What Was the Age of Exploration?
The island of Hispaniola
(present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti)
The man was inside a barrel. He had to stay quiet and still. The barrel was going to be loaded onto a ship sailing to South America, to a place called Urabá (now Colombia).
Why couldn’t the man board the ship like the rest of the crew? He owed a lot of money to people in Hispaniola, and they wouldn’t let him leave. So he had to find a way to sneak off the island. Hiding inside a barrel was the answer.
The man’s name was Vasco Núñez de Balboa (say: VAS-co NOO-nyez day bal-BOH-uh), and the year was 1510. Balboa could hear other barrels being rolled aboard. At last it was his turn.
His plan worked! The barrel he was inside of hit the deck.
When the ship was finally at sea, Balboa got out of his barrel. The captain was angry. But then he learned that Balboa was a Spanish explorer who had already been to Urabá. He would be useful once they arrived. So the captain didn’t throw Balboa overboard.
When the ship reached Urabá, there was a horrible surprise. The Spanish colony had nearly been wiped out by the local Native people. So Balboa suggested that the ship should instead head to the Isthmus of Panama. (An isthmus is a narrow strip of land with water on either side.) He knew that the Native people there were friendly to Europeans. Balboa also hoped he and the other Spanish explorers would discover gold there. The settlement was named Santa María de la Antigua del Darién.
In 1513, Balboa set off with hundreds of Native people and about 190 Spaniards, including Francisco Pizarro, who was also to become a famous explorer. Their journey took nearly a month. There were mountains, swamps, and thick rain forests to navigate. They encountered alligators, poisonous snakes, swarms of mosquitoes, and cannibals. Many men died along the way. Finally, they reached the other side of the isthmus. Balboa climbed to the top of a mountain and took a look.
Did Balboa find gold? No. Instead, he found himself gazing upon a vast sea that no European had ever seen before. Balboa put on his armor, waded into the waves, and claimed the ocean for Spain. He named it the South Sea (now the Pacific Ocean).
Did Balboa discover the Pacific Ocean? Absolutely not. And he had no right to “claim it” for Spain. European explorers, however, felt entitled to do this.
Balboa’s story did not have a happy ending. His enemies had him falsely arrested, accusing him of betraying his country. Pizarro turned on him. Balboa was beheaded in 1519, and his head was stuck on a spike for all to see.
Balboa was just one of a number of European explorers who—from the 1400s into the 1600s—ventured beyond the lands familiar to them. Many did not survive. Through their voyages, however, they completely changed what people knew about the world. We call this time the Age of Exploration. Chapter 1: Marco Polo and the Silk Road
Like many people today, wealthy Europeans of long ago liked fancy things. And a lot of the fancy things they liked—ivory, jewels, and silks, among others—came from the Indies. (That was the name Europeans in the Middle Ages used for Asia and India.) In addition, Europeans wanted spices that were not grown in their homelands.
While finding and selling these goods could make traders rich, the trip from Europe to the Indies was long, difficult, and dangerous.
Until the end of the 1400s, there were two ways to reach the Indies from Europe. One was by sea, a journey called the Spice Route. A ship had to cross the Mediterranean Sea on its way to the Middle East, then sail around India through Indonesia and on to China. Just sailing across the Mediterranean was difficult. The powerful city-state of Venice controlled the route and often stopped ships from going any farther or taxed them heavily to proceed.
Another way to the Indies was by land, following the Silk Road. It was a series of roads covering four thousand miles, passing through vast deserts and over steep mountains. The Silk Road connected Europe and Asia. Most people didn’t travel the whole distance. There were trading posts along the way where European merchants could stop. They could buy or trade goods and then return home to sell them.
For those who did make the entire journey, it took years to travel from Europe to Asia and back. This made the price of goods expensive when they were sold back home.
