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Chapter 6. God, Gold, and Glory

In This Chapter

Europeans’ interest in the other side of the ocean

• New technology helps with exploration

Why explorers risked life and limb

• The explorers’ hall of fame

The Spanish Armada dominates the seas

“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” True enough. However, the story of European exploration is much greater and begins centuries earlier than Christopher Columbus.

Europe Looks Beyond the Horizon

Throughout the Middle Ages, Europeans traveled extensively throughout North Africa and Asia. Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, not to mention Niccolo’s slightly more famous son Marco Polo (1255-1324), traveled all the way to China and even spent time in the court of the legendary Kublai Khan. Before the Polo expeditions, the pope sent emissaries to the Mongol capital of Karakorum.

Those who traveled abroad brought back many fantastic stories of fascinating far-off places. Polo, in his book Travels, told of his difficult journey to China and back and of his time in such places as Sri Lanka and Sumatra. More fantastic tales were spread in a book titled The Travels of Sir John Mandeville written in the early fourteenth century. Its author tells of finding giants, headless humans, and more in his travels to the Far East. These stories stayed with Europeans and eventually helped spark some interest in what else might be found abroad. These travelers weren’t traveling just for the sake of traveling, though. They were trading, and trade was good for quite a while.

Would You Believe?

Although Marco Polo is famous for his travels to China, as chronicled in his book Travels, some historians doubt the authenticity of his stories. Furthermore, some historians doubt he even made it all the way to China!

Especially while the Mongols controlled the lands between Europe and China, profitable trade routes existed as far east as India and even into parts of China. The Crusades opened up many trade routes in North Africa for Europeans who demanded silks, spices, mirrors, and other luxury items crusaders took back to Europe. Both during and after the Crusades, European traders profited greatly from these trade routes.

For the most part, these trade routes were over land. Very little sea travel occurred at this time, for a few reasons. Shipbuilding and cartography had hardly reached zeniths during the Middle Ages, so traders tended to be land lovers. With the rise of the Islamic Ottoman Turks in southwest Asia and the decline of the Mongol Empire, Europeans, not known for their friendly relations with the Muslims, found it more and more difficult and dangerous to trade in Ottoman-controlled lands. It was thanks to the Ottomans, then, that Europeans started looking for safer and more profitable trade routes.

Define Your Terms

Cartography is the science of mapmaking.

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