In the mid-15th century, European nations started sending merchants, explorers, colonizers and missionaries to various parts of the world. Historians often referred to this phenomenon as the Age of Discovery, an era in which unknown seas were traversed, new lands and peoples were discovered and an astounding new phase in global encounters was initiated (Sanders, Morillo and Nelson 3). The Age of Discovery played an important role in the political and economic development of Western Europe. Some of its key legacies included colonization, the development of large-scale horticultural industries and the spread of Christianity.
The Age of Discovery, however, is usually portrayed as exclusively European and historically unique. It must be made clear that such a description is misleading and incomplete. Exploration and expansion are not historical novelties, and neither are they uniquely European. Furthermore, they have other motivations, attitudes and cross-cultural perceptions apart from the desire to discover other lands (Sanders, Morillo and Nelson 3). Muslim and Chinese explorers and traders have been traveling across Asia, Arabia and Africa centuries before Christopher Columbus set out from Spain in 1492.
The journeys of Ibn Battuta in the mid-14th century, for instance, took him through the vast extent of the Islamic world. Zheng He, a fleet admiral who lived during the Ming Dynasty, sailed as far as the coast of east Africa in the mid-15th century (Sanders, Morillo and Nelson 3). Tunisian philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun traveled as far as Spain in the 14th century (Ahmed 102). But European and non-European explorers differed in terms of the motives behind their respective journeys. Non-European explorers traveled primarily to create extensive religious and trade networks.
Muslims were partially bound by religion and commerce as a form of compensation for the near-absence of political unity in the Islamic world. Despite ethnic and regional differences, their adherence to Islamic laws and values provided them with a sense of unity and shared identity. The establishment of long-distance trading networks, meanwhile, allowed Muslim producers and consumers from different regions to communicate with one another, as well as with peoples of different religions (Sanders, Morillo and Nelson 4).
Muslim traders therefore organized camel caravans to the frontiers of India and across the Sahara in Africa. They likewise established equally profitable trade routes by sea across the Indian Ocean. By the late 15th century, the commercial activity in most of the regions surrounding the Indian Ocean was almost under their control. Furthermore, certain localities in the Islamic world were gaining recognition for their excellence in specific industries. Persia, for example, was renowned in the 14th century for its exquisite glassware, jewelry and pottery (Sanders, Morillo and Nelson 4).
Extensive trade and industry, in turn, provided the Islamic world with urbanized and cosmopolitan societies. Sophisticated commercial centers such as Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Timbuktu and Zanzibar attracted residents from distant regions that eventually converted to Islam. These new converts subsequently spread Islam and elements of Islamic culture to their respective homelands. The Delhi Sultanate of India and the West African kingdom of Mali are some examples of regions that were not originally Islamic but were later Islamized (Sanders, Morillo and Nelson 4).
In sharp contrast, the motive behind most European explorations was the pseudo-revival of the Reconquista (the struggle of the Spanish and Portuguese Christians to expel the Moors from their respective countries). In the 14th and 15th centuries, anti-Moor sentiment was still strong in Spain and Portugal – it was during these periods that Spanish and Portuguese Christians successfully expelled the Moors from Iberia. But this victory soon left many knights idle and looking for new adventures.
Many knights thus joined overseas expeditions, viewing these as new opportunities to vanquish the hated Moors (Sanders, Morillo and Nelson 5). Certain economic conditions in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries were also responsible for the xenophobic attitude that many European explorers had during the Age of Discovery. In these eras, most European economies were still small, largely agrarian and geared towards meeting local needs. Muslim merchants and middlemen were the sole sources of spices and other luxury goods.
In addition, Europe was politically fragmented – the continent’s monarchs wasted scarce resources and manpower in the numerous wars and conflicts that they waged against each other. Lastly, the Black Death (bubonic plague) killed millions and further weakened economies, adding to the pervasive atmosphere of dread and xenophobia (Sanders, Morillo and Nelson 5). Given the insular, backward and unsophisticated nature of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, it was no longer surprising that the expeditions from the continent had mostly detrimental effects.
Many explorers viewed the natives that they encountered in foreign lands as “barbarians” that must be “civilized” by being subjugated to them. By the 16th and 17th centuries, therefore, many countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas ended up being the colonies of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain and France (Sanders, Morillo and Nelson 5). In addition, the transatlantic slave trade occurred from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Mainstream historians had indeed painted a misleading and incomplete picture of the Age of Discovery.
By claiming that the Age of Discovery was an exclusively European and historically unique phenomenon, they are implying that it was an event that was born out of Europe’s benevolent desire to discover other lands. But the truth is that the Age of Discovery should not be glorified. Exploration and expansion have already been taking place long before it happened – proof that the inhabitants of the regions outside of Europe are not savages. The Age of Discovery occurred at a time when Europe was still insular, backward and unsophisticated.
Thus, many of the continent’s explorers exhibited a fearful and xenophobic attitude when it came to dealing with people not of their own race. This paranoia, in turn, led to the colonization of several nations in Africa, Asia and the Americas. In addition, slavery became a centuries-old practice.
Ahmed, Akbar S. Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society. New York: Routledge, 1989. Sanders, Thomas, Stephen Morillo, and Samuel H. Nelson. Encounters in World History: Sources and Themes from the Global Past, Volume II: From 1500. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.