The Age of Exploration, part two

Christopher Columbus knew that the world is round. So did all the other educated Europeans of his time. More than a thousand years earlier, Greek mathematicians in the Roman Empire had demonstrated the shape of the world and had also measured its size quite accurately by comparing the length of shadows in different cities at high noon. Sailors five hundred years ago knew that the world is round. They did not fear falling off the edge of the world; they feared a journey that would take them so far from land that they would run out of drinkable water and edible food. A ship had only so much room for basic supplies; they had to stop and renew food and water regularly to keep the sailors alive. Traveling from Europe to Asia across the ocean, given the knowledge and abilities they had then, meant death from dehydration and starvation.

But Columbus thought the trip was manageable. He thought that Asia was bigger than it is. He also thought that the world is not round like a sphere (as it is), he suggested that it is round like an egg, bigger from top to bottom than from side to side. For one thing, Columbus argued, God the Creator would not have wasted so much of the earth’s surface on empty ocean.

Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain funded Columbus’ search for a shortcut to Asia. Columbus, of course, happened upon islands in the Caribbean Sea. Based on his calculations, he figured that he had missed Japan and China and reached the islands between China and India, those that today make up the country called Indonesia. Therefore, he called the Taino residents of the Caribbean islands “Indians,” and the name stuck. Other mapmakers distinguished the Asian islands from the Caribbean islands by calling them, respectively, the East Indes and West Indes.

Columbus never admitted, in writing, that he had made a mistake and discovered lands previously unknown to Europeans. He made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, insisting that he was visiting
Asia each time. Other Europeans quickly realized what Columbus had found. In 1494, two years after Columbus’ initial voyage, the governments of Spain and Portugal signed a treaty drawing a line between the land Spain could explore and colonize and the land Portugal could explore and colonize. The line was later extended across the Pacific to circle the Earth. In theory, the Treaty of Tordesillas gave Spain the right to claim the New World, or western hemisphere, while Portugal had similar rights in Asia and the south Pacific. But, because the terms of the treaty were not carefully researched, Portugal ended up getting a part of South America, and Spain ended up getting Pacific islands near Europe. This is why Brazilians speak Portuguese and Filipinos speak Spanish.

Only Spain and Portugal signed the treaty. They both financed further voyages of discovery, but England and France and the Netherlands also sent out explorers, claiming parts of North America and the Caribbean, as well as lands in Asia and the Pacific. Sometimes, the “colonies” were mere trading posts, places where merchants interacted with the local inhabitants. Sometimes they were full-out invasions, taking over land from earlier inhabitants. Attitudes toward the original dwellers of the New World varied wildly—some treating them as animals to be exploited, while others considered them equal beings with full human rights. The former attitude is mentioned more often today and is rightly condemned. But many of the explorers, colonists, and missionaries who traveled to these distant lands valued the inhabitants of those lands as fellow human beings who deserved respect, consideration, and any benefits that European civilization could offer.

European exploration increased the development of what recently has been labeled “Globalization.” Already, the Silk Roads linked multiple nations and cultures in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Similar trade patterns linked many cultures in the western hemisphere. Even in the Pacific, occasional voyages connected people of southern Asia, the Indonesian islands, Australia, and New Zealand with further distant cultures from Hawaii to Easter Island—possibly even to the western shores of South America. New connections made the exchange of salable products—and of people, ideas, and diseases—more prevalent, as the many nations of the world grew closer and more dependent upon one another. J.