(EUROPE, 1201 to 1500 CE – continued)

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EUROPE, 1201 to 1500 CE (6 of 7)

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The Rising Powers of Portugal and Spain

The Black Death had encouraged the development of sailing ships that would not require a lot of manpower. The Portuguese built such ships – three-masted ships with stern rudders that could sail forty-five degrees into the wind, carry more cargo and sail the high seas. These ships carried cannon that fired stone or iron balls, which could demolish a ship at a distance, reducing the need for armed marines. Cannon and gunpowder came to Europeans by way of the Mongols, who were using these in the 1200s.

Sea captains benefited from pilot books – first created around the year 1280. Away from shore they benefited from use of a magnetic compass and from an astrolabe for measuring the angle of celestial bodies from the horizon, the astrolabe enabling sea captains to determine their location north and south. Positions east and west were calculated from speed and time.

The Portuguese were interested in trade. They reached the Canary Islands, off the coast of northwestern Africa, in 1415. They discovered the Azores Islands in 1419, about 900 miles west of Portugal. Of concern to the Portuguese was Islam. They wished to find a route to India that outflanked Muslim dominated trade routes. They also wished to convert the "heathen" and to establish Christian colonies. In 1424 they began to colonize Madeira Island. They warred against Muslims at Ceuta and Tangier. In 1441 a ship brought back to Portugal the first slaves and some gold dust. In 1443 the Portuguese discovered the four by two-mile Arguin (Arguim) Island – a 1000 mile (1600 kilometer) sail from the Canaries. An increase in slave trading followed, the Portuguese buying more slaves from Africans. The Portuguese saw themselves as giving the slaves an opportunity to become Christians.

Aiming toward the Riches and the Saving of Souls

The kingdom of Castile had expanded to Cordoba and Seville in 1236, and since then it had been forcing Grenada to pay tribute. In 1469 Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon married, more or less unifying these two kingdoms, creating what looks like the modern map of the Iberian peninsula except for the Islamic kingdom of Grenada in the south and the small kingdom of Navarre in the northeast.

Gypsy Girl by Boccassio Boccassino

Headscarves were the convention among married and some unmarried Christian women in medieval Europe. (A painting by Boccaccio Boccaccino, 1504-05)

Pursuing what they believed was God's will, Isabella and Ferdinand moved against Judaism and Islam within their realms – an effort toward creating Christianity as the universal faith. It was the time of Tomás de Torquemada, Inquisitor General under Isabella and Ferdinand. Converted Jews, Muslims and non-conforming Catholic intellectuals were among the persecuted. Of the 200,000 or so Jews who had lived in Spain, perhaps as many as 150,000 fled. And, in 1482, Castile launched a war of conquest against Grenada.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese had reached the equator, and in 1487 a Portuguese explorer, Bartolomew Diaz, sailed as far as the southern tip of Africa – the Portuguese having overcome fears of monsters at sea and boiling water at the equator.

In 1492, after having defeated Grenada, Isabella and Ferdinand backed Christopher Columbus's dream of reaching India by sailing westward. By now, many literate Europeans believed that the world was round, and Columbus was among them. He calculated that a couple thousand miles of ocean lay between his point of departure and Japan. He promised to bring back gold, whose value had risen with economic recovery following the plague. He promised also to bring back spices and silks, and he promised to spread Christianity and to lead an expedition to China.

Columbus and his crew were at sea seventy days, his crew saying their vespers and singing a hymn to the Virgin Mary every night before sleeping. The island they came upon, on October 12th, was in what today are the Bahamas. Columbus called the island San Salvador after Christ the Savior. The people he encountered, the Lucayan, TaĆ­no, or Arawak, were peaceful and friendly. Columbus and his team moved on and explored the northeast coast of Cuba, where he landed on October 28th. From there he went to what he was to call Hispaniola (the island that today includes the Dominican Republic and Haiti).

It was a Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, who arrived at what had been Columbus's destination: India. Da Gama sailed around Africa, stopping at four places in eastern Africa along the way and picking up a guide. More than ten months after he left Portugal he dropped anchor at Calicut in India, and he returned to Portugal in 1499 with a load of spices which brought him a huge profit. From his king he received the rank of an untitled noble, a pension and property. Portugal then sent a fleet of thirteen ships to make another voyage south around Africa. The fleet was blown off course and ended in what is today Brazil, which the Portuguese claimed as theirs.

Relations between Europeans, including Columbus, and the indigenous people of the "New World" will be described in a later chapter. Da Gama's success inspired a scramble for more voyaging across the sea in search of opportunity and gold. Europe's penetration of the "New World" had begun. The new technology employed in sailing had shrunk the world. And another kind of technology was changing the world: In the second half of the 1400s printing with movable type had come into being in Europe – printing on paper. A new age was dawning.

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