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Origins of European exploration in the Americas

APUSH: KC‑1.2.I.A (KC), Unit 1: Learning Objective C, WOR (Theme)

Video transcript

- [Lecturer] When we think about European exploration in the Americas, we tend to start at 1492 with Christopher Columbus showing up at the island of Hispaniola, but in this video I want to take a step back a few decades and talk about the conditions that led to Christopher Columbus's voyage in the first place. What was he doing there? So let's zoom in a little bit and take a look at what the world would have looked like to someone in western Europe around the year 1450. So to a European, this would have been about the extent of the known world. Now they wouldn't have had anything like the level of this detail, but they certainly knew that there were very good things to be had in India, and China, and the Middle East. Excellent trade goods like silk and spices, and they knew there was quite a lot of world outside of Europe and Africa, but they didn't think that there was much out there. And they expected there would be some small islands on the range of Iceland perhaps, but they had no conception that there were two gigantic continents on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. It's a frequent misconception that people in this time period thought that the world was flat. Learned people of the era knew that the world was round. In fact they had known so since the time of the Greeks. What they did know was that the world was pretty large. In fact they correctly estimated that the circumference of the globe is about 25,000 miles. And so they knew that given the shipping technology that they had, it would be impossible to go west and arrive at the east, while still having enough food and water to supply your crew. Now why would anyone have dreamt of going west to get east when they could have simply gone east to get east? Well the answer is that the over land route was long and it was expensive because the Middle East and north Africa and even parts of Spain were controlled by Muslim empires like the Ottomans and the Moors. And so any time trade came from the east, China and India and the Middle East itself, it went through a series of traders and a series of empires along the way, picking up taxes and markups. Which meant that by the time a good reached western Europe it was pricey indeed. And since Muslim traders were in control of the Mediterranean here and at the east, taking a ship through there caused pretty much the same problem, so why not go around the coast of Africa? Well that was certainly something that Europeans were keen to do. The only problem is that the wind goes in the wrong direction and it's very treacherous sailing around the tip of Africa to come up into the Indian Ocean. So what changed? How did this over land trade route become an over sea trade route? Well for that we have to look a little bit closer at the Iberian peninsula. So this land mass here is the Iberian peninsula. And at the time, the Iberian peninsula was controlled by a number of different groups. The southern part was under Muslim control of the Moors, as they were called, or Moroccan Muslims and they called this area Al-Andalus and we're talking about this area here, and the Spanish called it Granada. The western part here was under the control of Portugal, as it is today. So we got Portugal. The eastern part, this area here, is the kingdom of Aragon and then a central part here was kingdom of Castile. So as far as Europeans were concerned this was kind of the end of the world. This was as far southwest as you could go on the European continent and heaven knows what was out here until in the early 1400s, Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator began investing in navigation. And one of the important discoveries made by the Portuguese was a new kind of ship and this ship was called the caravel. So what's cool about the caravel is that caravels are ocean worthy but they're also very easy to maneuver and they can sail into the wind. So, that means that the problems of sailing around Africa begin to get a little bit easier and so in this early era of the 1400s, the Portuguese began expanding their exploration farther and farther down the coast of Africa, and they come across these islands now that they don't have to hug the coast. The Canary Islands, and farther west this is so small you can barely see it here, Madeira and the Azores. And they quickly discover that these islands are ideal places to grow cash crops. Specifically sugar. They also discover that some of the people who live on these islands, in fact the Canary Islands had a native population called the Guanche. They immediately attempted to enslave these native people and then quickly discovered that they would die of disease. And we'll talk more about why native people seemed to be so susceptible to European diseases a little bit later. So now they have great places to grow sugar, but they don't have a workforce. Well they're discovering another workforce along the coast of Africa as they begin to set up, this is the Portuguese we're talking about here, trading posts on the west coast of Africa where they're purchasing slaves from African traders or Arab traders who had a long history of trading slaves from the interior of Africa out to its coast. So in the early 1400s, Portugal is doing very well for itself. Seems that they're leading this colonial game. They've pretty much invented the plantation system, and they're getting quite wealthy off of it. So the eyes of Europe turn to Portugal and they think all right how can we replicate their success? Meanwhile, back on the Iberian peninsula there's a political and religious shakeup, so the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon are united when Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile and I recognize that my Spanish pronunciation is terrible, they get married in 1469 and unite their two kingdoms into what becomes the kingdom of Spain. So what had been Castile and Aragon becomes Spain. And then united, these two Catholic monarchs turn their attentions to what's called the reconquista. So reconquering the territories that had been controlled by Muslims for Christians. Some call this kind of an extension of Crusader thinking, and Ferdinand and Isabella complete the reconquista, expelling the Moors from the territory that is today Spain in 1492. So now we've reached 1492 and we've got a will, that is a desire for luxury goods. We also have a little bit of good old fashioned nationalism here. Spain's closest neighbor is Portugal, who are currently very powerful and wealthy, so they've got perhaps some rivalry in their hearts, and we've got a way which is the caravel that is making more and more ocean sailing possible. And into this exciting moment steps Christopher Columbus, and we'll talk more about him in the next video.