Europe in the 15th Century is not a dominant world power. It is made up of a number of small, constantly warring dukedoms and principalities. It is still recovering from the Black Death and hostile powers (Mongols, the Ottomans, Arabs) control large chunks of the continent. However, unique conditions will favor the Europeans and allow them to discover, conquer and subjugate the New World. Alone amongst other world powers at the time, the Europeans embrace science and through the newly invented printing press, are able to widely spread knowledge. Constant warfare has given Europeans many incentives to develop the very best weapons (including muskets and steel swords) as well as naval technology (clocks and compasses). The fall of Constantinople means that the land-based Silk Road trade route with the East is now in Muslim hands and European merchants have the incentive to seek out profitable new ocean-based trade routes. Finally, the recent Reconquista of Spain in 1492 means that Spain has thousands of demobilized conquistadors, searching for new glories.
Europe during the Fifteenth Century (the 1400’s), was divided and poor when compared to the rest of the world. Europe’s ascension to becoming the world’s dominant superpower would have seemed unlikely to any non-European from this time period. Europe does have some unique characteristics that will confer advantages on it, beginning with its geographical location – at the western end of the world’s largest continent, able to trade with dozens of countries all along the very long east-west axis of Eurasia
This is the basic premise of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”. The long axis of the Eurasian continent means that ideas, inventions, crops, animals etc. can all be exchanged. And the similarity of climates means that crops or animals that can live in China will also be able to thrive in France. The flow of paper and gunpowder from China to Europe is a good example of the longitudinal exchange. Also, diseases spread quickly – which means that Eurasians were exposed to many more diseases and got a chance to build up more immunity than residents of Africa or America did.
The Renaissance (the ‘rebirth’) is a loose label we give to the time period in Europe after the Middle Ages and before the modern world takes shape with the Reformation, then the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. It roughly covers the era from 1300 to 1600 in Europe. It is characterized by the recovery of lost knowledge (the Greek and Latin texts of ancient Rome); an increase in scientific inquiry and an emphasis on individuals as opposed to the emphasis on groups (usually religious) that characterizes the Middle Ages.
The printing press is the key – it dramatically increases the number of books in print; reduces the per-unit costs and helps spread knowledge to groups of people that would have been unable to afford books made the “old-fashioned” way (laboriously copied onto sheets of lambskin called ‘vellum’). The mechanical clock and the compass were key inventions for shipping in that they made accurate, reliable navigation possible for the first time in history.
By the mid 15th Century, gunpowder and cannons were commonplace in European armies. The invention of the arquebus – the first personal firearm – gave European soldiers the ability to kill at a distance that was not common elsewhere in the world. European steel was strong and lightweight, meaning almost every soldier could afford a breastplate which protected him from arrows, swords (and even an arquebus at long range).
The European style of warfare in the 15th Century was for two groups of professional soldiers to fight each other until one group was destroyed or had completely lost the ability to resist. Contrast this with the rest of the world in which most soldiers were poorly trained slaves or volunteers and battles ended when one side gave up. Europeans were used to war; fought until they or their enemy were totally defeated and were comfortable with high casualty rates (on both sides).
Ocean crossings in a slow boat are a problem – can you carry enough food and water to survive? Faster boats don’t have this issue. The caravel, developed by the Portuguese in the 1400’s, was a very fast boat with a low draft (meaning it could handle low levels of water). This made it ideal for both a deep-ocean crossing (speed) and exploring coastlines and sailing up rivers (low draft).
In 1454, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople. This meant the Turks now controlled the products of Asia (especially spices) being imported into Europe. They could charge high fees for transshipment and effectively had a monopoly on all Asian trade coming in on the old Silk Road. Spices were cheap to buy where they grew in Asia. A shipload of spice could be purchased for very little money and then sold for a fortune in Europe. Finding reliable ocean routes from Europe to Asia that bypassed the Turkish land route monopoly would allow European merchants to realize huge profits from the spice trade.
Muslims had conquered Spain during the early Middle Ages and it took hundreds of years for the Spanish to finally drive them out. This “driving out” (called the Reconquista) was completed in 1492 – the same year the kingdoms of Spain united under one crown, that of Ferdinand and Isabella. The new rulers need fast money, to help pay off war debts. And the victorious Spanish army – the Conquistadors – need new sources of money (and glory). Add to this the availability of this amazing new sailing vessel, the caravel – and the huge profits available in the spice trade and it makes sense that Spain and Portugal would take the lead in voyages of exploration.
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