SPARKS THAT IGNITED ADVENT TO THE AGE OF DISCOVERY (15th Century Snapshot)


The Age of Discovery was the source of several epic developments during the fifteenth century. This included the discovery of a new sea passage to Asia that would circumvent the need for merchants to travel the arduous and costly route via the Middle East. It was dangerous and a costly traveler's tax had to be paid to officials, operating under the auspices of the Otterman Empire, in order to gain entry through foreign lands. This added to the expense of popular silk and spice products that were brought to Europe. The spread of the Black Death, a bubonic plague, which occurred during the fourteenth century, also inhibited travel.

Henry the Navigator, son to Joao de Aviz aggressively pursued his vision of establishing an alternative passage to Asia, around the Cape of Good Hope. He successfully lobbied the church and wealthy monarchs, to provide him with the capital that would be needed to embark on his sea voyages. The seaward bound initiatives were dangerous and not without risk. Securing a new passage to Asia would provide Portuguese merchants with a significant advantage, as they could bring their goods to market quicker and at more competitive prices. To this end, Henry the Navigator set about promoting an entire industry that would be committed to his vision. He developed a school of navigation in Sagres, along the Algarve, which would be a hotbed for aspiring explorers and seamen. The entire country became involved in a cause that gained popularity and captured the hearts of the street. Any person that became part of this effort gained instant fame and recognition. The construction of new ships became a vibrant industry. These pioneers were the venture capitalists of the middle ages.

Given the success that Portugal was able to achieve in its conquest of the high seas and redrawing the map of merchants, Castile (Spain), England and Holland soon followed. Such was their success that they ultimately removed Italy from the trader's equation. The Most Serene Republic of Venice or Las Serenissima, as it was known then, was a powerful entity that had to a large extent held the monopoly over the silk and spice route. The merchants of Venice were able to secure more favorable tax rates for their caravans and had a stronger handle on the land route to Asia that they had pioneered. The travels of Marco Polo was an example of the precedent that Venice set, in its ability to establish new trading partners. Castile's motivation to enter into the fray was inspired by the country's will to compete with Portugal, for its command over the high seas. Castile wished to expand its sea exploration initiatives, hence their sponsorship of Christopher Columbus' exploratory voyage to America.

Several other factors prompted the advancement of the Age of Discovery. Firstly, the development of new technologies in instrumentation and navigation facilitated voyages that were more ambitious. Consequently, the percentage of vessels that returned from an exploration increased significantly. The ability that navigators achieved in drawing more accurate maps, was also influencial. Secondly, a new ship design in the form of the caravel and later the nau, made the Portuguese fleet more agile and easier to navigate. These boats were mounted with a stern rudder that was revolutionary, and which brought seamanship to a new level.

The implications of the new discoveries and the initiatives of Henry the Navigator were broad and significant. They ultimately resulted in the colonization and development of Southern Africa and the Americas.