|The Waldseemüller Map, made 1507|
The above photo is of the famous Waldseemüller Map made in 1513. It is important because in the year 1513 it is possibly the first map to not only show America but also have the name 'America', (named after Amerigo Vespucci), on it. Just twenty years earlier the first Europeans since the Vikings had landed on the American continent. Today we'll be looking at a period of time generally referred to as 'The Age of Exploration' or 'The Age of Discovery' which precipitated Europe's bloody conquest of the world. Today we shall be looking at the voyages of people to see exactly what they discovered if they discovered anything at all. Before we look at the voyages, however, we have to know what areas of the world knew about the rest.
What the World Knew
|Marco Polo in China|
When we looked at the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean we saw an interconnected world years before the likes of Vasco da Gama, Magellan and Christopher Columbus came onto the scene. The ones who easily knew the most were those in the Islamic world. Spanning both the Mediterranean and Indian Oceans this gave Muslim merchants the ability to trade across both bodies of water. By the 1300s Muslims had even established trading posts in China and mosques were even used as lighthouses for coastal cities occasionally. Perhaps the most well known Muslim traveler was Ibn Battuta who in the first half of the fourteenth-century traveled across all areas where Muslims lived. Over his life he left his home of Morocco traveling to the Arabian peninsula to India to Java to China and to Mali. India too was connected to this trade route. For centuries India had a faint knowledge of Europe with them sending a Buddhist mission to the Roman Empire, although it never reached Rome and only reached Egypt. India was well aware of China and would trade ivory with the Celestial Empire. China had a good knowledge of the world east of the Mediterranean through the Indian Ocean trade. By the time Columbus set off China had visited and reported Africa, Arabia and Anatolia. Europe lagged behind in this respect. Following the Crusades Europe's connection to the world beyond was via the Mediterranean trade controlled by either the Byzantines or Ottomans. In the 1330s, however, Spain and Portugal had already started heading west conquering and colonizing the Azores and Canary Islands. More famously was the travels of Marco Polo. Although there is a chance that Marco Polo never actually visited the court of the Mongols in China regardless it shows Europe's knowledge of China. Whether by visiting or by collating/embellishing records from other travelers Polo managed to somewhat accurately describe the Yuan court. Above is a painting of his visit to China; it also shows how Europeans viewed China before the onset of Orientalism and racism. The Chinese and Chinese cities are depicted in a European style.
One last group we shall look at is those who themselves were colonized. The Mesoamericans had either mapped in detail or had good knowledge of central America. They knew all of this region from the Isthmus of Panama up to northern Mexico, (although not as far as the current Mexican border along the Rio Grande). The Aztec system of government relied on exacting tribute from local kingdoms so naturally they knew Mesoamerica well. In the south the Incas had mapped and recorded the Andes in intimate detail. Incan roads were extremely good so communication along the Andes allowed the mountains to be mapped in detail. However, being in the Andes the Incas knew little of the lands east of the Andes but it is hard to be certain. In the Pacific the Polynesians knew a lot of the Pacific. The Polynesians had some of the best navigators in human history and from the Marshall Islands they had at least some knowledge of huge areas of the Pacific including Hawaii, the Solomon Islands and Fiji. Before we look at the famous explorers we shall first look at China which we briefly spoke of when we talked about the Ming.
Zheng He and the Ming
|The giraffe taken by Zheng He|
The first person who we shall look at is Zheng He. Starting in 1405 and ending in 1433 Zheng He went on a series of seven voyages during the reign of the Yongle emperor. These voyages went all across the Indian Ocean to Indonesia to Arabia to India to even East Africa using the largest fleet in human history until the First World War. Chinese sources have a habit of embellishing figures but in the 1960s the Ming shipyards were discovered outside of Nanjing confirming the immense size of the Ming ships. The first voyage even had a crew of 27,000. Why though did the Ming go on these voyages? Julia Lovell has put forward several theories of which two seem to be the real reason: power projection and to confirm the Yongle emperor's power domestically. Although the voyages sometimes had 30,000 soldiers on them and often intervened in local affairs like in a Sumatran civil war, but they never set out to conquer other lands. Similarly although they carried Chinese goods and goods from other lands trade was never their main goal. A long trend in Chinese history was for China to view itself as the main power in the world, (which for much of its history was accurate), and expected other states to deliver tribute to China. These voyages were part of this. Lovell, Rana Mitter and Craig Clunas have suggested that the Ming may have been aware of the growing power of the Timurid Empire in the west. These voyages were clearly done to project Chinese power. The massive fleets carrying thousands of Chinese soldiers and goods were to show this power. On one voyage they even kidnapped a Sri Lankan king who refused to acknowledge Chinese supremacy. The voyages were also done to project the power of the Yongle emperor. He had come to power by ousting his nephew so naturally he wanted to legitimize his rule. By bullying smaller states and bringing back luxury goods to give to the elite this was a good way to become legitimate. The voyages brought back animals and the one from Africa brought back a giraffe. This is important as giraffes resemble the qilin, a mythical unicorn like animal from Chinese mythology, which was said to only appear during the rule of righteous emperors. Naturally this was a huge propaganda boost for the Yongle emperor. It is important to note that after Yongle died the voyages barely lasted ten years after his death.
