European Exploration of America

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How did Christopher Columbus' "discovery of America" change the world?

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Columbus's discovery was world-changing as it helped to establish the existence of the Americas in European awareness, and vice versa. He was not the first European to travel to the Americas, but he was the first to leave a long-lasting impact in this regard. The really significant factor in his...

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Columbus's discovery was world-changing as it helped to establish the existence of the Americas in European awareness, and vice versa. He was not the first European to travel to the Americas, but he was the first to leave a long-lasting impact in this regard. The really significant factor in his voyage was the era which it tool place: the era that has come to be known as the Age of Discovery. This was the age when Europeans began to travel further and further afield, often with royal sanction, as in the case of Columbus who was financed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Spain and Portugal were the pioneering voyaging nations at this time. There were several reasons for this ever-increasing exploration abroad. A major factor was the attempt to find new routes for trade, particularly to the lucrative commercial centres of the East; this was what Columbus was attempting, and on making his first landfall in the Caribbean he thought he had reached India. Another important reason was the drive - particularly on part of the devoutly Catholic Hispanic powers - to convert heathen peoples to Christianity.

The later fifteenth century, then, was a time of great voyages by Europeans and on one level Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas was just another of these. But his turned out to be the most far-reaching one (metaphorically if not literally) because he helped open up an entire new section of the world for further investigation. At a time when geographical exploration was being actively encouraged by governing European powers, it was inevitable that many more voyages would follow along the path that Columbus established. In this way, a truly global awareness began to take shape for the first time. The cultural, material exchange between the eastern and western hemispheres became systematized, not just haphazard.

Columbus, then, paved the way for numerous other voyages from Europe  to the Americas, thus firmly establishing trans-Atlantic connections. This was the beginning of a fruitful exchange which still continues today. But it also caused problems, particularly for native American populations which often fell victim to an excess of Christianizing zeal on part of Europeans which led to the depreciation of indigenous cultures; they were also driven back before European technological superiority (and rapacity). Most of all, though, the native American peoples suffered from the influx of new diseases that Europeans unwittingly brought with them, like smallpox, to which Americans simply were not immune, and which decimated their numbers. There was much hostility between the peoples of the Old and New World, a conflict of mentality also, which often exploded into violent confrontation.

However, the very real sense of wonder and excitement on both sides of the Atlantic at the discovery of unsuspected other realms and cultures cannot be denied. Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas, then, was a true world event in every sense of the term. Its ultimate achievement  was not merely in re-shaping geographical and cultural knowledge, and establishing new routes for the exchange of goods and ideas, but in enlarging the imaginations of peoples across the world and forging a new global perspective.

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