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7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 6 - Search for Spices

What will we be learning in this unit?

  • Why did Europeans cross the seas?
  • did Portugal's eastward explorations lead to the development of a trading empire?
  • did Columbus's voyages affect the search for a passage to the Indies


 Europeans explore the Seas

 

  • Europeans had traded with Asia long before the Renaissance. The Crusades introduced Europeans to many luxury goods from Asia. Later, when the Mongol empire united much of Asia in the 1200s and 1300s, Asian goods flowed to Europe along complex overland trade routes. 
  • Black Death and the breakup of the Mongol empire disrupted trade. By the 1400s, though, Europe was recovering from the plague. As its population grew, so did the demand for trade goods. The most valued items were spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and pepper. People used spices in many ways-to preserve food, add flavor to dried and salted meat, and make medicines and perfumes. The chief source of spices was the Moluccas, an island chain in present-day Indonesia, which Europeans then called the Spice Islands.


Europeans explore the Seas

 

  • In the 1400s, Muslim and Italian merchants controlled most trade between Asia and Europe. Muslim traders brought prized goods to eastern Mediterranean ports. Traders from Venice and other Italian cities then carried the precious cargoes to European markets. Europeans, however, wanted to gain direct access to the riches of Asia. To do so, the Atlantic powers-first Portugal, then Spain-sought a route to Asia that bypassed the Mediterranean. 
  • The desire for wealth was not the only motive that lured people to sea. Some voyagers were still fired by the centuries-old desire to crusade against the Muslims. The Renaissance spirit of inquiry further fired people's desire to learn more about the lands beyond Europe.


 Europeans explore the Seas

  • Several improvements in technology helped Europeans conquer the vast oceans of the world. Cartographers, or mapmakers, created more accurate maps and sea charts. European sailors also learned to use the astrolabe, an instrument developed by the ancient Greeks and perfected by the Arabs, to determine their latitude at sea. 
  • Along with more reliable navigational tools, Europeans designed larger and better ships. The Portuguese developed the caravel, which combined the square sails of European ships with Arab lateen, or triangular, sails. Caravels also adapted the sternpost rudder and numerous masts of Chinese ships. The new rigging made it easier to sail across or even into the wind. Finally, European ships added more weaponry, including sturdier cannons.


 Portugal sails eastward

  • Portugal, a small nation on the western edge of Spain, led the way in exploration. By the 1400s, Portugal was strong enough to expand into Muslim North Africa. In 1415, the Portuguese seized Ceuta on the North African coast. The victory sparked the imagination of Prince Henry, known to history as Henry the Navigator.
  • Prince Henry embodied the crusading drive and the new spirit of exploration. He hoped to expand Christianity and find the source of African gold.


 Portugal sails eastward

  • At Sagres, in southern Portugal, Henry gathered scientists, cartographers, and other experts. They redesigned ships, prepared maps, and trained captains and crews for long voyages. Henry then sent out ships that slowly worked their way south to explore the western coast of Africa.
  • Henry died in 1460, but the Portuguese continued their quest. In 1488, Bartholomeu Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa. Despite the turbulent seas, the tip became known as the Cape of Good Hope because it opened the way for a sea route to Asia.


Portugal sails eastward

  • In 1497, Vasco da Gama led four ships around the Cape of Good Hope. After a 10-month voyage, da Gama finally reached the great spice port of Calicut on the west coast of India. The long voyage home took a heavy toll. The Portuguese lost half their ships. Many sailors died of hunger, thirst, and scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C in their diets during months at sea. Still, the venture proved highly profitable to the survivors. In India, da Gama had acquired a cargo of spices that he sold at a profit of 3,000 percent.
  • Da Gama quickly outfitted a new fleet. In 1502, he forced a treaty of friendship on the ruler of Calicut. Da Gama then left Portuguese merchants there to buy spices when prices were low and to store them near the dock until the next fleet could return. Soon, the Portuguese seized key ports around the Indian Ocean to create a vast trading empire.


 Columbus Sails to the West

  • News of Portugal's successes spurred other nations to look for a sea route to Asia. An Italian navigator from the port of Genoa, Christopher Columbus, sought Portuguese backing for his own plan. He wanted to reach the Indies by sailing west across the Atlantic. Like most educated Europeans, Columbus knew that the Earth was a sphere. A few weeks sailing west, he reasoned, would bring a ship to eastern Asia. His plan made sense, but Columbus made two errors. First, he greatly underestimated the size of the Earth. Second, he had no idea that two continents lay in his path.


