The Age of Discovery, which is also known as the Age of Exploration, refers to a period in world history when several European nations (mainly Portugal and Spain) set out to explore the globe in hopes of finding new land, learning about more direct trading routes, creating maps and learning about new cultures and people. It occurred from the 15th to the 17th centuries and is known as one of the most fruitful and successful periods in European history.
Key Explorations: The 1400s
There were many explorations that took place during the Age of Discovery. Some of them were more successful than others. The Portuguese is credited with being the first to send out explorers during this era. Many of the explorations during the beginning of this era were sponsored by Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal. His first voyage during the Age of Discovery was different than the voyages that previous Portuguese explorers went out on in that his covered a greater area. Earlier explorers only went by portolan charts, which are basically just maps that are based on land features. They basically disregarded the waters. As a result, early explorations rarely ventured too far from the coastline for fear of getting lost in the vastness of the waters.
Venturing away from the coastlines, however, was Prince Henry the Navigator’s goal during this new age. In 1419, the Portuguese was credited with discovering the Madeira Islands and then eight years later in 1427, they discovered the Azores. During these explorations, the Portuguese was hoping to find a direct trade route to West Africa that would not require traveling through the Sahara Desert to get there. They accomplished this goal by the middle of the 1400s and established a trading port in Elmina, West Africa.
Christopher Columbus was also an integral part of the Age of Discovery. He had many famed voyages, but none of them are as famous as his search for the New World. The reason for most of his voyages also started out in search of faster and more direct trade routes. He was looking for routes that led to Asia and he had the idea of sailing westward to find them. But in 1492, he actually reached the Americas and returned to Spain, the nation that sponsored his expedition, with a load of information about his new findings.
A few years after Columbus completed his famous expedition, Pedro Alvares Cabral from Portuguese set sail to explore Brazil. As a result, Brazil and Portugal got into a conflict about who had power over the new lands that were claimed. They came to an agreement in 1494 in the Treaty of Tordesillas, which essentially split the world in half.
Key Explorations: The 1500s
If Portugal dominated much of the Age of Discovery during the 1400s, then Spain was the dominant nation during the 1500s. During the first two hundred years of the Age of Discovery, Spain and Portugal had no rivals. For a century after Columbus made his famous discovery, Spain continued to send explorers to places like Cuba, Puerto Rico and beyond to see what these faraway lands had to offer.
One of the noted Spanish names to come out of the 1500s is Ponce de Leon. As a well known Spanish soldier and one of the members of Columbus’s crew, he quickly gained fame when he went exploring. He heard about a story from the Indians claiming there was a fountain of youth in the southern area of the Americas. As he grew older, this phenomenon seemed attractive to him so he set out to find it. In mid-1513, he began his journey in Porto Rico and sailed towards the Bahamas. He landed along the northeast coast of Florida (which he named) and then continued traveling southbound. As a result, he ended up in the Gulf Stream current which was the Bahama Channel, a route that treasure ships would soon take when returning to Spain.
He later returned to Florida after receiving funding to begin colonizing the area. However, during this time, he and his crew were attacked by Native Americans living on the land and they had to abandon the settlement. Ponce de Leon returned to Cuba wounded and died a few days after the battle.
Vasco de Balboa was another popular Spanish explorer during the Age of Discovery. He joined a voyage to sail to South America in 1501, but landed on Hispaniola. While there, he fell into debt and escaped by hiding on a ship that was headed for the colony of San Sebastian. Several years later, Balboa’s luck changed and he was given the task of leading an expedition to a sea that reportedly had a lot of gold. He was hoping that if he found this sea, the king of Spain would like him and reward him with riches. Although he did not find the gold-filled sea, he did find the Pacific Ocean and claimed it for the country of Spain.
Key Explorations: The 1600s
Although the Age of Discovery was drawing to a close in the 1600s, there were still some important discoveries and expeditions during this time. During the 1600s, the English set their sights on new lands and territories. They began colonizing the Americas by starting along the eastern coastline. One of the very first English colonies in the Americas was Jamestown. Then in 1620, the Pilgrims, who were English Protestants in search of a new land that offered religious freedom, landed at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts.
The Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock was important because it helped create an atmosphere in the Americas for further colonization. Although there were earlier colonies before the Pilgrims landed, this even gave rise and momentum to establish further colonies which later became the 13 original colonies of America that we learn about today. After the Pilgrims landed and became established, the Massachusetts Bay Company sent over a larger group of people to create another settlement. This led to expanding into more colonies in New England.
Those who thought that the new colonies were not pious enough formed their own colonies, which led to Connecticut being formed. Others who thought the religious restrictions were too tight, formed their own colony of Rhode Island, which was a religious safe haven for all backgrounds. Other colonies developed for various reasons and they were grouped into the Middle, Southern, and New England colonies.
The End of the Age of Discovery
Technological advancements and newfound knowledge of the world led to the decline of the Age of Discovery. During the waning years of the 17th century, Europeans could easily travel across the waters to nearly any part of the globe. The new settlements along coastlines created networks of trade and community so finding direct trade routes was no longer a necessity or a desire for nations to pour money into. Other major discoveries came after the Age of Discovery ended. For instance, Australia was discovered in 1770. The Arctic and Antarctic regions of the globe were not seriously explored until the 1800s. And even though many trade routes that nations used during the Age of Discovery sailed around and near Africa, that continent was not heavily explored until the end of the 1800s and into the early 1900s.