An interest in discovery and exploration grew in Europe in the 1400s. Improvements in navigational tools, cartography, and shipbuilding allowed European sailors to go farther than they ever had before.

Reasons to Explore
Why did people set off to explore the world in the fifteenth century? First, they wanted Asian spices. Italy and Egypt controlled the trade routes to Asia, charging very high prices for spices. In fact, pepper cost more than gold. Many countries wanted to find a route to Asia so they could get spices without having to buy from Italian or Egyptian traders.

Religion gave explorers another reason to set sail. European Christians wanted to convert more people to their religion to counteract the spread of Islam in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Simple curiosity was also an important motivation for exploration. Many people read stories of Marco Polo’s travels and other explorers’ adventures. They learned about new lands and creatures, and they became curious about the world.

Advances in Technology

Whatever their reasons for exploring, Europeans wouldn’t have gotten very far without advances in technology. Sailors started using the astrolabe and the compass to find routes they could follow to reach faraway places and return safely home. More accurate maps allowed sailors to sail from one port to another without having to stay right along the coast. Before these advances, most sailors avoided the open sea out of fear they might not find their way back to land.

Other advances, mainly by the Portuguese, came in shipbuilding. They began building ships called caravels (KER-uh-velz). Caravels used triangular sails that, unlike traditional square sails, allowed ships to sail against the wind. By replacing oars on the ship’s sides with rudders at the back of the ship, the Portuguese also improved the steering of ships. The new ships helped Portuguese sailors take the lead in exploring.



A man who never went on any sea voyages was responsible for much of Portugal’s success on the seas. Known as Prince Henry the Navigator, he built an observatory and a navigation school to teach sailors how to find their way. He also paid people to sail on voyages of exploration. Spanish sailors later followed the Portuguese example of exploration around the world.


Even with new technology, travel on the open sea remained dangerous and scary. One person described what happened to sailors on a voyage south.

“Those which survived could hardly be recognized as human. They had lost flesh and hair, the nails had gone from hands and feet… They spoke of heat so incredible that it was a marvel that ships and crews were not burnt.”

In spite of the dangers, Portuguese explorers sailed south, setting up trading posts along the way. In 1488 a ship led by Bartolomeu Dias succeeded in sailing around the southern tip of Africa. The crew, tired and afraid of the raging seas, forced Dias to turn back. However, they had found a way around Africa. Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa and landed on the west coast of India in 1498. A sea route to Asia had been found. See their routes on the map.

A “New World”

Imagination, daring, and a few mistakes enabled Portuguese and Spanish sailors to discover the Americas. They thought these lands were a “new world.”
An Italian sailor thought he could reach Asia by sailing west across the Atlantic. That sailor, Christopher Columbus, told his idea to the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. He promised them great riches, new territory, and Catholic converts. It took Columbus several years to convince the king and queen, but Isabella eventually agreed to pay for his journey.

In August 1492 Columbus set sail with 88 men and three small ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María. On October 12, 1492, he and his tired crew landed on a small island in the Bahamas. What was Columbus’s mistake? He didn’t realize another continent lay in front of him, and he believed he had reached Asia. At that time Europeans called Asia the Indies, so Columbus called the people who lived on the island Indians.

Columbus made three more journeys to America during his lifetime, never realizing that he had found a land unknown to Europeans. Columbus died still believing that he had reached Asia.

Another mistake enabled Portuguese explorer Pedro Cabral to discover South America. He tried to sail around Africa, but he sailed too far west, landing on the coast of what is now Brazil. In 1520 Ferdinand Magellan (muh-JEHL-uhn) led a voyage around the southern tip of South America. A Portuguese navigator sailing for Spain, Magellan daringly continued sailing into the Pacific even though his ships were dangerously low on food and fresh water. Although Magellan was killed before he made it back to Spain, the voyage he directed became the first to circumnavigate, or go all the way around, the globe.




Like Spain and Portugal, England and France wanted to find a route to Asia to get spices. After Spain and Portugal explored and gained control of the southern routes, the English and French looked for a water-way through North America.

In 1497 John Cabot, an Italian sailing for England, sailed west to the coast of Canada. Like Columbus, Cabot mistakenly thought he had reached Asia. In 1535 French explorer Jacques Cartier (zhahk kahr-tyay) sailed up the Saint Lawrence River into Canada. Although neither of these explorers found a route to Asia, they claimed land in North America for England and France.

Competing for Land and Wealth

Besides looking for a route to Asia, England hoped to find riches in the New World. But Spain controlled the gold and silver of the former Aztec and Inca empires. The English queen sent a sailor named Francis Drake to the Americas to steal gold and silver from Spanish ships called galleons. Drake became a rich and famous pirate.

The Spanish were furious with the English for these raids. In 1588 Spain sent 130 ships to attack England. This fleet, called the Spanish Armada, was part of Spain’s large, experienced navy. But the English, with their faster ships and better guns, defeated the Armada. Returning from battle, more Spanish ships were lost in storms at sea. Fewer than half the Spanish ships ever returned to Spain. The defeat of the Spanish Armada saved England from invasion. It also meant Spain no longer ruled the seas, and it allowed England to gain power.



