

            Motive - to bypass Ottomans and get eastern luxuries

            Geographical knowledge:  earth was round; latitude and longitude to more accurately locate yourself on open sea

            Technology:  ocean-worthy caravels; compass; printed maps and charts; cannons to protect cargo



Exploration of new trade routes was, however, an expensive business - too expensive for any one merchant to finance.

The explorers needed royal patrons - and the monarchs of Portugal and Spain proved the most willing to explore the Atlantic.

Why the Portugese and Spanish, instead of the English, French, Italians, or Germans?

            partly because Portugal and Spain had Atlantic coastline - natural direction for them to expand

            Partly because English and French occupied fighting one another (Hundred Years’ War); Italy and Germany too disunified to have monarchs powerful enough to finance such voyages.

            Portugese and Spanish monarchs interested in financing voyages both for profit - and conversion - the explorations of the world were as much Crusade as trading expedition



The first region the Portugese explored was western Africa.

Now, Africa is not far from Europe - so why didn't Europeans and Africans make contact before?

Geography of Africa  (MAP)

To some extent, they had

North Africa (red part on map) is on the Mediterranean Sea - and had been part of the history we've been talking about this in course (part of Roman Empire and later Islamic civilizations)

The Egyptians had created one of the earliest and greatest ancient civilizations.

North Africa had made up part of both the Roman and Moslem empires 

North Africa is where many of the Moslem scientific and philosophical advances originated.


But the Sahara desert separates North Africa from rest of Africa.

            Neither the Romans or later Europeans could manage to cross the Sahara.

            The Arabs were able to - which is reason why some of subsaharan Africa would become Moslem during the Middle Ages.

            But even Arabs found Africa difficult to explore as they approached the equator and the tropics


What was result of all this?

            Most Africans were isolated from Europeans, Asians, and North Africans before the early modern  period.

            This (as it did in America) will put them at a disadvantage technologically - for humans advance technologically by borrowing and competing with their neighbors


Portugese exploration of western African coast

Henry the Navigator, king of Portugal, initiated the exploration of the Atlantic coast of Africa in 15th century.

He wanted to find a new sources for spices, gold, and other eastern luxuries -

but he also wanted to find Christian allies against the Moslems (there was a story popular in the Middle Ages that there was a Christian kingdom somewhere in Asia or eastern Africa)


By the 1430’s, the Portugese were sailing up and down the west African coast - setting up trading stations, and trying to find something to trade.

They found ivory, gold, food items (like rice), and slaves.


Slave trade

This is the beginnings of the African slave trade – which will eventually, as you know, have important repercussions in America.

Now slavery had existed as long as human history - but it had by and large disappeared from Europe itself by the high Middle Ages.

This was partly because the Christian church objected to enslaving fellow Christians - and Europeans weren't rich or powerful enough to enslave non-Christians during Middle  Ages.

During the Middle Ages, it was more common for  Europeans to be sold as slaves to the Middle East.

            Our own (and the Arabic) word "slave" comes from word "Slav" - for the Slavs in 9th and 10th century were the main Europeans exported to the Islamic world (their paganism made them legitimate trade items)


Why Africans?

But with the discovery of the Americas and the western coast of Africa - Europeans found non-Christian populations they were capable of enslaving.

It is important to realize that slavery was not yet racially defined -

"White" people and native American slaves were also sold in Europe in the 15th century.

But native Americans tended to die because of their lack of resistance to European to diseases,

Africans were physically strong  – they  had already built up immunities to smallpox, measles, and so on.


The other main reason  Europeans started to get so many of their slaves from west Africa were its relative poverty and political disunity.

Slaves could be bought cheap in western Africa

- (the people of India, China, and Islamic world, who were richer than the Europeans, would have charged too much, even if they had been willing to sell)

Also, it was much harder to get slaves from regions with strong governments.

Most governments wouldn’t allow their own citizens to be sold as slaves.

They would, however, sell their captured enemies (this is what happened in medieval Europe).

In west Africa, the many small kingdoms and tribes were often fighting one another.

The Portugese would buy slaves from native African rulers – who would raid enemy tribes to get them.

The Portugese and later European slave traders would also capture slaves themselves when they could away with it.



