International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 08 January 2018  
Unit 2 - Lesson 4 - The age of exploration
Why did the Spanish conquer the Aztecs and Incas and not the other way around?

‘A historian who had lived at any time between 8500 B.C. and A.D. 1450, and who had tried then to predict future historical trajectories, would surely have labelled Europe's eventual dominance as the least likely outcome, because Europe was the most backward of those three Old World regions for most of those 10,000 years.’ Jared Diamond

And yet the world we live in today is a European world, a world which has been shaped by European ideas and systems, inventions and innovations. The last 500 years or so have seen Europeans and their decedents in the Americas and around the world, dominate trade and conquer through war, virtually the whole of the globe. Until very recently, in the last 10-20 years or so, it was hard to imagine a future that wasn’t dominated by Europeans. But as the history of previous great civilisations and empires shows us, the rise of empire has always been accompanied by a fall.

The great question of 1450 is why was Europe on the verge of world domination? Why did the Spanish conquer the Aztecs and Incas and not the other way around? In 1450, Europe was not yet the most advanced global civilisation. In 1450, that would be China. China had invented paper, printing, gunpowder, compasses and the mechanical clock. For more on Chinese achievements see this video and 20 Chinese inventions.

When the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama first explored the East African coast (see below), the natives mistook him as Chinese. The great Ming-dynasty sailor Zheng He had been in Africa a generation before. In the 1400s, China owned the greatest seagoing fleet in the world, up to 3,500 ships at its peak. (The U.S. Navy today has only 430). Between 1405 and 1433 seven Chinese ‘treasure voyages’ were undertaken that used ships and technology well in advance of European navigation and 27,000 sailors, larger than the population of most European medieval towns. The motivation was different to European motivation. This was not exploration, China already knew about the places Zheng He visited. Nor was it about trade. China was already at the centre of trade and was self-sufficient. The ‘treasure voyages’ were a show of strength and a personal project of one Chinese emperor, Yongle. After his death, there was little interest in further voyages. Would the history of the world have been different if Vasco de Gama's four little Portuguese caravels had run into a fleet of more than 250 Chinese ships of various sizes, but all of them larger than the Portuguese flagship?
Italy - the key centre for trade

In the fifteenth century Italy was well positioned to become a key centre for European trade with the east, because it attracted many scholars, bankers, merchants and trades people. It became the banking centre of Europe and the rest of the known world. As these people prospered, so did the Italian city states such as Venice, Milan and Florence. Successful traders wanted the best for themselves, their families, and their towns and cities. They had the money to buy beautiful things and support the arts. Wealthy families acted as sponsors to scholars and artists, providing them with work and a living, so cities such as Florence became centres of Renaissance learning and the arts. As we have seen, trade was not limited to Europe alone. For Europeans, the East - countries such as India and China - was seen as a great mystery and exciting and the goods to be found there were much in demand. For example, cottons, silks and delicately coloured porcelain were much sought after in Europe. The search for gold spurred explorers to go to far-flung places. By the end of the fifteenth century there was not enough gold in Europe to satisfy the needs of the rich and wealthy.

At this time knowledge of the world was rapidly expanding as people journeyed more and new peoples and cultures were discovered. This process was aided by recent inventions like the compass, logline and maps. Why did voyages of discovery take place? There are a number of factors, namely:

• the desire for trade
• proselytizing (spreading Christianity)
• the desire for increased wealth and power
• the desire for adventure to discover the unknown
• technical advances (now it was possible)
• empire building and to establish control over other countries.

Spain and Portugal were the great naval powers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; they wanted to enlarge their empires. They led the way in exploration with Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) discovering the islands of the Caribbean - the West Indies - in 1492.  Other than Vasco da Gama (1460-1524), another Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) was the first to circumnavigate (sail around) the Earth (1519-1522). Magellan also named the Pacific Ocean. See a documentary about Magellan's circumnavigation here. Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) was an Italian explorer who was the first person to realize that the Americas were separate from the continent of Asia. America was named for him in 1507.



Activity 1 - Vasco de Gama and Spice

Watch the video and consider the list of factors that explain why the voyages of discovery took place. Which factors were relevant to Vasco de Gama's voyages to India? It is important that you refer to historical details from the film in your answer.


What was sea travel like in the 15th century?

Travelling to the East presented an exciting challenge to Renaissance explorers, but what was the East actually like at this time? Europeans had a good idea what China was like because the thirteenth-century explorer Marco Polo (c. 1254-1324) had been there and had written about its wealth and riches. They also knew about India, or the Indies, but were not sure of the exact location. They were confident about the luxury goods they would find there and there were stories of a mountain of gold. They had also heard stories about strange peoples and fearful monsters.

