Renaissance Trade Routes


Trade Routes Enlarge the World

At first the wealth of the East trickled into Western Europe mainly by overland routes. Goods changed hands many times before they reached the consumer, and at each exchange the cost increased. Shipping costs were also high. Goods were transported by camel or horse caravans, each animal carrying only a comparatively small load. After 1453 the Moslem Turks controlled Constantinople, which was the crossroads of important trade routes. They permitted cargoes from the East to pass through the city only on their own terms.

Western European merchants thought that if they could find sea routes to the Orient they could import goods directly to their own cities. Soon they were prepared to outfit ships for sea captains sailing in search of new routes. Each contributed only a portion of the expense, so that no one would be completely ruined if the venture failed. They also secured the king's approval of their enterprises and his promise to defend their claims to lands discovered along the way. The king of Spain always demanded a fifth of the gold and silver found by his explorers.

The Italian port cities were satisfied with their monopoly of the old routes. The Scandinavian countries were far removed. Germany was split into many small states. Thus the work of discovery fell to Portugal, Spain, England, and France.

Portuguese Exploration Around Africa

Under the sponsorship of Prince Henry the Navigator, Portugal took the lead in the 1400's. Portuguese sea captains made ever-lengthening voyages along the western coast of Africa. Bartholomew Diaz first saw the cliffs of the Cape of Good Hope at Africa's southern tip in 1488. In 1497-98 Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape and reached India by sea. He brought back a cargo of spices that netted a huge profit. Portugal occupied key cities on the sea lanes between China and the Red Sea. Its wealth became the envy of Western Europe.

Others before Vasco da Gama had planned new sea routes to the Orient, and some had guessed that such a route might be found by sailing west. Few men could agree on how far west Asia lay from Europe by sea, and no one dreamed that the American continents stood in the way.

Columbus Sails West

One of the most optimistic advocates of the western route was Christopher Columbus. For years he begged the courts of Portugal, England, France, and Spain for a grant of ships and men to prove that Asia lay only a few thousand miles west of Europe. Finally in 1492 Queen Isabella of Castile provided the money, and Columbus sailed with three ships. Pressing onward over the growing objections of his captains and crews, he finally sighted one of the Bahamas and shortly thereafter discovered Cuba and Hispaniola.

On three later voyages he found the mainland's of Central and South America. Until his death, in 1506, Columbus never swerved from his belief that the lands he discovered were actually part of Asia

Spain and Portugal Divide the New World

When Columbus first returned to Spain, the Portuguese claimed that he had merely visited a part of their dominion of Guinea in Africa. Spain and Portugal accordingly asked Pope Alexander VI to settle the dispute. He complied by drawing a north-south Line of Demarcation in 1493. If Spain discovered lands west of this line, the Spanish king was to have them if they were not already owned by a Christian ruler. In 1494 the line was drawn through a point 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands.

In 1500 a Portuguese mariner, Pedro Alvarez Cabral, sailing along Africa en route to India, was carried by a storm to Brazil. He claimed the land for Portugal since it lay east of the line. When the Portuguese king heard of Cabral's discovery, he sent out an expedition which sailed hundreds of miles along the South American coast.

New Land Named for Vespucius

An Italian merchant, Americus Vespucius, asserted he was a member of exploring parties to the New World and wrote a letter telling of what he had seen. Martin Waldseemuller, a German scholar, included the letter in a popular geography and suggested that the new land be called America. The name caught on and brought Vespucius an honor he did not deserve.

By 1510 men realized that the new land was not part of the Orient, but they still thought that China and India were just beyond. In 1513 Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the Spanish adventurer, crossed the Isthmus of Darien and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean from American shores.

By this time Spain claimed that the Line of Demarcation extended around the globe, but no one knew where it fell in the Eastern Hemisphere. A Portuguese captain, Ferdinand Magellan, believed there might be a water passage through the New World that would lead to the Orient. He convinced the king of Spain that the richest lands in the Far East lay in the region reserved for Spain by the papal line. The king commissioned Magellan to find a western route.

