Age of Exploration


By the end of the 15th century many things were changing in Europe. The population started to grow more quickly and a new class of merchants emerged. They wanted to buy and sell expensive and valuable products from Asia—like gold, jewels and silk.

In those days, people had no refrigerators to preserve their food. They dried meat and often used salt to make it last longer. To make food taste better they used spices , like pepper or cinnamon.

For centuries Europeans brought these goods on a land route from Asia over thousands of dangerous kilometres . In the 15th century the overland routes were being controlled by the Turkish Empire, which made it even more difficult for European merchants to pass through.

As a result, some European countries, like Spain and Portugal, decided to find out if there was a sea route to India. With the help of new kinds of ships that could sail faster and instruments , like the quadrant, they started the Age of Exploration.


Portuguese exploration

At the end of the 15th century the Portuguese started to explore the west coast of Africa. They set up trading posts and collected gold and silver. They were convinced that by sailing around the coast of Africa they would find a route to India.

In 1487 , the Portuguese explorer Bartholomeu Dias sailed around the southern part of the continent and got as far as the east coast of Africa, but a storm made him turn back. On his return voyage, he saw a piece of land that stretched out into the sea. The Portuguese named it the Cape of Good Hope because they were hopeful of finding a passageway to India.

In 1497 Vasco Da Gama set out from Lisbon, sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean. He reached the west coast of India in May 1498. He took some spices and gold back with him to prove that he had reached India.



Christopher Columbus


Christopher Columbus was probably the most famous explorer of the era. He achieved fame by sailing west in search of a sea route to India. Instead of reaching India he discovered that there was an unknown mass of land in between, land that the Europeans knew nothing of.

Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy in 1451 and during his early years his father took him on various sailing trips and wanted to make a merchant out of him.

Like many navigators of that time, Columbus also wanted to sail to India and the Far East. He thought that if he sailed west he would also reach the Spice Islands of Asia and India. When he went to the king of Portugal to present his plan, but it was rejected. Queen Isabella of Spain admired young and brave men like Columbus and so she gave him three ships—the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria—and a crew of 90 men.

Columbus left Spain on August 3, 1492. After two months of sailing westward, he landed on an island of the Bahamas, San Salvador, on October 12, 1492. Because he thought he had reached the islands near India he called the natives Indians.


All together, Columbus made four voyages to the New World between 1492 and 1504. He explored the coasts of Cuba, Jamaica , Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico. On his last two voyages, Columbus reached the mainland of Central and South America and travelled as far south as the mouth of the Orinoco River.

After he came home from his fourth voyage, Christopher Columbus fell ill and died in 1506.



Other Spanish Explorers


During the early 1500s Spanish explorers travelled across most of Central and South America. They founded colonies and brought settlers to the New World. They also made the native Indians work for them. The Spaniards brought new products to the Americas ,like wheat, horses, cattle and sheep. In exchange , they grew plants that were not known in Europe, like corn and potatoes and brought them back to the Old Continent.

In 1513 the Spanish explorer Vasco de Balboa landed in Panama, the part of Central America that is very narrow. With his men, he fought his way through 50 miles of jungle and was surprised to see a new sea , the Pacific Ocean.

One of the most important Spanish conquistadors was Hernando Cortes. He conquered the Aztec empire in 1521. In 1532 and 1533 Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incas. These natives ruled an empire that expanded from Columbia to the northern parts of Argentina. The Incas had great riches, vast amounts of gold and silver. When the Spanish got there they took all of it away from the Incas.




French and English explorers

The French and the English concentrated their journeys on the northern part of the continent, because they thought that there also had to be a north-western route to India.

In 1497, John Cabot, an Italian who sailed for England, landed on the east coast of Canada. In 1534 Jacques Cartier sailed down the St. Lawrence River and reached the Great Lakes. He claimed this territory for the king of France.

During the 1600s the French and English began to set up colonies. The French concentrated on the St .Lawrence valley and the Great Lakes and founded towns like Montreal, or Detroit.

At the end of the century Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette sailed down the Mississippi River. The land near the Gulf of Mexico was called Louisiana, in honour of the French king. Settlements like St. Louis or New Orleans show French origin.

The first permanent settlement in North America was founded at Jamestown , Virginia in 1607. In 1610 Henry Hudson sailed around north-eastern Canada and discovered a huge body of water which he thought was the Pacific Ocean. Today it is known as Hudson Bay.


Amerigo Vespucci

Amerigo Vespucci was an Italian-born explorer who explored the mainland of America at the end of the 15th century. A German mapmaker believed that Vespucci was the first to reach the New World ,so he suggested naming the new land America.