The voyages of discovery changed the way Europeans thought of the world and their place in it. The explorations brought new knowledge about geography and proved some old beliefs wrong. For example, Europeans learned that ships didn’t burn up crossing the equator and that the Americas were a separate landmass from Asia. Geographers made more accurate maps that reflected this new knowledge.

Improved mapmaking also helped shape a new European worldview. For the first time Europeans could see maps of the whole world. They saw new lands and possible trade routes. By controlling the trade routes and the resources in the new lands, they might gain great wealth. Voyages of discovery brought the beginning of a new period in which Europeans would spread their influence around the world.

MAP - 1100s

MAP - 1500s


European explorers set out to find routes to Asia, but their discovery of new lands and new peoples had an effect they never imagined. The exchange of plants, animals, and ideas between the New World (the Americas) and the Old World (Europe) is known as the Columbian Exchange. It changed lives in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Old World Plants and Animals

One exchange to occur was the introduction of new plants to the Americas. When European explorers went to the Americas, they took seeds to plant crops. Bananas and sugarcane, originally from Asia, grew well in the warm, humid climate of some of the places where the Spanish and Portuguese settled. Europeans also planted oranges, onions, and lettuce. Europeans also brought new animals to the Americas. Domesticated animals such as cows, goats, sheep, pigs, horses, and chickens all arrived in the New World with the Spanish.

Before the arrival of the Spanish, the people of the Americas didn’t have many domesticated animals. Even accidental exchanges occurred sometimes. Europeans unknowingly took some plants, animals, and diseases to the Americas. For example, rats hid on ships, and explorers carried germs for diseases such as measles and smallpox.

New World Plants and Animals

While Europeans introduced plants and animals to the New World, they also found plants and animals there they had never seen before. They took samples back to Europe as well as to Africa and Asia.This exchange of plants changed the eating habits of people around the world. For example, Europeans hadn’t tried tomatoes until explorers brought them from the Americas. Now they are a primary ingredient in Italian food. Europeans also took back potatoes, beans, squash, avocados, pineapples, tobacco, and chili peppers. Even chocolate came from the Americas.

Europeans also carried New World products to other parts of the world. In this way, the Columbian Exchange affected Africa and Asia.Many plants from the Americas also grew well in West Africa and Asia. Sweet potatoes, peanuts, and tomatoes became staples in African cooking. American fruits such as pineapple became popular in India. In China, peanuts and maize became major crops.

Along with plants and animals, Europeans introduced their ideas, culture, and technology to the places they explored. People in Asia, Africa, and the Americas all learned new ways of living and working.

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Some of the biggest cultural changes Europeans brought to places they conquered were in religion and language. Christians set out to convert people to their religion. Missionaries went to Asia and Africa, and they also worked to convert American Indians to Christianity. In some places, their religion blended with native traditions to create new kinds of religious practices. In addition to spreading Christianity, missionaries ran schools. They taught their European languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, the language of the Netherlands. The Impact Today


Besides religion and language, Europeans introduced new technologies. They took guns and steel to parts of Africa. In the Americas, they introduced guns and steel, as well as ways to use the wheel. Europeans also introduced the idea of using animals as technology. They brought horses, which were good for transportation and for carrying heavy loads. Oxen could be used to plow fields. People also learned to make candles from cow fat. European ideas also changed industries in the Americas. For example, animals were used to carry silver from mines. The introduction of sheep and sugarcane also created new industries. People began to make new kinds of textiles and to grow sugarcane on plantations, or large farms.




As industries changed in some places, Europeans increased trade with Asia and the Americas. This change had huge social and economic effects, especially in Africa and the Americas.

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Plantations and mines made money for Portugal and Spain. They also made some colonists in the Americas rich. But plantation agriculture and mining brought poor treatment of American Indians.

It took a lot of workers to run a plantation, so Spanish colonists forced American Indians to work on their land. Forced work, harsh treatment, or disease killed many American Indians. By the 1600s the Indian population had shrunk by more than 80 percent in some areas.

Some clergy in the Americas protested the terrible treatment of American Indians. A priest named Bartolomé de las Casas said that the Spanish should try to convert American Indians to Christianity by showing them love, gentleness, and kindness. The Spanish monarchs agreed, creating laws about the proper treatment of American Indians. However, the colonists did not always follow the laws.

Slavery and Society

Since forced labor and disease killed so many American Indians, las Casas and others suggested using enslaved Africans as workers. Africans had already developed immunities to European diseases. Soon, thousands of Africans were being shipped to the Americas as slave labor.

The mix of Africans, Europeans, and American Indians shaped the social order of the Americas. Europeans held the highest position in society. American Indians, Africans, and those of mixed background held the lowest positions. This social order was based on conquest and racism. Racism is the belief that some people are better than others because of racial traits, such as skin color. Both Africans and Indians had darker skin than Europeans did.

