European Exploration, Perception of the Other, and the Columbian Exchange

What factors contributed to the European interest in exploration?

Motivations for European exploration have traditionally been summarized in history textbooks with the catchy phrase God, Gold, and Glory. However, the explanations for each: God as the push to convert to Christianity, gold as the search for wealth, and glory as a spirit of adventure, tends to oversimplify a more complex network of economic, religious, political, and intellectual factors that drove the age of exploration. This section explores these complex factors in more detail. Trade between Europe and East Asia existed for centuries, but it was only in the late thirteenth century that European explorers first traveled directly to India, China, and Indonesia. Europe developed direct connections to Asia in part due to the Mongol Empire’s active encouragement of trade from the early 1200s. Marco Polo’s overland travels on the Silk Road to the Mongol court inspired others, particularly Genoese traders eager to compete with Venetian merchants. Internal conflicts within the empire, however, made continuous trade difficult and by 1368 the collapse of the Mongol Empire effectively ended European trade along the Silk Road. The desire for luxury goods like porcelain, tea, silk, and spices from the East continued, however, and so new routes needed to be found. This sense that the East was closed to Europe was further exacerbated by the Ottoman Turks who had risen to power in the wake of Mongol conquests. While the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 did not itself close Mediterranean trade routes, it contributed to a sense of loss among Christian Europeans whose competitive, crusading spirit was reignited by seeing the Byzantine Empire and Jerusalem in Muslim hands. A desire to expand Christendom and to pursue the Reconquista to push Islam not only out of Spain but out of North Africa and prevent its spread to Asia spurred countries like Portugal and Spain to explore, claim, and convert new lands. Claiming lands was done in the name of Christianity, but also in the name of king and country. Conquests added to a kingdom’s political dominion and to its economic resources from fishing waters and farmland to timber and tobacco. Discovery became a political chess match and each success by a kingdom drove further efforts to expand and block competitors. Precious metals like silver and gold were in particularly high demand. For centuries, European kingdoms had purchased Asian spices and luxury goods with their stock of silver and gold, since China and India had little interest in other European trade goods. But, by the fifteenth century the European supply of precious metals was running low. This need to tap new sources of metals led to the creation of larger, sturdier ships like the Portuguese caravel that could venture ever further along the coast of West Africa to directly control sub-Saharan gold mines, and later the sugar plantation and slave trade there. These improvements in shipbuilding, and simultaneous improvements in the scientific tools of maritime navigation like the mariner’s astrolabe to find latitude and in cartography to design more accurate maps, would give Europeans confidence to sail further into the Atlantic. The scholars and contemporaries of the age of exploration in this section address this complicated question of what drove Europeans to explore the wider world in the fifteenth century. From their work emerges a picture of exploration whose economic, religious, intellectual, and political origins are more complex than God, Gold, and Glory can convey.