The Age of Exploration, part one

Between 1405 and 1433, seven naval expeditions left China to explore the world. These fleets, authorized and funded by the Ming government of China, consisted of sixty to two hundred fifty large ships, ranging from 200 feet to 450 feet long. (By comparison, the Santa Maria—Columbus’ largest ship—was about seventy feet long.) The ships carried Chinese treasures to show to the world, as well as armed warriors and sailors; they brought back government officials from several nations to pay their respects to China’s emperor. These fleets visited southeast Asia, India, and Arabia, and some of them also explored the eastern coast of Africa. After 1433, the government of China decided that the rest of the world had nothing of interest for China. Exploration was suspended. Had the voyages continued, Chinese explorers would have entered the Atlantic Ocean before European exploration of that ocean and its surrounding lands was underway. From that point to the present, world history would be entirely different.

Travel is consistent throughout human history. “America” was first discovered by Asians who crossed from Siberia to Alaska. Over many generations, their descendants populated every ecological niche of the western hemisphere. Bantu people first lived north of the equator but south of the Sahara Desert. Over many generations, they explored and populated the rest of central and southern Africa, becoming the predominant culture of the continent. Indo-Europeans began on the grassy plains were Europe and Asia meet, but they traveled south to India and west to Europe. Xiongnu (also called Huns) began in central Asia but traveled to India and to Europe. Magyars and Turks and Mongols also came out of central Asia into Europe and western Asia. European tribes including Goths and Vandals came from the north into the Roman Empire. One thousand years ago, Vikings crossed the north Atlantic, settling in Iceland and Greenland and the Canadian island of Newfoundland. They may have traveled as far south as New England, since they reported seeing grapevines. Vikings also visited (and sometimes colonized) the coastal regions of France and the British Isles. They entered the Mediterranean Sea, and they traveled up the Dneiper River to found the city of Kiev, the first capitol of Russia.

Around the peak of the Late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe, the leaders of Portugal resolved to attempt new means of travel. Situated at the far western end of the Silk Roads, the found foreign merchandise to be expensive, having passed through the hands of many merchants and having been taxed by many governments. Even gold from central Africa was inflated by too many stops in the middle of its journey. The government of Portugal therefore recruited, trained, and equipped sailors to help circumvent some of those middle profiteers in the interest of saving money.

The technology that enabled this Portuguese adventure came from Asia. The compass, which reliably points north and south, was invented in China. The astrolabe, which offers even more information about one’s location on the earth, was an Arab invention. Arab and Indian merchants had been traveling by water between Africa and southern Asia for some time, using these inventions to follow the monsoon trade winds and currents. Now Portuguese ships set out to conquer the western ocean, the Atlantic. They made their first stops along the African coast, where their journeys opened new opportunities for trade and commerce.

Not only did the Portuguese encounter more affordable gold and ivory; they also found African slaves for sale. When African tribes fought one another in battle, the losers were enslaved by the winners. Victorious African tribes were eager to sell their prisoners to merchants who would take them out of the area, reducing the chance of an uprising that would overturn the victory. At the same time the Portuguese found the African slave markets, they also discovered unpopulated islands off the coast of Africa. These islands were perfect for raising the most popular foreign spice of the European markets. That spice was not pepper or cinnamon or cloves; it was sugar.

Cane sugar is native to the Indonesian islands. Its use spread to India and Arabia. European Crusaders learned of sugar when they established kingdoms in west Asia. Italian investors tried to grow sugarcane on islands in the Mediterranean Sea, but the climate was unsuitable. Now the little nation of Portugal found the perfect land for growing sugar as well as a source of workers for that land. Later generations of Europeans would expand sugar production and the importation of African slaves into the western hemisphere. Eventually, those slaves would also be tending and harvesting cotton, tobacco, rubber, coffee, and cocoa, as well as sugar.

Meanwhile, Portuguese expeditions traveled further south along the coast of Asia. They learned to sail into the Atlantic Ocean, then use the prevailing winds to return further east and south. Eventually, they found their way around the southern tip of Africa, opening the way to trade with east Africa, Arabia, India, and points further east.

While these historic journeys were being made, an explorer from Genoa, a city in Italy, came to Portugal with the suggestion that he could lead them across the ocean to reach China and India from a different direction. The leaders of Portugal were not interested in his ideas, but the leaders of Spain thought they might be willing to take a chance…. J.

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