The Expansion of Europe

The Expansion of Europe

From the 15th through 17th centuries, Europe sought to expand its power and riches through a rigorous exploration of the world.

Learning Objectives

Explain the reasons for the first few European excursions to the New World

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Vikings were the first Europeans to land in North America; in the 10th century, they formed settlements in what is presently Greenland and Newfoundland.
  • While Western history often centers on Europeans as the earliest and most advanced explorers of the world, growing evidence suggests extensive transoceanic travel had been well underway long before the European Age of Discovery.
  • In the 15th century, Europe sought to expand trade routes to find new sources of wealth and bring Christianity to the East and any newly found lands.
  • This European Age of Discovery saw the rise of colonial empires on a global scale, building a commercial network that connected Europe, Asia, Africa, and the New World.
  • Christopher Columbus, supported by Spain, made four voyages to the Americas beginning in 1492. During his brutal reign, he exploited the riches and resources of the indigenous peoples in the Americas. The contact between Europe and the Americas produced what is known as the Columbian Exchange: the wide transfer of plants, animals, foods, human populations (including slaves), communicable diseases, and culture between the Eastern and Western hemispheres.

Key Terms

  • Black Death: A rat-borne and highly contagious disease known as the bubonic plague that swept through Europe in the 1340s, killing about one-third of the population.
  • Columbian Exchange: The widespread trade of animals, plants, diseases, culture, people (including slaves), and ideas between the Western and Eastern Hemispheres that followed Spain's 1492 voyage to the Americas.
  • Age of Discovery: The period starting in the early 15th century and continuing into the early 17th century during which Europeans engaged in intensive exploration of the world.


The Age of Discovery, also known as the Age of Exploration and the Great Navigations, was a period in European history from the early 15th century to the early 17th century. During this period, Europeans engaged in intensive exploration and early colonization of many parts of the world, establishing direct contact with Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania. Historians often refer to the Age of Discovery to mean the pioneering period of the Portuguese and Spanish long-distance maritime travels in search of alternative trade routes to the Indies. The contact between the "Old World" of Europe and the so-called "New World" of the Americas produced what is called the Columbian Exchange: the wide transfer of plants, animals, foods, communicable diseases, people (including slaves), and culture between the Eastern and Western hemispheres.


European Expansion: This map illustrates the main travels of the Age of Discovery, from 1482-1524. The travel routes spanned between Europe and the eastern coast of the Americas, down through the Atlantic Ocean and around the southern tip of South America toward Southeast Asia, and down through the Atlantic and around the southern tip of Africa toward India.

Early Explorations

While Christopher Columbus has been hailed in United States history for "discovering" America in 1492, there is growing archaeological evidence of cross-continental travel and trade for centuries prior to Columbus' travels. In addition to the travel and settlement of the Vikings in North America over 500 years before Columbus, several theories have been proposed of extensive trade and travel to the Americas dating back thousands of years by Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Polynesia. While a great deal of Western history centers on Europeans as the earliest and most advanced explorers of the world, growing evidence suggests extensive transoceanic travel had been well underway long before the European Age of Discovery.

The Vikings

The Vikings are thought to be the first European explorers to arrive in North America, having landed in what is now Newfoundland, a present province of Canada, over 500 years before Columbus. Historical and archaeological evidence tells us that a Norse colony in Greenland was established in the late 10th century and lasted until the mid-15th century. The remains of a Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, are dated to around the year 1000. Continental North American settlements were small and did not develop into permanent colonies. While voyages, to collect timber for example, are likely to have occurred for some time, there is no evidence of enduring Norse settlements on mainland North America.

Leif Erikson was an Icelandic explorer considered by some as the first European other than the Vikings on Greenland, to land in North America. According to the Sagas of Icelanders, Leif was the son of Erik the Red, who was the founder of the first Norse settlement in Greenland. Leif established a Norse settlement at Vinland, tentatively identified with the Norse L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland in modern-day Canada. Later archaeological evidence suggests that Vinland may have been the area around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and that the L'Anse aux Meadows site was a ship repair station.

The colony in Greenland began to decline in the 14th century, and it is probable that the settlements were defunct by the late 15th century. Several theories have been advanced to explain the decline, such as the Little Ice Age, disunity within the Viking civilization due to the emergence of a unified Christian kingdom in Norway, and a series of devastating bouts of epidemic disease in Europe. Explorations of a new land to the west would become a legendary tale of the feared Viking pirates, and nearly 500 years would pass before another European saw the American continent.

