The Motives for 15th Century Spanish and Portuguese Exploration

Dylan Singh, Lake Ginninderra College 2007


The central feature of world history between late 15th Century and 1700 was the expansion of Europe and the spread of European culture and civilisation throughout the globe. Until 1500 the world had, on whole, pressed in on Europe. Beginning in the 1500s, Europe began to press out on the world. This period in history is known as the Age of Discovery or Exploration. During this time, driven by a variety of motives, European explorers mapped almost all of the world’s seas and outlines of the continents and completed incredible feats such as the rediscovery of America and the circumnavigation of the globe. Through exploration Europe began to change the balance of power, tipping it in favour of European civilization. By the end a new global balance was in existence. The Age of Exploration was instigated by two European countries situated on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal. In the 15th Century, the sea was seen as mysterious and feared. Most of it was unknown territory, blank on the maps, and what cartographers did not fill in, a vivid imagination did. Aside from fear of the unknown, the probability of becoming hopelessly lost, or encountering frequent storms, and disease, kept most people on land. Any sailing in those days was done within sight of the coastline. But despite this, Spain and Portugal found men willing to brave the known and unknown dangers of the sea, and spent great sums of money to sponsor their voyages. Why did they do this?

There are many probable reasons as to why Spain and Portugal decided to send out their explorers in search of alien lands. Everyone involved in the exploration was impelled by their own motives and desires, such as trade, personal wealth, glory and to spread Christianity. This can be summarised in the quote by Bernal Diaz del Castillo (1492/93 - 1584), a sailor and later Conquistador, “to serve God and His Majesty, to give light to those who were in darkness and to grow rich, as all men desire to do".

A key motive for beginning exploration was the hope of finding trade and personal enrichment. Columbus writes this in his journal:

But in truth, should I meet with gold or spices in great quantity, I shall remain till I collect as much as possible, and for this purpose I am proceeding solely in quest of them (19 Oct 1492)

This is because after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 the Ottoman Empire and the Mongols controlled the eastern trade routes, from which they barred all European traders. Trade routes to the south were blocked by the Muslim states of North Africa, who were hostile towards Spain and Portugal. Though Spain and Portugal were self sufficient, they, like the rest of Europe, had developed a taste for the riches of the East: precious stones, gold, slaves and silks; but most of all spices. Spices were the most luxurious of the products available in the Middle Ages. Trade was possible over land, but would have taken many long months and was dangerous as they would have to avoid hostile lands and pay heavy taxes to pass through others, the network of roads that crisscrossed Europe was poor, and the few good roads that did exist abounded with thieves. Trade by sea was the only practical option, and this required new routes.

On the 20th May 1498 when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in “Calicut”, a leading commercial city on the coast of India, he and his crew were asked what they wanted. It is said that their reply was “Christians and spices.” He found none of the former but an abundance of the latter. He returned home after having lost two ships and two-thirds of his men, but his trip was seen as a great success. This was because his cargo of spices was sold for sixty times the price paid originally. The search for riches was more of a driving motive for those that financed the voyages, rather than the explorers themselves. None of the explorers, no matter how successful, died a wealthy man. Furthermore, it was probably seen as a national goal by the rulers and merchants of both countries. A contemporary account of the concern caused amongst Venetians by the new sea-routes makes it clear that the Mediterranean trade-routes were threatened:

All Venice was alarmed and amazed.. (by) the worst news that could have reached us…. By this new route the spices from the East will be carried to Lisbon, where Hungarians, Germans, Flemish and French will go to purchase them, as they will be cheaper there than here. For the spices that reach Venice have to pass through Syria and the territories of the Sultan, and everywhere they have to pay such exorbitant duties that, by the time they reach Venice what cost a ducat will have to be sold for eighty or a hundred ducats. The sea route, on the other hand, is free from these burdens, and the Portuguese can sell at a lower rate.” (Brown, 1907)

Religion was something that gave Spain and Portugal the motive to explore but also impeded them. The thought of thousands of possible converts was reason for the financing of some of the expeditions, since the rulers of Spain and Portugal were most devout and pious Christians. It was one of the arguments that persuaded the Catholic Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain to finance Christopher Columbus’ journey. It is written in his journal entry of his first voyage west:

Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians, and princes who love and promote the holy Christian faith, and are enemies of the doctrine of Mahomet, and of all idolatry and heresy, determined to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the above-mentioned countries of India, to see the said princes, people, and territories, and to learn their disposition and the proper method of converting them to our holy faith.- Columbus (1451-1506) Journal.

Also serving their Lord was seen as a noble and imperative task.

No one should fear to undertake any task in the name of our Saviour, if it is just and if the intention is purely for His holy service.

Columbus' actual journals have been lost, but two of his companions, his son Ferdinand and Bartolome Las Casas, recorded parts of the original journal. They are summaries of his journals and include quotes from Columbus. Columbus’ motivation for the trip was to spread Christianity, which he read from the travels of Marco Polo was requested by the Khanate of the Mongols.

But religion also restricted them in the way they thought about the world and a proper understanding of this was essential. This was changed by the coming of the Renaissance, which challenged many of the religious views of the world.

The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church. Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521)

Since the great seas of the world were so feared, any man who led an expedition into the unknown won fame and glory. The mere act of undertaking such a journey guaranteed fame and glory. An example of this is Ferdinand Magellan. He died during the voyage, none of the things he discovered were of any use and the route he took was too dangerous and impracticable. It could be argued that his journey might be seen as failure but it is the voyage that made him famous, the reason why he is still remembered today when so many others of his time are forgotten. Fame was a particular desire of the explorers themselves, as the wealth they acquired belonged to their sovereigns, and they could not gain from the spread of Christianity. Inspired by great explorers and soldiers of old, such as Marco Polo, the explorers of Spain and Portugal sought to equal the efforts of those men in hope of being seen as heroes. Marco Polo’s discoveries were the inspiration for Columbus’ desire to explore. This is shown in his references in his journal to the “Great Can” (Khan) and in stating “I intend to go and see if I can find the island of Japan.” These places were known only from Marco Polo’s account of his travels.

It was due to such motives that Spain and Portugal, despite the apparent dangers, were willing to risk leaving the known, relatively safe coastal waters and sail deep into the perilous open sea and go where no European had gone before them. The explorers set sail to distant and alien lands in search of trade and wealth, fame and glory, and to spread the beliefs and principles of Christianity. The explorers of Spain and Portugal achieved all of their primary goals and satisfied their desires, and while doing so began to sow the first seeds that would one day bring to Europe the power, glory and success it later came to enjoy

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