The Human Story – Age of Discovery

Everyone has heard of Christopher Columbus, who in 1492 sailed the ocean blue and “discovered” the Americas… a place that had previously been discovered by millions of its native inhabitants. But Columbus belonged to a period of history that is remembered for its daring adventurism and intrepid exploration: The Age of Discovery. Was Columbus the greatest sailor of this era though?

The Age of Discovery is a loosely defined term for European history in which extensive overseas exploration emerged as a powerful factor in European culture and which marked the beginning of globalisation and the widespread adoption of colonialism and the mercantilism which accompanied it.

Although in the west we tend to remember the Age of Discovery as being a uniquely European enterprise, this is not entirely true. This period of history was kick-started by a massive Chinese fleet, led by the admiral, Zheng He.

China’s Treasure Fleet

The Indian Ocean Trade network was dominated by Muslim merchants and involved ports in China, Indonesia, India, the Middle East and Africa and it made a lot of people rich beyond imagining. This last point explains why the sailors of the Age of Exploration were so eager to set sail.

Zheng He was probably one of the greatest admirals that you have never heard of. Not because he brought glory to his country through battle, but because he brought glory and riches to his emperor through tributary missions. There are a couple of important things to consider first about Zheng He. He was a Muslim which may seem a little strange to us nowadays until you consider that by the late fourteenth century, China had long experience with Muslim merchants trading with them, particularly during the reign of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. The second is that he was a eunuch.

Zheng He rose from humble beginnings to become the greatest admiral in Chinese history. Between 1405 and 1433 he led seven voyages, each larger and more expensive than the previous one, throughout the Indian Ocean: the expeditions of the treasure ships. Columbus’ first voyage consisted of three ships, whereas Zheng He led an armada of over 300 ships crewed by 27,000 men: more than half of London’s population at the time. And some of these ships were huge! The flagships of Zheng He’s fleet were over 400 feet and had seven or more masts. To put this into perspective, Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, was around 60 feet long.

Although he may have launched the Age of Discovery, Zheng He was not an explorer: the Indian Ocean Trade routes were already known to the Chinese. He did visit India, the Middle East and Africa and in a way the expeditions of Zheng He’s treasure ships were trade missions, but not really in the sense of filling the ships up with goods to be sold. At the time, China was the leading manufacturer of quality goods in the world and there was not anything that the empire particularly needed to import. What they valued above all else was prestige and respect so that China would continue to be viewed as the economic centre of the world. This desire for status led to a tribute system through which foreign rulers or their ambassadors would travel to China and engage in a demeaning ritual called the kowtow wherein they acknowledged the superiority of the Chinese emperor and offered him gifts in exchange for the right to trade with the Chinese empire. The opportunity to humble oneself before the emperor was so valuable that many a prince boarded Zheng He’s treasure ships and set sail to China. Also, these tributary missions brought back many things strange to the Chinese, including a zoo’s worth of exotic animals from Africa and India.

The Chinese were the world leaders in naval technology, and they could easily have dominated trade in the Indian Ocean if they so wanted to. So, why did these treasure expeditions end? Well, for starters Zheng He died in either 1433 or 1435 and his patron, the Yongle Emperor also died in 1424 and his successors were not as interested in maritime trade as he had been. They were more concerned with protecting China against its traditional enemies: nomads from the steppe regions. To do this they built, or expanded upon, their massive and imposing frontier fortifications. The Great Wall of China, as we see it today, was mostly built under the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) using resources that they had because they stopped building colossal ships. One of history’s great “what if” questions is what may have happened if the mighty Ming emperors had adopted a different strategy; one built on outreach and diplomacy instead of isolationism.

However, this was not to be and China retreated behind the walls of their empire. This along with Ottoman ascension set the stage for European exploration which would lead to European dominance of the globe.

Trading Post Empire

With the Ottomans controlling much of southeast Europe they established a navy which they used in the Black, Mediterranean and the other seas that their vast empire touched. Ottoman domination meant that European kingdoms and empires needed to find different paths to Afro-Eurasian trade routes which, ultimately, helped spark the voyages of explorers from the Iberian Peninsula.

Portugal in the fifteenth century was poor and became even more so as the Ottomans challenged their access to overland trade routes east. Luckily for the country the fourth son of King John I (1357 – 1433) was Prince Henry the Navigator, so called because he funded and encouraged exploration, the study of navigation and the development of tools to aid navigation. All this knowledge provided Portuguese sailors with a huge competitive advantage when it came to exploration.

In those days Africa was rich in salt, food, gold, and slaves. The Malian king Mansa Musa was a very inspiring figuring to the fifteenth century Portuguese and was viewed as the model of what the Portuguese hoped to become by venturing to Africa; that is, unimaginably wealthy.

Early expeditions saw Portuguese sailors locate Atlantic archipelagos like the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde. The explorers hugged the African coast, colonising selected areas, and worked their way south until in 1488, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Soon, other sailors were following Dias’ path and pushing further into the Indian Ocean. Vasco da Gama became the first European to make it all the way to India via the seas, when in 1498 he landed at Calicut, a major trading port on the subcontinent’s west coast. When he arrived, the Muslim merchants asked him what he was looking for and he replied with three words: “Gold and Christians”. This pretty much summed up Portuguese motivations for exploration.

