Ancient mariners took to the sea to find new lands not only for reasons of trade and wealth but also because they wanted to learn and understand new things.

In this era of globalisation, you might find it hard to believe that there was a time when people feared to venture across the seas and had very little idea of far off countries and continents. Unknown lands and dark regions on maps fascinated early mariners who set sail to explore the world.

Expeditions by European sailors to Africa, the Arab countries, the Americas and South East Asia were fuelled by interests to establish trade routes which later paved the way for colonisation and the imperial struggle to gain control over these lands.

Such expeditions began in the early 15{+t}{+h} century and continued into the 17{+t}{+h} century. The Portuguese and the Spanish pioneered the discovery of new trade-routes by sea. Apart from the prospects of trade and wealth, the spirit of renaissance to learn and understand new things also spurred an interest in these expeditions. Missionaries too, who were eager to increase the spread of religion, encouraged these efforts. This period, termed as the Age of Discovery, gave way to the colonial era.

On a trail

Ancient Roman and Greek civilisations had trade contacts with the east. The Portuguese and Spanish traders of the 15th and 16th centuries were trying to establish trade links to gain access to the ‘exotic products from the East'. Accounts of merchants like Marco Polo who had travelled extensively kindled interest in European sailors to travel the world. Cotton, silk, precious stones and spices from places like Persia, India and China were in high demand as early as the 1250s. There were land routes through Central Asia , but overland trade was risky and expensive. European trade links suffered when the Ottomon Empire took control of Constantinople in 1453. Trade links to two important regions — North Africa and Red Sea — were also blocked.

In the late 15th Century, the British, French and Dutch also began to send their naval troops. In 1522, the eastward and westward explorations overlapped with the circumnavigation of the world by Ferdinand Magellan's crew (he was killed in a battle before finishing his journey). This period also saw a growth in geographical knowledge and cartography.

Explorers had the self-determined right to claim the ‘newly discovered' lands. (Discovery here is a relative term from the explorers' point of view, indigenous people already inhabited these lands.) Portugal and Spain even signed a treaty (Treaty of Tordesillas) dividing the world into two regions of exploration in 1494. With the establishment of trade, the explorers gradually asserted their authority over the indigenous people and even took them captive and organised slave trade.

India was a major centre of attraction for these colonial powers and the French, Dutch, Portuguese, Danish and British competed to establish their trade empires in India. The explorers gradually tried to establish their political administration in the lands they explored overlooking the tradition, culture and laws of the native population. What followed was an era of colonial exploitation and we all know how the British enslaved the Indians and reigned over our country for around 200 years. Sea routes

The Portuguese: The sailors and merchants were interested in travelling to new lands and establishing trade links. Prince Henry of Portugal began to subsidise their expeditions in 1419. Apart from Italians, there were Jews, Muslims, Germans and Scandinavians among those who were looking to find a way around Africa to reach India. They advanced down the West African Coast and opened gold trade; slave trade was also rampant.

Bartholomew Diaz(1450-1500): In 1488, he sailed to the east coast of Africa passing the Cape of Storms later renamed as the Cape of Good Hope. His crew mutinied and he had to return without realising his dream of reaching India.

Vasco da Gama(1460-1524): He rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached the Indian Ocean. He landed on the coast of Calicut, India in 1498.

The next 25 years saw the Portuguese trading empire grow with the help of their naval strength. They set up trading posts from West Africa to China and benefitted hugely by trading in spices and luxury goods from these countries. The Portuguese sailors accidentally landed in Brazil in 1500 which was a major boost to their trading empire. Around 700 Portuguese sailors were sent to the East between 1501 and 1505.

Christopher Columbus

While the Portuguese focused more on building trade empires, the Spaniards founded their empire through conquest and expansion. Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) from Genoa in Italy completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean with the sponsorship of the Spanish royalty. The contract gave him control over the lands he founded and 10 per cent of all riches. Columbus came across places like Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Margarita, Island San Salvador, Americas, and Cuba during his expeditions. He tried to establish a Spanish colony in Hispanola and took the native Arawak Indians as slaves.

Other famous sailors

Captain James Cook (1728 – February 14, 1779)

Famous mariner from Britain who made three big voyages and explored Australia, New Zealand and the Hawaiian Islands. He was an expert in making accurate maps.

Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512)

It is believed that the Americas derived their name from the Italian explorer and cartographer.