Age of Exploration, c. 1500–1650

Authored by: Kenneth J. Andrien

The Ashgate Research Companion to Modern Imperial Histories

Print publication date:  May  2012
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754664154
eBook ISBN: 9781315613277
Adobe ISBN: 9781317042525


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Spain and Portugal dominated European overseas enterprises in the age of exploration. These activities began slowly with Iberian incursions into the Atlantic Islands and Africa, and then expanded rapidly into the Americas following the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Even before this historic Atlantic crossing, the Portuguese had made landfalls on the Atlantic islands of Madeira (1419), the Azores (1427) and the Cape Verdes (1456). Spaniards also had begun conquering the Canary Islands (between 1478 and 1493). Portuguese explorers made their way along the coast of Africa, founding an outpost in Ceuta (1415), and between 1450 and 1505 they established at least fourteen trading posts in Guinea, where they exchanged European goods with local African polities for slaves, gold, ivory and other products. Portuguese merchants also explored the coast of Africa, and in 1488 Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa, demonstrating that sea-going vessels could gain entry into the Indian Ocean. Vasco de Gama took this same route in 1497 when he sailed around the Cape to reach Calcutta in 1498, initiating a rapid expansion of Portuguese economic penetration into Asian markets. The Brazilian landfall of Pedro Álvares Cabral two years later seemed dwarfed by these immensely profitable African and eastern trading outposts. After Portuguese control over the far-eastern spice trade weakened a century later, however, Portuguese settlements in Brazil would become the ‘jewel’ of Portugal’s overseas possessions.

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