European Age of Exploration

From the period of the visits of the Northmen to Vineland (America) until Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean, great changes had taken place in Europe. The empire of the Franks, founded by Charlemagne, had been succeeded by that of the more progressive Germans, in the mastery of Europe, with Otho the Great as the initial Emperor. The Crusades had broken up the inertia or stagnation of European society. They had unbarred the gates of the East, and let in a flood of light from the sources of science and philosophy. The Northmen or Normans had taken possession of some of the fairest regions of France (Normandy), and had invaded, conquered, and refined England. The feudal system--a system in which lands are held by a few nobles who farm them out as a privilege secured by military service--had given way to an established political system in the form of monarchies or powerful republics. Commercial cities were gathering and distributing the products of industry and flecking the seas with white sails, proving that the arts of peace are far more productive of happiness than the pursuit of war. Over all Europe, from the Carpathian mountains to the sea, and from the Mediterranean to the Baltic, there was wonderful intellectual, moral and physical activity at the middle of the fifteenth century. Trade had linked various peoples in bonds of mutual interest and sympathy, and Europe, with the birth of the printing-press at that time, was prepared to enter upon that new and bright era of scientific investigation and maritime discovery which speedily appeared. When Lief came to America, the gloom of the dark ages was most intense--it was the world's midnight. When at near the close of the fifteenth century Columbus crossed the Atlantic, the faint gleam was seen of the dawn of that glorious day in the history of civilization, whose sunrise was heralded by the bold assertion that man had an inalienable right to the free exercise of his reason in faith and practice, whether in religion, politics, or morality.

Early in the fifteenth century, commerce had stimulated maritime adventure which led to maritime discoveries. Its most wonderful activity was seen in the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas. For the control of this commerce, Genoa on the Mediterranean and Venice on the Adriatic, both in Italy, were powerful and zealous rivals. The commerce of India was very profitable, and for the monopoly of it, these rivals fiercely contended through diplomacy and arms. That commerce found its chief communications with Genoa by way of the Indus, the Oxus, and the Caspian and Black Seas. It found its chief communications with Venice by way of the Persian Gulf, the river Euphrates and the Red Sea to Syrian and Egyptian ports. To these and the ports of the Black Sea the Italian vessels resorted for the silks, and spices, and other rich commodities of the Orient.

In the sharp contests of these rival republics for commercial supremacy, the Venetians finally outgeneraled the Genoese. They acquired by diplomacy and business activity such influence over the ports of the Black Sea and the Levant, that the Genoese saw ruin before them; and they began to look in other directions for relief and continued prosperity. With the revival of learning which the Crusades (or the wars of Christians for the rescue of the Holy Sepulchre of Jesus, at Jerusalem, from the hands of the Turks) had been chiefly instrumental in producing, came into Europe a knowledge of the theories and demonstrations of the Arabian astronomers, concerning the globular form of the earth. Intelligent mariners and others had become satisfied that it was globular; and the idea was finally impressed as truth upon the minds of the Genoese merchants, whilst the clergy vehemently opposed it. Reason and Faith came into collision. Reason prevailed, and the Genoese merchants were willing to allow the navigators of their ships to sail westward in quest of India.

Meanwhile the merchants of Western Europe, who were wholly excluded from direct participation in the commerce of the East through the Mediterranean by the jealous Italians, were seeking other channels of communication with India. In this enterprise they had the powerful aid of Prince Henry, son of John the First, King of Portugal and the English princess Philippa of Lancaster, sister of King Henry the Fourth of England. Whilst Prince Henry was with his father on an expedition into Africa, he received much information from the Moors concerning the coast of Guinea and other parts that were then unknown to Europeans. He believed that important discoveries might be made by navigating along the western cost of that continent, and on his return home the idea absorbed his whole attention. He retired from court, and at a beautiful country seat near Cape St. Vincent, in full view of the ocean, he drew around him men of science and learning. Being a studious and profound mathematician himself, he had become master of all the astronomy then known to the Spaniards. With these scientific men and scholars, he studied every branch of learning connected with maritime art, and they became satisfied, from ancient chronicles and fair induction, that Africa was circumnavigable--that India might be reached by going around the southern shores of that continent. This idea was contrary to the assertions of Ptolemy, the standard geographer at that time, and of many learned men; but Prince Henry adhered to his belief in the face of threats of the priests and the sneers of learned professors.

Wild tales were believed of dreadful reefs and stormy headlands stretching far out at sea, and of a fiery climate at the equator which no living thing, not even whales in the depth of the ocean, could pass because of the great heat. It was believed that the waves rolled in boiling water upon the fiery sands of the coasts, and that whoever should pass beyond Cape Bajador would never return. Against every species of opposition Prince Henry persevered. His navigators scattered all these fallacies and tales to the winds by doubling Cape Bajador and penetrating the tropical regions. At length, in the year 1497, Vasquez de Gama, a Portuguese mariner who had been in Prince Henry's service in his youth, passed around the Cape of Good Hope (which he so named), with an Arabian chart directing his course, and crossing the Indian Ocean landed in India at Calcutta. Africa was circumnavigated, and a new way was opened to India by the ocean pathway of Pharaoh Necho. Prince Henry had then been dead twenty-four years. He saw the promises of this achievement from afar, but he did not live to enjoy this full triumph of reason. But a greater triumph had lately been achieved than when De Gama passed the Cape of Good Hope.

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