The Expansion of Europe beyond its Borders

Although cross-cultural connections had been prevalent throughout history, primarily in Eurasia, cross cultural interaction was much more pervasive after 1500. Unlike previous connections, these more recent interactions were led by Western European explorers and traders who benefited from scientific and technological advances achieved during the European Renaissance. The result was the diffusion of European culture throughout the Americas and Asia, intricate trading networks which often led to conflict, the spread of food crops and domestic animals, a dramatic surge in world population due to improved diets, and sadly, the spread of epidemic diseases which devastated indigenous populations.

Motives for Exploration: The motivations of Europeans to explore areas beyond their own borders consisted of: (1) the search for basic resources and lands suitable for the cultivation of cash crops; (2) the desire for new trade routes to Asia; and (3) attempts to spread Christianity.

The Portuguese were the first to explore for new resources and lands to cultivate. Originally, they had sought fish, seals whales, timber, and lands to grow wheat to supplement their own supply, which was meager at best. They discovered the Azores and Madeira Islands (both uninhabited) as early as the fourteenth century and often visited the Canary Islands (inhabited by the Guanches people) A primary motivation was the desire to establish new plantations for the cultivation of sugar. Italian merchants and entrepreneurs had established sugar plantations in Palestine and the Mediterranean years before; Italian merchants now worked with Portuguese mariners to establish sugar plantations in the Atlantic islands. Sugar plantations were established on the Cape Verde Islands, Sao Tomé, Principe, and Fernando Po.

The lure of trade in Asia was an even stronger draw than the desire for resources and sugar plantations. European merchants had traveled as far as China by means of overland routes; however with the collapse of the Mongol Empire and spread of bubonic plague, the Silk Roads were no longer safe. Italian merchants often purchased Asian goods at Cairo, Egypt where Muslim mariners brought them by way of the Indian Ocean and Red Sea; however Cairo prices were high, and as demand in Europe grew for Asian goods, notably spices, the need for a direct route became more obvious. Pepper and ginger were considered expensive necessities by wealthy Europeans; and cloves as well as nutmeg were even more highly prized. It became obvious that eliminating the Muslim middle men would increase the supply of goods and also yield enormous profits.

Europeans also became increasingly interested in trade in Africa, where they purchased gold, ivory and slaves. Gold was especially important, as it was used to pay for luxury goods from Asia. Again, the elimination of Muslim middle men would mean increased supply and profits.

The spread of Christianity was yet another goal of Europeans, although probably less in importance than economic motivations. The Spanish reconquista had ended with the capture of Granada in 1492 weeks before Christopher Columbus departed on his voyage to America. Overseas voyages offered the opportunity of new converts to Christianity. Quite often, the motivations of Europeans intertwined. Spanish conquistadores claimed their purpose in invading the Americas was for "God, gold, and glory." When asked by Indian authorities what he wanted, Vasco da Gama in 1498 said "Christians and spices."

Technological Advances: Technological improvements in ships, means of navigation and sailing techniques made European expansion possible. These new inventions allowed them to sail out of the sight of land for many days. Europeans had begun construction of ships with a rudder built into the stern since the twelfth century, which made the ship more maneuverable. Two types of sail were used: square sails, which allowed them to take advantage of winds blowing from behind; and lateen sails, triangular in shape which allowed them to take advantage of cross winds, and tack (advance against the wind.)

They were also aided by the introduction of magnetic compasses and the astrolabe, which was soon replaced by cross staffs and back staffs. The compass had been invented by Chinese mariners and diffused through the Indian Ocean basin but finally reached Europe in the mid twelfth century. By means of the back staff or cross staff, which allowed mariners to measure the angle of the sun or pole star above the horizon, mariners could determine latitude; whereby they could navigate with reasonable accuracy and efficiency. (Longitude could not be measured early on, as it requires the ability to measure time precisely; this technology was unavailable until the mid eighteenth century with the invention of spring driven clocks.)