So for this combinations of factors - Africans' resistance to disease, their poverty, their political disunity - west African became main source of slaves for Europeans.

By the middle of the 15th century, the Portugese had sold several thousand black Africans in Europe – where they were regarded as exotic luxuries at first.

The export of African slaves to Europe itself would only last about a century –

By the mid 16th century, most of the slaves were being sent to the new colonies in America and the Caribbean, not to Europe.

This is why many of the countries of Latin America (Jamaica, Brazil) have populations with mixed African, native American, and European ancestry.



So by mid 15th century, Portugese have set up profitable slave trade along west African coast.

But their goal was still to get to India - where spices, silk, and so on would be found.

1488: Bartholomeu Dias rounded Cape of Good Hope (because a storm blew him off course)- proving that it was in fact possible to travel around Africa by sea.

•1493:  First Portugese explorer reaches Ethiopia



Portugese relations with eastern African states

European relations with other east African states were less exploitative than in western Africa.

They traded spices and gold - but not many slaves.

This was partly because some East Africans were Christians:

            Ethiopia had been Christian for as long a period as Europe had - missionaries had reached it in late Roman period.

Ethiopians were literate– if you learn Ethiopic, you could read saints’ lives, chronicles, and poetry written by Ethiopians during the medieval period (other sub-Saharan Africans – like Mali – were also literate – see Bulliet)

When they met the Ethiopian king, the Portugese thought they had discovered new allies against the Moslems.

Ethiopian kings entered into diplomatic relations with representatives of king of Portugal.


Even the non-Christian eastern Africa states were better able to defend themselves:

            They were more politically unified (Swahili empire;

            They had impressive fortifications..

And Africans of eastern coast were used to traders visiting them - they were part of an Arab trading network much older than the Portugese.



In 1498, the Portugese explorer Vasco da Gama reached India by going around Africa.  (first European to reach India by circumnavigating Africa; Diaz had circumnavigated Africa a few years earlier by accident)

            He had succeeded: he had found a new route to India - which bypassed the Moslems.

But Gama's first attempts to trade in India were not a success.

The first people there he spoke to were two Moslems from North Africa - who greeted him Spanish with "May the Devil take you!  What brought you here?"

            (then they started to talk about European politics)

These Arab merchants weren't surprised that the Portugese had managed to go around Africa - they had suspected it was possible, but didn't think it was worth the trouble.


Then Gama showed the rulers of Calicut the goods he had brought to trade:

 cloth, beads, lumps of sugar

The Indians laughed at him: they didn't want any anything the Europeans had.


Two years later Gama went back to India - this time with a Portugese squadron armed with cannons.

In Indian Ocean, - he attacked a Moslem ship (carrying pilgrims to Mecca), and burned it with gunpoweder - along with its crew of 400 plus men, women and children.

When Gama got to India, he demanded that the ruler of Calicut surrender.

To encourage him, he cut up bodies of captured traders and fishermen and sent baskets of their hands, feet and heads to the king (Samuri) of Calicut.


This was the beginning of the Portugese trading empire in Asia.

Soon Portugese fleets sailed regularly to the Indian Ocean by going around Africa.

By means of their cannon carrying ships, they got control of a few ports of the western Indian coast (Bombay, Goa).

They never conquered much territory:  Europeans wouldn’t conquer India until much later - but

Because of their gunpowder and cannons, the Portugese conquered some key ports.

To convince the Indians to trade with them, they acted as middlemen for transporting Asian goods (i.e. from Persia to India) rather than selling European goods – which no one wanted yet.

With the profits from this trade - the Portugese would buy eastern goods to sell in Europe.

Soon after reaching India, Portugese started to sail to  East Indies and China:

Very soon after Gama's voyage, the Portugese were trading with East Indies  (Indonesia)

50 years later - by 1557 - they were in eastern China; and Japan.


Important point: it was Europeans use of force that enabled them to penetrate Asian trade routes, not the goods they had to sell or any special expertise at navigation (Moslems; Chinese equivalent here); they by and large were just plugging into a preexisting trade system.



The Americas were different; Europeans first peoples of Old World (Europe, Africa, Asia) to reach them.


A. Columbus and the discovery of America

Columbus was an Italian, from Genoa - of possibly Jewish ancestory - with a Portugese wife.

