Columbus (1451-1506), born in Genoa, was an experienced sailor and had gone at least once to the Gold Coast of Africa; he may also have sailed to Iceland. His central obsession, that the Far East (“the Indies”) could be reached by sailing westward from Spain, was not unique. No educated person in 1492 seriously doubted that the earth was round, but as it turned out most scholars had greatly underestimated its size.
European Exploration and Expansion
In the earliest days of concerted effort to explore the oceans, the rulers of Spain had been too busy disposing of Muslim Granada and uniting the separate parts of Spain to patronize scientific exploration as the Portuguese had done. But Spanish traders were active, and Spain was growing in prosperity.
Along the coasts of Africa, India, and China, the Portuguese established a series of trading posts over which they hoisted their flag as a sign that these bits of territory had been annexed to the Portuguese Crown. Such posts were often called factories after the factors, or commercial agents, who were stationed there to trade with the local population.
China, too, resisted the West. China also saw its armed forces beaten whenever they came into formal military conflict with European or European-trained armies or fleets. It, too, was forced to make many concessions to Europeans—to grant treaty ports, and above all, extraterritoriality, that is, the right of Europeans to be tried in their own national courts for offenses committed on Chinese soil. Yet China, unlike India, was never annexed by a European power and never lost its sovereignty.
India had been marginally in touch with Europe for several thousand years. Throughout the Middle Ages the Arabs had served as a link in trade, and in the sixteenth century a direct link was forged between the West and India, never to be loosened.
Prince Henry of Portugal (1394-1460), known as “the Navigator,” was a deeply religious man who may well have been moved by a desire to convert the populations of India and the Far East. Indeed, many in the West were convinced that these distant peoples were already Christian, and for true salvation needed only to be brought in direct contact with the Roman Catholic church.