Exploration and Discovery:
Europe on the Eve of the Great Exchange

[ Assignments ]



On the eve of the Age of Exploration and Discovery, educated Europeans had knowledge of the world beyond their continent; they also had: an insatiable demand for spices from the East, sugar from West Asia, and gold or specie with which to purchase these luxuries-that-had-become necessities by the middle of the 15th century. The Iberians were ideally situated to trade directly with West Africa's "kingdoms of gold," such as that of Mansa Musa of Mali whose image, sitting on a throne of gold, can be detected in the early portolan* (right.) Portuguese explorers began the Age of Exploration and Discovery with their southern voyages, one of the goals of which was to tap into the gold of Africa, bypassing the Berber-Tuareg middlemen of the Trans-Sahara trade routes. Direct access to the gold of Africa would finance voyages to the fabled wealth of Asia, especially its spices.


*Portolan, literally, means "harbor guide." These nautical maps were developed
and compiled by sailors, fishermen, navigators, etc. Their empirical data
were often at odds with officially (and Church) sanctioned geographies.

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Pressures to locate a direct, all water route to Asian spices motivated both Portugal and Spain as Ottoman expansion into the Mediterranean Sea curtailed European access to these products. Europeans wished to bypass the expensive Arab/Islamic middlemen who profited from the Silk Roads' overland and maritime trade routes and made Asian products prohibitively expensive for all but the elites. The dotted line represents Indian Ocean commerce, dominated by Arabs in their dhows, as well as a portion of the travels of Ibn Battuta (discussed more fully below.)


Go to the next site and scroll down for a map of the caravan route of the Silk Road and thorough discussion
http://library.thinkquest.org/13406/sr/ >

In the winter of 2009-2010, the American Museum of Natural History presented an
exhibition entitled, "Traveling the Silk Road." A tantalizing slide show illustrates
fascinating artifacts and information about the caravan route in the era 600-1200
http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2009/11/13/arts/20091113-silk_index.html >

Arab dhows, with their triangular sails, plied the Indian Ocean, utilizing the wind patterns of the seasonal monsoons, as you know from visiting the interactive Ucalgary site. It was the Arabs who supplied the Swahili states of East Africa with Asian goods, especially cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean.
It was the Arabs whose camel caravans wended their way over the Silk Roads from distant Chang-an/Xian across Central Asia to ports on the Black Sea, thence to Europe.

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During the period of Mongol hegemony (domination,) goods, people, ideas, foods, and disease pathogens diffused across the broad expanse of these trade networks. Middlemen took their share of profits and expedited the flow of products, cultures, technologies, and germs.


CNN Millennium The Thirteenth Century, "The Pax Mongolica"
< https://docs.google.com/a/castilleja.org/file/d/0B7C7XJEEbqfCeDZSREV4YXQ1Yms/edit >

In the 13th century, the Mongols overthrew China's Song Dynasty and established the Yuan ("New Beginning") Dynasty that ruled the Celestial Kingdom and dominated Asia for the next century. Establishing the so-called Pax Mongolica, the Mongols enforced peace across East and Central Asia, allowing for indirect trade and contacts with Europe. A major event for Europeans came with the epic journey of the Polo family (Marco, his father, and uncle) that took them from Venice to the court of the Great Khan. Note that the red lines indicating Marco Polo's route begin and end in Italy.

(the URL above should have taken you to links to the map above)--alas, flown away (technology strikes again!)
For another map of Marco Polo's voyages, visit
http://www.rain.org/campinternet/astronomy/marco_polo_img.html >
In the Footsteps of Marco Polo (FYI)

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The Moroccan-born Muslim scholar and traveler, Ibn Battuta, covered even more territory than Marco Polo! Beginning as an Islamic pilgrim on a traditional hajj to the sacred centers of Mecca and Medina, he traveled all over the "known world." He set out in 1325, at the age of twenty- two, concluding his epic journey in 1354. In less than thirty years, he traveled over 75,000 miles, visited India, China, Ceylon/Sri Lanka, Sumatra, the Swahili states of East Africa, and the African interior as far south as the Niger River (with a side trip up into Muslim Spain.) He was kidnapped, shipwrecked, and a victim of pirates. Like Marco Polo a century before, he took advantage of the Pax Mongolica; like Marco Polo, he recorded his observations for contemporary and future readers. The journals of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, early and late during the Mongol hegemony, provided incentives and data to the later Iberians as they began their epochal quests for direct, all-water routes to the riches of Asia. (Tignor 5)


For more information on Ibn Battuta, see The Travels of Ibn Battuta by Ross Dunn and/or
National Geographic Magazine,
December, 1991.
Better yet, visit the Youtube site < The Journey of Ibn Battuta >--strongly urged!!