The Age of Discovery

Europe After the Middle Ages

The fall of the Roman Empire (476 CE) and the beginning of the European Renaissance in the late 14th century roughly bookend the period known as the Middle Ages. Without a dominant centralized power or overarching cultural hub, Europe experienced political, social, and military discord during this time. This included the Crusades against the Muslims of the late 11th through late 13th centuries and the Black Death of the 1340s.

The Christian church remained intact, however, and emerged from the period as a unified and powerful institution. A high birth rate after the Black Death, coupled with bountiful harvests, meant that the population grew during the next century. By 1450, a newly rejuvenated European society was on the brink of tremendous change. Larger portions of western Europe had become familiar with the goods of the East as a result of the Crusades. A lively trade subsequently developed along a variety of routes known collectively as the Silk Road, to supply the demand for these products. Brigands and greedy middlemen made the trip along this route expensive and dangerous, and by 1492, Europe—recovered from the Black Death and in search of new products and new wealth—was anxious to improve trade and communications with the rest of the world. The lure of profit pushed explorers to seek new trade routes to the Spice Islands and eliminate Muslim middlemen.

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 was a pivotal reason for European exploration, as trade throughout the Ottoman Empire was difficult and unreliable. Trade for luxuries such as spices and silk inspired European explorers to seek new routes to Asia. Portugal, under the leadership of Prince Henry the Navigator, attempted to send ships around the continent of Africa, and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain hired Christopher Columbus to find a route to the East by going west. As strong supporters of the Catholic church, they sought to bring Christianity to the East and any newly found lands, and hoped to find sources of wealth.

Christopher Columbus

It was against this backdrop that Christopher Columbus, a Castilian navigator and admiral, submitted his plans for sailing around the world to Asia. After several approaches to the Italian, English, and Portuguese monarchies, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain finally decided to give Columbus a chance, despite the counsel of their advisers. King Ferdinand thought Columbus might find something that could give the Spanish an opportunity to compete with their neighbor and rival Portugal.

Columbus set out on his first of four voyages on August 3, 1492. Riding the trade winds westward across the Atlantic Ocean with the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, Columbus landed on an island he called San Salvador, in the present-day Bahamas, five weeks after embarking from Spain. During this voyage, Columbus also explored the northeast coast of Cuba and the northern coast of Hispaniola, where he established the settlement of La Navidad.

Upon his return to Spain, news of the discovered lands spread throughout Europe. Columbus made three more voyages to the New World between 1493 and 1504. Columbus' second voyage landed in the Caribbean, on an island he named Dominica, and continued northward through the Lesser and Greater Antilles. On his third voyage, Columbus landed on the Portuguese Porto Santo Island before continuing on to Madeira; the Canary Islands and Cape Verde, off the coast of West Africa; Trinidad, off the coast of present-day Venezuela; and mainland South America. Columbus's fourth and final voyage across the Atlantic took him throughout Central America, including Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.

These three subsequent voyages were made to explore and exploit the riches and resources of the indigenous peoples in the Americas. Columbus had been granted authority by the Spanish monarchy to claim land for Spain, begin a settlement, trade for valuable goods or gold, and explore. He was also made governor of all the lands which he found and he proved to be a savage and brutal governor. Columbus enslaved and stole from the indigenous people, at one point threatening to cut off the hands of any person who failed to give him gold. His brutal reign would foreshadow the arrival of the Conquistadors—Spanish warriors who would plunder and destroy the large and wealthy Aztec, Incan, and Mayan civilizations.

The Rise of the African Slave Trade

Driven by the desire for raw materials, new trading outlets, and cheap labor, Europeans initiated an extensive slave trade out of West Africa.

Learning Objectives

Examine how economic desires gave birth to and perpetuated the Atlantic slave trade

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Europeans invaded and colonized the Canary Islands during the 15th century, converting much of the land to the production of wine and sugar.
  • Using the Canary Islands as a naval base, Portuguese traders began to move their activities down the western coast of Africa, performing raids in which slaves would be captured to be sold in the Mediterranean.
  • The Spanish were the first Europeans to use enslaved Africans in the New World on islands such as Cuba and Hispaniola.
  • The increased demand for slaves due to the expansion of European colonial powers to the New World made the slave trade much more lucrative to many West African powers.

Key Terms

  • Hispaniola: An island in the Caribbean, comprising the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
  • Canary Islands: An archipelago off the coast of northwestern Africa, near Morocco and belonging to Spain.


