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Aspects of America's past

The Voyages of Discovery:
Some Causes

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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For many reasons the Europeans were perfectly poised in the late 15th century to undertake the voyages of discovery. Lengthy overland travel was nothing new, with such people as Marco Polo having penetrated as far as China in the 13th century. But other factors now came into play.


What was novel about the 15th and 16th centuries was that the voyages were sponsored not only by the large trading companies but also for the first time by the state.

It was therefore no longer an individual affair. Furthermore, the economies of the various evolving European states, especially along the Atlantic sea-board, were beginning to rise after the economic collapse of the 14th century.

The new economic system of mercantilism was also pushing the emerging nations into seeking sources of precious metals so as to advance the manufacture of money. Europe's gold deposits were exhausted and Germany's silver mines were unable to meet the demands.

Without money, there could be no real expansion of commerce. Bullion was not just wealth but was also the means to acquire further wealth.


There was also a desire for cheaper spices. Because of transport difficulties and lack of refrigeration, meat had to be salted or it would putrefy. Spices were therefore necessary simply to make the meat edible, not merely to make it more delicious.

The overland trade route from India, however, meant that spices were always in short supply and were expensive and, once the Ottoman Empire had begun to flex its military muscles in the 15th century, the overland route became extremely dangerous to say the least.


A missionary zeal too was always close to the heart of many of the princes of Europe. Governments and individuals alike believed that it was Europe's manifest destiny to convert the "infidel".

Even Christopher Columbus wrote of what he conceived to be the principal wish of his most serene King, namely, "the conversion of these people to the holy faith of Christ". Religion and trade therefore worked hand in hand.

It is noticeable, however, that when the need for bullion diminished during the 17th century, the government sponsorship of voyages of discovery also vanished.


There were other aspects which contributed towards the voyages of discovery. First, Europe had at last developed ships capable of undertaking long sea-voyages. When ships were small and relied on rowing (like the Viking vessels) such world-wide undertakings were almost impossible.

The European vessels of the 15th century, however, were wind propelled and fastened with nails so that, although continual pumping was essential to prevent flooding, they nevertheless could now withstand many years of sailing without going to pieces.

The Europeans had also invented gunpowder and so their ships could carry cannons for self-defence. They were therefore relatively impregnable when at sea, or when confronted by Moslem or Chinese vessels which depended upon ramming and boarding into order to conquer.

On land, the Europeans were also superior with their guns and canons, and plain cunning. In this way Pizarro, accompanied by a mere 200 men armed only with guns and treachery, was able to conquer the might of the Inca Empire.

He was then able to rule the country with so few men because the Inca government had been extremely well organised, so that it was simply a matter of using the organisation that was already in place.


Another important aspect was that life during this period was relatively short. Although a sailor had not much more than a 25% chance of returning from a voyage alive, his prospects of living to the grand age of 30 in the cities of Europe was also rather remote.

The sailor therefore did not find the hazards of exploration as lurid a contrast to ordinary life that such a voyage would present today.

Furthermore, because the voyages of discovery were mostly backed by wealthy financiers and princes, the salary of a sailor on board such a ship was usually much higher than for a simple trading voyage in the Mediterranean.


Politically Europe was also a densely packed conglomeration of evolving states, each jealous of the other and determined not to be left behind in the race for wealth.

Where Portugal led, Spain was bound to follow, while France and England would not be far behind. Furthermore, Renaissance and Reformation Christianity bred a race of people who were both militant and expansionist.

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