The major cause of the earliest European voyages of discovery was economic. The Europeans were searching for sea routes that would allow them to engage in more direct trade with Asia.
By the time of the Age of Exploration, the spices that came from Asia were a very valuable commodity. They could not be gotten anywhere else and they were very important to Europeans. The spices generally came to the Europeans through Muslim traders in the Middle East. This, of course, raised prices and made the Europeans dependent on those traders. For these reasons, Europeans wanted to find their own way to trade with Asia.
This was the motivation, for example, of the voyages of Portuguese explorers like Vasco da Gama. They were trying to find the way around Africa. If they could get around Africa, they could sail their own ships to Asia and trade directly with the people who had the spices. In 1492, Columbus was trying to reach Asia by sailing west. He, too, wanted to get to Asia in order to trade. Thus, we can see that the main cause of the voyages of exploration was economic.
The European Age of Exploration began in the early fifteenth century and was fueled by competition between various evolving empires and the quest for economic, intellectual, and religious growth.
Because European were cut off from travel to the "Far East" by the conquering of large portions of North Africa, the Mediterranean, France, and Spain in the eighth century, explorers set off by sea to find new trade routes that would allow them to trade with Asia in the pursuit of luxury goods.
This time period also saw the growth of Humanism and curiosity about the rest of the world, as European understanding of geography (and the discovery of the Americas) began to evolve and reveal the true scale of the planet. Explorers who encountered new animals and plant life on their journeys were able to provide detailed descriptions of them, leading to later natural and scientific discoveries and inventions.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church encouraged the role of conversion and the spread of Christian beliefs, which led many missionaries to accompany explorers on their travels to various "savage" lands in order to "save" the natives.
So, we might ultimately say that early European exploration began out of a desire for economic conquest and continued as a means of making intellectual discoveries and spreading religious ideals.
Early European exploration voyages began during the 1400s as they lost access to normal overland trade routes across Asia. The Mongolians had allowed Europeans to travel overland to trade, mostly for spices, but as the Turks took over, the overland routes were denied to them.
Further, Muslims refused to trade with Europeans and the Mediterranean was controlled by Islams so goods such as silks and spices were no longer available. A search began for new sources of such luxury items by searching Atlantic coast lands. The Europeans branched out, undertaking voyages of exploration to farther away lands in search of riches and luxury items such as silk and spices. As the voyages continued, the Europeans also sought to convert souls to their religion, take control of other countries and gain personal fame.
Initially however, the voyages began as a means of locating goods such as spices and silks through opening up new routes of trade since their overland trade routes were restricted.
Some of the causes of the European voyages of exploration were:
- Alternate trade routes: Europe was dependent on Middle East countries for the import of spices and was looking for alternate trade routes to Asia and Africa to obtain spices (ginger, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, etc.) and luxury goods (silk, gold, ivory, etc.) cheaply.
- Spread of Christianity: A number of voyages were motivated by the intention to spread the word of Christianity to the new colonies.
- Post-Renaissance spirit: Voyagers were also motivated by the Renaissance and wanted to explore new horizons.
- Colonialism: Many colonial powers wished to expand their territory and unexplored lands provided a great incentive. They wanted to beat the competition and capture new lands before other colonial countries.
This led to the discovery of routes to India and the West Indies and the establishment of these and other countries as European colonies.