Once the Portuguese had penetrated the Indian Ocean, they did not create large colonies because there were already powerful empires in the region. Instead, they captured and controlled a number of coastal cities, creating what we now call a “trading post empire” (which lasted until 1999 when they handed Macau back to the People’s Republic of China). They could do this thanks to their well-armed, small, and agile ships known as caravels which could capture cities by firing cannonballs into city walls. Europe had arrived to the Indian Ocean and gone were the peaceful days of regional trade.

Seeing as the Indian Ocean is vast and its waves crash upon the shores of many countries and Portugal is a small country thousands of miles away, the Portuguese lacked the manpower and ships to control Indian Ocean trade. They relied, instead, on extortion. Portuguese merchant ships would capture other ships and force them to purchase a special naval license known as a cartaz. The main purpose of this license was to ensure that merchants paid the taxes in Portuguese trading posts, and directed them to these ports such as Goa, Malacca, and Ormuz. This guaranteed Portugal’s monopoly on the lucrative spice trade and other products of the region. To the merchants who had plied their trade with relative safety and freedom for centuries in the ocean, the Portuguese were nothing more than glorified pirates, extracting value from trade without adding to it.

The cartaz system worked for a while, but the Portuguese never really took control of Indian Ocean trade. They were successful enough, however, that their neighbours in Spain became interested in finding their own route to the Indies, which brings us to the Genoese born explorer Christopher Columbus.

Worlds Collide

Let us first dispel some myths about Columbus. He and his crews knew that the earth was round; they were simply wrong about the size. Using Ptolemy’s geography, Columbus ended up overestimating the size of Asia and underestimating the size of the oceans. Also, he never believed that he had made it to China; he called the people that he encountered “Indians” as he believed that he had reached the East Indies (modern Indonesia). And finally, Christopher Columbus was not some lucky idiot. He navigated completely unknown and uncharted waters by using a technique known as dead reckoning, in which one figures their position based on three pieces of information: the direction in which one is travelling; the speed; and the time which was figured out via hourglass.

The first of Columbus’ four journeys was tiny and he initially landed on a small Caribbean island, that he called San Salvador, in search of, like the Portuguese, gold and Christians. He found backing for his expedition from King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile who jointly ruled modern-day Spain by promising riches and the conversion of the natives. These two monarchs were finishing up the drive to expel Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula, known as the Reconquista, and forcing Spanish Jews to convert to Christianity, and religious persecution did not come cheaply. Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to fund Columbus’ exploratory voyage as they were desperate to access the wealth of the spice trade and forge their own trading fortune for their combined kingdoms.

Columbus failed in finding riches, returning to Spain with neither gold nor spice, but he did succeed in creating some Christians. In terms of goal accomplishment, Columbus was far less successful than either Zheng He or Vasco da Gama, but within a couple generations after Columbus, Spain would become insanely wealthy and for a time were the leading power in Europe. His “discovery” of the Americas also had a largely negative impact on the people that the Spanish encountered as they further explored this “New World”, but it also led to another breakthrough when Spanish ships headed by Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe between 1519 and 1522.

Conditions on the ships and Magellan’s no-nonsense discipline caused mutinies and other problems which were also handled harshly, executing, or marooning the rebellious captains of his fleet. Setting off from the Spanish port of Seville, Magellan’s fleet headed around the coast of West Africa and towards the tip of South America and across the Pacific Ocean and eventually returned to Spain, despite Magellan’s death in 1521 at the hands of local leaders in Mactan in what would later become the Philippines. Of an original crew of two hundred and thirty-seven men manning five ships, only eighteen men returned to Spain on one ship. But the voyage that had been arranged and headed by Ferdinand Magellan was a revelation, opening the world up to global transportation, exchange, settlement, and yes, global slavery, pandemic, warfare, and conquest.

The Iberians had initially been incentivised to set sail because of their poverty and Catholic faith, but they were disadvantaged by a comparative lack of manufacturing skills when it came to trade. To counter this, at least to begin with, they held an advantage in sailing technology and weaponry. The Iberian caravels were nimble and could be loaded with cannons and the Portuguese borrowed the use of triangular sails from the Arabs that they encountered in the Indian Ocean, and combined these with square rigged sails to make better use of the winds. Iberian sailors also employed a range of navigational instruments (usually taken from their other cultures) for determining latitude, whilst their on-board cartographers created charts and maps, indicating coastal dangers, hospitable harbours, and other details important to mariners.

With so much land, opportunity and wealth at stake, the success of the Iberian explorers naturally led to territorial disputes between the neighbouring countries. An Accord sponsored by the Church aimed at dividing trading and colonising rights for all newly discovered lands to the exclusion of all other European nations was agreed. The Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494, provided a permanent line of demarcation, splitting the new world between Spain and Portugal, whilst the Treaty of Saragossa, signed in 1529, similarly recognised each country’s sphere of influence in Asia. With the backing of the Catholic Church, two relatively small countries from a peninsula in southwest Europe, who just several decades earlier had been impoverished, now carved the world between themselves.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam
  19. The Mongols
  20. Black Death & DiseaseBlack Death & Disease
  21. Indian Ocean Trade
  22. The Venetians & The Ottomans: A Convenient Relationship
  23. Rise of the Bear: Early Russia
  24. The Renaissance

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