 Magellan's Ship Circles the Globe

In 1519 Magellan sailed from Spain to Brazil. Then he proceeded south along the coast to the tip of the continent and passed through the strait that now bears his name. He sailed into the ocean which he named the Pacific. Magellan was killed in the Philippine Islands, but one of his ships went on to India and finally in 1522 to Spain by way of the Indian Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope.

The voyage established Magellan as the foremost navigator in history. For the first time the globe was circled and the vast expanse of the Pacific was revealed. No longer could America be regarded as an outlying part of Asia.

Spain and Portugal each claimed that the rich Spice Islands of the East lay within its allotted territory. Spain's westward route was so much longer than Portugal's eastern route that Spain could not profit from the trade. In 1529 Spain surrendered to Portugal its claims in Asia and received the Philippine Islands in return. Magellan's voyage thus failed to break Portugal's supremacy in the Orient.

 The Spanish Penetrate America

The Spanish took the lead in exploring and colonizing the New World. The earliest settlements were in the West Indies. Hispaniola had the first towns. Santo Domingo, established in 1496, became the first capital of New Spain. Other settlements rose in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. From island harbors sailed expeditions to explore the coasts and penetrate the continents. They found gold, silver, and precious stones and enslaved the Indians. Ambitious men became governors of conquered lands. Missionaries brought a new religion to the Indians.

One adventurer, Juan Ponce de Leon, sailed from Puerto Rico in 1513. He landed on a new shore that he called Florida. He was interested in exploration and slave trading. He also wanted to find a fabled fountain whose waters made men perpetually young. He returned to Florida in 1521 to build a settlement, but he was slain by Indians.

 Riches for Spain from Mexico & Peru

The Spanish dream of finding great riches in America was realized when Hernando Cortez conquered the empire of the Aztecs in Mexico in 1519-21. A few years later Francisco Pizarro with a small force vanquished the Inca empire and seized the treasure of Peru in South America. Gold and silver from these lands poured into the Spanish king's treasury, rousing the envy of other rulers. The treasure ships attracted bloodthirsty pirates and privateers.

 Spanish & Portuguese in North America

Other Spanish conquerors (called in Spanish 'conquistadores') turned north to the lands now forming the southern part of the United States. In 1539 Hernando de Soto came from Spain by way of Cuba to the east coast of Florida. From there he trekked overland to the Mississippi. He wandered into what is now Arkansas and Oklahoma and later floated down the Arkansas River to its mouth. In 1542 he died and was buried in the Mississippi.

Indian traditions and stories of Spanish wanderers told that somewhere north of Mexico the golden towers of the Seven Cities of Cibola gleamed in the sun. Francisco de Coronado, governor of a province in western Mexico, set out in 1540 to find them. He crossed the deserts and plains between what is now western New Mexico and central Kansas, but he found only poor Indian towns, which have become known as pueblos. Coronado returned to Mexico without gold and jewels. Although Coronado had traveled well into the heart of North America, the Spaniards did not care to explore further the disappointing lands he had seen.

Earlier, in 1524-25, a Portuguese sea captain, Estevan Gomez, serving the king of Spain, explored the coast of North America from Maine to New Jersey. His descriptions led the Spaniards to consider this region far less valuable than the lands they had in the south. Thus they ignored the greater part of the East coast of North America.

The Portuguese made one important discovery in this northern region. In 1501 Gaspar Corte-Real reached Newfoundland. His voyages were not repeated, for Portugal soon needed all of its resources to develop its East India empire and its colony in Brazil.

English Seamen

England's first port for mariners sailing west was the city of Bristol. Bristol merchants hoped that if a new route to the Orient lay directly west across the Atlantic, their city would become the principal trade center. In 1497 they sent John Cabot, a Genoese sea captain, in search of this new passage. Cabot touched land between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and returned believing that he had visited the outlying parts of Asia. His voyage gave England its later claim to North America.

