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The Geographical Discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries

The Geographical Discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries constitute an important chapter in the history of the modern world. It is also known as the Age of Discovery.

Geographical discoveries

The Geographical Discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries constitute an important chapter in the history of the modern world. It is also known as the Age of Discovery. The new sea routes to the East as well as the discovery of new continents like the America radically transformed the course of history. The adventurous spirit of the sailors like Bartholomew Diaz, Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan ultimately led to these historic discoveries. There are several causes that led to these discoveries.


Causes for the Geographical Discoveries


In 1453, the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, the important trade route to the East. Thus, the Turks began to control the European trade with the East. They imposed heavy duties on the goods. On the other hand, the Arab traders continued their trade through the Coasts of India and got huge profits in spice trade. Therefore, the Europeans were forced to find an alternative route to the East.

The Renaissance spirit and the consequent scientific discoveries were also responsible for geographical discoveries. The art of ship-building developed along with the invention of Mariner's Compass. The astronomical and other scientific discoveries raised the hope of the adventurers to explore new sea routes.


The travel accounts of Marco Polo and Nicolo Polo about China and India kindled great enthusiasm among the Europeans about the fabulous wealth of the Eastern countries. Other accounts of the voyages also encouraged explorations. A Merchants Handbook described all known trade routes between Europe and the Far East. Similarly, the Secrets of the Faithful Crusader told about Asiatic cities.


Other factors such as the spirit of adventure, desire for new lands and competition for exploration between European nations had also stimulated the explorers venturing into the seas.


The first great wave of expeditions was launched by Portugal. Its ruler was Henry (1394-1460) generally known as 'the Navigator'. As a result of his efforts, the Madeira and Azores Islands were discovered. The main project of Henry the Navigator was the exploration of the West Coast of Africa. His sailors discovered the Cape Verde Islands. Although Henry died in 1460, his zeal provided stimulus to the Portuguese for further explorations. In 1487 Bartholomew Diaz reached the southern tip of Africa and called it 'the Cape of Storms' due to a terrible storm he experienced there. Later it was renamed as 'the Cape of Good Hope' because it provided hope that access to the Indian Ocean was possible. Vasco da Gama  successfully used this route and reached India in 1498. Vasco da Gama's discovery of a new sea-route to India was a most significant event in the history of Europe and Asia.




Next to Portugal, Spain began to explore the sea route to the east. Christopher Columbus, a Genoese sailor, planned to discover a new sea route to the East by traveling westwards.


After securing monetary assistance from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, he set sail on August 3, 1492 across the Atlantic. After a long and difficult voyage he reached an island of the Bahamas on Oct 12, 1492. He thought that he had reached the shores of India. Therefore, he called COLOUMBUS the natives of that island Indians. He made three more voyages and explored the islands in the Caribbean Sea and Central America. These islands are even today called as the West Indies.

Later in 1501, Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian navigator, with the support of the king of Spain explored the areas of South America. He came to the conclusion that what Columbus discovered was not India but a 'New World'. Therefore the new continent was named as America. However, Columbus is considered as the discoverer of America.

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a Bull in order to prevent any dispute between Spain and Portugal in exploring new sea routes and new lands.

It is popularly called the Papal Bull (order of Pope). According to it an imaginary line was drawn dividing the globe into east and west. Spain was given the right to possess the lands on the west and Portugal on the east of the Pope's line. Thus, Spain could not use sea route through the Cape of Good Hope to reach the East Indies.


Therefore, Spain planned to reach the east by sailing westwards. On August 10, 1519, Ferdinand Magellan had sailed with five Spanish ships - namely, Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepcion, Victoria, and Santiago - from the port of Sevilla. The fleet of Magellan crossed an arduous 373-mile long passage on the southern end of South America. This strait is now named the Strait of Magellan. Then he entered an ocean which was calmer than the Atlantic. Therefore, he named it the Pacific Ocean. While crossing the Pacific, the sailors suffered for want of food and drinking-water. At last, on March 6, 1521, they reached the Philippines, where Magellan was killed by the natives. The survivors with the only remaining ship, the Victoria arrived at Sevilla through the Cape of Good Hope on September 9, 1522. It was the first voyage undertaken round the world.

Other Geographical Discoveries

In 1497, John Cabot was sent by Henry VII of England to explore the seas. He discovered the Newfoundland. In his next expedition, he reached North America and explored it. But he was not able to find any people there and returned to England disappointed. However, this voyage resulted in the claim of England to the mainland of North America. In 1534, Jacques Cartier from France went to the North America and explored the region. He found the Red Indian settlements and named that region as Canada.

Impact of the Geographical Discoveries


The geographical discoveries had a profound impact on the economic, political and social conditions in most parts of the world. The most important among them are:

There was a tremendous improvement in the trade and industry in Europe. It began to reach beyond the Oceans.


The expansion of trade provided a stimulus to the development of ship-building industry. Larger quantities of goods had to be carried in bigger ships.


As the trade developed in large scale, joint-stock companies and banking enterprises emerged. European companies established their trade centres in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The trading companies slowly captured political power and established their rule in their respective regions. This led to Colonialism and Imperialism.


Capitalism had grown in Europe along with the policy of Mercantilism. As a result, the colonies were exploited.


The mad rush for new colonies led to mutual rivalry among the European powers and ultimately resulted in wars.


The system of slavery was followed. The European planters in America imported Negro slaves from Africa to work in their plantations.


The geographical discoveries solved the problem of over population in Europe and many Europeans began to settle in the American continents.


The culture of Europe had spread to Asia, Africa and other parts of the world very rapidly.

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