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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. 

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

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