Impact of global exploration

The medieval world

Medieval maps divided the world into three continents: Africa, Europe and Asia. 
  • Only the northern coast of Africa was known in any detail, whilst 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 placed the holy city of Jerusalem at the centre.

Background to Renaissance exploration

The East

SpicesEurope 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:
  • In 1487 Bartolomeo Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope
  • In 1497 Vasco da Gama sailed round Africa and reached India
  • In 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 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.


ConquistadorsColumbus 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, as agreed in a papal treaty). 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.

Economic benefits

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. 

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
  • Africans were also regarded as an inferior race but Shakespeare’s portrayal of Othello, a Moor who was of Moroccan or Berber origin, helped to change people’s perceptions. Othello is shown as a personable leader, admired as a soldier and as a man. He is also a man of mystery and fascination, having fought against mythical creatures and experienced many fantastical adventures which were completely alien to the current European world view. 

‘New world’ imagery 

Travel writings, from explorers' accounts to serious histories, began with the compilation of travels by the Elizabethan writer Hakluyt. Subsequent travel accounts often had a propagandistic intent, normally justifying ‘white’ superiority. 

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
  • Africa is seen as a land of mystery and exoticism, where mythical and fantastical creatures live, such as the Anthropophagi, referred to in Othello.

The era of Othello

Historically, Cyprus became an overseas colony of the Venetian Republic in 1489, but fell to Turkish invaders in 1570. This puts the events of the play somewhere between the two dates, in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. Shakespeare wrote the story in 1603, about a hundred years later. So compared to many of his history plays, this one has an almost contemporaneous feel to it. Certainly, the attitudes and beliefs of the play’s characters accord with the prevailing beliefs of Shakespeare’s age. There are some racist terms used in the play, such as ‘thick lips’ and ‘sooty bosom’, which may well have resounded to the Shakespearean audience, but it is perhaps significant that Shakespeare made Othello a Moor, with presumed origins in North Africa. This would have made him more acceptable to Elizabethan society than a sub-Saharan African.
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