 He had studied the ancient Greeks textbooks on geography (Ptolemy) and also knew how to use the new technology of seafaring (compass, ships with multiple sails).

He started his career sailing Portugese ships down coast of Africa.

But Columbus wanted to lead an expedition west -

He believed that if you sailed west you would reach India –

(he was right, but he didn’t know that another continent – the Americas – blocked the way)


-Columbus’ expedition


Columbus first tried to get the king of Portugal (and then France) to finance his voyage.

They refused - so he turned to the monarchs of Spain.

The queen of Castile (Isabella of Castile) and the king of Aragon (Ferdinand of Aragon) had just married - uniting Castile and Aragon into one kingdom - the kingdom of Spain.

Isabella and Fernando were bent on furthering the glory of Spain and Christianity:

They agreed to finance Columbus' voyage -

In 1492  (the same year Spain expelled the Jews), Columbus set out for what he hoped would be Asia.

            He was supposed to claim any territory he found for the crown of Spain.


He landed in what he thought was the Spice Islands near India, actually the West Indies – the Bahamas.

He traded with the native Americans - "Indians" - during his first voyage (trading beads for gold)

During his second voyage, he brought missionaries and captured slaves


Columbus thought he had invented a new route to India.

But in the 20 years after his voyage, other explorers figured out the true significance of his discovery:

Two new continents – inhabited by people who couldn’t match the Europeans militarily.





If you were to describe native Americans before Columbus – how would you do it?

            Were the native Americans literate? (WRITE IT DOWN?)

            Did they use metals like iron?

            Did they live in cities (i.e. settlements of thousands) or just villages and nomadic tribes?

The answer varies depending on what Americans you are talking about:

            Some native Americans had been able to write since the early Middle Ages  - Maya in Honduras ; early Mexicans hadwriting.

            In Mexico, and South America, complex civilizations still existed when Europeans arrived - with books, cities larger than European cities, and sophisticated road systems.

            What the native Americans didn't have was iron weapons, horses, gunpowder, or resistance to European diseases.


Native Americans of Bahamas

The people Columbus encountered in the West Indies were among the less technologically advanced of the native Americans.

They could farm – i.e. they had had their “agricultural revolution”  - but they did not have cities, writing, or complex government.


Columbus’ description of their civilization in Letter from the First Voyage 1493:



A third American civilization  had existed long before the Europeans had arrived  - the Maya in Central America, perhaps the most appealing of pre-Columbian American civilizations.

Just as you need to look at the Greeks and Romans to understand how Europeans got to be the way they are, in America, you have to look at the Maya.

The Maya had their Golden Age in the 6th to 9th centuries – i.e. at the same time as the Early Middle Ages in Europe.

The Maya lived in Central America (Guatemala and Honduras), in a tropical rain-forest.

Somehow, in this dripping, insect infested and disease ridden environment, they built large cities, created a beautiful art and architecture, and wrote books.

(They also invented hot chocolate – for which I am grateful).

We are just beginnings to learn the history of the Maya, because only recently have scholars been able to read much of their script.

            (OVERHEAD OF GLYPHS)

One of the things historians would like to learn is why the Maya civilization collapsed – for it seems to have done so in the 9th century.

Perhaps party because  of invasions from the Mexico by people who could use metal weapons (they Maya only used tone).

After the 9th century, the Maya survive as a people – they still exist today – but centers of civilization moved elsewhere, to peoples who adopted much from the Maya.

The two later complex societies in the Americas were the Incas of Peru, and the Aztecs of Mexico.


- Aztecs (Mexica)

The Aztecs in Mexico had the potential to put up more of a fight.

(Aztecs is modern 19th century term for these people, not what Mexica called themselves).

The Aztecs lived in central Mexico – where they had built up a large empire in the 14th and 15th centuries, stetching from Mexico to Panama.

Unlike the people of the Bahamas, the Aztecs were warriors.


They were also literate:

They had pictographic writing – similar to hieroglyphics.

            IMAGE OF BOOK


In these books, the Aztecs recorded years and times; days and feasts, dreams, and omens;

 victories and the conduct of wars; the succession of principal lords,

bad weather conditions, noteworthy signs in the sky

Unfortunately, only a few of their books survive - because Spanish burned them.