With their new technology, Europeans compiled a great deal of information about winds and currents in the world’s oceans. They learned both wind and current patterns and by taking advantage of this information, they were able to take advantage of prevailing winds and currents and sail anywhere on the earth. To take advantage of prevailing winds, mariners were often forced to sail indirect routes away from their destination. Portuguese merchants developed a strategy known as the volta da mar ("return through the sea") whereby they sailed northwest away from Portugal into ocean open where they found favorable winds to bring them home. Europeans developed variations of this system in voyages around the world as they learned to take advantage of prevailing winds.

Voyages of Exploration: European mariners frequently visited the Canary Islands after the fourteenth century which they "rediscovered." The Guanche people there had had no contact with other peoples since the time of the Roman Empire. The islands were later conquered by Spanish forces and used as outposts for further exploration. The pace of exploration picked up under voyages sponsored by Prince Henry the Navigator. Portuguese merchants established trading posts in Africa in modern Ghana where they traded leather, horses, textiles and metalware for gold and slaves. The voyages of Bartolommeo Bias and Vasco da Gama took place after Henry’s death; although his efforts were largely responsible for their success. Da Gama brought back sufficient pepper and cinnamon to make the voyage hugely profitable, even though half his crew was lost on the voyage. Portuguese merchants soon established trading posts in India, primarily at Calcutta. They were soon followed by English and Dutch mariners who also established trading posts.

In the meantime, Christopher Columbus had sailed for America, believing he could reach Asia by traveling west. Based on his study of geography, Columbus believed the Eurasian landmass to occupy 270 degrees of the earth’s surface (in fact it is only 140 degrees.) He also computed the earth’s circumference at 17,000 nautical miles when it in fact is almost 25,000 nautical miles. He calculated that Japan should be 2,500 nautical miles from the Canary Islands (roughly the location of Knoxville, Tennessee.) whereas the actual distance is over 10,000 nautical miles. Columbus eventually received backing from Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and on October 12, 1492, landed on an island which he named San Salvador ("Blessed Savior,") present day Watling Island. He sailed around the Caribbean for three months; when he landed at Cuba, he sent a delegation to visit the court of the Emperor of China. When he returned to Spain, he reported that he had landed on an island off the coast of Asia. There is some speculation that he knew the truth; but faked his report so as not to disappoint his investors.

Columbus made three more voyages to America, but never found Asia; and found very little of the gold he had sought. He was especially cruel to the Indians whom he encountered, kidnapping some on his first voyage to exhibit in Europe; and forcing others to search for gold. Those who did not produce the required quota often had their fingers amputated as punishment and as a warning to others. His voyages did attract a great deal of attention, and mariners from other European countries searched for a Northwest Passage to Asia. Although no passage was discovered until many years later (a passage through the ice laden Arctic Ocean,) the western hemisphere itself proved a valuable source of raw materials.

Among those seeking westerly routes was Vasco Nuňez de Balboa reached the Pacific Ocean while searching for gold in Panama in 1413. No one at the time knew the distance from the Americas to Asia. Later, Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese mariner, visited ports in the Indian Ocean. Acting on the belief that the spice islands of Asia lay close to the Americas, he sailed for Spain in a voyage which circumnavigated the globe in the years 1519-1522. He sailed his ships through the treacherous Straits of Magellan on the southernmost tip of South America and then crossed the Pacific in a four month voyage without taking on fresh provisions. His crew ate rats, wormy sea biscuits, and leather softened by dragging it through sea water. Without vegetables, many contracted scurvy, a horrendous disease which causes rotting gums, loss of teeth, hemorrhaging, and usually death. Magellan himself died from a poison dart in the thigh in the Philippines when he got involved in a local political dispute. Forty of his crew also died. The survivors continued on to the Island of Malacca where they picked up a cargo of cloves and then continued sailing westward to home, rather then re-cross the Pacific. Of five ships and 280 men; one ship with eighteen men returned, followed later by another seventeen men on a separate ship which had returned by a different route.

