The World - Expeditions of discovery and colonial conquests (15th–17th century)

Geographical discoveries
978-3-14-100890-6 | Page 28 | Ill. 5
The World | Expeditions of discovery and colonial conquests (15th–17th century) | Geographical discoveries | Karte 28/5


The most important expeditions of discovery by the European powers from the mid-15th century to the 17th century are presented in this map. A special, often neglected aspect is Russia's advance into North Asia, which has hardly been seen as a colonial policy of conquest. In addition to the most important expeditions of discovery, the map shows the most important colonial powers of the 16th and 17th centuries as well as other important powers in Europe and Asia.

One of the main driving forces for the discoveries came from trade. The strengthening of the Ottoman Empire interrupted the long-distance trade between the European maritime cities and Asia, which had worked until the 15th century. This led to a sharp rise in prices, especially for spices, a precious commodity at the time. The first initiatives for expeditions of discovery came mainly from the Iberian powers Spain and Portugal, while Italy and also Germany were unable to do so because of their strong internal fragmentation.

Discoveries by the Portuguese

Portugal's rise to a maritime power began in the 15th century under King John I. His son, Prince Henry the Navigator, made basic research possible, which was carried out at the nautical school and the observatory at Cape Sagres. First ventures were the occupation of the Canaries and Azores. Subsequently, the search for a sea route to India along the African west coast began. By 1460, approximately 50 voyages had been made, gradually advancing as far as the Guinea coast. Important locations were Cape Bojador and Cape Verde, where the Portuguese were surprised by the lush vegetation. In 1482, Diego Cão reached the mouth of the Congo. It was not until 1487 that Bartolomeu Diaz reached the southern tip of Africa but was prevented from continuing his journey by a mutiny. The voyage was undertaken by Vasco da Gama, who reached Calicut in India in May 1498.

The expedition of Pedro Álvares Cabral, who sailed far out into the Atlantic Ocean and discovered the east coast of Brazil in April 1500, laid the foundation for the Portuguese colonial empire. In India, the Portuguese began to establish their first bases during this phase (Goa and Calicut). In East Africa, the first camps were built in Sofala and Malindi to secure the sea route. From India, the Portuguese advanced further east, and in 1511 the navigator Sequeira reached Malay Malacca. From here, Abreu and Serrao advanced to the Moluccas in 1512, which became very important for long-distance trade, especially with spices. Malacca also became a port of departure for voyages to China, where Macao was developed into a base. Finally, Pinto reached southern Japan in 1543.

The Portuguese did not initially acquire extensive colonies but built up a colonial empire by establishing bases, which, in the 16th century, stretched from East Africa via Aden to the Moluccas. It was not until the 17th century that they were displaced by the Dutch and English.


Discoveries by the Spaniards

e unification of Spain, the ruling couple Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon gave their consent to an expedition. On 3 August 1492, Columbus set off from the port of Palos and reached the island of Guanahani in the Bahamas on 12 October 1492. Columbus believed he was in Asia and named the inhabitants “Indians”. On this voyage, Columbus also came to Cuba and Haiti. He was happily welcomed when he returned in March 1493.

Columbus made three more voyages to the west, where he discovered numerous islands in the West Indies and the coast of Central America. The Spaniards began to establish colonies early on and sought to acquire larger territories. Of importance was the expedition of Balboa, who crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1519, thus proving that Columbus had discovered a new continent. Conquest campaigns led by Hernán Cortés, a conquistador, defeated the Aztec empire in central Mexico in 1521, as well as the Inca empire in the area of present-day Peru, Bolivia and northern Chile under the leadership of Francisco Pizarro in 1533. They were both highly developed civilisations whose cultural heritage partly lives on in the indigenous area and partly merged into a Spanish-Indigenous mixed culture. In the mid-16th century, the Spanish dominated the American continent from Mexico to central Chile.

Magellan's first circumnavigation of the world between 1519 and 1522, during which the Philippines were conquered, brought an expansion of the Spanish sphere of influence. It is interesting to note that contacts with the colony in Asia were maintained from Mexico.


French, English and Dutch as competitors

In the 16th century, other European powers began to compete with the Portuguese and Spanish. The French, under Cartier, reached the east coast of North America in the area of Newfoundland and advanced along the St. Lawrence River into the Great Lakes region. In Quebec and Mont Royal (now Montreal) we can find first evidence of the French presence in what is now Canada.

The English made numerous voyages to the northern area of the island in search of the Northwest Passage. Hudson and Frobisher were the most famous navigators. Early on, English settlement began on the east coast of North America between present-day Maine and Virginia - the New England states came into being. Initially, the centre of the area was occupied by the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. Around the middle of the 17th century, the English succeeded in conquering the Hudson estuary and New Amsterdam became New York. Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the world brought a great expansion of the English's geographical knowledge. Around 1640, with the conquest of Madras and other bases at the mouth of the Ganges, they laid the foundation for the following acquisition of the Indian subcontinent.

In addition to their ventures on the east coast of North America, the Dutch penetrated the Portuguese part of the Indian Ocean at an early stage. They acquired large parts of the Sunda archipelago by the beginning of the 17th century and turned Java into the centre of their colonial empire. To have bases on the way to Southeast Asia, the Dutch acquired the Cape Land and the island of Ceylon. Starting in East India, the navigator Tasman undertook extensive voyages around the middle of the 17th century, which took him as far as Australia, Polynesia and New Zealand.


Russia's expansion towards North Asia

The penetration of North Asia towards the East was mainly the work of Cossacks who, after crossing the Urals, reached the Pacific by 1639. The tsars subsequently sanctioned the acquisitions of the Cossack, who were acting independently. Further South, contacts with China were initiated after Ivan Petlin arrived in Peking in 1618 as the first Russian envoy. The Cossacks in Siberia were followed by civil servants, merchants, clergymen, fugitive peasants and, already at the end of the 16th century, the first exiles. Deshnew managed to sail through the Bering Strait in 1648.