In addition to writing, the Mexica had cities.

Urban society: Tenochtitlan

Their capital was what is called today Mexico City – on Lake Texaco (Tenochtitlan).

Mexico City under the Aztecs had a population of around 100,000 – enormous by European standards.

The Spanish were impressed by the city’s size, splendor, and wealth – especially all the merchants selling their wares.


Human sacrifice

But the Spanish were horrified by the altars to the gods reeking with human blood – for the Aztecs sacrificed captured enemies, and ate them.

The Aztecs main goal in warfare was to capture as many men as possible.

As many as 20,000 captives a year were brought to Mexico City.

Some of these captives would be ritually sacrificed – first a captive was slowly killed and decapitated, then the Aztec who had captured him drank his blood, and then the captor’s family ate a stew composed partly of little pieces of the captive.

The Europeans of the 16th century  were disgusted by this behavior.

However, the Aztecs ended up killing a lot fewer men than died in European wars, and they honored their victims – especially those who showed courage when dying.


- Incas

The Incas were the other great empire in the Americas when the Europeans arrived.

The Incan empire was in South America - centered in the Andes mountains of Peru.

The Incas were not literate in the usual sense;

 instead of writing they used colored cords tied into complex knots to send messages and keep records.

This was enough to allow them to build a great empire in South America.

They connected this empire with road systems built through the mountains - - Las Cases thought only Roman roads could compete with them.


The roadway represents a considerable feat of engineering, including even an 8m tunnel section where the

Inca engineers widened a natural crack in the rock into a tunnel large enough to allow the passage of men and animals


What impressed the Europeans most was the socialist organization of the Incas.

All produce belonged to the state – farmers gave their harvests to central granaries.

Then the state would redistribute food, clothing, and so on to the people.

Native Americans in general did not have same concept of private property as Europeans (who inherited theirs from Romans)


European conquest of the native Americans

By the mid 16th century, the Spanish – with the Pope’s approval - had conquered the Bahamas, the Incas and the Aztecs; Portugese will conquer Brazil.


Why so successful at conquest in Americas, while not very successful in Africa or Asia?

Comparison of Aztec (the most warlike Americans) and European warfare:

Capture was the main goal of Aztec wars; while killing the enemy during battle was the goal of Europeans.

The Aztecs also lacked key military technology: 

            No horses  (the American horse had been hunted to extinction long ago)

            No iron weapons – still used fling, obsidion

            No gunpowder (but matters rarely got that far)-

Above all, Aztecs had no resistance to European disease - and were dying by the hundreds of thousands soon after Europeans' arrival.

In the early 16th century, a few hundred Spaniards under Cortes ended up taking Mexico City and eventually the entire Aztec empire.


- Biggest European ally in Americas:  Disease

Europeans - thanks to thousands of years of fighting and borrowing from other civilizations in the Old World - had superior military technology to the native Americans.

But weapons were not the only thing which helped the Spaniards defeat the Aztecs – or the Incas, and all of the other native Americans.

The most effective conquerors were European bacteria and viruses.

Native Americans had been isolated from the rest of the world for tens of thousands of years.

They had few infectious diseases of their own (due to scarcity of domestic animals) and no resistance to measles, small pox, mumps, cholera – all the nasty diseases which Europeans usually had as children (and we vaccinate ourselves again).

Cortes and his few hundred men only took Mexico City so easily because small pox had got it first -

When he entered the walls, he found a city of corpses.


Impact of conquests on native Americans

It is estimated that between 1519 and 1568 the population of Mexico alone went from 30 million people to 3 million people


This is a decline of 90%  - which makes the Bubonic Plague in Europe seem like a bad cold.

As a result of the introduction of European diseases in addition to military conquest, the civilization of the Incas and the Aztecs disappeared.

Even the Aztec books were burned – since the priests considered them the work of the devil.


The civilizations of the Bahamas were even more completely destroyed.

This is where the Europeans will set up their first gold mines and slave plantations.

The local population quickly started to die out as a result of mistreatment, disruption of agriculture, and disease.

African slaves were imported as early as 1502 as a new labor supply.


