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The Age of Discovery

‘The Age of Discovery’ is a nice name Eurocentric history gives to a period where the European powers took an expansionist approach to their political, economic and cultural objectives from the 15th to 18th centuries.

This piece will look at the motives and consequences these European powers. It was imperialism before it had a name, and laid the foundations of what we now call colonialism and globalisation.

There were various reasons for the initial exploration. Firstly, Religion was a big part; the Portuguese and Spanish were the first to explore, in the name of spreading the word of Christianity. Secondly, there was economic rationale; many European countries wanted materials, technology, ideas and, very specifically, food. Europe had heard of the rich luxury that the Far East lived in and wanted to gain a more prominent economic and cultural foothold.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus set out to establish settlements and began Spanish colonialism of the ‘New World’, regardless of who was already there, which was millions of Native Americans. The Europeans saw America as perfect for building a new civilisation. This was one of the first major moves of ‘The Age of Discovery’. A great book detailing this is, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown, which documents the conquering and genocide of the Native American people by white European colonisers over a painful 500-year period.

Other European powers soon followed in these ventures. Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and others joined in to establish a network of what we can now see as a the beginnings of globalisation, founded on colonialism. There was a huge interest in exchanging goods from the different parts of the world.

This eventually led to the Columbian Exchange, a phrase coined by historian Alfred W. Crosby in 1972. This began as a means of exchanging foods, crops, animals and technology. However, it did not take long for this to develop into the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the early 17th century. Once again, the Portuguese were the initiators of this imperialist move. Once human exploitation and dominance had begun, this cycle of slavery, trade and transport seemed unstoppable and became integral to the workings of the European economies. Much like the genocide of Native Americans, white Europeans also felt the need to treat the people of Africa, Asia, South America and the hundreds of islands in the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in a brutal, inhumane method of exploitation and control.

The Europeans, once curious about the mysterious ‘New World’, were determined to portray it as culturally, politically, economically and socially inferior. The ‘Age of Discovery’ spiralled into an exploitative, greedy, inhumane system that still affects our world today.