What Were the Causes of European Exploration?

by Nathalie Alonso

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Age of Exploration saw Christopher Columbus stumble upon the Americas and a ship circumnavigate Earth for the first time. While those involved were often driven by curiosity and a lust for fame, the European impetus to explore also had practical economic and religious motives: Portugal, Spain and other countries sought more convenient routes to the luxury markets of the East, new sources of precious metals and opportunities to spread Christianity in the face of Islamic expansions.

New Ways to Reach the East

When Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, he believed he was in the Far East. Like explorers before and after him, Columbus sought a water route to Asia, which abounded in commodities prized in Europe. Of particular interest were the Spice Islands of present-day Indonesia, which were rich in pepper, nutmeg and mace. Aware that the Earth is round, Columbus hoped to reach Asia by sailing across the Atlantic. Portuguese mariner Vasco da Gama became the first European to reach Asia by sea when he arrived in India in 1498. Sponsored by Spain, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan sailed west from Europe in 1519 hoping to find a route to Asia while circumnavigating the globe. Magellan died in the process, but one of his ships accomplished the objective.

A Religious Agenda

In 1452, the pope issued an official proclamation that encouraged Europe's Christian rulers to subjugate and covert all non-Christians around the world. Few took that edict more seriously than Queen Isabella of Spain and her husband, King Ferdinand, who were known as the Catholic monarchs and had driven Muslims and Jews out of Iberia. The royal couple sponsored Columbus' voyages and, upon learning of the lands he discovered, felt compelled and entitled to convert the native people to Christianity.

Going for the Gold

Though gold and silver were vital to European economies during the Age of Discovery, the continent had few natural sources of either. When Columbus reported that his newly found lands had deposits of precious metals, finding mineral currency became an incentive for further exploration and conquests, especially for Spain. In their quest for gold and silver for the Spanish crown, conquistadors Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro brutally put an end to the Aztec and the Inca empires, respectively. Gold was also the driving force behind Juan Ponce de Leon's exploration of what is now Puerto Rico.

Other Factors

The Age of Discovery coincided with the Renaissance and was therefore motivated in part by scientific curiosity about the world beyond Europe. Moreover, Dutch, French and British exploration of the Pacific Ocean in the 17th and 18th centuries was driven in part by the belief that a massive continent, rich in spices and gold, was waiting to be discovered.

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