Legacy of the native Americans


Except for what archaeologists can recover, the high culture of the native American civilizations disappeared.

We can’t talk about borrowings in science, math, literature, and so on from the Aztecs and Incas.

However, as far as daily life, Latin American culture is a blending of European and native American traditions.

Native Americans languages survived as well as popular art and architecture.

And the whole world adopted native American foods – the potato, tomato, chocolate and so on ,

Foods which were created by many generations of skilled farmers – the people we  usually do not talk about in history courses.


Impact on Europe


From the European perspective, the discovery of the new world was a good thing.

1. Politically, European kingdoms like Spain, Portugal, and eventually England and the Netherlands – began to create overseas empires.

This increased both their wealth and influence at home.

And provided a frontier for European colonists to settle

2. Wealth: And another product of the New World  – much for valuable to Europeans in the 16th century than to us – was gold and silver.

New mines, not yet exhausted by mining, were found in the Americas.

Sugar plantations in the Americas, worked by slave labor - would make many European families rich.

3. Food:  the products of the New World changed the way Europeans (and eventually Americans) ate.

Imagine life without tomatoes, potatoes, corn, bananas, or worst of all, chocolate.

All of these foods – tomatoes, potatoes, corn, bananas, and chocolate came from the Americas.


IV. The question to end with: why was it the Europeans who became the explorers of the world?

            Why not the Arabs?

            Why not the Chinese?

            Both Arabs and Chinese had better technology earlier than the Europeans, were wealthier, were more politically unified?



 To answer this question (why Europe?) - I'd like to compare Chinese attitudes towards world exploration.


Chinese state

China around 1500 AD was the most centralized and populous state in the world.

China had cities, complex government structures, a sophisticated philosophical and religious tradition.

Social mobility in China was through education - not birth or wealth:

            By becoming educated - you could become part of the administrative elite.

During the Middle Ages, the Chinese had invented many things the Europeans would only get during the Renaissance – printing with movable type, paper, gunpowder, the compass.

The technical quality of Chinese ceramics (“china”) and textiles was superior to European - and would remain so for centuries.

And when the Portugese arrived, an energetic new dynasty ruled China – the Ming dynasty –( in power since 14th century)


World exploration under Ming dynasty

In 15th century, Ming rulers engaged in some geographical exploration similar to the Europeans –

Between 1405-33, the rulers  sent out maritime expeditions under admiral Cheng Ho.

These Chinese ships (called junks) explored East Indies  - Java, Sumatra, Ceylon.

They went to the Persian Gulf and Egypt - the Red Sea.

And went down east African coast to Somaliland and Zanzibar.

So before Portugese reach these places - Chinese have got to them from other direction.

These Chinese expeditions were larger than any European fleets - 37,000 sailors; 317 ships.


But one thing which helps explain why Chinese didn't continue to be world explorers was

purpose of expeditions

  Not conquest  ;

 not to increase nation's wealth

not to convert people to Christianity or to learn new science -

Chinese purpose was to display splendor and power of Ming dynasty:

            Ships would just arrive, show off, and then leave


Chinese didn't actually want anything from foreigners:

            They thought they had the most civilized, admirable civilization on earth - so why try to acquire new things?


In 1433, Ming rulers stop these voyages to rest of the world

Later on the 15th century – they forbade any further Chinese ships from going abroad, and stopped building ocean going vessels.

Why Chinese consciously choose not to take full advantage of their inventions and strength?


Value of cultural stability:

They valued cultural stability above all – and China had the most long-lived, stable civilization in the history of the world.

Anything which might disrupt the Chinese social order – new military technology, or foreign contact – was avoided.

The paradox of China is that its people did not exploit their own inventions fully:

            Chinese invented gunpowder, but never made cannons.

            sailors used compass before anyone else; but didn’t explore Pacific (next to them)

            Chinese had mechanical clocks first, but the Jesuit brought better clocks when they arrived in 16th century.

            Chinese invented the printing press first - but Europeans in 15th century will make printing press vehicle for first mass distribution of literature in world history.


So why did the Europeans become the world explorers?

Europeans by 1500 - were eager for new knowledge, new goods to trade, new lands to explore and conquer:

            Even if these discoveries disrupted their social and mental order.