The Allure of Exploration: Why explorers Did it!

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Achievements – The lasting contributions of a civilization.

Economy  – How a Civilization makes money by the buying and selling of goods and services.

Religion – A belief system that influences the development of a civilization.

Fame and fortune

During the Renaissance, European trade with Asia, India, and the Middle East increased. Demand for exotic items, especially  spices to doctor up and preserve foods, increased. Muslims and Italians played middleman to the rest of Europe, demanding high prices. This left European leaders wondering if there was a way to get to the market and buy at a lower cost.

Many men, especially young men, yearned for adventure and wealth in the Indies, as the other side of the world was called.  Discovering new foods, resources, and people was just the ticket they needed to live well when they returned. It was this logic that led to the colonization of the Americas.

Spread of religious beliefs

Another major factor that led to the takeover of the Americas was the need to spread religion. Both the Catholic and Protestant churches felt it was their duty to convert as many people as possible. They did this in a race-like fashion, as the rift between them was recently created in Europe. Spain especially upheld Catholicism as a primary reason to return to the tribes they discovered throughout the Americas and, sometimes brutally, pushed the religion upon those they met.

Vasco da Gama: ‘Round Africa to India

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Economy – How a Civilization makes money by the buying and selling of goods and services.

The Portuguese were the first to truly start making trips along the land they knew: Africa. Eager to open up trading relations via sea with India and Asia, Prince Henry encouraged sailors to hone their skills of mapmaking and voyaging by creating opportunities for them to do so. He created a school for such things, and funded numerous voyages. One of the most impressive of these voyages was completed by Vasco Da Gama in May 1498. Originally, his father was supposed to complete the trip around Africa for precious spices, porcelain, other goods, and to open up trade with India. Unexpected delays put it off, and eventually Da Gama became the leader of four caravels, swift vessels created in that time for such trips. These ships were designed to be narrow and shallow so they could easily maneuver along the coasts of their destinations.

What made Da Gama’s trip so important was that he actually made it to Calcutta, India, and defeated the Moorish traders that tried hard to sabotage the relationships of the Portuguese and the Indian king. Despite losing half his men to scurvy, a disease from bad food and a lack of fresh produce in the diet, and half his fleet to a major monsoon on the return trip, Da Gama still came home with a modest amount of over-priced spices, such as cinnamon and pepper. Despite the hardships, he achieved great wealth and prestige for his efforts. Eventually, he made a second trip to India, this time with more ships and bent on revenge for another Portuguese leader who’d been attacked by Muslim traders.

Christopher Columbus: Ambition And Determination

Columbus is often painted as the Italian hero who first discovered America. The truth is that Vikings settled Canadian Islands before him circa 985-1020 CE. Another fact that most people miss is that Columbus went on his many voyages with Spanish backing after exhausting every other option. When he tried to sell his idea to reach the Indies by traveling west across the Atlantic, he also demanded riches and titles from his possible employers. Many scholars believed it was appealing to the pious nature of Queen Isabella that finally landed Columbus his historic job, ensuring her that he would convert many in Asia.

He first landed on American soil in modern day San Salvador on October 12th, 1492. He named it thus, meaning “Holy Savior.” Naked natives along the coast and in canoes greeted them. Columbus was convinced he’d landed at the eastern most reaches of Asia, and began to ask about spices and gold. One native had a gold ring in his nose, and told Columbus where a local king had containers of it. This encouraged Columbus to sail on, believing he may have found the Great Khan of China. So he took some natives that might be “good and skilled servants” as captives, and let them guide him to the Bahamas and then onward to Cuba. He mistook this island for Japan. The natives here spoke of gold deposits deep in the island, but again, he and his men found nothing. The last stop he made before returning to Spain was to Hispaniola. The natives here were vastly different than other natives he’d met, with charcoal on their faces and fierce looking feathered masks. The first exchange of bloodshed happened when Columbus’s men fired their guns, and the natives responded in defense.

Though Columbus may have had good intentions, his “discovery” of the various Caribbean islands caused problems. The crew of his three-ship fleet held notoriously dishonorable men. At one point, Columbus feared that the captain of the Pinta, Martian Alfonso Pinzon, intended to sail ahead and take the glory of discovery for himself. Pinzon wasn’t the only untrustworthy man. Columbus left some in makeshift townships with instructions to survey for gold and leave the natives alone. Columbus discovered on his return voyage to the Caribbean that the men he left behind did not listen, stealing blankets and food from the local tribes, and raping their women. This pattern of behavior continued throughout the Caribbean and seems overlooked in most history books.

