The Age of Exploration: Was It Worth It?

December 21, 2017

Reading this essay on a laptop while listening to music on a phone, eating microwave popcorn, and drinking ice water, doesn’t seem anywhere out of the ordinary for most Americans. But, without the age of exploration, the things we take for granted might be almost unthinkable. The age of exploration vastly improved our lives.
Eastern exploration was inescapable. The Ottoman Empire was expanding rapidly, and sequentially to continue expanding and to make more money, the Ottomans blocked Europe’s trade routes to Asia. Thus, in order to trade directly with Asian countries the Europeans had to find another way to get to them, besides on land. The logical solution? By sea. If they would not have found a way to get to Asia, resources, especially spices, would have been cut off. Europeans used spices to make their awful food bearable to ingest. After Vasco De Gama discovered the path around Africa to India, naturally other explorers were inquisitive as well, trying to find different routes and new land. Humans are born curious. They historically have been and will continue in such a manner. Even now that we have discovered the majority of the land on Earth, we continue to explore the oceans and even past the Earth into outer space. NASA says “Through addressing the challenges related to human space exploration, we expand technology, create new industries, and help to foster a peaceful connection with other nations.” Explorers during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had the same goals of exploration as astronauts and other professionals involved in space exploration today. Most of space is uncharted, which drives astronauts and scientists to continue exploring, discovering and learning more about it everyday. For all they know there could be aliens, or even another universe. The European explorers had similar motivations. They didn’t know the size of the world was, or that there were other people on Earth. Before their discoveries more than half of the world was uncharted by the Europeans. With that amount land and ocean left to discover, it was inevitable that they began the age of exploration. If not during the fifteenth century, it would have occurred later in the timeline, as was aforementioned in the previous paragraph. Unfortunately, the explorers are portrayed as despicable villains. Now, of course they aren’t all wonderful, nobody is, but some things, such as the spread of disease from the Europeans to the Native Americans, were not entirely their fault. Whether the Europeans came to the Americas or the natives travelled to Europe, foreign malady would have circulated. Both peoples were immune to different illnesses, so whichever group made the journey would have begun an epidemic on the other’s land; however, the spread of disease, much like the age of exploration itself, was imminent.


Besides that the age of exploration was bound to happen at some point, no matter when it occurred, or could have occurred, it brought new knowledge of all kinds to most of the Eastern world. Christopher Columbus first exhumed the Americas (well at least the surrounding islands and Hispaniola) and Amerigo Vespucci disinterred the majority of South America. Soon after the findings of what the Europeans called the “New world” a map called the Waldseemuller map was created combining all of the land that had been uncovered at that point into one map to help explorers and trade ships. The map referred to the new world as “The Land of Amerigo” therefore now it is called America. The opposing side may argue that America was not discovered, as indigenous tribes already called the land home, it was simply found by people who didn’t know it existed; on the other hand, the exploration itself wasn’t wrong. They did discover America for the Europeans. Explorers from Europe were the first to have knowledge of both the new and old worlds. The complexity was brought into the equation with the way that some of the explorers treated the natives. Howard Zinn talks about the many ways that Columbus showed cruelty towards the people. For example, the first tribe he met, the Arawaks, wore gold earrings. Columbus took some of them as prisoners insisting that they lead him to their gold source. When the weather got colder, Columbus let them die. There is no way that examples such as this could be twisted into a positive perspective; however, Zinn does later state that Columbus performs most of his outrageous atrocities in order to impress the king, and in part due to his belief that it was his destiny to explore new lands for Spain. Even if it was to “impress those in power” and in the name of the Lord, critics will still argue that the many deaths of innocent natives stripped away their culture. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the reader is tossed into the problematic life of a teenager, named Jr, living on a Native American reservation. Some aspects of his life are not overly appealing, but lack of culture isn’t a recurring issue. In fact culture is heavily present from the beginning of the book. “The Spokane Tribe holds their annual Pow wow celebration over the Labor Day weekend. This was the 127th annual one, and there would be singing, war dancing, gambling, storytelling, laughter, fry bread, hamburgers, hot dogs, arts and crafts, and plenty of alcoholic brawling” (Alexie 17). Jr’s tribe has been holding annual Pow wow’s, filled with culture, for over a century. While Columbus may have wiped out a lot of Indians, he certainly did not wipe out their traditions. Not all explorers were as infamous as Columbus. James Cook is credited with discovering both Australia and Antarctica. He also discovered the Hawaiian Islands. He had little to no problems with natives, except in Hawaii, but the native Hawaiians started the fighting by stealing one of Cook’s ships, and ended it by killing him. Other than his valuable discoveries, Cook was a fantastic cartographer, mapping each of his discoveries both precisely and accurately. Cook and a variety of other explorers contributed to world maps and greater knowledge of land on Earth that were at least a solid base for our understanding of the world today.


Other than bringing a new understanding of the world, the age of exploration launched the world into modernity. The age of exploration brought many people new ways of life. Horses brought from Europe to America helped Natives to get around easier and faster, as well as simplified hunting. Europeans began to be more free with the way they dressed and acted as the new world was so far away from the old world the strict European governments. Americans also came to enjoy African banjo music, and began to produce banjos on their own. The Americas, Africa, and Europe also traded other important goods. These three continents participated in a three way trade, Europe to Africa to America and back to Europe, forming the shape of a triangle, thus why the transactions as a whole were referred to as triangular trade. Europe traded cloth, copper, and beads in exchange for slaves, which they brought to America and sold. They then used the money to buy crops such as cotton, sugarcane, and tobacco, and the process would repeat. This trade brought items that each other came to depend upon and modernized (For example pizza and spaghetti sauce would not exist if it weren’t for tomatoes being exported to Italy from America). This began slavery, which is frowned upon by all and isn’t morally correct by any stretch of the imagination, but this was the first time that people of different races lived anywhere near each other. With all of the trade and travel, people of all races and ethnicity came together, not just slaves and slave owners. While they may not have treated each other the best that they could have, or even have lived a painful life of slavery. it was the first time that diversity occurred and it is one of the main reasons that America and other somewhat free nations are so filled with diversity today. During the age of exploration many innovational technologies came into existence. Many of which improved ships and helped the age of exploration to flourish further. Ships such as the Caravel and Galleon were useful to explorers as well as for fishers and were utilized in times of war. Other technological advancements were the compass rose, which we still use today and is important for all sailors, campers, and even driving to work, and the astrolabe which helped explorers to find their latitude. Trade, new ways of life, diversity, and new technology are all meaningful and necessary factors of modernization.


While there were certainly parts of European exploration that weren’t pretty, the positives far outweigh the negatives. People reap the benefits of exploration daily without thinking twice. The lives lived by all humans are a direct outcome of the explorers and both their heroic and their heinous aspects. Because of the inevitable age of exploration, we live in a modern world filled with knowledge. The age of exploration was worth it.


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