Voyages of Discovery

Voyages of Discovery
Voyages of Discovery

Since ancient times, mariners have traveled large distances, usually in search of opportunities for trade or military expansion. The Phoenicians are believed to have sailed from modern-day Lebanon to England for tin, and accounts by the Romans and later the Vikings show the great skills in seamanship.

The adventurer Thor Heyerdahl showed that it was possible to sail in relatively simple vessels across the Pacific in his epic voyage in the raft Kon-Tiki. A later expedition on the Tigris grew from a stone carving of Queen Hatshepsut, who commissioned the first visual record of a voyage of discovery in 1493 b.c.e.

However the voyages of discovery from the 15th century were a concerted effort by European powers to map as much of the world as possible, as well as expand trade, make Christian converts, and carve out an empire.


Although the most well documented, the European voyages were not the first with some of these objects in mind. In 1421, the great Chinese admiral Zheng He headed one of the largest fleets ever when he set out from China to travel around Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

There is also the possibility that some of his ships reached New Zealand and even the American continent. When he returned owing to palace machinations Zheng He was never able to repeat his voyage, and China entered a period of self-isolation, never again sending a large fleet to sea.

Curiously this change in Chinese policy coincided with a move by European countries to begin journeys of exploration. The Portuguese were the first to take up this challenge. Under Henry the Navigator (1394–1460), following the Portuguese capture of the Moroccan city of Ceuta, Henry encouraged seafarers to travel around the coasts of Africa.

The Italian Marco Polo in 1271–95 and a few other intrepid adventurers had reached China by land, but with the Ottoman Turks in control of much of the Middle East and Central Asia, the cost of importing spices into Europe was very high and Henry was in the position to encourage many people to embark on great voyages, even if he himself never traveled farther than Morocco.

Dias and Columbus

In 1434, Portuguese ships reached Cape Bojador in West Africa, and it was another 26 years before they reached modern-day Senegal. Some 22 years after that, Portuguese mariners were off the coast of modern-day Angola, and in 1488 the navigator Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450–1500) passed the Cape of Good Hope and found a route to the Indian Ocean.

Being on the westernmost part of the European mainland had put the Portuguese in an ideal position to begin the European age of voyages of discovery, but other mariners from other countries had already achieved some enormous feats. English ships sailed regularly to Scandinavia and the Baltic.

There are also references in English court records to a ship returning from “Brazil” in the 1470s. This does not necessarily mean the country of that name, but scholars have conjectured, more plausibly, that this might be Newfoundland, where some English sailors probably went in search of fish. Arab sailors were also involved in voyages down the east coast of Africa and around the Indian Ocean.

Many settled in places like Zanzibar, the Maldives, and Sumatra. One of the great Arab travelers of the period was Ibn Batuta, who, between 1325 and 1353, traveled around north Africa, into Mali, down the east coast of Africa, throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, into parts of Russia, and around the coasts of India, and modern-day Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia, and Vietnam to China, keeping a detailed record of the voyages.

When Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), an Italian in the service of Spain, set sail across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 and returned in the following year, news of his voyage and discovery of the Americas swept across the capitals of Europe like wildfire. By this period, most people accepted that the world was a sphere, and some had even worked out, correctly, its size.

For this reason it was thought that a voyage from Europe to China, India, or Japan would be far too long and it would be impossible to equip a ship for that voyage. Columbus believed that the world was smaller, and hence it was possible to reach China or Japan, and this idea gave him enough confidence to lead his men on their first voyage.

One of the results of the first voyage of Columbus was that the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 was signed between Portugal and Spain by which they divided the world at a line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. The land to the west went to Spain, and that to the east to Portugal.

As a result, Portuguese seafarers limited themselves to Africa, to the Indian Ocean, and to establishing of the Portuguese Empire in Africa and Asia. It was only later that Brazil was discovered and found to be in the Portuguese sphere. Spain, on the other hand, sent ships to the Americas.

An Italian in the service of Spain, Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512), sailed to modern-day Brazil in the late 1490s and had the honor of America’s being named after him. In 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa (c. 1475–1519) was the first European to sight the Pacific Ocean and realize that Columbus was wrong in his estimation of the size of the world.

Cortés and Pizarro

As well as voyages purely of discovery, the Portuguese were able to trade extensively and their ships brought back large quantities of spices, and also slaves. The initial Spanish voyages found very little in the way of gold or silver until 1521, when Hernán Cortés (1484–1547) sacked the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, and 13 years later Francisco Pizarro (c. 1475–1541) plundered and destroyed the Inca Empire.