About the same time that Ibn Battuta was criss-crossing Eurasia, another "traveler" made its way from East Asia across the Silk Roads via domesticated animals, rodents, possibly camels infested with the flea that played host to the Yersinia pestis bacterium, deadly carrier of the Bubonic Plague. Originating beyond the Great Wall, the Black Death made its way across the commercial networks, reaching the Black Sea in 1347 and the Italian ports in 1348. The pandemic killed "an estimated 43 million people worldwide, including 25 million in Europe." (Bishop)

Visit the Black Death/Plague site below to see interactive map of its spread
(follow link provided)

< http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072424370/student_view0/animated_maps.html# >


Against this backdrop, the Portuguese under the sponsorship of King John and Prince Henry the Navigator sparked the Age of Exploration and Discovery. Intrepid adventurers such as Dias and da Gama studied the latest technologies at Prince Henry's school and set off South, hugging the coastal waters of West Africa and making direct contact with the legendary "kingdoms of gold." (Of their slaving endeavors, more later.) Dias rounded the tip of Africa in 1488; da Gama reached India (with the assistance of an Arab [i.e. Muslim] pilot) in 1498. (Image, Hodges)

As you learned in Bentley and Ziegler, the Portuguese had the motives (glory, gold, God) and means (technology) to "lead the pack" to the gold and ivory of Africa, hence to the spices and other treasures of Asia. Europeans, particularly the Iberians and specifically the Portuguese, understood coastal contours and the wind and current patterns of the Atlantic. They studied the maps or portolani mentioned above. They mastered the technology of compass and astrolabe and experimented with new ship construction that incorporated the high stern post rudder, multiple masts and sails (combining square and triangular [lateen] sails, and a heavier hull that could withstand the stormy Atlantic. Their caravel design "combined the maneuverability and speed offered by lateen sails with the carrying capacity and seaworthiness of the square-riggers. For a century, caravels were the feared 'sea-raiders' of the oceans" (Duiker and Spielvogel 404). Dias rounded the Cape of Storms, renamed the Cape of Good Hope, while da Gama pressed on to India.

**Go to < http://www.ucalgary.ca/applied_history/tutor/eurvoya/map.html >**

For more on the caravel, and possibly more than you want to know, visit
< http://nautarch.tamu.edu/shiplab/01George/caravela/htmls/Caravel%20History.htm >

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Christopher Columbus secured a commission from Isabella of Castille to go West in search of the riches of the East. He knew, as did Europe's educated elites, that the world was round. However, he was unaware of the actual size of the globe, accepting Ptolemy's estimate of an 18,000 mile circumference rather than Eratosthenes' 28,000 mile estimate. Nor did he imagine the existence of the Western Hemisphere. Columbus and his three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, bumped into Hispaniola (thinking it was Japan [Zipangu]) and touched base in the Bahamas and Cuba in the fall of 1492. See below for Columbus' route and a version of his route superimposed on a real map. Contemporary artist's rendering of CC/left) http://www1.minn.net/~keithp/ )--site has fled

< http://www1.minn.net/~keithp/v1.htm >--site has fled


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For help in completing the first map assignment, go to [ Helpful Maps ]

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http://www.mariner.org/age/images/lg_universal.jpg (Background image)
The Mariners' Museum, December 1997.

Applied History Research Group. European Voyages of Exploration. 1997. Online Available.
< http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/HIST/tutor/eurvoya/vasco.html >

Bay-Journal. "Europeans Come to America." Online Available.
< http://bay-journal.com/bay/1hi/eur.html >

Bentley, Jerry and Herbert Ziegler. Traditions and Encounters, 3rd edition. Boston, et al.: McGraw Hill, 2006.

Bishop, Rebecca. "The History of the Bubonic Plague." Online Available.
< http://dpalm.med.uth.tmc.edu/courses/BT2003/BTstudents2003_files%5CPlague2003.htm >

Duiker, William and Jackson Spielvogel. World History, vol. ii., 3rd edition. Belmont, et al.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001.

Goldstone, Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone. Out of the Flames. New York: Broadway Books, 2002.

Halsall, Paul. "Internet East Asian History Sourcebook." Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Online Available.
< http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/eastasia/eastasiasbook.html#Imperial%20China >

Henry Davis Consulting. Cartographic Images. Online Available.
< http://www.henry-davis.com/MAPS/LMwebpages/235B.html >

Hodges, Miles. "People of Action during the Renaissance and Reformation." Online Available.
< http://www.newgenevacenter.org/movers/renaiss-reform2.htm#Prince%20Henry >

Loftus, Melissa, et al."The Black Death 1347-1350." Insecta Inspecta World. Online Available.
< http://www.insecta-inspecta.com/fleas/bdeath/Europe >

Pickering, Keith A. The Columbus Navigation Homepage. 1999.
< http://www1.minn.net/~keithp/v1.htm >

Tignor, Robert, et al. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2002.

Wass, Ken. History Today. May 1992.