If you live in the Western World, we have ingrained tales of Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the Americas in our minds. Arguably, this is one of the most pivotal moments in world history. The world’s borders, technology, culture, and religion were all affected due to Europe’s exploration of the world’s unknown to them.
This, of course, wasn’t born out of any altruistic nature. European explorers like Cortez were motivated by fame and riches, which is evident by the horrors they unleashed on Native people across the planet.
The impact of this Age of Discovery is complicated. The positive and negative effects may depend more on where you’re from than anything else. Someone living on a reservation may view things far differently than someone of Italian descent in New York City. We will try to address this when looking at the pros and cons of European exploration, but let’s first examine the origins.
How did European exploration begin?
Contrary to how we’ve mythologized Columbus, European Exploration began long before he set sail in 1492.
Scandinavian Vikings began to leave home from the 9th to the 11th century to search for their fortunes elsewhere. During this period, they left their mark as raiders, traders, settlers, and explorers. During this period, they settled in Iceland and Greenland. Historians believe that famed Viking explorer Leif Eriksson was the first European to set foot in North America, and may have set up a settlement in modern New Foundland.
The next leg of exploration was overland. Marco Polo traveled the Silk Road in the 13th century to find China. The stories and goods he brought back would greatly influence Christopher Columbus’ journey west to find the Indies.
Though not European, Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan scholar, and explorer had as much influence. His travels through India, China, and Southeastern Asia spanned over 175,000 kilometers. By comparison, Marco Polo only traveled 12,000 kilometers.
These precursors set the stage for Spanish exploration in the 15th century. Almost a century before Columbus, Portugal began exploring the coast of Africa, kickstarting centuries of European exploration.
What was the motivation behind exploration?
The motivation behind this expansion was simple. Early explorers sought wealth and fame. Spain and Portugal showered early explorers like Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama with gold and glory when they returned home.
The European monarchies that sponsored had similar motivations. They sought to bring their country’s wealth via the spice trade and secure their legacy by bringing prosperity to their people.
Now that we have a better understanding of the history and motivations behind exploration let’s take a look at its impact.
Positive Effects of European Exploration
The introduction of new trade routes
The Spice Trade existed in Europe starting from around the 1st century AD after Rome discovered a sea route with India. By the 11th century, spices became extremely popular amongst European lords and ladies, which drove up prices and demand exponentially.
The problem? The spice trade ran through the Levant, which Islamic Calphiates controlled. This was also during the crusades, when Christians and Muslims were fighting in the region, significantly disrupting trade.
Fast forward to the 15th century, and spice prices rose thirty times their value on their trip from India to Italy.
Soon, Portuguese exploration would change everything. When Vasco de Gama discovered a trade route around the Horn of Africa to India, tiny Portugal became a world power overnight.
The European arrival in North America opened even more new trade routes. Spanish settlers sent silver and gold, along with crops like sugar cane back to Europe.
To be fair, these trade routes tended to be one-sided. The people of North and South America did not reap the benefit of these new trade routes. The Islamic Caliphates in the Middle East also lost a lot of power when they lost control of the trade routes.
European economic growth
European countries that had suffered through extreme poverty and inequality during the Middle Ages, soon found their economies growing at unprecedented rates.
The Spanish Treasure Fleet brought in so much gold in the late 15th and early 17th centuries that they caused what is known as The Price Revolution. This was a massive inflation event that resulted in the average cost of goods multiplying by 6x over 150 years.
What started as simple wealth extraction led to the introduction of new trading partners. Spanish, Portuguese, French, and British settlers colonized the new world, creating new customers for European goods worldwide.
Increased Political Power
Newfound wealth made even small countries like Portugal, England, and the Netherlands competitive with their more powerful neighbors. Not enough, manpower? They could hire an army of mercenaries to do their bidding. As a direct result of this, England would eventually own a globe-spanning empire that the sun literally did not set on.
It is important to stress that this impact was only positive for Europeans. European hegemony eventually led to some of the biggest tragedies of the last 1,000 years under imperialism and the slave trade, which we will discuss later.
The need for technology for boats to travel further and safer drove numerous inventions during this period. The Compass Rose and Magnetic Compass allowed sailors to know what direction they were traveling. The Astrolabe, Ka-Mal, and Quadrant all could help sailors find the latitude.
Negative Impact of European Exploration
Disease and Genocide
The European arrival in the Americas only brought disease and destruction. Unknown to early explorers, the Native people had never come into contact with Small Pox.
Because of certain biological and cultural reasons, the disease tore through the population. The common practice of visiting the sick made it extra contagious, while a lack of immunity made it extra deadly. For example, when Cortez arrived in Mexico, 30 million Aztecs later. Within half a century, there were only 3 million left.
Nobody knows how many people died from these European plagues, but it was likely over half of their population.
To make matters worse, it was a common practice to enslave the native population. In the Caribbean, Spain worked thousands to death in mines and the fields.
The Atlantic Slave Trade
Instead of meditating on the death and destruction, they caused, European powers enslaved Africans to replenish their dying workforce.
Europeans began trading commercial goods with Africa for slaves, which they then transported to the Americas. From there, slavers traded them for goods, which then returned to Europe, forming a triangle.
Between the 15th and 18th centuries, over 15 million Africans arrived in America. Five million of them died in horrific conditions in camps during their first year. Another two million died crossing the Atlantic in what was known as the Middle Passage.
The Atlantic Slave Trade led to more deaths than the Holocaust and stole the freedom from millions more.
Control of the sea and their newfound wealth led European powers to look elsewhere to expand their influence.
By the start of World War Two, Europe claimed the majority of the world as their domain. Many Europeans justify spreading technology and Western culture worldwide, but you’re unlikely to find anyone who would agree that experienced it.
Britain exploited India’s population and resources, sent their citizens to die, and mismanaged many famines leading to millions of deaths. When speaking of the worst famine in 1943, Churchill had this to say: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”
King Leopold II of Belgium potentially worked to death and murdered 10 million people in Congo collecting Rubber. Mutilations, torture, and beatings workers couldn’t meet quotas. Even children were subject to his abuse, having their hands chopped off and left to die.
Britain even fought multiple wars with China to force Opium’s sale, which was ravaging the country with addiction.
We can’t deny that the time we live in now is one of the most tolerant, compassionate in history. Still, it is essential to mourn learn from the tragedy that led us here. Our ancestors built our world through generations of oppression and suffering. Millions of people died horrible deaths, all stemming from those earlier explorers setting sail.
As I said before, the positive and negative effects are all about perspective as well. Someone in India’s view will be far different than someone from Kansas.
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