Age of Discovery

Age of Discovery

A 15th-century Portuguese trading vesselA 15th-century Portuguese trading vesselFrom the early 1400s, European explorers set sail across the world's oceans, making contact with Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania. We call this period, which lasted until the early 1600s, the Age of Discovery. The period began when Portuguese and Spanish ships went in search of trade routes to the region known in Europe as "the Indies": the lands of South and Southeast Asia. Their quest was for gold and silver, as well as spices, which were almost as valuable.

Monument to Henry the Navigator (right), in LisbonMonument to Henry the Navigator (right), in Lisbon

Portuguese voyages of discovery

Portugal was the first European country to send ships to explore the world beyond Europe, in the early 15th century. With the support of a member of its royal family, Prince Henry—known as "the Navigator"—Portugal enjoyed great success in its voyages to North and West Africa. In the mid-1400s, the Silk Road, the overland trade route between Asia and Europe, became difficult and dangerous because of the break-up of the Mongol Empire, which had formerly controlled most of Central Asia. So Portugal set out to find a sea route to the East by sailing around the tip of Africa instead. 

In 1488, the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to sail round the Cape of Good Hope, a rocky headland on the southwestern tip of Africa. Nine years later, in 1497, Vasco da Gama at last discovered a route around Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India. 

Columbus sets foot on the island of Cuba, in 1492.Columbus sets foot on the island of Cuba, in 1492.

The New World

In 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain with a fleet of three ships under his command: NiñaPinta and his flagship, Santa Maria. Columbus was from Genoa (in modern Italy) but he was financed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Like the Portuguese, he was in search of a sea route to Asia. He knew, as many navigators did at the time, that the world was round. He believed the East could be reached more easily by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean than by taking the long and hazardous route south then east around Africa. Rather than reaching Asia, he arrived in the Caribbean, where he was surprised to find he was not in China.

At the time, no one in Europe knew of the existence of the Americas. The Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci’s 1501–2 exploration of the east coast of South America confirmed that the lands Columbus had discovered were part of a new continent. It was named “America” after Vespucci’s first name. 

Treaty of Tordesillas

The Tordesillas Line, shown on a 1502 mapThe Tordesillas Line, shown on a 1502 mapIn 1494, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the unexplored world between them. They drew a line on a map of the world and agreed that Spain could claim everything to the west of it (most of the Americas). All lands to the east (Africa and Asia) would belong to Portugal. Under the terms of the treaty, the route from Europe to India and the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia was barred to the Spanish.

Pizarro's soldiers conquering the Inca in 1532-33Pizarro's soldiers conquering the Inca in 1532-33 

The conquistadores

After Columbus's discovery, the Spanish crown encouraged further expeditions to explore and conquer their new lands in the Americas. The first campaigns were led by the conquistadores, soldiers and adventurers in search of riches and fame. Leading a small band of soldiers, in 1519 the conquistador Hernán Cortés sailed to Mexico, eager to find the fabulous Aztec Empire. Once there, he marched to the capital, Tenochtitlán, where he met the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma. The Spanish army defeated the Aztecs in 1521. Several years later, the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro conquered another ancient American civilization, the Inca Empire.

Spanish soldiers enter a Maya village.Spanish soldiers enter a Maya village.The Yucatán Peninsula, the homeland of the Maya, was first discovered by Europeans in 1517, when the Spanish conquistador Hernández de Córdoba led an expedition there in search of gold and slaves. He was killed by Maya warriors. It was not until 1542, after a bloody campaign by Francisco Montejo, that the Maya finally fell under Spanish control.

An Inca figurine, made from goldAn Inca figurine, made from gold

The search for treasures

The conquistadores had travelled to the Americas in search of riches. Following the fall of the Aztec and Inca Empires, they went in search of the legendary (and nonexistent) Seven Cities of Gold in North America and El Dorado in South America. The Spanish adventurers found little gold, but they did discover the silver mines of Zacatecas in Mexico, and, in 1545, the richest of them all, Potosí, in the Andes Mountains of modern Bolivia. To transport these precious metals and other goods back to Spain, cargo ships were sent to ports founded by Spain on the coast of the Americas on the Caribbean Sea. This region was called, in English, the Spanish Main.

