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The Great Discoveries, Eastern Hemisphere

But Now That People Had Broken Through the Bonds of Their Narrow Medieval Limitations, They Had to Have More Room for Their Wanderings. The European World Had Grown Too Small for Their Ambitions. It Was the Time of the Great Voyages of Discovery

Of course, there was always the possibility of making the voyage by sea. But the sea was very unpopular in the Middle Ages and for many very good reasons. In the first place, ships were very small. The vessels on which Magellan made his famous trip around the world, which lasted many years, were not as large as a modern ferryboat. They carried from twenty to fifty men, who lived in dingy quarters (too low to allow any of them to stand up straight) and the sailors were obliged to eat poorly cooked food as the kitchen arrangements were very bad and no fire could be made whenever the weather was the least bit rough. The medieval world knew how to pickle herring and how to dry fish. But there were no canned goods and fresh vegetables were never seen on the bill of fare as soon as the coast had been left behind. Water was carried in small barrels. It soon became stale and then tasted of rotten wood and iron rust and was full of slimy growing things. As the people of the Middle Ages knew nothing about microbes (Roger Bacon, the learned monk of the thirteenth century seems to have suspected their existence, but he wisely kept his discovery to himself) they often drank unclean water and sometimes the whole crew died of typhoid fever. Indeed the mortality on board the ships of the earliest navigators was terrible. Of the two hundred sailors who in the year 1519 left Seville to accompany Magellan on his famous voyage around the world, only eighteen returned. As late as the seventeenth century when there was a brisk trade between western Europe and the Indies, a mortality of 40 percent was nothing unusual for a trip from Amsterdam to Batavia and back. The greater part of these victims died of scurvy, a disease which is caused by lack of fresh vegetables and which affects the gums and poisons the blood until the patient dies of sheer exhaustion.

Under those circumstances you will understand that the sea did not attract the best elements of the population. Famous discoverers like Magellan and Columbus and Vasco da Gama traveled at the head of crews that were almost entirely composed of ex-jailbirds, future murderers and pickpockets out of a job.
How the World Grew Larger

These navigators certainly deserve our admiration for the courage and the pluck with which they accomplished their hopeless tasks in the face of difficulties of which the people of our own comfortable world can have no conception. Their ships were leaky. The rigging was clumsy. Since the middle of the thirteenth century they had possessed some sort of a compass (which had come to Europe from China by way of Arabia and the Crusades) but they had very bad and incorrect maps. They set their course by God and by guess. If luck was with them they returned after one or two or three years. In the other case, their bleached bones remained behind on some lonely beach. But they were true pioneers. They gambled with luck. Life to them was a glorious adventure. And all the suffering, the thirst and the hunger and the pain were forgotten when their eyes beheld the dim outlines of a new coast or the placid waters of an ocean that had lain forgotten since the beginning of time.

Again I wish that I could make this book a thousand pages long. The subject of the early discoveries is so fascinating. But history, to give you a true idea of past times, should be like those etchings which Rembrandt used to make. It should cast a vivid light on certain important causes, on those which are best and greatest. All the rest should be left in the shadow or should be indicated by a few lines. And in this chapter I can only give you a short list of the most important discoveries.

Keep in mind that all during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the navigators were trying to accomplish just one thing—they wanted to find a comfortable and safe road to the empire of Cathay (China), to the island of Zipangu (Japan) and to those mysterious islands, where grew the spices which the medieval world had come to like since the days of the Crusades, and which people needed in those days before the introduction of cold storage, when meat and fish spoiled very quickly and could only be eaten after a liberal sprinkling of pepper or nutmeg.

The Venetians and the Genoese had been the great navigators of the Mediterranean, but the honor for exploring the coast of the Atlantic goes to the Portuguese. Spain and Portugal were full of that patriotic energy which their age old struggle against the Moorish invaders had developed. Such energy, once it exists, can easily be forced into new channels. In the thirteenth century, King Alphonso III had conquered the kingdom of Algarve in the southwestern corner of the Spanish peninsula and had added it to his dominions. In the next century, the Portuguese had turned the tables on the Muslims, had crossed the straits of Gibraltar and had taken possession of Ceuta, opposite the Arabic city of Ta'Rifa (a word which in Arabic means "inventory" and which by way of the Spanish language has come down to us as "tariff,") and Tangiers, which became the capital of an African addition to Algarve.

They were ready to begin their career as explorers.

In the year 1415, Prince Henry, known as Henry the Navigator, the son of John I of Portugal and Philippa, the daughter of John of Gaunt (about whom you can read in Richard II, a play by William Shakespeare) began to make preparations for the systematic exploration of northwestern Africa. Before this, that hot and sandy coast had been visited by the Phoenicians and by the Norsemen, who remembered it as the home of the hairy "wild man" whom we have come to know as the gorilla. One after another, Prince Henry and his captains discovered the Canary Islands—rediscovered the island of Madeira which a century before had been visited by a Genoese ship, carefully charted the Azores which had been vaguely known to both the Portuguese and the Spaniards, and caught a glimpse of the mouth of the Senegal River on the west coast of Africa, which they supposed to be the western mouth of the Nile. At last, by the middle of the Fifteenth Century, they saw Cape Verde, or the Green Cape, and the Cape Verde Islands, which lie almost halfway between the coast of Africa and Brazil.
The Great Discoveries, Western Hemisphere

But Henry did not restrict himself in his investigations to the waters of the Ocean. He was Grand Master of the Order of Christ. This was a Portuguese continuation of the crusading order of the Templars which had been abolished by Pope Clement V in the year 1312 at the request of King Philip the Fair of France, who had improved the occasion by burning his own Templars at the stake and stealing all their possessions. Prince Henry used the revenues of the domains of his religious order to equip several expeditions which explored the hinterland of the Sahara and of the coast of Guinea.