In 1271, a teenager from Venice named Marco Polo convinced his father and uncle, both wealthy merchants, to allow him to join their trip along the Silk Road to Cathay (now China). It took three and a half years to get there, crossing seas, deserts, and mountains while also encountering thieves and wars, and suffering illnesses. It is believed that when once in Cathay, the Polos became friends with the emperor, Kublai Khan. (The elder Polos had first met him on an earlier trip.)
Marco was amazed by what he saw in Cathay. There were golden palaces, dazzling silks, glittering jewels, bountiful spices, and animals he had never seen before, including elephants and monkeys. The Polos were able to explore many parts of Asia that no European had been to. They spent twenty-four years away from home. When the three men returned to Venice in 1295, their family and friends were shocked to discover that they were still alive—and weighed down with jewels.
At the time of the Polos’ return, Venice was at war over the spice trade with another city-state, Genoa. Marco Polo fought for Venice and was captured and imprisoned for one year.
In prison, he met an author named Rustichello, who wrote down everything that Marco Polo told him about Cathay. All this was turned into a book in about 1350. The Travels of Marco Polo became a best seller. It inspired several future explorers, including Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus.
Certainly, there was great wealth to be made by trading with Asia. But there needed to be an easier, quicker way to get there than by following the Spice Route or the Silk Road.
The question was how to do so. Chapter 2: Portugal Leads the Way
One person with a great interest in finding a new route to the Indies was Prince Henry of Portugal, born in 1394. According to his horoscope (a horoscope is a foretelling of your future based on the way the stars, planets, sun, and moon were positioned in the sky when you were born), Prince Henry was going to dedicate his life to great and noble conquests. He wanted to do everything possible to make this prediction come true.
As a young man, Prince Henry and his family led a crusade (a religious war) against a Muslim town on the North African coast. It was named Ceuta. The town was a center for trading—spices from the Indies, jewels, and precious metals.
From that time, Prince Henry became interested in finding another route to the Far East, one that would go all the way around Africa and then on to Asia. Finding a sea route would cut out Venetian and Muslim middlemen. The cost of spices would go way down.
Sailing around Africa would not be easy. No European explorers had ever gone beyond Cape Bojador. It was on the stormy western coast of Africa where the sea was shallow. Sailors thought it was too dangerous to venture any farther than there.
That was not going to stop Prince Henry. In addition to getting rich, he had another reason for exploring the coast of Africa. He was a devout Christian. He hoped that Portuguese ships would make stops all along the coast and convert African people to his religion. (To convert means to change to a new religion.)
So it was a prince from the tiny country of Portugal who started the Age of Exploration. And although he did not go on any of the voyages, he became known as Henry the Navigator because he paid for so many. (Navigators are expert sailors able to find their way to remote destinations.)
In 1419, Prince Henry moved to the southwestern-most tip of Portugal. The place was called Sagres. It was the perfect spot from which to set sail for Africa.
In Sagres, he brought together the best navigators, mapmakers, astronomers and ship-builders. They improved many of the instruments that sailors relied on, such as the astrolabe and quadrant. Both were used to locate the position of the stars, sun, and moon to help figure out where a ship was. There was also a better compass by then.
Another improvement was the caravel, a new kind of ship. The caravel was smaller and simpler to sail than the carrack, an earlier type of ship. It had triangular sails that made it easier to sail into the wind. The ship was also faster, cutting down the time for long trips. The sails also made it easier to turn the ship faster when navigating rocky coasts.
The maps sailors used were old and inaccurate. Prince Henry wanted new ones. So he had cartographers (mapmakers) gather information from diaries written by captains on recent voyages. Diaries like these are called logs.
Fourteen times, Prince Henry sent ships out to go past Cape Bojador. All met with failure. Finally, in 1434, he sent out a Portuguese sailor named Gil Eanes to try yet again. And this time, his sailor made it!
This opened up the western coast of Africa for further exploration. But it would be more than fifty years before anyone would make it around the bottom of the continent, and up the eastern coast.
Copyright © 2021 by Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.