Spanish merchants acting on Magellan’s findings established a trade route between the Philippines and Mexico; but did not explore the Pacific basin itself. English mariners carried exploration further. Sir Francis Drake, attempting to avoid capture by Spanish forces after he attacked Panama and raided Spanish treasure ships, traveled along the west coast of North America as far as Vancouver Island. King Philip II of Spain in fact demanded that Queen Elizabeth I of England surrender Drake to the Spanish when he landed in England. Elizabeth not only refused to send Drake to Spain, she added insult to injury by knighting him on the deck of his own ship. This incident was largely resonsible for the Spanish Armada which Philip sent against England, but which failed miserably. The most famous mariner to explore the Pacific was Captain James Cook (1728-1779), who charted eastern Australia and New Zealand,, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, and the coast of Alaska. (Anchorage Alaska sits on narrow body of water known as "Cook Inlet.") He was later killed in Hawaii in a scuffle with the people of Hawaii.

Trade, Conflict, and Global Exchange: European mariners often attempted to build trading Empires in the areas they explored. Some attempted to control the spice trade in the Indian Ocean and other areas; but they did not have the military power to do so effectively. The Portuguese were the first to attempt control. They hoped to control trade routes by forcing merchants to call at fortified trading sites and pay duties. By the mid sixteenth century, they had erected fifty fortified posts between west Africa and east Asia. They traded in slaves in Africa and attempted to control the gold trade in Mozambique; and also attempted to channel the clove trade through their ports. They often used heavy artillery mounted on their ships to overpower smaller craft.

The Portuguese commander of forces in the Indian Ocean was Alfonso d’Alboquerque, who attempted to force all foreign ships to obtain safe conduct passes at Portuguese trading posts. Ships without passes had their cargoes confiscated, and violators of his policies were executed, or their hands were cut off. Still, he only controlled half the trade effectively. Arab merchants still transported pepper through the Red Sea to Cairo, and Indian merchants also operated successfully in the area. The Portuguese were never able to control Cairo or the Mediterranean routes.

Eventually, Portuguese hegemony of the Indian Ocean grew weak, and was replaced by trading companies operated by English and Dutch investors. Portuguese ships had often been manned by Spanish, English and Dutch sailors who soon became familiar with Asian waters. The English and Dutch attempted to channel trade through their trading posts, but did not attempt to control shipping on the seas as had the Portuguese. The Portuguese continued to operate in many of the Spice Islands, notably Goa and Malacca; the English concentrated on India while the Dutch operated in South Africa and present day Indonesia, primarily Java.

English and Dutch merchants used faster, cheaper and more powerful ships than had the Portuguese which gave them an advantage; plus they conducted trade as Joint Stock Companies, similar to a modern corporation which allowed investors to realize huge profits but risk only the actual sums invested in the enterprise. Among the more successful companies were the English East India Company and the United East India Company, operated by Dutch investors. It was known by its initials, VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie.) The companies were supported by their governments and outfitted ships with goods and money to trade. They had no government oversight, and concentrated strictly on profit. They even had the right to wage war to protect their interests. Both companies were immensely successful. One expedition of five English ships, which sailed from London in 1601 with gold and silver coins valued at £ 30,000; returned in 1603 with spices valued at greater than £ 1,000,000.

There was also a British West India Company, and several other joint stock companies involved in the settlement of the Americas. The London Company was largely responsible for the settlement at Jamestown, Va., and the Plymouth Company, which later became the Massachusetts Bay Company, was responsible for the settlement of New England. Also, the Royal African Company operated a number of ships engaged in the slave trade.

Europeans were able to conquer and impose rule on only two areas in Asia, the Philippines and Indonesia. Neither had a powerful state when Europeans arrived and authorities in China and India had not attempted to impose rule on them. Europeans were able to establish control using armed ships and troops.

Spanish forces under Miguel Lopez de Legazpi overcame disorganized local opposition in the Philippines and named the islands for Philip II of Spain. They established a major trading post at Manila, which was already a major trading center in its own right. One quarter of its residents were Chinese merchants who traded in silk. The Spanish purchased silk there which they shipped to Mexico. They viewed the Chinese with some suspicion, and on six occasions, Spanish and Filipinos massacred Chinese merchants. Still they relied heavily on the trade goods the Chinese brought to Manila. At the same time, they promoted Christianity by pressuring prominent Filipinos to convert. They hoped that others would follow suit. They encountered some opposition due to the association of the Filipinos of Christianity with Spanish brutality; but over time the Islands became increasingly Christian. By the mid nineteenth century, the Philippines were one of the most Catholic countries in the world.