For centuries, European sailors never ventured far from land so that they wouldn't lose sight of familiar landmarks. In the open sea it was vitally important to be able to navigate effectively because accurate maps did not exist. Dead reckoning was used by sailors, which meant that a compass told them what direction they were going in and a logline allowed them to make a rough calculation as to their speed. This logline was a piece of wood with a rope attached to it. On the rope knots were made at regular intervals. When the wood was thrown into the sea, the rope would unwind as the ship sailed forward and, by counting the knots, sailors could make a rough calculation of their speed. A knot is still used today as a nautical term for miles per hour. Sailors would also use a cross-staff or quadrant as a further check to measure the position of the pole star and other stars in relation to the horizon.

The explorers used ships called caravels. They could travel quite quickly because the big sails caught the wind well and the triangular lateen sail at the back made it easy to tack (move in a zig-zag direction) when sailing directly into the wind. These ships were set deep enough into the water so they didn't capsize easily. They were just large enough (approximately 21 metres long and 6.5 metres wide) to take the crew needed to deal with all the complicated rigging, the necessary stores and the guns, which could be fired through the ports (holes) cut into the high sides.

One problem, which was never really solved by the explorers, was how to keep the crew healthy. The crew had to put up with many hardships and dreadful conditions whilst on board ship. Below decks it was very cramped, dirty and dark; often the sleeping space was not much more than a metre high; rats and lice were common-place. In bad weather, water seeped in through the wooden planks and it was not possible for the sailors to go on to the open deck; the work was extremely dangerous because adjusting the sails in a storm was a hazardous operation. In a dead calm, on the other hand, the crew soon became bored because there was nothing to do to keep them occupied. As the ship was made from wood, fire was a constant risk and a sailor's diet became worse and worse as the long journey progressed. Hot food was cooked on a fire in a box of sand, when the weather allowed. However, water stored in barrels soon went off and wine turned sour. Food also went stale and rotted or the ship's biscuits became infected with weevils. Lack of fresh fruit and vegetables meant sailors often suffered from diseases such as scurvy caused by a lack of vitamin C. When they went to places where no other Europeans had been before it was dangerous to land and restock with food and water because the inhabitants might be hostile.

'Food does not keep well, no one washes, no one shaves. It is almost impossible to keep anything dry in a storm, and you can expect to be wet and miserable most of the time. The cabins stink of urine, faeces and vomit, not to mention the smell of rat urine. They also tend to get unbearably hot in summer. You may also be woken by the constant noise of the waves. In high seas the timbers grind against one another, as if the ship is trying to wrench itself apart. If you are stuck on such a vessel for several weeks, then nerves and tempers wear thin. Men get rowdy, get drunk and fights often break out.'  Ian Mortimer – The Time Traveller’s Guide to the Middle Ages, 2008.

Activity 2 - Sea Travel in the 15th Century

1. Identify at least two reasons why the film extract from 1492 might not be historically accurate.
2. List five reasons why sea travel was so difficult in the 15th century.




European overseas expansion led to the contact between the Old and New Worlds producing the Columbian Exchange, named after Columbus. It involved the transfer of goods unique to one hemisphere to another. Europeans brought cattle, horses, and sheep to the New World and from the New World Europeans received tobacco, potatoes and maize.  Massive profit could be made by those who risked money on investing in explorers and trading adventurers.

Investors joined together to raise the necessary capital in joint-stock companies and shared in the profits depending on how much of the stock they owned. An investor's share in the company's stock could be sold at whatever price buyer and seller may agree upon. With this concept of stocks and shares, one of the basic elements of the modern economic system (capitalism) evolved.

The Atlantic trade largely supplanted pre-existing Italian and German trading powers which had relied on their Baltic, Russian and Islamic trade links. The European economic centre shifted from the Mediterranean to Western Europe. The city of Antwerp, for example, became the richest city in Europe at this time.

Activity 3 - The Columbian Exchange

Using the video and notes above, write two factually supported paragraphs in  response to the following question: ‘The consequences of the voyages of discovery were largely positive’. How far do you agree with this assertion?

Pizarro - a case study in European advantage.

In 1532 the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro led a small group of Spanish soldiers into the heart of the Inca empire. The events that followed are amongst the most remarkable and dramatic in European history.

Activity 4 - Guns, Germs and Steel

1. Jared Diamond has been described as an environmental determinist. He argues that geographical differences around the world can largely explain the most important historical developments. With reference to the film above, outline how Diamond explains European advantages over native Americans (in this case the Incas) with reference to the environment (i.e. geography, landscape, climate etc.)

2. Watch the extract above. Why were germs so important to the successful European conquest of the Americas? Why did native Americans suffer more than Europeans?


We began this lesson by highlighting the fact that the most advanced civilisation in the world in 1450 was Chinese. But over the next 500 years, China fell behind Europe. If you'd like to know how  Jared Diamond explains this, you can read an extract from his book here.




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