The fate of the Native Americans

American Indians encounter a party of conquistadores.American Indians encounter a party of conquistadores.The Spanish claimed the “New World” for themselves and quickly established colonies there, often using brutal force. The local peoples were forced to work on their plantations. The Spanish also brought with them European diseases, such as smallpox, that were previously unknown to the local peoples. They had no immunity to these diseases, and epidemics killed millions.

Trade in Asia

A map of the trade route between Portugal and IndiaA map of the trade route between Portugal and IndiaIn 1497, Vasco da Gama was the first European to successfully sail from Europe to India. Portugal lost no time in establishing colonies in India and, from there, opened up trade with Southeast Asia, China and Japan. In particular, trade in spices brought great wealth and power to Portugal, who controlled the sea route from Lisbon to India for most of the 16th century. However, the Portuguese were soon joined in Asia by Holland, France and Britain, who also began to lay claim to trading ports and other possessions overseas.


Consultant: Philip Parker


  • 1394
    Henry the Navigator, son of King John I of Portugal, is born.
  • 1415
    Portugal conquers Ceuta on the north coast of Africa, an important centre of the spice trade.
  • 1418/19
    Prince Henry the Navigator establishes a naval school for teaching navigation, map reading and cartography.
  • 1419
    Madeira Islands discovered by Portuguese explorers Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira.
  • 1432
    Portuguese navigator Diogo Silves discovers the Azores in the North Atlantic.
  • 1434
    Portuguese exploration of the west coast of Africa begins.
  • 1453
    The Turks overrun Constantinople, shutting off the overland trade routes from Asia to Europe.
  • 1487
    Bartolomeu Dias leads a Portuguese expedition around the Cape of Good Hope.
  • 1492
    Christopher Columbus, sailing on behalf of Spain, discovers the New World.
  • 1494
    Spain and Portugal sign the Treaty of Tordesillas, dividing any new land discoveries between them. Spain is entitled to any land to the west of a line drawn from north to south through the Atlantic Ocean, while Portugal may claim all new lands discovered to the east of this line.
  • 1497–8
    Vasco da Gama rounds the Cape of Good Hope and reaches India, opening up a major trade route to the East.
  • 1500
    Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral discovers Brazil.
  • 1502
    Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian who sailed on behalf of Portugal, returns from the New World. The Americas are named after him.
  • 1511
    Portugal takes control of the Spice Islands (Maluku) in Indonesia.
  • 1519
    Ferdinand Magellan leads the first voyage around the world for Spain.
  • 1521
    Hernando Cortés defeats the Aztec Empire in Mexico for Spain.
  • 1530
    Portugal sets up colonies in Brazil.
  • 1533
    Francisco Pizarro defeats the Inca Empire in South America for Spain.
  • 1543
    Portuguese sailors are the first Europeans to land in Japan.
  • 1580
    Phillip II of Spain defeats Portugal at the Battle of Alcantara, uniting the two countries. Despite this, Portugal remains relatively independent, and trade with India continues as normal.
  • 1599
    Holland establishes its first Dutch trading posts in the Spice Islands.
  • 1600s
    Holland gradually wrests control of the spice trade from Portugal.

No potatoes, tomatoes, avocados, sweetcorn, chocolate or tobacco were found in Europe until they were imported from the Americas from the 1500s onwards.

It was once common to lose 50% of a crew to scurvy (vitamin C deficiency, caused by a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables at sea). It is believed that more sailors died from scurvy during the Age of Discovery than from storms, shipwrecks and hostile encounters combined.

On Magellan's voyage, food was so scarce many of the men had to eat sawdust, rats and boiled-up boot leather.

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