The Dutch in Indonesia did not attempt to convert the native people to Christianity but rather concentrated on trade, primarily cloves, nutmeg and mace. The VOC representative, Jan Pieterzoon Coen, used naval power to force Indonesian islanders to deliver spices only to VOC merchants. He also played local princes and authorities against each other such that by the late seventeenth century, the VOC controlled almost all the spice trade in Indonesia. The Dutch did not have the power to rule directly; therefore they made alliances with local rulers to maintain order in most areas. They only ruled Batavia in Java directly. They did not attempt to conquer the islands, but did destroy spice plants on islands they did not control and attacked people who sold spices to anyone other than them.

Voyages of exploration often led to conflict between European powers themselves. Dutch warships expelled the Portuguese from most of southeast Asia and prevented the English from establishing ports there. Later, when trade in Indian Cotton and tea from Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) became important, English merchants dominated trade. Conflict soon followed. English pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake preyed on Spanish gold shipments and the French and English often fought over sugar islands in the Caribbean. Conflict reached its peak in the Seven Years War, the first true "world war," fought on several continents. It actually began in America, where it was known as the French and Indian War. It is often called "the great war for Empire." The outcome of the war saw the French removed from India and Canada by the British, although they retained control of some Caribbean islands. Spain retained Cuba but lost Florida to the British. Britain was now in position to dominate world trade for the foreseeable future.

Global Exchanges: Interaction between people of Europe, Asia, and the Americas resulted in an unprecedented volume of exchange of plants, food crops, animals, people, and diseases. The most famous of these was the Columbian Exchange, between Europe and the Americas. It is important to note that these ex changes involved lands with radically different flora and fauna and diseases. The result was a permanent alteration of the world’s geography and environment.

Europeans in the Americas brought with them small pox, whooping cough, diphtheria and influenza to which the native peoples were not immune. Effects of the diseases in Europe had been less drastic, affecting perhaps ten per cent of the population, mostly children under age ten. It did not pose a threat to society as it did not kill working adults often. In the Americas, however, they became ferocious epidemics, killing as much as 95% of the native population within a century. The population of Mexico declined from 21,000,000 to less than 1,000,000. The diseases were easily transmissible, and affected many people who had had no contact with Europeans whatsoever. The diseases were also devastating in the Pacific Islands, although on a smaller scale. Best estimates are that between 1500 and 1800, more than 100,000,000 people died of disease imported by Europeans.

In the long run, however, the Columbian exchange increased rather than diminished human population. The introduction of food crops and animals resulted in improved diets which led to healthier populations which multiplied more easily. From Europe to America went wheat, horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens. (Sadly, cockroaches were an unintentional import.) From America to Europe, Asia and Africa went maize, potatoes, tobacco, beans, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, manioc, papayas, avocados, pineapples, and cacao. The end result was a surge in population of the world.

Human populations also spread through transoceanic migrations, many of which were involuntary. Most migrants were enslaved Africans sent to American and Caribbean destinations. Others were Europeans who settled in lands which disease had depopulated in the Americas, Africa, Australia and the Pacific Islands. Some Asian people also migrated to tropical and sub-tropical destinations.

Trading post empires also led to the globalization of trade. European goods traveled to the Americas where they were traded for silver from Mexico and Peru and agricultural products such as sugar and tobacco. European goods also were traded in Africa for slaves who were in turn shipped to plantations in the west. Silver was particularly important, as it was the basis for Chinese currency. European merchants often exchanged it for Chinese gold which was later traded profitably for more silver or other trade goods. Many Asian luxury goods traveled from Manila to Mexico or Peru, while most traveled across the Atlantic to Spain and European markets. European mariners and merchants had soon connected almost all parts of the world in trading networks with the exception of Australia.