Europe is ready to get out there
In the 15th and 16th centuries there was a massive amount of interest around European countries to start exploring more of the world. Whether motivated by money, fear of Ottomans, desire for religious conquest, or genuine curiosity about the world, many countries began sponsoring sailors and explorers to set out into the world.
One of the main goals of the time was to find a water route eastward from Europe to India. The overland route had become more dangerous after the Ottomans took over Constantinople, so everyone wanted a way to sail to India for trade purposes. Indian spices were a huge commodity of the time. This route would involve going around the southern tip of Africa and then back north into the Indian Sea, but for a long time there was no luck.
Eventually, the search for an eastern route was stopped because a guy named Christopher Columbus claimed he had found a westward route. Years later people would begin to doubt Columbus’ claim and the search for an eastern route would resume.
Who’s Who of The Age of Exploration?
There are a lot of pretty recognizable names throughout this period, all of whom made significant impacts on the study of navigation, the world, our oceans, and more. They also usually made a lot of money for their respective kings and queens, but it’s way more fun to just think of them as cool sailors.
Amerigo Vespucci was the first person to realize that the land they had been assuming was part of Asia was actually its own continent, hence why North and South America are named after this guy instead of being called North and South Columbotown.
Ferdinand Magellan was the first person to circumnavigate the globe. He actually died before completing the whole trip, but since his ship and crew made it home, they gave him the credit.
Francis Drake was maybe more pirate than explorer, but he still sailed a lot of the world during this time. He sailed for England and had a hatred for the Spanish that knew no bounds. He sank so much of the Spanish Armada that he is credited with ending their nautical dominance and allowing England to become a global powerhouse.
Hernan Cortes was a Spanish conquistador (conqueror) who basically wiped out the Aztec people and established what is now Mexico City.
Cortes was far from the only explorer to commit mass murder against indigenous people, but it is his most noteworthy “achievement.”
Ponce de Leon was the man who gave us Florida. He was the first person known to reach what is now the mainland United States and gave the future home of Disney World its name.
Sir Walter Raleigh was the Englishman who first tried to set up a permanent English colony in America. It did not go well. He was also really big on trying to find El Dorado. That also did not go well.
There are many more, so I’ll stop now, but the point is that this period of time was filled to the brim with men exploring the world, finding new places, and making their homelands wealthy beyond belief.
Great & Terrible
I can’t in good faith list off all of those men without adding the caveat that some of them, including those not listed here, did some truly horrible things during their time.
Yes, the Age of Exploration and Discovery gave the world a greater understanding of stars, science, geography, oceans, agriculture, and more. Yes, it changed the course of history and a lot of good came from it.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t acknowledge that these men were known for their violence and cruelty toward native people they encountered on their expeditions.
This period of history gave us a lot of good, but it also did irrevocable damage to many Native American groups and started the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Why this matters
This period matters for a lot of reasons, honestly.
Through a purely America-centric lens, these years are what will eventually lead to our country being started.
Through a more global view though, these years brought a lot of good and bad into the world and changed the power dynamics of the world at the time.
Britain, France, and Spain all began colonizing and growing into empires. Slave trade in the New World gave huge economic growth to those partaking.
It is a strong reminder of how much things ripple out. The Ottoman Empire took control of Constantinople and forever changed the course of human history.
It is also a reminder that history is always shades of gray. History is made by humans and so it will never be perfect. Humans do bad things. So it is important to acknowledge the good those people did without falling into the trap of painting them as perfect people.
The same brave people who sailed into the unknown to explore new frontiers, also saw people of darker skin and “simpler” lifestyles and decided they were worth less.