Who led these voyages? A eunuch called Zheng He led these voyages and his story reflects how these voyages worked. His father was a Muslim in the service of the Mongol court and Zheng was captured aged ten by the new rising Ming dynasty who made him a eunuch. Yongle was close to the eunuchs and came to power through them so he got his friend to lead the voyages. Zheng being a Muslim had connections to the Arabian peninsula so as a result the first voyage was to Arabia. As we have already seen the Islamic world had mapped out many areas which Zheng had followed. The Chinese fleets kept to the coast, just like other merchants, and never visited any areas which had not previously been recorded. Despite some recent claims Zheng never reached America as China had no records of the Americas. He never went east from Nanjing, only west. Can we call this period of time the Age of Discovery or Exploration if one of the greatest explorers never explored somewhere new or undiscovered?
|A statue of Bartolomeu Dias|
The Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) was in perfect position to start exploring and conquering the areas outside of Europe. We shall save the actual conquest of Asia, Africa and America for a future post as it deserves a post for itself. Long before the conquistadors set out to conquer and enslave in Mesoamerica and the Andes, before the mass enslavement of Africans to be sent to the Americas, and before the genocide of Native Americans Iberia had started to explore and colonize in the Atlantic. In 1415 Prince Henry of Portugal would capture the city of Ceuta in Morocco and he would become known as Henry the Navigator. Inspired by the legend of a Christian king called Prester John whose kingdom was supposedly somewhere in Africa he was seen as the patron of Portuguese navigation. He believed that the best way to tap into the Saharan gold and slave trade, (as well as finding Prester John's kingdom), was for sea exploration. With the new compass, possibly imported from China which Zheng He was using to navigate the Indian Ocean at the same time, he organised over fifty voyages supported by map-makers, astronomers, and mathematicians. The Azores, Madeira, and São Tomé were soon colonized by Portugal. Spain was late compared to Portugal in exploration. For many years what is now Spain was divided between three main kingdoms: Castile, Aragon and Grenada. Grenada was a Muslim state and in 1469 the two Christian kingdoms formed a dynastic union when Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon. In 1492 their combined forces conquered Grenada and with a continued crusading zeal decided to channel this into navigation.
Before we look at the main actors we'll look at a Portuguese navigator named Bartolomeu Dias. The above photo is a statue of Dias in South Africa. Some of you may be wondering why a Portuguese navigator is being honored with a statue in South Africa. The reason is in 1488 Dias rounded the tip of South Africa. In 1453 the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople so now Christian Europe's connection to the eastern markets were controlled by Muslims instead of Christians. Zealous Portugal and Spain were outraged at having to trade with Muslims but they still wanted access to the lucrative spice market. Portugal wanting access to the Indian markets so sent Dias to get access to India via southern Africa. Although Henry the Navigator had died by this time his life goal was continued by Dias; one of his mission goals was to find Prester John's kingdom. Dias originally named where he traversed the 'Cape of Storms' but a later king renamed it Cape of Good Hope as it was Portugal's access to the Indian Ocean.
Of all the people in history Christopher Columbus is one of the most controversial. We shall discuss his post-exploration career (and his legacy) in a future post and why there should not be a Christopher Columbus Day. Columbus represented everything that Europe was at the time. Born in Genoa he had been a merchant trading along the west coast of Africa and all across the Mediterranean. He had access to the compass which the Portuguese had used to colonize the Atlantic islands and across the Cape. Thanks to the letterpress made by Gutenberg in 1436 detailed maps and records became readily available for him to pour over. Despite what the media often says Columbus was fully aware that the planet was round, (since the time of the Greeks humanity had known that the Earth wasn't flat). Based on Ptolemy and the Imago Mundi, taken from Muslim scholars, he overestimated Asia's size so he thought he could find an alternate route to the Indies by sailing west instead of going around the Cape. Originally Columbus tried to get Portugal to invest his expedition, not Spain, and despite the media portrayal Isabella did not believe in him. Isabella of Spain is often portrayed in a sexist light where Columbus woes her into believing his plan and then convincing Ferdinand. In reality she turned him down and when Columbus was leaving Cordoba Ferdinand had the navigator summoned back where he offered to fund his expedition in 1492. Filled with crusading zeal Spain wished to find an alternate route to the Indian Ocean and find Christians so they could continue crusading in northern Africa. On October 12, 1492 Columbus landed in the New World. He landed on an island in the Bahamas which he called San Salvador.
On San Salvador he was greeted by the local Arawak people who were peaceful. The Arawaks had lots of gold and Columbus took some captive to demand where their gold jewelry came from. He even boasted in his writings that he could have conquered them with fifty men and govern them as he pleased. This would start a precedent for the subjugation of the Americas by Europeans leading to genocide, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. He left the Caribbean with enslaved people and gold arriving in Lisbon in March 1493. He wrote:
Thirty-three days after my departure from Cadiz I reached the Indian sea, where I discovered many islands, thickly peopled. Of which I took possession without resistance in the name of our most illustrious Monarchs, by public proclamation and with unfurled banners. To the first of these islands, which is called by the Indians Guanahani, I gave the name of the blessed Savior, relying upon whose protection I had reached this as well as the other islands.