John Cabot: Glory for England!

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Geography –  The physical environment and how it may influence the development culture and economy.

Achievements – The lasting contributions of a civilization.

By the late 1400s, Spain and Portugal had monopolized the southern routes of the Atlantic to the Indies and gained control of the wealth of the Aztec and Inca Empires. English and French monarchs also wanted to find a way to the riches of Asia via the oceans, and perhaps find some untapped land with mineral wealth, so they funded some voyages in a northeastern direction.

The first Englishman to do so was John Cabot. He proposed a simple mission to stay on a northerly latitude course where the longitudes stayed closer to one another, thus making it a shorter trip than those of the Spaniards. A short-lived winter journey brought him, his three sons, and his crew home before reaching new land. His second trip was in May 1497, with a single ship called Matthew of Bristol. This time, they landed in Canada on June 24th.

Just as Columbus mistakenly thought he reached Asia, Cabot also believed he had reached that great trading continent, and immediately claimed the land for England. His crew of 18-20 men had no contact with natives, although they did find a human trail and a small camp site with fishing nets and a dead fire. They didn’t venture very far into the interior before sailing along the coastlines to see the land they discovered from a distance and then returning to England. John Cabot was feted, given the title of Admiral, and given a financial reward for his findings by King Henry VII.


Ferdinand Magellan: Against Mutiny and High Water!

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Economy – How a Civilization makes money by the buying and selling of goods and services.

Achievements – The lasting contributions of a civilization.

Portuguese-turned Spanish Ferdinand Magellan sold quite the proposition to young and wealth-seeking King Charles V, claiming that he would reach the Spice Islands south of Asia by sailing west, cutting through South America via a sea strait shortcut, and crossing the ocean on the other side of the New World.  This two-year venture would open up a commercial route for Spain to the Indies. Magellan’s request was answered heartily, and he was made Captain of five tar-covered ships, giving him absolute authority over crews of men from all over Europe, including France, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. They sailed out on September 20th, 1519.

The fleet headed south again, hugging the shallow waters of the coast in search of the strait. Magellan reduced rations and did his best to keep his crew occupied, but the Spanish Captains and their inferiors rallied and committed mutiny late on the night on April 2nd. Magellan managed to gain control again. One ambitious Spanish Captain Luis de Mendoza, died during the fighting, and Magellan executed another as an example to the rest. Other uprisers were also marooned on land for their crimes.

Finally, on October the 21st, the sought-after strait was discovered around the Cape of Eleven Thousand Virgins. Though it was wide, the 24-foot-high tides, wild currents, and strong winds made the 28-day navigation of the strait nearly unbearable. Their provisions were also low. At the far side of the strait, the peaceful ocean met them like a fresh breath. Magellan named it the Pacific. Expecting only a two-week journey, they ventured across it. Ninety-eight days later, they limped into Guam, having eaten worm-filled biscuits and sawdust, and drinking rotten water for weeks. Several allies and battles later, Magellan died along with most of his crew. One ship managed to fill with cloves and provisions from their allies, and return to Spain, having been the first Europeans to circumnavigate, or go completely around, the earth. This solidified the true size of the world for makers of maps and those who used them.

Jacques Cartier An Almost Peaceful Frenchmen

Unlike many of the explorations of the new world, several had somewhat peaceful voyages and interacted well with the natives of America. One such trip was commissioned by King Francis I in 1534. The monarch sent sailor Jacques Cartier in search of a northerly route to Asia over the Atlantic, to avoid paying the high prices demanded by Italian and Muslim travelers on roads between Europe and the Indies.

After a twenty-eight day sail, Cartier entered the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, and explored the  western coasts of Newfoundland and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, Canada. Their first few meetings were with natives in the northern parts of Chaleur Bay, trading items left good will in their wake. Unfortunately, their third meeting did not go well. Cartier planted flags and proclaimed lands for the French crown, and the natives understood its meaning. (See the journal excerpt below.) The natives warned that they didn’t approve and attacked, but during the scrimmage, Cartier’s men captured two of their chief’s sons and took them back to France. These two agreed to go as long as they could bring back goods from the foreigners. This agreement was completed on his second voyage in 1535-1536.

Francisco Pizarro: An Opportunist Conqueror

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Economy – How a Civilization makes money by the buying and selling of goods and services.

