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In the 1200’s Marco Polo had traveled along the silk road to Asia and lived with Kublai Khan in China. After his travels he returned and told stories about what he found…Silks, Spices, and other things, while in Europe they were wearing itchy wool and eating meat and potatoes with no salt, pepper, or anything else. Needless to say, Europeans decided that they wanted what the Asians had.
While the silk road had been used for over a thousand years before Marco Polo, after his explorations, Europeans became much more interested in trading with Asians. The silk road paths were protected by the Mongol empire for many years until their collapse.
In the early 1000’s through the 1200’s wars were fought between the Catholic-Christians in Europe and the Muslims in the Middle East for control of Jerusalem. The Muslims won. With their control of the Middle East, this also meant the Muslims controlled access to the silk road. While they allowed travelers to use the road, they charged a fee and taxed travelers. This reduced the economic benefits of the silk road.
The Europeans and those around the Mediterranean had always had sailors. The Phoenecians, the Greeks, The Vikings and others crossed the Mediterranean and sailed the rivers freely for centuries. They had not however dared to brave the open waters of the Atlantic. While Vikings had hopped from island to island in the North, nobody dared travel south around Africa. It was too unknown, took to long, and was far too dangerous until…
Prince Henry “the Navigator”, of Portugal began trying to get around the Muslim control of the Middle East. He opened sailing schools to teach sailors how to travel in the open sea, around Africa to reach Asia.
New inventions such as the Compass, astrolabe, sextant, and Caravel made open sea travel easier. They made it possible for sailors to have a pretty good idea of where they were and also made sailing safer.
Portuguese sailors, such as Bartolomeu Dias began the attempts to sail around Africa to Asia. They sailed for “God, Gold, and Glory”. In other words they wanted to spread Christianity, get rich, and gain fame. Bit by bit, the Portuguese sailed farther and farther south along Africa until in 1488 Dias was able to sail around the southern tip of the continent. By 1498 Vasco de Gama was able to sail all the way to India.
The weather around the southern tip of Africa is extremely stormy and shipping around the area was dangerous. Therefore, although the Portuguese had shown that trips could be made, another path would be better.
Christopher Columbus believed the easiest trip from Europe to Asia would be to sail West across the Atlantic instead of going around Africa. In 1492 he set sail, working for Spain. In October he reached the islands of the Caribbean, mistakenly thinking he was in Asia. The Portuguese also thought Columbus had reached Asia.
Unfortunately for Columbus and the rest of the travelers, he didn’t realize the world was 3 times as big as he thought and there were two more continents and another entirely different ocean between Europe and Asia.
While the Spanish and Portuguese both thought they had reached Asia, they argued over who should control the lands and the wealth that came with it. In order to stop fighting between two Catholic nations, Pope Alexander VI created the Treaty of Tordesillas, in 1493. This treaty divided the new territories, with Portugal getting the land to the east and Spain getting the land to the west. Since they didn’t know North and South America were there, Spain got the much bigger piece of land in the deal.
With new ports and new lands to trade with, Portugal became an extremely wealthy nation. This led to other countries wanting to get in on the action. The Netherlands, England, and France began sailing and conquering new territories in Asia. Companies, such as the Dutch East India Company, were formed to make money off of the newly conquered lands. Once they figured out that Columbus had in fact landed in something other than Asia, a rush to claim territories in the New World began.