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Essay: The Reasons Underlying European Expansion and Exploration

Categories: European History, History
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It remains unclear why humanity chose a relatively spontaneous moment to matriculate from the sheltered semicircle of Mediterranean lands, to expand to the farthest reaches of the earth, with an inchoate disregard for personal welfare. However, pretentious man feels the need to speculate and impart drivelous reason, vain though it be:  What were  the causes of European expansion?   An anonymous author proffers this model conjecture, “Western Europe’s outward expansion in the 15th and 16th centuries was caused primarily by the unique brand of centralized governments which developed in England, France and Spain.”  The duressed reply to such a statement is of ardent disagreement.  European expansion was not spearheaded or enticed by these governments primarily, though they were contemporaneous and conducive.  And Portugal, a prominent figure in the assimilation of the New Land, should also be considered, although it was annexed with the rule of king Phillip II of Spain.  The factors which propelled the exploration of these real “nether lands” were desires driven by religious domination, advances in technology, geography, and (I admit no concession) the “unique brand of centralized governments developing in England, France and Spain”, though this was not paramount relative to the aforementioned variables.

The tumultuous state of the various religions of the Old World was as antiquated as Jesus.  However, the rise of the middle class in the high Renaissance defined the empowerment of the proletariat heterotheists who, provided with this via to [their] God’s untouched asylum, began to emigrate in the 17th century.  The irritating obstinacy of the followers of Mohammed had also began to pall; conversion was a messy and expensive process, and most of the crusades had failed, leaving Christians a desire to proselytize to an ear not attached to such formidable agents of resistance as the Muslims.  A Genoan explorer, Cristóbal Colón, discovered an Indian race heretofore unseen in 1492.  These unenlightened, “Indians” insisted on hopping around silly fires in bird costumes and found the eucharist an appalling practice in cannibalism.  God’s will be done!  These were quite apparently poor destitute souls crying for salvation, which was readily provided, regardless of whether the rude indigenions knew it.  Lacking Christ’s commodities like gunpowder and taxation, these eager souls were fairly responsive to the edifying institutes of the christian religion; and those who resisted were gradually but steadily decimated over the next 200 years.   In Prestatial America, the colonies along the east coast later brought the indians into the religious conflicts of their patron countries, converting them into valuable minions of catholocism, calvinism, and anglicanism.

Before Phillip II absorbed the Portuguese coast into his vast empire (thus causing it to be centralized), Portugal’s earliest expeditions served as a  prelude to the rest of europe’s explorations.  Driven by greed for gold, spices, and slaves, and the desire to convert infidels, the Portuguese landed sporadically along the continent of Africa, rounding the dangerous cape of good hope.  The great Prince Henry “the navigator” served as an exemplar for future explorations, making voyages to Africa and founding his own navigation school centered in Portugal in the 15th century.  His expeditions down the west coast of Africa heralded the age now commonly called “The age of discovery”.  By controlling the gold issuing from Ottoman Africa, the Portuguese were able to finance extremely expensive voyages, prodding the coasts and inlet until Bartolomew Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1487.  Another Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, reached India and returned with such lucre that the Portuguese King Manuel cast a series of perilous expiditions which resulted in landholdings in present day Brazil, Africa, Arabia, India, Java, and Mallaca.

Proceding during this age of european expansion was the Renaissance, a cultural binding of antiquated history and advanced concepts that resulted in a blossoming of anthropos that are arguably unexeeded.  One of these flowers was the progression of technology.  The technology stoked the enthusiasm for such voyages, and enterprising in turn lead to the development of more refined instruments; it was a cause and an effect of european expansion.  Caravels, used by Colón to reach America, were valued by voyagers for their speed and ease of steering in contrary winds. Prior to the development of the spanish galleon they were the foundation of Spanish shipping. However, their small size meant that space was limited; while only 3 men were necessary to guide it, it was impractical for hauling the extravagant cargo demanded by the patrons of the ships, usually kings or other nobility.  This lead to the development of the galleons, which, with their tri-masted rigging, relative agility, and a generous cargo capacity made exploration much more accessable and appealing.  Many men were necessary to control the ships, and the profession of sailing reached a peak; voyaging had become a full-time occupation.  The development of the compass and astrolabe, instruments of navigation, also contributed the art of sailing and encouraged investigation of the ends of the earth.  The cannon, with its unmaneuverability proved impractical on land, but fortified ships with a weapon that could sink a maurader or the mauraded.

The geography of the countries which explored and eventually conquered the Western World was of great import.  Britain, Spain, Portugal, and France were all coastal countries; the water was and had been readily utilized for hundreds of years.  And they were also the countries nearest to the New World; it was simply pragmatism that determined the direction of the fleets.  Because they were the westernmost countries, it was natural to find the New World before, for example, Italy, which had been a focal point of civilization for thousands of years.  And continued to be, but its importance and commerced lessened without the resources of the New World.

The centralized governments, although not of principal influence, did play a vital role in provoking European expansion.  These rulers, with the weakening of the nobility, held power both regionally and universally in their countries of France, England and Spain.  The Valois ruler’s centralization, with their tailles and standardization of language and arts, would lead to expensive voyages to prestatial america, where their influence remains today in Quebec and Louisiana.  In England, Queen Elizabeth’s privateers waged a brutal war agains the gold laden spanish ships.  The venerated Francis Drake was one of these privateers, or pirates, who discovered parts of the New World while attempting to steal the riches of enemy ships.

Speculation about the underlying reasons for european expansion reveals that there were various essential factors.  Religious turmoil, with the mutual intolerance leading to constant and bloody disputes, directed the persecuted to pursue a haven in the New World and set up a religious foundation there.  Portugal’s prolific voyages in the 15th century served to usher in this age of exploration with superb navigators and trading ports.  Also vital were the various inventions that made navigating the trade winds manegable, and those which provided a means of offence or defence.  The geography of Spain, England, and France served as a means to propel the denizens of these countries westward, towards the sea which surrounded them all on at least 2 sides and pointed them towards the New World and trading in Africa.  The particular kind of centralized governments at the time was also important, financing, and encouraging these expeditions.  They were not, however, the predominating driving force that lead to the discovery of the rest of the world.

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