European Exploration of America

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What events led to the European exploration of America?

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The strongest event that led to European colonization of the New World was the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. This meant that the way to Eastern silks and spices was closed to the Christian nations of Western Europe. This led Portugal and Spain to seriously seek a water route to Asia. North America was found by accident and soon Europeans sought to colonize it, always hoping that there would be a water route to the rich Asian markets.

There were other events and developments. Improved ships that could be trusted an long ocean voyages made the trip to the New World possible. Rivalries between England, France, and Spain made these countries feel pressure to gain the raw materials such as timber and gold from the New World with which to make war on their enemies. Gutenberg's printing press helped drive feelings of nationalism in Europe that made states powerful enough to organize these massive exploration attempts. Travelogues put before a public hungry for news also led other men to want to explore in order to get their names into the history books. The Protestant Reformation also spurred on European exploration as both Protestants and Catholics sought to recruit members for their side in the colonies. The discovery of North America also tied in with the Protestant way of thinking at the time that the discovery of a potential Eden meant that Christ's return must be close. There were many events that led to the discovery of America, but for me the single-most important one is the sack of Constantinople since that was the major driving force in improving maritime exploration in Western Europe.

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What led to Europe's Age of Exploration?

When historians and scholars speak about the European Age of Exploration, they use the catchphrase "God, glory, and gold" to define the motivations and factors that led to the period of exploration and discovery.

God

Europeans felt it was God's divine will that they explore the world, bringing Christianity to each remote area. This period occurred after the Crusades in the East, when much of the same ideology about the superiority of Christianity was still influencing national decision-making.

Glory

At the end of the Middle Ages, quite a few huge nation-states emerged as powerful bodies in their own right, but they were all clustered together in one place (Europe). This created the sense of rivalry between countries and nationalism for one's own country. Exploring new lands would gain power and wealth for one's home country.

Gold

Gold, though listed last in the catchphrase, is perhaps the biggest motivation. There was much to be gained from establishing new trading routes dealing in Eastern goods and, later, African slaves and American natural resources. As the Age of Exploration wore on, mercantilism grew as the theory of trading which would be most profitable to the home country. The second link below goes into detail on the tenets of mercantilism in this period.

These factors should be thought about in conjunction with factors such as technological advances, the fall of Constantinople, and so on.

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What led to Europe's Age of Exploration?

Any number of factors led to European Exploration, dating back to the Crusades. The Crusades were the first exposure of Europeans to Eastern products which were in high demand in Europe, primarily sugar. Additionally, Marco Polo's book, A Map of the World contained glowing (if inaccurate) descriptions of the wealth of Asia. An example:

It should be understood that the sea in which the Island of Zipangu [Japan] is situated is the sea of CHIN, and so extensive is this eastern sea that according to experienced pilots and mariners, who should know, it contains no fewer than 7,440 islands, mostly inhabited. It is said that every one of the trees which grow in them gives off a fragrant odor. They produce many spices and drugs, particularly aloes, and much pepper, both white and black.

Additionally, the rise of Nation States in Europe led to increased revenue for Monarchs who were able to finance European voyages of discovery. Notable here was the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella which united Spain into a united country.

A final factor was the fall of Constantinople to the Turks on November 27, 1453, Constantinople had been the primary market for Asian goods; however after it was taken by by the Turks, Europeans searched for ways to circumvent the Muslims.

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What led to Europe's Age of Exploration?

The Crusades and the end of the Middle Ages created the conditions needed for the Age of Exploration to happen.  When the crusaders came back from the Middle East, they brought with them silks and spices and other goods from the Far East that people in Europe began to demand.  With the end of the Middle Ages, there was a corresponding increase in trade.  Huge fortunes, especially by Italian merchants and bankers, were made from this trade with the east.  Also with the end of the Middle Ages, nations began to develop and power and wealth became concentrated in monarchs throughtout Europe. These monarchs saw there was money to be made in trade with the east and began to finance trips of exploration.  Most of the voyages of discovery made during the Age of Exploration were in reality attempts to find faster and cheaper trade routes to the Far East.

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What led to Europe's Age of Exploration?

Lots of things led to the age of exploration.  Let me mention just a couple:

  • Improvements in technology.  When Europeans got better ships (caravels) and better navigational equipment, they became more able to go out exploring.
  • Changes in mentality.  The age of exploration came out, to some extent, of the Renaissance.  The Renaissance was a time when people (among other things) became more interested in knowledge.  They wanted to find out what was out there beyond the horizon in ways that they had not really wanted to before.

So these are two causes -- a greater desire to explore and more technology that would make it possible.

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