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BRITAIN : ISLAND STATE TO EMPIRE
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:
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
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 of Spain
Map of Spanish and Portuguese Territory as agreed by the treaty.
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