Plantation agriculture and the use of slave labor continued in the Americas until the late 1800s. It continued to play a major role in the economies and societies of many countries of the Americas, Africa, and Europe for many years.



The exchange of products between European countries and their colonies changed economic relations around the world. European countries saw their colonies as a way to get rich.
This new view of the colonies was part of an economic system called mercantilism—a system in which a government controls all economic activity in a country and its colonies to make the government stronger and richer. In the 1500s a country’s strength was measured by how much gold and silver it had. Under mercantilism, then, governments did everything they could to get more of these precious metals. Mercantilism was the main economic policy in Europe between 1500 and 1800.

To stay rich, European countries tried to export more goods than they imported. The relationship of goods imported to goods exported is known as a country’s balance of trade. The colonies played a key role in this balance of trade. Believing that colonies existed to help the ruling country, Europeans didn’t let colonies trade with other countries. They didn’t want their colonies’ money going to other nations.

European countries used their colonies to acquire raw materials such as wood, furs, cotton, and dyes. This way they didn’t have to buy raw materials from competing countries. In addition, they didn’t allow their colonies to manufacture goods. That way they could take raw materials from their colonies and sell manufactured goods back to them. Manufactured goods were more valuable than raw materials were, so the colonies were good for the European countries’ balance of trade.

Trade also created markets for manufactured goods. As a result, manufacturing in Europe, especially cottage industries, increased. Cottage industry was a system in which family members worked in their homes to make part of a product. A businessperson gave each family the materials it needed. The businessperson made money by selling the final product.

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Mercantilism created new trading patterns around the world. In the 1600s and 1700s trade routes connected Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Many of these routes linked European countries with their colonies. One major trading pattern involved the exchange of raw materials, manufactured products, and slaves among Europe, Africa, and the Americas. This particular trade network became known as the triangular trade.

The Atlantic slave trade was a major part of the trade network. The Portuguese, Dutch, and English all were active in the slave trade. Slavery had been practiced in many places, including Africa, long before Europeans came. But the Atlantic slave trade was different in its size and its process. European traders crammed enslaved Africans on ships for the long voyage to the Americas. They chained people together, often without enough food or water. People got sick, and many died.

Between the late 1500s and early 1800s Europeans shipped millions of enslaved Africans to colonies in the New World. Most of these slaves were sent to South America and the Caribbean.



Mercantilism was successful in Spain and Portugal, both of which had many wealthy colonies. But while they relied on their colonies for wealth, the northern European countries of England and the Netherlands developed new trade routes and banking industries. The new trade routes and banking, along with increased manufacturing, brought more wealth to England and the Netherlands and shifted the economic power in Europe.

Northern European Trade Routes
A book published in the late 1500s helped traders to find new wealth around the world. That important book was the first atlas, or collection of maps. Improved maps, made possible largely by the discoveries of explorers, encouraged traders to find new sources of wealth around the world. England benefited from increased trade. New trading posts in India and China along with trade in North American colonies gave England access to huge markets and many resources.

The Netherlands also became a great trading power. Dutch merchants formed a company to trade directly with Asia. This company was the only one with the right to trade between the Netherlands, Asia, and Africa. The Dutch soon controlled many islands in East Asia, along with trading posts in India, Japan, and southern Africa.


Increased trade created a need for banks. Realizing this, the Dutch set up a bank. Jews were partly responsible for the growth of banking in the Netherlands. They migrated to the Netherlands in the late 1500s to escape religious persecution in other European countries. Because the Dutch government limited the work Jews could do, and because the Christian Church didn’t allow Christians to lend money, many Jews entered the banking business. The Jews were so successful that English rulers invited them to England to help improve business there as well.

Banking improved business by making it easier for merchants to know they were receiving money of the proper value. Banks also loaned money to people who wanted to start new businesses. In doing so, banks contributed to economic growth.

Market Economies

Economic growth and new wealth changed business in Europe. Because more people had wealth, they started buying more manufactured goods. The demand for goods increased. There were several reasons for the increased demand for manufactured goods. First, Europe’s population was growing—especially in the cities. More people meant a need for more goods. Second, farmers were growing food at lower costs. With lower expenses, people had more money to spend on manufactured goods. A third reason for increased demand was the addition of colonies, which had to get their manufactured goods from Europe.

As the demand for goods rose, businesspeople realized they could make money by finding better ways to make manufactured goods. They wanted to increase the supply, or amount of goods offered, to meet the demand. This new way of doing business can be considered the beginning of a new economic system called capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system in which individuals and private businesses run most industries. Competition among these businesses affects how much goods cost.

Competition among different businesses is most successful in a market economy. In a market economy, individuals decide what goods and services they will buy. The government does not decide what people can buy or sell. A market economy works on a balance between supply and demand. If there is a great demand for a product, a seller will increase the supply in order to make more money.

The ability of individuals to control how they make and spend money is a benefit of a market economy and capitalism. In the 1800s, capitalism would become the basis for most economic systems in the Western world.