11.1 Europeans Explore Overseas

Starting in the 1400s, Europeans undertook a flurry of exploration, mapping new sea routes around the world. This great age of exploration was fueled by many causes, but at first, the most important cause was the search for spices.

Painting of two carrack style ships on the ocean, with land in the distance.

On their way to the Indies, Vasco da Gama's ships rounded the southern tip of Africa, shown here in the distance.


  • Understand the major causes of European exploration.
  • Analyze early Portuguese and Spanish explorations and expansion.
  • Describe how the Portuguese established footholds on Africa's coasts.
  • Describe European searches for a direct route to Asia.

Key Terms

  • Moluccas
  • Prince Henry
  • cartographer
  • Mombasa
  • Malindi
  • Vasco da Gama
  • Christopher Columbus
  • Line of Demarcation
  • Treaty of Tordesillas
  • Ferdinand Magellan
  • circumnavigate
  • Cape Town
  • Boers

Causes of European Exploration

European Trade with Asia

Europeans had traded with Asia long before the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages, the Crusades introduced Europeans to many luxury goods from Asia. When the Mongol empire united much of Asia in the 1200s and 1300s, Asian goods flowed to Europe along complex overland trade routes.

The Black Death and the breakup of the Mongol empire disrupted Asian trade routes, but by the 1400s, Europe's population was growing—as was the demand for goods from Asia. The most valued trade items were spices, such as cloves, cinnamon, and pepper. People used spices to preserve and add flavor to food, and to make medicines and perfumes.

The chief source of spices was the Moluccas, an island chain in present-day Indonesia. Europeans called the Moluccas the Spice Islands.

The Drive to Explore

In the 1400s, Arab and Italian merchants controlled most trade between Asia and Europe. Muslim traders brought spices and other goods to Mediterranean ports in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments