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The Great Discoveries: Columbus, da Gama, Magellan, Drake

With the use of these inventions, and with a more scientific study of geography, came a great era of discovery, of trade, of settlement and conquest overseas. New worlds in the west, and new ways to old worlds in the east, now became known to the sailors and traders of Europe.

Columbus, in the service of Spain, accidentally found a new world (1492). "I have tried to see all books of geography and of other sciences," he had told his Spanish patrons, the King and Queen of Spain; yet Columbus thought he was on his way, not to the wild lands of America, but to the riches of the Indies and Cathay. "History, however, is often made by energetic men, steadfastly following ideas, mostly wrong, that determine events" (Lord Morley, "Notes on Politics and History"). And so it was with the gallant Columbus.

"He landed in a rich dress and with naked sword in his hand. His men followed, and, kneeling down, they all kissed the ground which they had so long desired to see. They next erected a crucifix, and returned thanks to God for conducting their voyage to such a happy issue. The vast machines in which they had traversed the ocean (mere pleasure yachts we should think them now), that seemed to move upon the waters with wings, struck the natives with such terror that they thought their new guests were children of the Sun, who had descended to visit the earth! (Robertson's "Discovery of America)."

The next great advance was made by Vasco da Gama (1497), in the service of Portugal. He found a new seaway to the East, as Columbus had hoped to do, but it was along the west coast of Africa and round the Cape of Good Hope. This discovery was of vast importance, now that the Muslim Turks had taken Constantinople (1453), and made the old routes to Cathay so much more dangerous and difficult. The ocean highway to the East was now complete. Portugal reaped the rewards of her century's effort to discover it, and her large fleets were soon bringing back the riches of "the Indies" in increasing quantities.

Finally, Magellan of Portugal (starting in 1519), and then Drake of England (starting in 1577), crossed the newly discovered Pacific Ocean and made the first voyages right round the world.

The western route to the Indies and the Spice Islands, begun under Columbus, was thus completed by Magellan. Its great length, however, prevented its being a successful rival to the route round the Cape, which remained the regular road to the East for nearly 400 years -- until the Suez Canal was cut.

Soon the peoples of Europe were founding new homes or colonies far away overseas. The exchange of goods on a world-wide scale began again -- after that long interval of ten centuries since the decay of the Roman Empire.