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(Reprint permission granted by Encarta Encyclopedia, 2000)

Christopher Columbus”


Thomas C. Tirado, Ph.D.

Professor History Emeritus
Millersville University of Pennsylvania

Millersville, PA 17551

Background to the Age of Discovery:
One cannot begin to understand Christopher Columbus without understanding the world into which he was born. The 15th century was a dynamic century, a century of change. There were many historical events throughout Western Europe that impacted society profoundly. Directly affecting the future explorer much closer to home, however, were three momentous events in and around the Mediterranean:1) the Conquest of Ceuta in North Africa by the Portuguese in 1415
2) the Fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks in 1453, and
3) the defeat of Muslim Granada by the Christian Spaniards in 1492.All three events were driven by the centuries-long conflict between the Christians and the Muslims.

The Portuguese had successfully purged their country of Muslims by the turn of the century and had consolidated political power into a national monarchy earlier than any other Western European country. By 1415 the Portuguese were in a strong position to launch an invasion of North Africa and conquer the Muslim commercial center of Ceuta. Some historians see this as a resumption of the Christian Crusades that had been suspended over a century earlier. With a strong political and military base of operations, the Portuguese were in a position to resume Christendom's long struggle against the Muslims. Determined to destroy Islam once and for all by destroying its commercial empire, Portugal successfully conquered the city and immediately gained access to the lucrative African trade. This led to the subsequent dramatic growth of the bourgeois class. Allying itself to the royal family, the bourgeoisie grew rich on trade and commerce not only in Africa but also on the Atlantic islands.   Under the tutelage of Prince Henry (later to be given the sobriquet, or nickname, "the Navigator"), who established a school for navigators in southern Portugal, the Portuguese began the exploration of the Western coast of Africa in hopes of finding passage around the tip of Africa. This prize would elude the Portuguese until a generation after Henry's death in 1460.  Not until 1488 when Bartolomeu Dias returned home after a 16-month voyage did the Portuguese know for sure that a trip around the tip of Africa was feasible. It wasn't until eleven years after Dias that the first voyage of Vasco da Gama in 1497-99 fulfilled the Medieval dream of finding a direct trade route to the riches of the Orient.

High on the pantheon of names of important figures of the Age of Discovery is Henry the Navigator's. He is considered by many historians to have provided not only the inspiration for the Age but much of the practical knowledge accumulated over decades of trial and error in developing ocean-going ships, sails, and navigational aids, some even borrowed from the Arabs. The Caravel, which came to be identified with this period of exploration, was a product of his assiduous search for a better ocean-going vessel. Henry contributed significantly to the psychology of discovery and helped to whet the appetite of those who were daring enough to venture out in search of riches.

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