From there, Italian traders carried them to European markets. Each time goods passed from one trader to another, prices increased.

Europeans wanted to cut out the Muslim and Italian middlemen and gain direct access to the riches of Asia. To do so, the Atlantic powers sought a new route to Asia, one that bypassed the Mediterranean.

Many explorers hoped to get rich by entering the spice trade or conquering other lands. Yet the desire for wealth was not the only motive that lured them to sea. Some missionaries and soldiers ventured overseas to win new converts to Christianity. The Renaissance spirit of curiosity also fed a desire to learn more about lands beyond Europe.

Improved Technology

Improvements in technology helped Europeans cross vast oceans. Cartographers, or mapmakers, created more accurate maps and sea charts. European sailors also learned how to use the astrolabe, an instrument used to determine latitude at sea. The astrolabe was first developed by the ancient Greeks and later perfected by the Arabs.

Along with more reliable navigational tools, Europeans designed larger and better ships. The Portuguese developed the caravel, which combined the square sails of European ships with Arab lateen, or triangular, sails. Caravels also adapted the sternpost rudder and numerous masts of Chinese ships. The new rigging made it easier to sail across, or even into, the wind. Finally, European ships added more armaments, including sturdier cannons.

Portugal Explores the Seas

Portugal, a small nation on the western edge of Spain, led the way in exploration. As in Spain, Christian knights in Portugal had fought to end Muslim rule. By the 1400s, Portugal was strong enough to expand into Muslim North Africa. In 1415, the Portuguese seized Ceuta (SAY oo tah) on the North African coast. The victory sparked the imagination of Prince Henry, known to history as Henry the Navigator.

The African Coast Mapped

Prince Henry saw great promise in Africa. The Portuguese could convert Africans—most of whom practiced either Islam or native religions—to Christianity. He also believed that in Africa he would find the sources of the gold Muslim traders controlled.

Finally, Prince Henry hoped to find an easier way to reach Asia that bypassed the Mediterranean, which meant going around Africa.

A map shows early voyages of European exploration, from 1487 to 1609.
Image Long Description

Analyze Maps

Portugal led the way in exploring the world by ship. Spain and other countries soon followed. How did Magellan's route to Asia differ from the routes of other explorers?


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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