But he was still very much a son of the Middle Ages and spent a great deal of time and wasted a lot of money upon a search for the mysterious "Prester John," the mythical Christian Priest who was said to be the Emperor of a vast empire "situated somewhere in the east." The story of this strange potentate had first been told in Europe in the middle of the twelfth century. For three hundred years people had tried to find "Prester John" and his descendants. Henry took part in the search. Thirty years after his death, the riddle was solved.

In the year 1486 Bartholomew Diaz, trying to find the land of Prester John by sea, had reached the southernmost point of Africa. At first he called it the Storm Cape, on account of the strong winds which had prevented him from continuing his voyage toward the east, but the Lisbon pilots who understood the importance of this discovery in their quest for the India water route, changed the name into that of the Cape of Good Hope.

One year later, Pedro de Covilham, provided with letters of credit on the house of Medici, started upon a similar mission by land. He crossed the Mediterranean and after leaving Egypt, he traveled southward. He reached Aden, and from there, traveling through the waters of the Persian Gulf which few white men had seen since the days of Alexander the Great, eighteen centuries before, he visited Goa and Calicut on the coast of India where he got a great deal of news about the island of the Moon (Madagascar) which was supposed to lie halfway between Africa and India. Then he returned, paid a secret visit to Mecca and to Medina, crossed the Red Sea once more and in the year 1490 he discovered the realm of Prester John, who was no one less than the Black Negus (or King) of Abyssinia, whose ancestors had adopted Christianity in the fourth century, seven hundred years before the Christian missionaries had found their way to Scandinavia.

These many voyages had convinced the Portuguese geographers and cartographers that while the voyage to the Indies by an eastern sea route was possible, it was by no means easy. Then there arose a great debate. Some people wanted to continue the explorations east of the Cape of Good Hope. Others said, "No, we must sail west across the Atlantic and then we shall reach Cathay."

Let us state right here that most intelligent people of that day were firmly convinced that the earth was not as flat as a pancake but was round. The Ptolemean system of the universe, invented and duly described by Claudius Ptolemy, the great Egyptian geographer, who had lived in the second century of our era, which had served the simple needs of the men of the Middle Ages, had long been discarded by the scientists of the Renaissance. They had accepted the doctrine of the Polish mathematician, Nicolaus Copernicus, whose studies had convinced him that the earth was one of a number of round planets which turned around the sun, a discovery which he did not venture to publish for thirty-six years (it was printed in 1548, the year of his death) from fear of the Holy Inquisition, a Papal court which had been established in the thirteenth century when the heresies of the Albigenses and the Waldenses in France and in Italy (very mild heresies of devoutly pious people who did not believe in private property and preferred to live in Christ-like poverty) had for a moment threatened the absolute power of the bishops of Rome. But the belief in the roundness of the earth was common among the nautical experts and, as I said, they were now debating the respective advantages of the eastern and the western routes.


Study the lesson for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the lesson.
  • Review the synopsis.
  • Study the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.
  • Answer the review questions.


With the fading of the restrictions of medieval times, people began to explore the world around them. Despite the perils of sea travel, such as illness, rotten food, thirst, starvation, and leaky vessels, plucky explorers such as Magellan and Columbus and Vasco da Gama opened up new lands for exploration and colonization. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, explorers sought paths to China and Japan. The Portuguese, such as Henry the Navigator, explored the coast and interior of Africa. At this time, the most educated had rejected the notion that the world was flat, accepting that it is approximately spherical in shape.


Vessel: Any craft designed for transportation on water, such as a ship or boat.
Microbe: Any organism that is too small to be seen by the unaided eye, but especially a harmful bacterium.
Nautical: Relating to or involving ships or shipping or navigation or seamen.


Activity 1: Narrate the Lesson

  • After you read the lesson, narrate the lesson aloud using your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Lesson Picture(s)

  • Study the lesson picture(s) and describe how they relate to the lesson.

Activity 3: Map the Lesson

Find the continents of Europe and Asia on the map of the world.

Trace a sea path around the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) from Portugal to China and Japan.

Activity 4: Complete Copywork, Narration, Dictation, and Coloring   

Click the crayon above. Complete pages 16-17 of 'World History Activities for Fourth Grade.'


Question 1

What were some of the perils of sea travel in medieval times?
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Answer 1

Perils of sea travel included sickness, bad food and water, thirst, starvation, and leaky vessels.
1 / 3

Question 2

Which Far East countries, in particular, were European explorers trying to reach by sea?
2 / 3

Answer 2

European explorers tried to reach China and Japan by sea.
2 / 3

Question 3

Did all people during medieval times believe the world was flat?
3 / 3

Answer 3

No, many educated people during medieval times believed the world was spherical.
3 / 3

  1. What were some of the perils of sea travel in medieval times? Perils of sea travel included sickness, bad food and water, thirst, starvation, and leaky vessels.
  2. Which Far East countries, in particular, were European explorers trying to reach by sea? European explorers tried to reach China and Japan by sea.
  3. Did all people during medieval times believe the world was flat? No, many educated people during medieval times believed the world was spherical.