Impact of global exploration

The medieval world

  • Medieval maps divide the world into three continents: Africa, Europe and Asia. Only the northern coast of Africa was known in any detail, and the further reaches of Asia were largely the stuff of fable
  • By 1000, Vikings had settled in Iceland and Greenland and even landed in America. But they did not settle there and this continent remained unknown to the West, as did the Pacific Ocean and Australasia
  • Sea journeys were for trade and stayed close to the coastline. Western civilization was based around the Mediterranean basin
  • The world was also understood symbolically: maps often place the holy city of Jerusalem at the centre.

Background to Renaissance exploration

The East

Spices, photo by heydrienne, available thorugh Creative CommonsWestern Europe bought luxury goods from China (known as Cathay). Marco Polo's experiences there in the thirteenth century were known, but there was little first-hand knowledge of the orient. Commodities were transported overland by the ‘Silk Route'. Besides expensive luxuries, a vital resource was spices (from the Moluccas, or ‘Spice Islands'), essential for preserving food.

Turkish threat

Trading routes were threatened by the Turkish Empire, especially after the fall of Constantinople (now Istanbul) to the Turks in 1453. This prompted Europeans to search for maritime routes to China and the Spice Islands.

Renaissance exploration


The Portuguese were great seafarers. Under royal patronage, they explored the coast of Africa, eventually finding sea routes to India:

  • 1487 Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope
  • 1497 Vasco da Gama sailed round Africa and reached India
  • 1519 Ferdinand Magellan (funded by Spain) began the first circumnavigation of the world. Magellan died in 1521 but the voyage was completed in 1522.


Columbus arriving in the BahamasColumbus believed that the Spice Islands could be reached by sailing west. In 1492, he landed in the Bahamas, believing them to be close to the Indies (hence the name ‘West Indies'). Columbus never reached the American mainland. America was named after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci in 1507.


Columbus was followed by the Spanish conquistadors, who were determined to exploit the New World. The sophisticated civilizations of South America were destroyed. Cortés defeated the Aztecs in Mexico, Pizarro the Incas in Peru.


South America was colonized by Spain (and Brazil by Portugal, according to a papal treaty). In the seventeenth century, France and England established colonies in North America.

Later explorations

  • Australasia was reached by Europeans in the early seventeenth century. In 1770, the Englishman James Cook landed in Botany Bay, to conduct serious exploration of the Australian continent. Penal colonies were subsequently established there by Britain
  • The nineteenth century saw exploration of the African interior and European colonization there
  • The North and South Poles were reached in the early twentieth century.

Social consequences of exploration


Westerners brought with them diseases for which American natives had no immunity. Consequently vast numbers of indigenous inhabitants died. Syphilis is thought to have been carried back from America to the West.


  • Spain exploited America for its silver and gold. This treasure flooded European markets, causing inflation in the sixteenth century.
  • Westerners discovered new commodities, including: tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes, maize and chocolate from the New World, tea from India. Trade was increasingly globalized.
  • African slaves were imported to America to replace Indian populations and do agricultural work. Slaves were also bought and sold in the West and in Asia.
  • Former colonies are now important markets for Western goods: ‘neo-imperialism' refers to Western use of poor countries for cheap labour and markets, in collusion with local government rather than by direct rule.


  • In the sixteenth century, power passed from Mediterranean trading centres such as Venice to countries on the Atlantic seaboard: England, Spain, France, and Portugal. Holland also became an important sea power. These states established empires, and became the great powers of the West. The conflicts between them shaped much modern Western history.
  • The world wars of the twentieth century weakened Europe, and America emerged as a new great power.
  • The consequences of empire include Western post-imperial guilt, immigration, multiethnic populations, and continued resentment of the West among former colonies, often encouraged for political reasons.

Cultural Consequences

Impressions of ‘the other'

Early explorers struggled to make sense of the new peoples they encountered:

  • Native inhabitants were usually seen as inferior savages, fit for exploitation and in need of conversion to Christianity
  • An alternative view saw them as noble savages who were purer than decadent Western man: Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest has elements of both these views.

These notions have persisted in the West, and can be found in cultural works, often in the form of caricature. Postcolonial literary criticism studies, among other things, the representation of different cultures in Western texts.


Geographical discovery stimulated developments in many areas, including cartography (mapmaking), navigation, shipbuilding, military technology, languages, and the study of flora and fauna. The disciplines of ethnology and anthropology study different peoples using scientific method.


  • Western ideas and cultural forms, from ballet to legal practices to soft drinks, have been transported across the globe
  • In return, culture in the West is today influenced by non-Western elements including cuisine, dress, music and customs
  • From this situation, important questions emerge: is Western trade destroying native cultures? Does neo-imperialism exploit poor countries, or help them to develop? Is multiethnic culture threatening European identities?
  • The sense of superiority that trade and empire bred in the West is today threatened by the new industrial powers of India and China.



The mystery of ‘new worlds' generated a range of poetic metaphor and imagery:

  • Seventeenth-century writers refer to the fabled riches and beauty of the New World: examples are the Metaphysical poets John Donne (see ‘Elegy 19') and Andrew Marvell (‘Bermudas')
  • In Renaissance drama, America is a golden and exotic world, similar to the Garden of Eden: an example is John Fletcher's The Island Princess
  • Later writers explore the dark and violent side of colonialism. This is the theme of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, set in the Belgian colony of the Congo.

Subject Matter and Genre

Exploration led to a variety of writings with empire as a theme. These include:

  • Travel writings, from explorers' accounts to serious histories, beginning with the compilation of travels by the Elizabethan writer Hakluyt. Both travel books and histories can have a propagandistic intent, normally justifying the colonial adventure.
  • Adventure stories, particularly books for boys in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, celebrating the exploits of heroic Westerners. Their pre-cursor was Daniel Defoe's picaresque novel Robinson Crusoe, which purported to be the actual log of a shipwrecked man.
  • Post-colonial literature. This refers to writings in English from the former colonies. These often deal with the themes of colonization and its aftermath. An example of writing in this genre is Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.
  • Several important writers living in England (and elsewhere) are from families originally in the colonies. The contemporary consequences of empire are explored in the works of Salman Rushdie, Monica Ali, Hanif Kureishi, Zadie Smith and others.
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