Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

Changes in Europe Caused by the Discovery of the New World

In the fifteenth century Spain and Portugal were, so to speak, new countries. They had only newly been admitted into the family of Europe. Their own constant wars with the Moors had left them no time to join in the wars and politics of Europe. Their religious toleration had kept them free from papal influences. They had not even joined to any great extent in the commerce of Europe. For of all the countries of western Europe they were in the least advantageous position for trade. They were, as it were, at the end of the world.

All trade was with the East. The Mediterranean was the great trade route. Ports near the centre of this route with good water-ways and roads behind them, by which goods could be distributed throughout Europe, were likely to prosper. Thus Genoa and Venice grew into wealthy and powerful merchant republics. Spain, at the extreme west end of the route, with water-ways short and of little use commercially, cut off, moreover, from the rest of the continent by the Pyrenees, in spite of a Mediterranean seaboard, shared little in its commerce. Aragon, indeed, to some extent, did take part in the commerce of the world, and the ships of Barcelona carried many a rich cargo. But Castile, even after the union of the crowns of Castile and Aragon, did not benefit by this at all. For although it had some Mediterranean seaboard it had no good port. Portugal, having no Mediterranean seaboard, and the ports of the North Sea and the Baltic being for the most part in the hands of the Hansa merchants, was almost entirely cut off from the trade of the world.

But in the fifteenth century, vigorous in their new-found nationality, both Portuguese and Spaniards began to seek outlets for their energies. Such outlets were not easy to find. For Venice controlled the ports of Syria and of Egypt, and the route to India by way of the Red Sea. Since the fall of Constantinople Christian traders had been driven from the Black Sea and the trade routes to Asia in that direction. Indeed, as years went on, the Turks hampered more and more all expansion of Christian trade eastward.

Henry the Navigator

The Portuguese, therefore, were obliged to seek an outlet in another direction. The idea occurred to some of the more daring spirits that it might be possible to reach India by sailing round Africa. So they began, timidly at first, and then more boldly, to explore the west coast of Africa. The way to India was not discovered, but a lucrative trade in negroes and gold-dust rapidly grew up. Year by year in their gay little boats the Portuguese ventured farther and farther afield. The Canary Islands, Madeira, and the Azores were all discovered, or rather rediscovered, for they had been known to the ancients. Soon they were to some extent colonized, and their products, such as honey, maize, and fruits, were added to the growing trade of Portugal.

In all these discoveries and adventures in colonization the Portuguese were encouraged and helped by Prince Henry of Portugal who, because of his enthusiasm in these matters, has been given the name of Henry the Navigator. His great ambition was to find the way to India by rounding Africa. But headland after headland along the coast was passed, and still there seemed no end to it, and Henry died with his dream unfulfilled.

At length the new way to India was discovered by accident. Driven by a storm Bartholomew Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and sailed some way up the eastern coast of Africa. As it was a storm which had led to his discovery Diaz called the Cape the Cape of Storms. But when he returned home with his news, and men became assured that at last the new way was found to India and the lands of spice, they changed the name to the Cape of Good Hope.

Ten years, however, passed before the attempt to reach India by that route succeeded. Then Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape, steered across the Indian Ocean, reached India, and returned to Lisbon in triumph with a rich cargo. But before this a still more wonderful voyage had been made. Christopher Columbus had sailed across the Atlantic, discovering, as he thought, yet another way to India.

Christopher Columbus

The ancients had believed that the world was flat. But gradually many people had come to think that it was round. Among these was Christopher Columbus, the Genoese sailor. This being so, it must be possible, he argued, to reach India by sailing west just as easily as by sailing east. If this way could be found all the dangers from Mohammedan pirates, all the difficulties of land transport across the desert, from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, would be avoided, and great fame and fortune would accrue to the people who should find and make use of the new way.

Columbus was filled with a passionate belief in his theory. But he was only a poor man, and had neither the power nor the money needed to fit out an expedition of discovery. So he spent long years in a fruitless endeavour to enlist the sympathy of those who were wealthy and powerful. He carried his great idea first to the court of Portugal and then to that of Spain. But everywhere he was met with prejudice and disbelief. Kings and courtiers alike looked upon him as a crazy adventurer. At length, however, he gained the ear of Queen Isabella. She became fired with something of his own enthusiasm, and promised him the aid he needed.

So at last, on August 3, 1492, Columbus set out on his perilous adventure. To most people, indeed, the adventure seemed not only perilous but mad, and they never expected to see any of those who took part in it again. But in little more than seven months Columbus returned triumphant, having proved the truth of his theory, and found, as he thought, a new way to India. He had done something much more wonderful. He had discovered a new world. But although Columbus made several voyages across the Atlantic, and even landed on the continent of South America, he never discovered his mistake. He died believing that his great title to fame was in having discovered a new way to India.

New Trade Routes

The exploration of the west coast of Africa, the discovery of the route to India by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and the discovery of the lands beyond the Atlantic, completely changed the face of Europe. The ocean and not the Mediterranean became the chief trade route, and the merchant cities such as Venice and Genoa lost their importance. The countries fronting the Atlantic were no longer at the end of the world, but in its centre. Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and England became the great sea-going and, therefore, the great commercial nations of Europe.

Word showing discoveries


Spain and Portugal, indeed, tried to shut out all other lands from a share in the new commerce. Soon after Columbus returned from his first voyage the Spanish persuaded Pope Alexander VI to issue a bull which gave to them all heathen lands which had been, or might be, discovered west of an imaginary line drawn from pole to pole, west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. All lands discovered east of this line were to belong to Portugal. But powerful although the pope was, other lands were not easily persuaded to allow Spain and Portugal to reap all the rich harvest of the seas. In 1496 Henry VII of England sent Cabot across the Atlantic to claim for England any lands he might find. The French, too, disregarded the pope's bull. "I fain would see Father Adam's will," cried King Francis of France, "wherein he made you the sole heirs of so vast an inheritance," and he, too, sent out explorers to claim lands for France.

But in the new prosperity which resulted in this sea-going activity the Netherlands for a time took the lead. For Spain and Portugal were busy strengthening their hold on the Indies, England had its domestic troubles, and France was wasting its energies on a dream of dominion in Italy. So most of the carrying trade fell to the share of the Netherlands, and Antwerp for a time took the place which Venice had once held as the centre of the world's commerce.

Soon among the sea-going nations there grew up a keen rivalry for possession of the new lands which every day were being discovered, and wars arose out of this rivalry. Nations fought in Europe for supremacy in the New World. Politics and commerce became strangely mixed, and it is hard to know sometimes where the ambition of kings ends and the enterprise of commerce begins.