Marco Polo’s book was more widely read. It was both believed and doubted. Some called him the ‘great liar. ‘ And some of what he said is made up or exaggerated. Marco spent seventeen years in the Orient serving the Great Khan, the ruler of the Mongols and Chinese. He easily learned new languages making him useful to the Mongol ruler. Later in life, Marco was taken prisoner during a war. He told the tale of his adventures to fellow prisoners and one of them wrote it down. His tale of the riches and wonders of the east inspired people to seek an easier sea route to China and other eastern lands.
They wanted a direct route that would avoid the Arab traders who insisted on being intermediaries. There were no trains or cars or highways. Trade with the east moved in ships and on pack animals. Their ships were small and driven by the wind catching their sails and moving them forward. A sailor’s life was dangerous. Shipwreck, being becalmed or caught in storms, and pirate attacks could quickly end a sailor’s life or send him into slavery. Dangers at sea made goods costly, but ships carried what hundreds of pack animals could.
The compass was invented by the Chinese sometime in the Second Century B. C. E. European sailors were using it by the early 1200s. A compass tells the direction one is traveling, so they could sail away from the coast and not be lost. This opened new trade routes. Once ships were unloaded, trade goods were again transported across land. Many small inventions made this easier. Heavy ox carts, slow and difficult to manage, gave way to lighter, horse-drawn wagons. These were made possible by the invention of horse shoes and an improved harness. Horse shoes helped protect their animal’s feet so they could pull heavier loads.
Horses and lighter wagons improved trade. People’s wants were greater than their income. Merchants pointed to heavy costs and losses from bandits, pirates and shipwreck. If they had a route that totally avoided land, expenses would fall. 14th Century Caravel. A reconstruction of the Santa Maria. – Library of Congress. Chapter 3: Prince Henry and the Portuguese Explorers. In the late 1300s Portugal was excluded from Oriental trade. Beyond coastal trade, it did not have a seafaring tradition. They traded with nearby Africa, buying slaves and ivory. Africa was a mystery.
No-one knew how large Africa was, but many believed it filled most of the southern half of the world. No matter how large Africa might be, they knew Asia and the “Indies” were on the other side. Could they sail around Africa to Asia? The World You might have read that back then everyone thought the world was flat. This is false. The argument wasn’t over the earth’s shape but over its size. Educated people knew it was round. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) wrote about it, saying: “The astronomer and the natural philosopher both conclude that the earth is round. The ancient Greeks knew it was round, and the Bible says so too. Observation tells us the earth is not flat. During a lunar eclipse, the earth’s shadow is always round. Observing ships sailing out of sight tells us that too. First the ship disappears; then its sails disappear. Stars in the southern sky differ from those in the northern sky. They wouldn’t if the earth was flat. Sailors were often superstitious.
Some believed distant seas boiled or that there were killer fogs and whirlpools that sank ships. Arab sailors called the Atlantic Ocean “the Green Sea of Darkness. Some thought there were monsters big enough to sink a ship and eat its crew. It would be hard to convince superstitious sailors to explore, no matter how many riches they might find Prince Henry Henry (1394-1460) was the fourth son of King John I of Portugal. In Portuguese his name and titles are Infante Dom Henrique de Avis, Duke of Viseu, but we know him best as Prince Henry the Navigator. He spent most of his life studying geography and seeking a shorter trade route to Asia. He started a school for sailors and collected all the maps and travel books he could find.
He wrote to ship masters and travelers asking what they had seen. Henry sent ships down Africa’s west coast, encouraging each ship to go further than the last. The Azores and Madeira Islands were rediscovered. The ancients kne them, but the route to them was forgotten. Near the equator the heat was oppressive and, some were reluctant to sail further. Eventually they came to lands of heavy rains and thick forest. Prince Henry by Nuno Goncalves – National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon African tribes warred constantly, taking and selling many slaves.
The Portuguese established direct slave trade with them, ending an Arab monopoly. They started to make money from their exploration. They found gold and traded in Ivory too, again cutting out the Arab caravans. Ship captains erected big stone or wooden crosses to mark the farthest point they reached. Those who followed would go further. Finally in 1488, Bartolomeu Dias, a Portuguese nobleman, reached the southern tip of Africa, naming it Cape of Storms. King John II renamed it Cape of Good Hope, the name it has today. Vasco da Gama and the All-Sea Route
Vasco da Gama captained a fleet of four small ships, sailing from Lisbon on July 8, 1497. He shortened the route around Africa. Instead of hugging the African coast, he “struck boldly into the ocean. ” He passed Cape Verde Islands, only about seven hundred miles from South America. Rounding the Cape of Good Hope, he traveled up the east coast. He found guides who knew the route to India, and cut across the Indian Ocean to Calicut, India. He lost a ship on the way. The journey from Lisbon to Cape of Good Hope was nearly 6000 miles, the longest sea journey by Europeans to that date.
Like other European explorers, da Gama was sometimes deceptive and violent. He spent nearly the whole month of March 1498 anchored near Mozambique Island. Fearing for his life and that of men, he pretended to be a Muslim. He was not well received and had to flee. As he left, he fired his cannons into the city. Along the way he looted unarmed Arab merchant ships. He reached India in May 1498. Not all went well there, but his journey opened direct trade with India. After one hundred years of exploration, the Portuguese made Prince Henry’s dream come true, and the Arab trade monopoly was broken.