A Brief History of the Age of Exploration

The age of exploration brought about discoveries and advances

Parade Honoring Magellan's Voyage
An 1891 print shows a parade in honor of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, whose ships circumnavigated the world between 1519 and 1522, Spain, 1522. Magellan, himself, had died in 1521, and the return was achieved under the command of one of Magellan's captains, Juan Sebastian Elcano.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images 

The era known as the Age of Exploration, sometimes called the Age of Discovery, officially began in the early 15th century and lasted through the 17th century. The period is characterized as a time when Europeans began exploring the world by sea in search of new trading routes, wealth, and knowledge. The impact of the Age of Exploration would permanently alter the world and transform geography into the modern science it is today.

Impact of the Age of Exploration

  • Explorers learned more about areas such as Africa and the Americas and brought that knowledge back to Europe.
  • Massive wealth accrued to European colonizers due to trade in goods, spices, and precious metals.
  • Methods of navigation and mapping improved, switching from traditional portolan charts to the world's first nautical maps.
  • New food, plants, and animals were exchanged between the colonies and Europe.
  • Indigenous people were decimated by Europeans, from a combined impact of disease, overwork, and massacres.
  • The workforce needed to support the massive plantations in the New World, led to the trade of enslaved people, which lasted for 300 years and had an enormous impact on Africa.
  • The impact persists to this day, with many of the world's former colonies still considered the "developing" world, while colonizers are the First World countries, holding a majority of the world's wealth and annual income.

The Birth of the Age of Exploration

Many nations were looking for goods such as silver and gold, but one of the biggest reasons for exploration was the desire to find a new route for the spice and silk trades.

Constantinople Falls
The capture and sacking of Constantinople by Turkish troops under Mohammed II, 29th May 1453. The Turkish victory marked the end of the Byzantine Empire and the rise of the Ottomans. Hulton Archive/Getty Images  

When the Ottoman Empire took control of Constantinople in 1453, it blocked European access to the area, severely limiting trade. In addition, it also blocked access to North Africa and the Red Sea, two very important trade routes to the Far East.

The first of the journeys associated with the Age of Discovery were conducted by the Portuguese. Although the Portuguese, Spanish, Italians, and others had been plying the Mediterranean for generations, most sailors kept well within sight of land or traveled known routes between ports. Prince Henry the Navigator changed that, encouraging explorers to sail beyond the mapped routes and discover new trade routes to West Africa.

Portuguese explorers discovered the Madeira Islands in 1419 and the Azores in 1427. Over the coming decades, they would push farther south along the African coast, reaching the coast of present-day Senegal by the 1440s and the Cape of Good Hope by 1490. Less than a decade later, in 1498, Vasco da Gama would follow this route all the way to India.

The Discovery of the New World

Departure of Columbus
Illustration titled 'Embarkation and Departure of Columbus from the Port of Palos', On His First Voyage of Discovery, On The 3rd of August, 1492. Ricardo Balaca/Bettmann/Getty Images

While the Portuguese were opening new sea routes along Africa, the Spanish also dreamed of finding new trade routes to the Far East. Christopher Columbus, an Italian working for the Spanish monarchy, made his first journey in 1492. Instead of reaching India, Columbus found the island of San Salvador in what is known today as the Bahamas. He also explored the island of Hispaniola, home of modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Columbus would lead three more voyages to the Caribbean, exploring parts of Cuba and the Central American coast. The Portuguese also reached the New World when explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral explored Brazil, setting off a conflict between Spain and Portugal over the newly claimed lands. As a result, the Treaty of Tordesillas officially divided the world in half in 1494.

Columbus' journeys opened the door for the Spanish conquest of the Americas. During the next century, men such as Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro would decimate the Aztecs of Mexico, the Incas of Peru, and other indigenous peoples of the Americas. By the end of the Age of Exploration, Spain would rule from the Southwestern United States to the southernmost reaches of Chile and Argentina.

Opening the Americas

Great Britain and France also began seeking new trade routes and lands across the ocean. In 1497, John Cabot, an Italian explorer working for the English, reached what is believed to be the coast of Newfoundland. A number of French and English explorers followed, including Giovanni da Verrazano, who discovered the entrance to the Hudson River in 1524, and Henry Hudson, who mapped the island of Manhattan first in 1609.

Henry Hudson Greeted by Native Americans
Henry Hudson, his boat being greeted by Native Americans at the lakeshore. Bettmann/Getty Images 

Over the next decades, the French, Dutch, and British would all vie for dominance. England established the first permanent colony in North America at Jamestown, Va., in 1607. Samuel du Champlain founded Quebec City in 1608, and Holland established a trading outpost in present-day New York City in 1624.

Other important voyages of exploration during this era included Ferdinand Magellan's attempted circumnavigation of the globe, the search for a trade route to Asia through the Northwest Passage, and Captain James Cook's voyages that allowed him to map various areas and travel as far as Alaska.

The End of the Era

The Age of Exploration ended in the early 17th century after technological advancements and increased knowledge of the world allowed Europeans to travel easily across the globe by sea. The creation of permanent settlements and colonies created a network of communication and trade, therefore ending the need to search for new routes.

It is important to note that exploration did not cease entirely at this time. Eastern Australia was not officially claimed for Britain by Capt. James Cook until 1770, while much of the Arctic and Antarctic were not explored until the 20th century. Much of Africa also was unexplored by Westerners until the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Contributions to Science

The Age of Exploration had a significant impact on geography. By traveling to different regions around the globe, explorers were able to learn more about areas such as Africa and the Americas and bring that knowledge back to Europe.

Methods of navigation and mapping improved as a result of the travels of people such as Prince Henry the Navigator. Prior to his expeditions, navigators had used traditional portolan charts, which were based on coastlines and ports of call, keeping sailors close to shore.

The Spanish and Portuguese explorers who journeyed into the unknown created the world's first nautical maps, delineating not just the geography of the lands they found but also the seaward routes and ocean currents that led them there. As technology advanced and known territory expanded, maps and mapmaking became more and more sophisticated.

These explorations also introduced a whole new world of flora and fauna to Europeans. Corn, now a staple of much of the world's diet, was unknown to Westerners until the time of the Spanish conquest, as were sweet potatoes and peanuts. Likewise, Europeans had never seen turkeys, llamas, or squirrels before setting foot in the Americas.

The Age of Exploration served as a stepping stone for geographic knowledge. It allowed more people to see and study various areas around the world, which increased geographic study, giving us the basis for much of the knowledge we have today.

Long-Term Impact

The effects of colonization still persist as well, with many of the world's former colonies still considered the "developing" world and the colonizers the First World countries, holding a majority of the world's wealth and receiving a majority of its annual income.

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Briney, Amanda. "A Brief History of the Age of Exploration." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/age-of-exploration-1435006. Briney, Amanda. (2023, April 5). A Brief History of the Age of Exploration. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/age-of-exploration-1435006 Briney, Amanda. "A Brief History of the Age of Exploration." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/age-of-exploration-1435006 (accessed May 30, 2023).