Early European Maritime Expeditions

Early European Maritime Expeditions, 1492-1522

Note: Does not include return trips with the exception of Magellan due to circumnavigation.

Early European maritime expeditions in the late 15th and early 16th centuries were mainly the initiative of Portugal and Spain and came to be known as the Age of Discovery. Using caravels, the main driver was to find a maritime route to Asia (China/India), which could be done either by sailing east or west from Europe. The process started in the early 15th century with the discovery of Atlantic islands off the coast of Africa such as Madeira, the Azores, and the Canaries, which served as stepping stones for further explorations:

  • Western maritime route. Christopher Columbus, funded by the Spanish Crown (the expedition’s cost estimated to be the equivalent of one million dollars in today’s money), was looking for a western route to Asia, but stumbled upon the Americas (in the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola) in 1492, believing to have reached India. This was an outcome of a cartographic error overestimating the size of the Eurasian landmass and thinking that the earth’s circumference was about 25% smaller. Thus, according to Colombus, India was about 4,000 km west of Spain as opposed to 16,000 km in reality. The reason why the Caribbean was reached first, even if the coast of Labrador is closer, is related to prevailing winds and sea currents on the North Atlantic. In 1497, the explorer Ferdinand Cabot, funded by England, would also try to reach Asia looking for a northern route. This venture was also unsuccessful as the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador were reached instead. In 1519, Magellan embarked on an expedition to find the western maritime route to Asia. He reached the Pacific Ocean by rounding the southern tip of South America (1520) and by going through the strait that will later bear his name. After crossing the Pacific Ocean, he was killed in 1521 in Southeast Asia (Philippines). However, one of his ships made the trip back to Europe through the Cape of Good Hope and completed the first round-the-world journey in history (1522). This led Spain to conquer the Philippines between 1565 and 1571 and set their colonial capital at Manila. By using the isthmus of Panama as an overland route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the western maritime route to Asia was established. Being able to cross the Atlantic incited the Portuguese to look for an eastern maritime route.
  • Eastern maritime route. By the mid 15th century, Portuguese ships explored the western coast of Africa. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope, proving that Africa could be rounded and that India could be reached by sea route. Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in his 1497-1499 expedition, becoming the first European to reach Asia (India) directly by the sea. Portugal was able to trade with India without the traditional Arab intermediaries and gradually took control (forcefully) of all the trade routes between Europe and Pacific Asia. Because of superior naval military technology (faster and better-armed ships), most of the Arab merchant fleet was sunk by 1515. In 1511, Malacca, the most important commercial center in Southeast Asia, fell to the Portuguese. In 1513, Portuguese explorers reached Canton in China and were able to use Macao as a trade depot (1557). The eastern maritime trade route to Asia was thus established under the control of Portugal.

Following the discovery of Columbus, Spain and Portugal met at Tordesillas, Spain in 1494 to negotiate the claims of ownership of the new lands. An agreement, which was a renegotiation of a Papal decree made the previous year, was reached and named the Treaty of Tordesillas. It stated that all lands discovered west of a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands should belong to Spain while new lands discovered east of that line would belong to Portugal (1 league equals about 4.8 km). An important aspect that incited exploration was the issuance of patent letters giving the entrepreneur special privileges such as a share of the taxation and trade benefits derived from the discovery of new lands (lands unknown to Europeans). This drove commercial initiatives and the setting of various trading companies seeking monopolies over territories and trade commodities.

The Treaty of Tordesillas did not address the antimeridian and how newly discovered territories in the Pacific were to be divided. In the early 16th century, as Spanish and Portuguese explorers reached the Pacific and the “spice islands” (Moluccas), a new treaty was signed; the Treaty of Zaragoza. Under the treaty, Portugal could claim ownership of all territory east of the 142nd meridian. However, Spain did colonize the Philippines from 1565 mainly based on the claim it was first discovered by Magellan. A geographic division of the world was established. Obviously, other European powers such as France and Britain, would not abide by these treaties and undertook their own ventures.