The Age of Exploration

Prior to the Age of Exploration, adventurous sailors occasionally recounted tales of beautiful and faraway lands, but the folk back home had very little knowledge of vast continents between Europe and Asia. Nor did Europeans even begin to imagine that sophisticated Native American civilizations thrived in other parts of the world. After 1492, numerous Europeans explored the “unknown” Americas hoping to find faster and cheaper trade routes to the distant east. At the same time, strong central governments emerged, funding expeditions, which might lead to new sources of revenue. As explorers crossed and re-crossed the globe, they laid claim to lands in the New World, initiating a wave of conquest and colonization of the Western Hemisphere.


Advances in Mapmaking, Navigation, and Shipbuilding

Accurate mapmaking helps navigators better find locations and measure distances. Today, landsat imaging helps cartographers create highly detailed and accurate maps. Old World cartographers, however, created maps without modern technology. Imagine mapping coastlines and inland rivers without a bird's eye view of new lands! Yet, these map-makers were surprisingly accurate given their limited technology and knowledge of the New World. Interestingly, long before the Age of Exploration, Ptolemy mapped the ancient world suggesting that the earth was round, estimating its size, and dividing it into a grid system of latitude and longitude. During the Renaissance, cartographers rediscovered classical Greek and Roman scholarship, paving the way to advances in navigation.

The Portuguese took the early lead in developing navigational techniques. Aided by Prince Henry the Navigator in 1416, the Portuguese developed celestial navigation using quadrants and astrolabes. Celestial navigation determined latitude by observing the sun and stars. Many sailors, however, determined their course by dead reckoning, which used compass readings and measurements of a ship’s speed to determine position. Both of these techniques were only effective in measuring latitude; early navigators did have the technology to determine longitude. As early as 1530, Flemish astronomer Gemma Frisius suggested that longitude was related to time. Yet, clocks would not keep time at sea. Not until John Harrison’s 1761 seagoing chronometer accurately kept time at sea could sailors mark longitude. For more information on mapmaking and navigation, see the Marriner’s Museum of Newport News, Virginia.

Advances in shipbuilding included improved sail designs, stronger hulls, and sleeker lines. New sails made the most efficient use of available winds and even allowed seaman to sail into the wind. Stronger hulls better withstood the tremendous impact of rough Atlantic seas. Sleeker design lines allowed ships to sail faster, slicing through water far more efficiently than older barge-like ship designs.


Various Explorers and Claiming Territory in the New World

Explorers during the Age of Exploration attempted to find an easy ocean route to Asia. Portugal’s Bartholmeu Dias sailed west around the tip of Africa, rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1487. Vasco de Gama took the same route but continued on to the Indian Ocean in 1497-1499.

In the meantime, Christopher Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic, believing he could reach Asia that way. Instead, he encountered Caribbean islands. Between 1492 and 1504, Columbus made four voyages to this area for Spain, and always believed that he had reached the East Indies by sailing west.

Amerigo Vespucci charted 6000 miles of the South American coast, declaring that it was a previously unknown continent. In return, German mapmakers labeled the new continents “America” in his honor. Following Vesspucci’s work, early world maps including the New World emphasized the South American rather than North America. As late as 1554, South America remained preeminent. With an early jump on New World conquest, Spain claimed sovereignty over most of South and Central America, and portions of North America. Additional explorers continued to chart these land claims and record their resources. During this time, Vasco de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and viewed the Pacific Ocean. Ponce de Leon traveled through Florida. Hernando de Soto explored much of southeastern North America, including South Carolina. As these explorers charted European claims, others continued searching for a western route to Asia. Ferdinand Magellan rounded the tip of South America and circumnavigated the globe in a voyage lasting from 1519-1521.


To Learn More About Exploration and Settlement

In addition to the links already referenced, see the following books: Who Were the Vikings? (Jane Chrisholm), The American Story (Robert Divine), Columbus and the Renaissance Explorers (Colin Hynson), Magellan and the Renaissance Explorers (Colin Hynson), The Voyages of Columbus (Richard Humble), and An Introduction to the World’s Oceans—Fifth Edition (Alyn C. Duxbury).