Spain, Portugal, and the European Age of Exploration:  Why Did It Start on the Iberian Peninsula?


            Spain and Portugal were the bellwethers for Europe in general in the Age of Exploration, and thus it’s no exaggeration to say that the era of Western global dominance of the past half-millennium originated in the intrepid sailors and explorers of the Iberian Peninsula during the 1400s.  The reasons for Spain and Portugal’s pioneering status are complex and manifold.  The peninsula is surrounded by water on three sides and is the linchpin of trade in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, thus inevitably encouraging maritime voyages.  However, many other nations in Europe possessed the requisite orientation toward maritime Atlantic trade and the crucial seaports to make it possible.  If anything, Britain might have been anticipated to be a more likely initiator of transoceanic exploration than Spain and Portugal in the 1400s, since the country is an island for which maritime operations and access to sea lanes are essential for national survival.  Yet Britain, in fact, was relatively late to the exploration party; although John Cabot sailed for King Henry VII in 1496-7 and landed in North America, and other explorers (including Elizabethan sailors like Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher) made their mark in the 16th century, the English did not follow up Cabot’s initial voyage and fishing colony with a permanent settlement until 1607, with the foundation of the Jamestown Colony.  Thus, the English were preceded by Spain, Portugal, and France, a fact that would have extensive consequences for the history of European settlement in the Americas and the cultural, legal, and linguistic composition of nations in the Western Hemisphere today.  Moreover, even the Iberians had themselves been preceded by the Norse Vikings under Eric the Red and Leif Ericsson, who established settlements in Greenland and what is now Newfoundland, Canada by the 11th century A.D.  Yet the Viking settlements did not prove to be durable, and were largely abandoned well before Columbus’s voyage in 1492 (in part due to climactic shifts in the Arctic north). 

            Why were Spain and Portugal the first nations out of the starting gate in regard to the historically-crucial period of European maritime exploration?  Technological advantages were undoubtedly a factor.  Although the Catholic rulers of Spain had waged a bitter, centuries-long war of Christian Reconquista against the Muslim Moors from North Africa, who had first conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 A.D., they gained tremendously from the technological, scientific, and cultural achievements of the Moors.  Moorish Spain was the crown jewel of medieval Europe, with vastly more books in its libraries than the rest of Europe—western and eastern—combined.  The Moors boasted a remarkably high literacy rate for a pre-modern society; a healthy merchant middle class; universities teaching empirical medicine, advanced mathematics, astronomy, and chemistry;  and lit streets and advanced (for the time) sanitation.  Europe, in the meantime, was largely trapped in the intellectual manacles of illiteracy and superstition, grindingly impoverished, disunited, and economically weak.  Perhaps most importantly for Spain’s future history, Moorish Spain was culturally integrated with the Umayyad and (later) Abbasid, Ayubbid, and Safavid Islamic empires further east, in the Arab and Persian lands that today constitute nations such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.  These realms were throbbing intellectual and trade centers that rivaled contemporary T’ang, Song, Yuan, and Ming China in their grandeur, and they served as a conduit for ideas and technologies that provide the crucial breakthroughs necessary for sustained, reliable Atlantic Ocean seafaring.  In particular, Arab soldiers and merchants had acquired valuable technologies invented in China—the magnetic compass, paper, and gunpowder—and transmitted these westward throughout the Islamic lands, ultimately to Moorish Spain at the westernmost point.  In combination with advances in the sextant and astrolabe, as well as improvements in cartography and shipbuilding, these developments would make Moorish Spain into a central repository of invaluable navigational technology.  Many in the technical and professional classes during 15th-century Spain were Moors or Moriscos (Moors who had converted to Catholicism), and even as Aragonese and Castilian Spanish Catholic forces managed to expel the Moors from their final stronghold in Granada in 1492, they also inherited the navigational technology that had diffused into Moorish Spain.  These tools would be essential for Columbus, Diaz, Vasco da Gama, Cabral, Ponce de Leon, Coronado, de Soto, and the other pioneering Iberian explorers to make their voyages to distant lands on the currents of the Atlantic Ocean. 

            A technological edge does not entirely explain the Spanish and Portuguese initiation of the Age of Exploration, however.  The Moors were still in control of Morocco and other North African lands that could have afforded easy access to Atlantic sea lanes, yet they never commenced such large-scale exploration even after the Spaniards had done the same.  Other factors were clearly at work.  One of these was the central catalyst that impelled European overseas exploration in the first place:  the fall of Orthodox Christian Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.  Trade routes to the spice-laden East were now shuttered or impeded to the merchants of Western Christendom, a change in affairs that was especially damaging to Italian and Iberian merchants, who plied the Mediterranean for their trading profits and desperately needed new routes to the East.  (The Muslim Moors in Morocco, of course, did not face a similar hindrance upon the conquest by the Muslim Ottoman Empire in 1453.)  The Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms enjoyed an unusual period of political unity in the 1400s upon the accession of strong rulers, and their merchant classes encouraged the kind of exploratory endeavors that would bear such fruit late in the century.  Portugal, in particular, was blessed with far-seeing innovators like Prince Henry the Navigator who realized the potential afforded by large-scale sea-borne exploration, and established or supported navigational schools to assist in training a new generation of skilled, experienced sailors.  In the case of Spain, the country was able to expand its empire with unusual rapidity, owing to the surprising military and political successes of the conquistadors, Cortez and Pizarro in particular.  Both of those soldiers (and eventual political bigwigs in their conquered lands) could have been easily defeated by the Aztecs, Incas, or affiliated tribes with a few twists in the course of events that befell them in the Americas, yet their narrow victories resulted in a windfall for Spain that would allow its imperial ambitions to take hold.  In the absence of the conquests by Cortez and Pizarro, the Spanish Empire would have likely remained a much smaller-scale, more slowly-developing entity, and European ambitions in general perhaps circumscribed somewhat.


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