Why did Europeans Explore?

Engraving by Jacques de Gheyn

Engraving by Jacques de Gheyn

The fifteenth century was an exciting time in Europe. People became more interested in the world around them. The invention of movable type helped spread information and new ideas. Artists and writers flourished. At the same time, nations saw trade as a way of increasing their wealth. Merchants dreamed of new sources for goods such as gold and spices. For centuries, Arab traders had controlled existing trade routes to Africa and Asia, which meant European merchants were forced to buy from Italian traders at high prices. They wanted to trade directly with Africa and Asia, but this meant that they had to find a new sea route. The stakes were high. Whoever succeeded in establishing trade relationships would in all likelihood become rich and achieve great famefor himself and for his country. However, exploration of this nature was very dangerous business. Superstitions persisted about what lay beyond Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, as no European had even seen the west coast of Africa beyond the Sahara. There were no maps or charts and very little knowledge of winds or currents.

Since the Portuguese were at peace and not locked in war the way France and England were, they became the first to accept the challenge of sailing uncharted waters, thanks to Prince Henry, who became known as Prince Henry the Navigator. Though Prince Henry did not sail himself, he made it possible for others to do so. He set up a center for exploration where interested people could share their knowledge of geography. Here they learned all they could about maps and navigation, including the use of the magnetic compass and the astrolabe. Portuguese shipbuilders developed a new kind of ship called a caravel, which could sail into the wind as well as with the wind. Armed with this knowledge, Portugal led the way. During the 1440s, brave sailors set sail and explored the African coast farther than ever before. In 1488 Bartholomeu Dias managed to sail around the southern tip of Africa, only to turn back because the crew was afraid to continue. Ten years later, Vasco da Gama completed the voyage around Africa and on to India. These accomplishments paved the way for others to explore and reach the riches of Asia. Even more important, Prince Henry’s sailors overcame the fear of the unknown and led the way for others to turn westward to the Atlantic and the Americas, where eventually the small settlement of Jamestown would be born.