Columbus Sails to the West

 

  • After Portugal refused to help him, Columbus persuaded Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain to finance his "enterprise of the Indies." In 1492, the Catholic rulers had driven the Muslims from their last stronghold in Spain. To strengthen their power, they sought new sources of wealth. Queen Isabella was also anxious to spread Christianity in Asia. 
  • On August 3, 1492, Columbus sailed west with three small ships, the Pinta, the Nia, and the Santa Mar­a. Although the expedition encountered good weather and a favorable wind, no land came into sight. Provisions ran low, and the crew became anxious. Finally, on October 12, a lookout yelled, "Land! Land!"


Columbus Sails to the West

  • Columbus then spent several months cruising the islands of the Caribbean. Because he thought he had reached the Indies, he called the people of the region Indians. In 1493, he returned to Spain to a hero's welcome. In three later voyages, Columbus remained convinced he had reached the coast of East Asia. Before long, though, other Europeans realized that Columbus had found a route to continents previously unknown to them. 
  • Spain and Portugal pressed rival claims to the lands Columbus explored. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI stepped in to keep the peace. He set a Line of Demarcation dividing the non-European world into two zones. Spain had trading and exploration rights in any lands west of the line. Portugal had the same rights east of the line.


  Columbus Sails to the West

  • In 1500, the Portuguese captain Pedro Alvarez Cabral was blown off course as he sailed around Africa. Landing in Brazil, which lay east of the Line of Demarcation, he claimed it for Portugal. 
  • In 1507, a German cartographer read reports about the "New World" written by an Italian sailor, Amerigo Vespucci. The mapmaker labeled the region America. The islands Columbus had explored in the Caribbean became known as the West Indies.


The Search Continues

 

  • Europeans continued to seek new routes around or through the Americas. In 1513, the Spanish adventurer Vasco Nez de Balboa, with the help of Native Americans, hacked a passage through the tropical forests of Panama. From a ridge on the west coast, he gazed at a huge body of water that he called the South Sea. On September 20, 1519, a minor Portuguese noble named Ferdinand Magellan set out from Spain with five ships. His crew included men from Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia.


The Search Continues

 

  • As the ships sailed south and west, through storms and calms and tropical heat, Magellan had to put down more than one mutiny. At last, the fleet reached the coast of South America. Carefully, they explored each bay, hoping for one that would lead to the Pacific. 
  • In November 1520, Magellan's ships entered a bay at the southern tip of South America. Amid brutal storms, rushing tides, and unpredictable winds, Magellan charted a passage that became known as the Strait of Magellan. The ships emerged from this lashing into Balboa's South Sea, which Magellan renamed the Pacific-peaceful-Ocean.


The Search Continues

  • Their mission accomplished, most of the crew wanted to return to Spain the way they had come. Magellan, however, insisted they push on across the Pacific to the East Indies. Three more weeks, he thought, would bring them to the Spice Islands. 
  • Magellan soon found that the Pacific was much wider than he imagined. For nearly four months, the ship plowed across the uncharted ocean. Finally in March 1521, the fleet reached the Philippines. There, Magellan was killed when he got involved in a local conflict. In the end, only one ship and 18 sailors completed the voyage. On September 8, 1522, nearly three years after setting out, the survivors reached Seville. The Spanish hailed them as the first people to circumnavigate, or sail around, the world.


  The Search Continues

  • "I believe that never more will any man undertake to make such a voyage," predicted Antonio Pigafetta, a survivor of the Magellan voyage. But he was wrong. While Spain and Portugal claimed their zones, English, Dutch, and French explorers searched the coast of North America for a northwest passage to Asia.
  • In 1497, King Henry VII of England sent a Venetian navigator known as John Cabot to seek a more northerly route than the one Columbus had charted. Cabot found rich fishing grounds off Newfoundland, which he claimed for England. Later the French captain Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence River, while Henry Hudson, sailing for the Dutch, explored the Hudson River. None of them found the hoped-for route to Asia, but the search for a Northwest Passage continued for centuries.