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Colonies and Empires Index

16th, 17th and 18th Centuries

European Settlement in North America

Introduction
The First Colony : Virginia
The Pilgrim Fathers
The Mayflower and the Mayflower Compact
Plymouth Settlement
The First Thanksgiving
Massachusetts
Other Colonies

The Origins of Canada

Introduction : New France
The Hudson Bay Company
France Claims the Mississippi River

The Struggle between France and Britain
for North America

Introduction
The Seven Years' War
The Fall of Quebec
The Treaty of Paris

The American War of Independence

Introduction
Britain Taxes its Colonies
The Boston Massacre
The "Boston Tea Party"
The First Continental Congress
The War for Independence Begins
The Second Continental Congress
American Victories
The Declaration of Independence

History Chapters Main Index

 

Henry the Navigator

Henry the Navigator

 

Vasco da Gama (1469 - 1524)

Vasco da Gama (1469 - 1524)

 

Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus

 

 

BRITAIN : ISLAND STATE TO EMPIRE

Custom Search

Colonies and Empires

Exploration in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries

 

Introduction : 15th Century Voyages of Discovery

In 1433, the Portuguese sea captain, Gill Eannes, returned to Lisbon after reaching the Canary Islands, off the north west coast of Africa. Nobody could know, at that time, that Eannes had taken the first step on a road which would lead to European domination of the world. Eannes' voyage was the first of the "Voyages of Discovery".

In the same year, Prince Henry of Portugal (the Navigator), sent Eannes to explore the coast of Africa. Prince Henry's aim was that Portuguese sailors should eventually sail around Africa and reach India. There were three main motives behind Prince Henry's ambition:

 

The desire for knowledge. He was a man educated in the spirit of the Renaissance and wanted to know what lay beyond the narrow confines of Europe.

Being a devout Christian, Henry wanted to contact the Christian kingdom of Prester John, which rumours suggested was somewhere in Africa. Once contact had been made, Prince Henry planned a new crusade against the Moslems.

The spice trade, which had made the Italian cities, (especially Venice), so wealthy, was based upon trade with India and "the Spice Islands". This trade was controlled by Arabs and Venetians. If Portuguese sailors found a sea-route to India they could bring the spices back directly to Portugal. Portugal would then become the richest country in Europe.

 

Part of a map by Guillaume le Testu (circa. 1550)

Part of a map by Guillaume le Testu (circa. 1550)

 

In 1487, Bartolomeu Diaz reached the southern tip of Africa. Because this was such a promising event in the search for a direct route to India, Diaz named this southern limit "the Cape of Good Hope". Vasco da Gama, in 1498, was the first European to reach India and the cargo of spices and precious stones which he brought back paid for the expedition sixteen times over.

By 1487, Prince Henry's three motives had been reduced to one. Prester John had not been found and, although the desire for knowledge still existed, it was already overtaken by the overwhelming desire to make money.

 

Map showing the Portuguese route to India

Map showing the Portuguese route to India

 

After vainly trying to interest the Portuguese, the French and the English in a westward expedition, the Genoese sailor, Christopher Columbus, finally convinced Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain that he could find a new route to the Indies. His return, in October 1492, marked the beginning of the Spanish conquest of the New World, in the name of "Gold, Glory and God" or "Por Rey y Santiago".

By the end of the 15th century, therefore, two European countries had succeeded in establishing colonial empires. In 1494, the Pope had even divided the world into two. The Treaty of Tordesillas drew a line 370 leagues west of the Azores. Land to the west of this line was Spanish, whereas land to the east was Portuguese.

 

Isabella and Ferdinand

Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain

 

European Colonies in the 16th Century

Map of Spanish and Portuguese Territory as agreed by the treaty.

 

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