After realizing that Cabot had not reached Asia, England tried to open a route to the Orient around Northern Europe--the Northeast Passage. In 1576 Sir Humphrey Gilbert wrote his 'Discourse of a Northwest Passage', in which he reasoned that a water route led around North America to Asia. A few years later Gilbert sailed to establish a base in Newfoundland but died on the way home. Two other captains, Martin Frobisher and John Davis, each made three voyages between 1575 and 1589 to the network of straits and inlets north of the St. Lawrence River, but neither could find a way to the Pacific.

Search for Northwest Passage

To give England a foothold in the Far East, Queen Elizabeth I chartered the East India Company in 1600. In 1602 the company sent George Weymouth to find a passage through the continent to the Pacific Ocean, but he did not sail beyond Labrador. Another expedition the same year, under Bartholomew Gosnold, explored the New England coast. When the Virginia Colony was founded in 1607, John Smith and other settlers hoped to find a waterway across the country that would lead them to the Pacific.

England had another motive for entering the competition: to weaken Spain as a European power. In the 1500's England had established a national Protestant church. Spain wished to restore the pope's authority over England. The Spanish military was largely supported by the gold and silver from Mexico and Peru. Another source of revenue was the high duty levied on the Spanish traders, who held a monopoly on bringing black slaves into Spanish colonies. John Hawkins, an English sea rover, began smuggling blacks from Africa into the Spanish West Indies. He made three such voyages and reaped huge profits. On his third voyage he was attacked by a Spanish fleet and lost all but two ships.

Adventures of Drake

Hawkins escaped the Spaniards, taking with him his partner and cousin, Francis Drake. Drake realized that England could gain more by seizing Spanish treasure in the West Indies than by smuggling slaves. He sailed to the Caribbean Sea on a raiding expedition, but the Spaniards were well guarded and he won little spoil. Then he planned a bolder move. Knowing that the Spanish ships and ports on the Pacific were unprotected, he sailed from England, passed through the Strait of Magellan, and fell upon the Spaniards off Chile and Peru. He took so much plunder that he used silver for ballast. He sailed north, seeking an eastward passage through North America. Failing in this, he sailed across the Pacific and followed the route of Magellan's party back to Europe.

The English raids on the Spaniards in America helped plunge the two nations into open war. In 1588 the great Spanish Armada preparing to invade England was completely crushed. Spain's sea power swiftly declined and with it Spain's strength to keep England from the opportunities of the New World.

The riches of Spanish America prompted many Englishmen to search for gold in their own holdings in North America. In 1576 Martin Frobisher found samples of a "black earth" that he thought was a gold ore. He was wrong, but for a time England thought it was on the track of great wealth. Walter Raleigh sent out parties between 1584 and 1587 to explore and colonize the area named Virginia, but his ventures failed.

The French in Canada

While the conquistadores were busy in Central America, Spain and France were at war at home. Francis I, king of France, wanted a share of the Oriental trade to finance his armies. He commissioned a Florentine navigator, Giovanni da Verrazzano, to find a passage to Asia. In 1524 Verrazzano touched the American coast at North Carolina and then sailed north to Newfoundland. His report to the king contained the first description of the northeastern coast of North America and gave France its claim to American lands.

The next French explorer was Jacques Cartier. He made three voyages between 1534 and 1541 in quest of the Asia route. He ascended the St. Lawrence as far as the site of Montreal. After Cartier's voyages, a series of religious wars at home stopped France from sending out other parties. France made attempts, however, to establish two colonies as refuges for the Huguenots. One colony, in Brazil (1555-58), was destroyed by the Portuguese. The other, in Florida (1562-65), was wiped out by the Spaniards. Starting about 1540, French fishermen annually fished off the Newfoundland coast and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Under the vigorous rule of Henry IV (1589-1610) France was again united and at peace. Once more French explorers began to seek a strait to the Pacific.

The Dutch Come Last

The Netherlands was the last to begin exploration in the New World. For years the Dutch struggled to win their independence from Spain. During this struggle, Spain in 1580 annexed Portugal and gained control of the Oriental trade. The Dutch realized that Spain might be weakened by striking at its trade. They formed the Dutch East India Company and dispatched Henry Hudson, an English sea captain, to find a shortcut to the Orient. Hudson entered the Hudson River in 1609 and ascended it to the site of Albany.

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