The Age of Discovery, or of Exploration as it is sometimes called, describes the period starting in the 1400s through to the 17th century during which European seafarers headed out into the Atlantic to explore hitherto unknown lands and sea routes. At the forefront were the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain. The Dutch, English and French followed on soon afterwards. The colonization by Europeans which followed their discoveries led to the establishment of global trade networks bringing massive wealth back to Europe and adding financial ‘fuel’ to the Renaissance.
Several factors were involved. Advances in ship design and in navigational equipment enabled the undertaking of long ocean voyages with ships capable of withstanding the ferocious conditions involved. Gunpowder and more sophisticated armaments enabled these ships and their crews to defend themselves against any hostilities they might encounter. Thus, the royal houses of Europe became interested in sponsoring such voyages in the hope of bringing themselves greater wealth and prestige.
Above all, there was a pressing commercial need to find a sea route to the East Indies. For centuries Europe had relied on overland routes, the so called ‘silk roads’, for the transportation of valuable and exotic goods, such as spices, silk, gold and precious stones, from the east. However, by the 1400s these routes had become increasingly unreliable. The Mongolian empire which had protected these routes was breaking up and in the eastern Mediterranean trade was controlled by the Ottomans and the Venetians.
Starting in 1418 the Portuguese began systematically exploring the west coast of Africa under the sponsorship of Infante Dom Henrique. In 1488 Bartholomew Dias rounded southern Africa thereby reaching the Indian Ocean by this route.
In 1492 Genoese mariner Christopher Columbus, sponsored by Spain, made the first journey heading directly west across the Atlantic
making landfall in the West Indies. In his fifth and final journey he explored some of the coast of Central America. Columbus thought that he had reached the Spice Islands of the east, but it later became apparent that a whole new continent had been discovered. Throughout this period a series of Treaties were made between Portugal and Spain, often with intervention from the Pope, to divide control of these new discoveries between the two countries. The Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 basically gave exclusivity to Portugal of Africa, Asia and Brazil; the remainder of South and Central America to Spain.
In 1498 a Portuguese expedition led by Vasco da Gama reached India by sailing round Africa so opening up a direct trade route between Europe and Asia bypassing the old overland routes. In subsequent journeys the Portuguese continued to press further eastward, reaching the Spice Islands in 1512 and landing in China a year later. They did not arrive in Japan until 1543. The first circumnavigation of the world was completed in 1522. In 1519 a fleet of five Spanish ships left Seville under the command of Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan. Arriving in the Philippines in 1521, Magellan claimed these for Spain, but he himself was killed in a local skirmish. Of the two remaining ships one headed back east and was promptly captured by the Portuguese. The other, the Victoria under the command of Spaniard Juan Sebastian Elcano continued heading westward, eventually arriving back in Seville on the 6th September 1522.
In the following years, meetings were held between Spain and Portugal to try and determine the exact location of the anti meridian on which the Treaty of Tordesillas had been based, but no precise calculation proved possible as a result of lack of knowledge at the time. However the Treaty of Zaragoza signed in 1529 attributed the Moluccas ( the Spice Islands ) to Portugal and the Philippines to Spain.
The approach of the two nations to the colonization of their territories was quite different. In Asia, the Portuguese relied on naval power to protect their new trade routes by establishing a series of heavily fortified ports, notably at Ormuz and at Goa. In the Americas, the Spanish were faced with exploring hitherto unknown lands. Spurred on by stories of untold riches, they mounted armed inland expeditions. In February 1519 a band of ‘conquistadors’ led by Hernan Cortez overthrew the Aztec empire in Central America. Their capital Tenochtitlan was later renamed Mexico City and became the administrative centre of ‘Nueva Espana’. Following the Treaty of Zaragoza, the Spanish quickly established a trade route across the Pacific from the Philippines to Mexico.
In 1522, Francisco Pizzaro accompanied by his brother and some 168 Spanish soldiers overthrew the Inca empire in Peru. Three years later Pizzaro founded Lima as the capital of this new Spanish Viceroyalty. In nearby Bolivia, huge deposits of silver were discovered in the Potosi mountains. It is estimated that between the 16th and 18th centuries approximately 80% of the world’s silver supply came from these mines. Carried overland to the Pacific coast, the silver continued its journey by ship to Panama, then transported across the isthmus to the Caribbean coast to be reloaded once more on to ships for Europe. All this new wealth arriving into Iberia then flowed in part to Northern Italy and Southern Germany, whose banking families had provided finance for many of the earlier voyages of discovery.
In both Asia and the Americas local workshops were set to work producing goods for export to Europe and made in the European taste. However, being made with local materials and techniques, for example lacquering which was unknow in Europe, these pieces have a very distinctive character. There are several examples of such pieces within this Catalogue.
Clearly inquisitiveness and commercial opportunity were major factors driving the Age of Discovery. However religious zeal played an equal role. A motivation for Dom Henrique in sponsoring the early Portuguese explorations of Africa was to discover how far south Islamic influence had spread. For the conquistadors the spread of Christianity was an integral part and justification for the conquest of new lands. To assist with conversion to Christianity religious objects were produced in local workshops as visual aids to illustrate the teachings of the bible.
The various Treaties made between Spain and Portugal maintained some reasonable order between them in the establishment and management of their colonies. Between 1580 and 1640 both nations fell under one rule, but it was agreed that their respective colonies should remain separately governed. The problem for the Iberian kingdoms was that the Dutch, English and French were not bound by any such Treaties, so over time colonies were lost to these other nations. However, the social, religious, political and commercial geography created in Asia, Africa and the Americas during the Age of Discovery still resonates loudly in the world of today.