The major European slave trade began with Portugal’s exploration of the west coast of Africa in search of a trade route to the East. By 1444, slaves were being brought from Africa to work on the sugar plantations of the Madeira Islands, off the coast of modern day Morocco. The slave trade then expanded greatly as European colonies in the New World demanded an ever-increasing number of workers for the extensive plantations growing tobacco, sugar, and eventually rice and cotton.

European Colonization and Slavery in West Africa

Upon discovering new lands through their naval explorations, Europeans soon began to migrate to and settle in lands outside their native continent. In the 15th century, the Spanish invaded and colonized the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa under the direction of the Kingdom of Castille. They also captured indigenous Canary Islanders to use as slaves both on the Islands and across the Christian Mediterranean.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese settlers found that the Canary Islands were ideal for growing sugar, and they forcefully converted much of the land to the production of wine and sugar. Sugar growing is a labor-intensive undertaking, and Portuguese settlers were difficult to attract due to the heat, lack of infrastructure, and hard life. To cultivate the sugar, the Portuguese turned to large numbers of enslaved Africans. Elmina Castle on the Gold Coast, originally built by African labor for the Portuguese in 1482 to control the gold trade, became an important depot for slaves that were to be transported to the New World.

As historian John Thornton remarked, "the actual motivation for European expansion and for navigational breakthroughs was little more than to exploit the opportunity for immediate profits made by raiding and the seizure or purchase of trade commodities." European traders, mostly the Portuguese, began to move their activities down the western coast of Africa. Using the Canary Islands as a naval base, they performed raids to capture slaves and sell them in the Mediterranean.

Although initially successful in this venture, Portuguese raiding ships soon met with resistance from African naval forces. The crews of several European ships were killed by African sailors whose boats were better equipped at traversing the West African coasts and river systems. Many African peoples already practiced various forms of slavery (all of which differed significantly from the racial slavery that would ultimately develop in the New World), and eventually, deals were struck with some peoples of Africa to participate in the enslavement and subsequent trade for profit.

Slavery in the New World

The Spanish were the first Europeans to use enslaved Africans in the New World on islands such as Cuba and Hispaniola. The alarming death rate experienced by the indigenous population had spurred the first royal Spanish laws protecting them, and consequently, the first enslaved Africans arrived in Hispaniola in 1501.

Increasing penetration into the Americas by the Portuguese created more demand for labor in Brazil—primarily for farming and mining. Slave-based economies quickly spread to the Caribbean and the southern portion of what is today the United States. There, Dutch traders brought the first enslaved Africans in 1619. These areas all developed an insatiable demand for slaves.

Growth of the Atlantic Slave Trade

As European nations grew more powerful—especially Portugal, Spain, France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands—they began vying for control of the African slave trade, with little effect on local African and Arab trading. Great Britain's existing colonies in the Lesser Antilles and its effective naval control of the Mid-Atlantic forced other countries to abandon their enterprises due to inefficiency in cost. The English crown provided a charter giving the Royal African Company monopoly over the African slave routes until 1712.

The Atlantic slave trade peaked in the late 18th century, when the largest number of slaves was captured on raiding expeditions into the interior of West Africa. The expansion of European colonial powers to the New World increased the demand for slaves and made the slave trade much more lucrative to many West African powers, leading to the establishment of a number of West African empires that thrived on the slave trade.

Historians have widely debated the nature of the relationship between the African kingdoms and the European traders. Some researchers argue that it was an unequal relationship in which Africans were forced into a colonial trade with the more economically developed Europeans, exchanging raw materials and slaves for manufactured goods, and one that led to Africa being underdeveloped. Other researchers claim the Atlantic slave trade was not as detrimental to various African economies as some historians purport, and that African nations at the time were well-positioned to compete with pre-industrial Europe.

According to the map, 8 million slaves travelled from West Central Africa to Brazil, 8 million slaves travelled from West Central Africa to Barbados, 4 million slaves travelled from the Swahili Coast to Arabia, 2 million slaves travelled from West Africa to Morocco, 2 million slaves travelled from West Africa to Tunisia, 2 million slaves travelled from West Africa to Libya, and 2 million slaves travelled from West Africa to Egypt.

The African Slave Trade: This map shows the routes that were used in the course of the slave trade and the number of enslaved people who traveled each route. As the figures indicate, most African slaves were bound for Brazil and the Caribbean. While West Africans made up the vast majority of the enslaved, the east coast of Africa, too, supplied slaves for the trade.

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