This wealth suddenly made Spain the richest country in Europe. Many of the early explorers also found much agricultural land, and in August 1535, one of the largest expeditions to leave Spain for the New World during that century sailed from Cádiz. Led by Pedro de Mendoza, it had 11 ships, more than 1,000 men, 100 horses, pigs, and cattle. The voyages of discovery had led to a desire to colonize the Americas.

This expedition sailed up the river Plate and then the Río Paraguay in search of the Inca kingdoms. In a bend in the river they established the city of Asunción (now the capital of Paraguay). Within 50 years of Columbus’s first voyage, the kings of Spain had carved out an empire nearly 23 times the size of Spain itself.

The Portuguese had also embarked on more ambitious voyages, and their great navigator Vasco da Gama (c. 1469–1525) was able to take a fleet on a two year voyage the 13,000 miles to Calicut in India, from which he was able to take back spices.

The next of the great explorers was Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480–1521) from Portugal, who sailed in the service of the king of Portugal from 1505 until 1512 and then in the service of the king of Spain from 1519. He sailed down the eastern coast of South America until he found what were later named the Straits of Magellan. Sailing through them, he was able to reach the Pacific.

His voyage was the first to circumnavigate the world, although he was killed in the Philippines, halfway through the journey. By this time the Portuguese under Afonso de Albuquerque (1453–1515) had started to carve out a colonial empire in Asia taking the cities of Ormuz, Goa, and Malacca.

The English had tried to embark on a few voyages but never had much success. With Italian-born John Cabot (c. 1450–98) and later his son, Sebastian Cabot (c. 1476–1557), the English had tried to find the North-west Passage—a route to the Pacific north of the Americas.

They found no gold, although they did discover areas rich in fish, and eventually Sebastian Cabot joined the service of Spain. The next major English effort was through the Muscovy Company sailing to Russia. This had more success and led to the mapping of north coast of Scandinavia and some of the Russian coastline.

However there was great interest in these voyages in England with Richard Hakluyt (1552–1616), a lawyer to the Muscovy Company, publishing a large number of accounts of the early voyages in his Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589).

Drake and La Salle

When England and Spain went to war, many English privateers set to sea. These were privately owned ships with the queen of England’s authority to attack Spanish possessions and ships around the world. The Spanish viewed them as pirates, the English as heroes.

One of these, Sir Francis Drake (ca. 1540–96), in 1577 set out in his ship Pelican (later renamed Golden Hind), which, in the next three years, circumnavigated the world. He was able to map out parts of the coast of Chile, reaching modern-day California, before heading across the Pacific.

His return not only was a feat of seamanship, but carrying many spices, a massive financial windfall for investors. The fortunes to be made encouraged further English voyages including Henry Hudson’s making another attempt for the Northwest Passage.

The French had not been involved in the earlier voyages of discovery but with Samuel de Champlain (1567–1635) managed to map the St. Lawrence River in modern-day Canada and founded Quebec in 1608. He became lieutenant-governor of New France from 1613 until 1625.

Another French voyager, trained in a Jesuit seminary, René Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle (1643–87), sailed to the Americas several times, navigating the St. Lawrence and Ohio Rivers, and later the Mississippi River. With settlers he founded what became French Louisiana.

During the 17th century, the Dutch became particularly active and took control of a part of Java, in modern-day Indonesia. Their military skills in the 1630s and 1640s ensured that they were able to capture a number of the Portuguese settlements and establish their own colonial empire.

By this time, Portuguese power had waned and the Dutch took Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Malacca from them. Some early Dutch seamen also mapped parts of modern-day Australia and New Zealand.

By the early 18th century, the Russians were beginning to fund explorers. The Bering expedition in 1728, led by a Danish mariner, Vitus Jonassen Bering (1681–1741), was the first to include a number of scientists.

After traveling across Siberia, a feat in itself, he sailed from Russia to modern-day Alaska, with the Bering Sea named after him. Bering died during the voyages, and only many years later was good use made of the reports by scientists from his voyages.

The last part of the world to be explored by ship was the Pacific. Englishman William Dampier (1652–1715) and Abel Tasman (c. 1603–59) had mapped some of the coast of modern-day Australia. Louis de Bougainville sailed the Pacific and his book, when published back in France, became an immediate bestseller.

When Captain James Cook (1728–79) sailed the Pacific, using better instruments than Dampier and Tasman, he was able to map the coastline of Australia more accurately. He kept a very detailed journal and did not allow his crew to keep a journal so that his book, when published, would be the only accurate account of the voyage.

Cook was killed in Hawaii in 1779, but his example was followed by several other mariners including one of his former officers, William Bligh (1754–1817), who tried to sail to the Pacific via Cape Horn but was forced to turn back, unable to fulfill his ambition of circumnavigating the world. He was also subject to a mutiny in 1789, which he managed to survive.