Lecture: Age of Discovery

When I was in school, I recall having to trace the paths of the great European discoverers as they explored the coasts of what later became America. I also recall the story of Christopher Columbus. I learned he was an Italian who sailed for Spain, that Queen Isabella had pawned her jewels to finance his trip, that he had three ships, and that he was right when everyone else was wrong. He believed the world was round, but everyone else thought it was flat and that he would fall off the edge. He had believed that there were new lands to be discovered to the west, but no one believed him. He sailed anyway and was proved right, and that's how America was discovered. By implication, it was good to be like Columbus, to have the moral character to stand up to people when you were right and they were wrong.

All of this, I found out later, is wrong. Only the lines marking his routes were correct. Oh, and the number of ships.

Before Columbus

In 1453, the Ottoman Turks took over Constantinople. It had been fought over for a long time with the Byzantine Christians. But now it was secured.

Constantinople was the wealthiest city in the western hemisphere. It was the crossover point between Europe and Asia. I had to use two pages from two different atlases to show all the trade routes of that time. The arrow marks Constantinople.

Trade routes

Now what I was told was that because the Ottoman Turks were Muslim, when they captured Constantinople they wouldn't let Christians go through, so that's why other routes to the east had to be found. Turns out that wasn't true either. What the Turks did was raise the taxes for moving goods through the city, and Europeans got no special privileges. This made the price of transport higher, which made the price of their goods higher in Europe, so they lost money. Yes, it's just basic economics.

At the same time, Iberia (the peninsula containing Spain and Portugal) were struggling with high taxes on goods also, which they were obtaining from west Africa. The big ones were gold and salt. They knew these came from the Sahara or southward, then were traded via Saracen and other Muslim traders to the West. Portugal's Prince Henry had the idea of cutting out the Muslim middlemen to trade directly with the west Africans. At the time, here was the knowledge of the world:

Ptolemy's map reconstructed

So in the late 15th century, Prince Henry (later known as The Navigator) began voyages down the west coast of Africa, seeking direct trade. He began in 1415, long before the Ottomans captured Constantinople. Africa, as you can see in the map, was not yet known south of the Sahara, but after Henry other Portugese took up the explorations, until by 1498 (six years after Columbus' first voyage), Vasco de Gama had rounded the cape of Africa and gotten to India.

In the 1480s, Columbus knew about these explorations and became convinced that he could sail west and get to the riches of Japan and China, and possibly India too.

The Technology

What made all this exploration possible was a ship which combined the best of maritime technology. The lateen boat (left) is still used today in the Indian Ocean and along the coast of Africa, as well as in the Mediterranean. Its triangular (lateen) sails made for easy maneuverability in and out of tight ports, and can pick up even the lightest wind. It also had a shallow draft, so it could move into shallow water ports. The square sail ship (right - this one is Viking) has a deeper draft to keep it from blowing over in strong ocean winds and currents, and the square sail can handle gale-force winds to move the heavy ship forward.


When  you combine the lateen sails with the square sail rigging, and balance the hull, you get the caravel, the ship that could maneuver on the coast, and cross an ocean.

Columbus' Discovery

Columbus, an Italian, began his quest by going to five of the great princes' courts in Italy, trying to raise money for his scheme. But Italy was full of Renaissance scholars who knew ancient science and geography. They all refused to finance the voyage because they did not know the Americas were there (no one did) but they did know the exact size of the earth.

It's a myth that Columbus believed the world was round while everyone else thought it was flat. Everyone since the Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians not only knew the world was round, but they had measured its circumference accurately in ancient times. (Just go out to Point Loma and look at the horizon line and you can see the world is round.) The mariners of the 15th century had a term for the point at which you will run out of food and water on your journey if you do not turn around and go back: "the ends of the earth". Since Europeans did not yet know of the presence of the American continents, but they did know the size of the earth, the presumption was that Columbus would have to cross many thousands of miles of open ocean, and could not survive with the amount of food and water one could carry on a caravel. Thus he would reach "the ends of the earth" and die. Perhaps this has been misinterpreted as falling off the edge?

(By the way, the stories of Columbus proving the earth was not flat derive from early 20th century efforts to make immigrant children fit into the American melting pot, and European heroes were part of that. It is easy to explain to small children how an Italian mariner showed everyone he was right and they were wrong by using the flat earth story.)

Since the educated Italians would not fund the voyage, Columbus went to Spain, which was just finishing up its Reconquista (kicking all the Jews and Muslims out of Spain in the name of pure Christianity). Isabella was a fervent Christian but knew nothing about geography. Columbus was able to convince her that the earth's circumference was small enough, and that Asia was big enough, that if he sailed 3,000  miles west he would get to Japan. As proof, he brought in a couple of skulls and some driftwood that had washed up on the beach, but no one could identify, so they must come from faaaaaar away.

Unfortunately for his reputation if not his discoveries, Columbus relied on outmoded, obscure calculations of the earth's circumference, which claimed it was a third smaller than it actually is. He also relied on Marco Polo's calculation of the size of Eurasia, which was wrong, claiming it was about a third larger than it is. (Understandable, since Polo and his father and uncle had walked from Italy to China twice, and it must have seemed huge!) These false calculations put the east coast of Asia about 3,000 miles west of Portugal. Lucky for him that the Americas were about 3,000 miles away, just at the "ends of the earth", and he found land. His crew was about to mutiny to return home.