Achievements – The lasting contributions of a civilization.

The return of Columbus with his treasures and tales sparked further interest for exploration out of Spain. One of the men to undertake these risky journeys was Francisco Pizarro. He’d sailed on other voyages to the “Nueva Terra,” or new land with other Spaniards, and at one point sailed south of Panama to discover the wealth of the Inca Empire. He requested backing from Panama’s Spanish governor, but was denied. So he returned to Spain to request permission directly from King Charles I.

Pizarro returned to Peru in 1530, at the end of a civil war among the Incas. This crippled the once-powerful Inca army and left it ripe for destruction. An Inca prince Atahualpa ended up the victor of these domestic battles, and when he heard of Pizarro and his crew’s approach, he invited them to his capital in Cuzco. Pizarro insisted that all the Incas convert to Christianity, but was refused. Seeing a great opportunity, Pizarro seized Atahualpa and charged him for various crimes. The Inca people filled a room with 24 tons of gold and silver as ransom for their royalty. Pizarro killed Atahualpa anyway. The Inca warriors fought to  get rid of the intruders in the name of their dead leader, but the native army was already weak from civil war and couldn’t best the Spanish’s weapons. The Spaniards also brought small pox, which further devastated the Inca people, who had no immunity for the disease. After several battles, Pizarro proclaimed the Inca Empire for Spain, and proudly built the city of Lima in 1535.



Hernan Cortes: He who Destroyed the People of the Sun

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Economy – How a Civilization makes money by the buying and selling of goods and services.

Achievements – The lasting contributions of a civilization.

A young and determined Hernan Cortes lead a small fleet of ships to Central America in 1519, and upon landing and offloading their supplies, he burned the ships, so that his men could not leave and return to Spain. His leadership and encouragement to do what they’d come to do –spread Christianity, find gold, and claim land for Spain– led them deep into the heart of what is known today as Mexico. They discovered a rich and powerful Aztec empire, ripe with gold and turquoise. The Spaniards received welcoming words and gifts of gold from the Aztec leader Montezuma II, who had mistaken them for Gods per a legend of their religion. Cortes launched a surprise attack on the capital city of Tenochtitlan, and in the process Montezuma was killed. This enraged the Aztecs, who fought hard against terrifying weapons and “beasts the golden ones rode upon” that they’d never seen. The Aztec army managed to push out the Spaniards despite a lack of leadership.

Despite substantial losses following this, Cortes regrouped with another tactic. He allied with all the other tribes unhappily under Aztec rule, and again struck at the heart of the Aztec empire in 1521. In the few years in between the attacks, the Aztec city was devastated with diseases they had no immunity to that the Spanish invaders had brought across the ocean. This time, he was successful because nearly 24 million natives had died from diseases, leaving a weak army unprepared to battle a strong resistance. They lost to the overwhelming odds, and became slaves and servants of the foreigners who know claimed their land.

Francis Drake: Bringing Piracy to the Pacific

By late 1500s, Spain’s conquests in Central and South America made them the most wealthy and powerful country in Europe. Though other countries such as France and England had explored North America, they’d not found the riches that Spain had. This lead to war between England and Spain. In 1574, Queen Elizabeth I hired English sailor France Drake as one of many Sea Dogs, or privateers, and gave him a fleet of five ships with a patent to raid Spanish ships along the Pacific coast of the Americas. He happily obliged.  He and his men sailed down the eastern coasts of South America, through the Magellan strait and into a terrible storm in the Pacific.  Getting off course, they landed on an undiscovered island and named it after their monarch Elizabeth.

Two of Drake’s most valuable captures were of two Spanish treasure ships carrying their cargo to Panama for transfer. The first had Peruvian gold, and the larger was Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, piled with all manner of goods on its way to Manila. Drake continued up the coast to California, and claimed land for England against earlier Spanish proclamations. From there he sailed across the Pacific, further attacking and capturing Spanish ships in the Indies, into the Persian Gulf, and around Africa. He was the second person in history to circumnavigate the world in one continuous sail from 1577-1580. His reputation as a pirate landed him the nickname El Draque.

King Philip of Spain offered massive monetary awards for his capture or death in a vain attempt to stop him. It did no good. Frances Drake was second-in-command during the battle that eventually destroyed the Spanish Armada when it was sent to invade England, and brought the wealth of Spain to its knees. Elizabeth knighted Drake in 1581.