Scholarly Source: Malyn Newitt, A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion, 1400–1668

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

What factors contributed to the European interest in exploration?

Malyn Newitt, A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion, 1400–1668 (New York: Routledge, 2005)

Malyn Newitt is Professor of History in the Department of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at King's College in London. Her areas of research include Portuguese colonial history and Indian Ocean history, and she has particular interest in Mozambique, Sao Tome, and the Comores Islands.

The history of Portuguese expansion is at once very well known and hardly known at all. Virtually every history of Europe has a reference to Henry “the Navigator” and Vasco da Gama . . . However, beyond these points of recognition, knowledge quickly evaporates. . . .

Portuguese enterprise can only be understood when seen in the context of Europe’s commercial relations with the East, the adverse balance of trade and the search for bullion to cover the payments gap; the decline of the economies of the Middle East and the shift of sugar production to the western Mediterranean with the consequent rise in the demand for land and slave labor; the expansion of the Genoese commercial empire in western and northern Europe and the development of map making, shipping and commercial infrastructure that accompanied it; and finally in terms of political and social struggles within Portugal itself which generated the first impulse toward emigration—always a powerful undercurrent and often one of the principal driving forces of expansion. . .

The overland routes were always subject to political interference, for the great cities like Bukhara and Samarkand, which lay along the caravan roads, attracted the jealous eyes of conquerors and were the object of endless disputes between the powerful clans of Central Asia. Increasingly the sea came to appear less hazardous and in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the flow of seaborne commerce grew. . . .

Some of this trade in luxury products was destined for the cities of the Mediterranean. . . in the fifteenth century the Mediterranean was increasingly served by the sea route that brought goods to either Basra or Suez. From Basra. . . goods were carried by land to the Syrian ports, while from Suez there was a short overland journey to Cairo. Whatever the route adopted, Europeans remained on the fringe of this trading system. This was partly a matter of geography, but it also reflected Europe’s unfavorable commercial position for, although the Europeans were eager to purchase spices (especially pepper), silks, cotton cloth and other exotic goods, they lacked the high-value products or manufactures that were in demand in the East. . . European trade had to be paid for with bullion—by the export of gold and silver. . . and led periodically to the search for new sources of [gold and silver] supply.