The Age of Exploration Begins



Marco Polo's expedition to China opened up the world of the East to Europe. Soon thriving trade took place between Asia and Europe– overland through the Middle East. The new trade opportunities enriched the Italian city-states and helped fuel the Renaissance. With the fall of the Mongol Empire, it became impossible for Europeans to travel to the Far East. Trade continued through intermediaries, but many looked to the sea to find a way to the Far East.

Prince Henry of Portugal was committed to exploration. He set his mind to solving some of the problems that limited exploration. Prince Henry founded a school of navigation at Sagres. He became known as "Prince Henry the Navigator". His school systematically updated maps of the areas. His men explored and built a library to gather all known information on seafaring and exploration. Learn About Prince Henry the Navigator

The ships being used at this time created major limitations on exploration. These ships were designed for carrying cargo and not for sailing through unchartered territory, under difficult weather conditions. It was a major challenge to design a ship that could sail better into the wind. Ship builders did by developing a Caravel.

Under the direction of Henry the Navigator, Portuguese sailors methodically explored the West Coast of Africa. Henry died in 1460, but the Portuguese continued to explore ever further to South. Finally, in 1487 Bartholomeu Dias sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost tip of Africa. He wished to continue and sail to India, but his crew made it clear they would mutiny if he did. So Dias turned around and sailed back.
In 1497, Vasco da Gama successfully completed a voyage from Portugal to India. This voyage opened up a profitable trade route to the Far East. Da Gama's voyage was the culmination of a concerted Portuguese effort to find a sea route to India-- a route that would go around Africa. While the Portuguese were heading Southward, Christopher Columbus was trying to find the way a westward route to India.