His words spread rapidly through Europe via the printing press so copies soon emerged in Barcelona, Paris, Antwerp, Rome and Basel. Edmundo O'Gorman has described the 'invention of America' coming from Columbus' journey. Columbus never learnt the local language and imposed his own ideas on the islands which he encountered. He expected to find cannibals, Amazons, and mountains of gold, found none and then said that the locals always told him of another island which had them. He never once thought that he had discovered a new continent but instead had landed in the Indies. Today we still refer to it as the West Indies and his name for the locals, indios (Indians), is still used occasionally. Columbus' description of the local peoples reflects how Europeans would later describe Native Americans on the mainland, Indians, Africans, and other colonized peoples. He highly praised them at times but then would heavily disparage their culture. The best way to show this is by using an excerpt from his letter which he wrote upon his return:
They are naturally timid and fearful. As soon as they see they are safe, however, they are very simple and honest, and exceedingly liberal with all they have...the women seem to work more than the men. I could not clearly understand whether the people possess any private property...I did not find, as some of us had expected, any cannibals among them, but on the contrary men of great deference and kindness.
The early stages of colonialism and imperialism that would characterize later world history can be seen here. As described by Antonio Gramsci we see a cross-cultural encounter that starts to clash. Columbus regards the Arawaks as being 'men of great deference' but seems perplexed by the lack of private property as what happened in Europe. As we shall see in later posts this begrudging respect would soon be supplemented by scorn. Columbus himself would become known for his appalling treatment of the indigenous peoples.
Vasco da Gama and early Portuguese conquest
|Da Gama in India|
Portugal wanted to dominate the spice trade. Portugal lacked resources so was heavily reliant on trade and the proto-capitalist world was heavily reliant on trade. In 1497 Manuel I sponsored a fleet of four ships armed with cannons under Vasco da Gama to find two things: gold and Christians. Around ninety years after Henry the Navigator first captured Ceuta the Portuguese were still hunting for Prester John hoping to recruit him in a crusade in north Africa. Using technology and astronomical charts made by Henry the Navigator da Gama sailed around the Cape (Europe soon realized that they hadn't found a new route to the Indian Ocean). While in the Indian Ocean da Gama found mariners who knew the seas well. On his initial voyage he bombarded Calicut but was still heavily rewarded by Manuel I who gave him the title 'Admiral of the Indian Ocean'. The king sent da Gama back to enforce Portuguese interests where he destroyed an Indian fleet and captured Calicut where they used their cannons to break in. He returned to Portugal carrying huge amounts of spices, gold and jewels. With Portugal's gains in West Africa early colonialism greatly expanded Portuguese wealth. Portugal then founded a 'trading post empire'. It would take until the 1700s and 1800s for Europe to properly to establish itself in Asia and Africa so at this early stage they would instead take coastal cities which could easily be held using their cannons. Most famously in 1515 they captured Goa. This allowed Portugal to directly tap into the Indian markets with 40,300 tonnes of shipping going to Asia in return for 26,300 tonnes between 1497 and 1510. We soon see a clash of cultures. Indian states had always been land powers being disinterested in the sea. Their sovereignty ended at the coast in their mind. This differed to the Mediterranean where states battled for supremacy. When Portugal established themselves in India they engaged in basically piracy attacking any Indian ship not carrying a licence called a cartaz. Few could afford a cartaz however so this was used by the Portuguese, (and by later Europeans including the Dutch, French and British), to exercise power. Here we see the origins of European world hegemony.
Can we really call this an Age of Exploration? Zheng He and Vasco da Gama used already established routes to travel along, and even then they were interested in breaking into (or breaking) markets which they already knew. Columbus, despite 'discovering' America, had wanted to also break into this market and only failed thanks to him overestimating Asia's size and underestimating the size of the oceans. Even then we cannot say that he explored or discovered anything. Millions of people lived in the Americas. Below we have a map of the areas which was actually discovered (i.e. where no humans had actually been):
|Places actually Discovered|
In this period we also see the trends which will go on to characterize European imperialism. Portugal in India managed to create an edge for itself by using brief technological advantages to then impose European ideas. This clash of ideas would give Europeans an excuse to dominate the local peoples. Meanwhile, in the Americas Columbus showed an Orientalist view on the indigenous peoples. Centuries later Thomas Jefferson would lament the fate of Native Americans but would blame them for not accepting European culture and religion. We see the same in the Indies. In a future post we shall explore this further. For the next two posts, however, we will focus on the Aztecs and Incas. We shall look at these two unique cultures before they were broken by European greed and power. Thank you for reading and I have used these sources:
-Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 by Merry Wiesner-Hanks
-The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500-1700 by Sanjay Subrahmanyam
-The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism by Joyce Appleby
-The Times Complete History of the World edited by Richard Overy
-Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal edited by Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan
-'The Ming Voyages', BBC In Our Time
-Laura Benton, 'Legal Spaces of Empire: Piracy and the Origins of Ocean Regionalism', Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2005
For other World History posts please see here