Columbus believed he was on islands off the coast of India, because he really was a good mariner and he knew he had drifted southward in latitude. He reported back:

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Over four voyages, Columbus always believed he was in India, calling the natives Indians. But others knew that couldn't be right. One reason was the monkeys. Columbus crew brought back monkeys with prehensile tails. European and African monkeys do not have prehensile tails -- their tails are for balance, and they can't hold onto tree branches with them. But the new monkeys would hang from the palace fixtures with their tails. Soon everyone but Columbus realized that a truly new place had been discovered. But Columbus himself and those who followed focused on looking for gold (not much of which was there), and enslaving the natives to find it. In 1494, Spain appealed to the pope for a monopoly on exploration in the New World. In the Treaty of Tordesillas, a map was divided between a monopoly by Spain in the west, and Portugal in the east. The Portugese got Africa and India (and ,as it turned out, Brazil - which is why they speak Portugese in Brazil). By 1509, conquistadore Hernan Cortes had conquered the Aztec empire in Mexico, and colonization began in earnest.

As more and more native Americans were enslaved and died from disease, some Spaniards began to realize the ethical and moral implications of colonization. Bartolome de las Casas championed the Indians within Church arguments and debates about limiting the abuse of natives. He reported:

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The Columbian Exhange and Trans-Atlantic Slavery

On a macro level, two global regions that had been isolated from each other collided with great force in the New World. Historian Alfred Crosby has called the long-term transfer of plants, animals and diseases between these regions the "Columbian Exhange". This map gives an idea:

Columbian Exhange

The diseases (you can see the Mexicans suffering from smallpox in the lower left) killed off amazing numbers of Native Americans, because they had no immunity from long-term contact. This still happens today when an isolated tribe is discovered. Cortes considered their die-off as proof of God's support for the conquistadores. Many of those who didn't die ran away, using their knowledge of the terrain to escape. The result was that the Spanish, and later the Portugese in Brazil, didn't have enough labor to do the mining and farming necessary to make their new landholdings pay.

But in Africa, there was a source of labor. Since the 13th century, west African kingdoms had been expanding due to advanced political organization and domination of trans-Saharan trade routes. As these kingdoms expanded, they captured prisoners and traded them away. This provided both wealth for wars and got rid of populations that might rise up and cause trouble. These slaves were traded across the Sahara, and many had ended up in east Africa. Such slavery was not very abusive (despite the difficult trip) and slaves tended to be treated well in east Africa as part of the thriving economy there. High-class prisoners fetched higher values and were often able to pay their way to freedom for themselves or at least their children; lower-class prisoners were sold to do the work appropriate to their skills, be it silversmithing or farming. Muslim slave-traders dominated the trans-Saharan slave trade.

Europeans began arriving at west African ports and requesting slaves. It was handy for west African kingdoms, expanding inland and capturing prisoners of war, to trade these prisoners on the coast instead of to Muslim trans-Saharan traders. The character of the trade changed, and entrepreneurs on the west coast began journeying inland deliberately to capture people for what was becoming a trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The character of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was far more brutal than the trans-Saharan trade. Most interior Africans had never seen the ocean, much less a ship. They were piled in like animals, with no respect for class or language. Princes were chained next to peasants of different tribes, and all were treated as chattel. All would be put to mining or agricultural labor regardless of skill. Many threw themselves overboard, either not sure that the journey would ever end (it must have seemed like they had gone to hell) or unable to tolerate the treatment. But enough survived, and with their own disease immunity from Africa were able to reproduce. In Latin America, the children born to them were usually considered free, and intermarried despite various laws discouraging it. In North America, dominated by the 17th century by English and French, they became slaves in perpetuity, with their children inheriting their status.

Patterns of colonialism

voyages mapThese English and French, and the Dutch, concentrated on North America. The French explored and then controlled the Mississippi River Valley and east to Quebec, colonizing with adventurers and fur traders, and collaborating with natives. The English settled along the seaboard and in the far north. The Dutch set up a colony called New Amsterdam, later New York.

In the English colonies along the eastern seaboard, only the south had a labor issue and began importing slaves in the early 17th century. Families of religious dissenters settled in the north, creating small farms. Adventurers and merchants, and eventually farmers from central Europe, came to the middle colonies. In the north and middle colonies, it was more common to use indentured servants, who could make their own lives after seven years of service, and to use family labor.

As we've seen with everyone from the Mespotamians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, geography was a major factor in colonization. While trade could happen anywhere, large-scale settlement tended to occur in areas with similar climate to the home country. Thus we have British slave colonies in the Caribbean, but British homesteads in Massachussetts.


That's it - just chocolate, my favorite food. It came from Mexico, and was combined eventually with sugar from the Atlantic islands and milk from northern Europe to make my favorite drink. Chocolate houses, along with coffee houses, would later fuel the Enlightenment. Although I also understand that pizza, African yams, over a dozen different colors of potatoes, corn on the cob, and bacon are all important foods related to the Columbian Exhange, chocolate trumps them all.

Lessons of History

1. The discoveries made by Europeans around the world were motivated by money.

2. Columbus discovered the new world because he had bad information and was lucky, not because he knew things others did not.

3. The Columbian Exchange gave us slavery and chocolate.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.