Although Vespucci was probably not one of the greatest explorers of the time, he was the first navigator who explored South America.


Magellan sails around the world

In 1519 the Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan set out to find India by sailing around South America. He sailed for Spain because the Portuguese didn’t give him any money for this expedition.

Magellan had 5 ships and a crew of 240. When he reached the southern tip of South America, he got into bad, stormy weather. Two of his ships were badly damaged and couldn’t continue the journey. With three ships he sailed through a strait, that later was named after him , the Strait of Magellan.

When he reached the Pacific Ocean, he sailed for there months without any sight of land. Finally , in April of 1521 he landed on the Philippine Islands. Magellan got into a fight with native islanders and was killed there.

Only one ship could continue the voyage. It crossed the Indian Ocean and sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. With only twenty people on board it reached Spain three years after it had set out.






Prince Henry the Navigator builds a school for sailors.


The Turkish empire cuts off the land route from Asia to Europe. Search for a sea route begins.


Bartholomeu Dias discovers the southern tip of Africa.


Christopher Columbus lands on an island of the Bahamas.


John Cabot discovers Newfoundland while he searches for a north-western passage to India.


Vasco Da Gama finds a sea route to India by sailing around Africa.


Amerigo Vespucci returns from his explorations of South America. A German mapmaker names the New World after him.


Vasco de Balboa discovers the eastern shore of the Pacific Ocean.


Magellan sails around the world.


Hernando Cortez defeats the Aztec empire.


Francisco Pizarro defeats the Inca empire.


Jacques Cartier sails down the St. Lawrence River and discovers the Great Lakes.


Sir Francis Drake is the first Englishman to sail around the world.


The first settlement is called Jamestown.


Henry Hudson discovers Hudson Bay.


The Mayflower lands with pilgrims in the New World.


Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet explore the Mississippi River.


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Related Topics



  • achieve =get, reach
  • admire = to think very highly about someone
  • cattle = cows that are kept on farms for milk and meat
  • century = a hundred years
  • cinnamon =a sweet brown substance that gives cake and other sweet foods a special taste
  • claim = to take something legally
  • conquer = to get control of a country by fighting
  • conquistador = a Spanish explorer who conquered parts of America in the 16th and 17th centuries
  • convinced = to be sure that something is true
  • crew = the people who work on a ship or plane
  • cut off =block, so that nobody can pass through
  • damaged = broken
  • discover = to find something for the first time
  • emerge = to come up
  • empire = a group of countries that are controlled by a king
  • expand = to reach from one place to another
  • expedition = a trip to a dangerous , mostly unknown place
  • explore = to travel around a place and find out something about it
  • fame =to be known by many people because you have done something great
  • found = to start a company or create a new town
  • huge = very, very big
  • in exchange = if you give a person something, you get something else from him
  • in honour = to show how much you respect or like somebody
  • jewels = very valuable stones , like diamonds
  • journey = trip, expedition
  • mainland = the main area of land that forms a country, the islands do not belong to it
  • mapmaker = a person who draws maps
  • mass = a very large piece of something
  • merchant = a person who buys and sells goods
  • mouth = the place where a river flows into the sea
  • narrow =thin, not wide
  • natives = people who were born in a country and live there
  • navigator = a person on a ship who tries to find a route somewhere
  • passageway = a route
  • permanent = to exist for a long time
  • pilgrim = a religious person who travels a long way to a holy place
  • population = the people of a country
  • present = to show
  • preserve = to last longer
  • prove = to show that something is true
  • quadrant = an instrument used for sailing to find out where you are
  • reach = get to
  • refrigerator = a kitchen machine that is used to keep food cool
  • reject = to say no
  • riches = a lot of money , gold and silver
  • sailor = someone who works on a ship
  • set up = start, open up
  • settlement = a new town that is built in a place where people have not lived before
  • settler = a person who lives in a place where not many people have lived before
  • sight =view
  • silk = a smooth cloth that is very thin. It is made by a silkworm
  • Spaniard = a person from Spain
  • Spice Islands = islands near Asia that were famous for having many spices
  • spices = powder or seeds that are used to make food taste better
  • strait = a narrow passage of water between two areas of land
  • stretch out =extend, reach out
  • suggest = to tell somebody what they should do
  • territory = new land
  • tip = the end of something
  • trading post = a place where people could buy or sell goods
  • valuable = things that cost a lot
  • various = many different kinds of
  • vast amounts = a lot of
  • voyage = a journey by sea
  • wheat =a grain that you make white bread out of