Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > In the footsteps of explorers > Age of Discovery
The Age of Discovery, also known as the Age of Exploration, was the period from the 15th century to the late 18th, when Europeans set sail to discover and explore other lands. It also marked the beginning of European colonialism and the start of the Mercantilist Age, as well as the beginning of globalization.
While the European explorers did discover many uninhabited islands, for the most part they were exploring lands that had been discovered and settled by other people thousands of years before. The widely-used term "Age of Discovery" reflects the Eurocentric view of the world that existed at the time.
For this article, we focus on seaborne exploration and consider the Age of Exploration to end with the navigators Cook, Vancouver, Tasman and Flinders exploring the Pacific in the late 18th century. This excludes various expansions over land — the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Imperial China, America's Old West and so on — and more recent explorations in the Arctic, Antarctica and Space.
The article In the footsteps of explorers takes a broader approach to exploration, including explorers from other time-periods and those not from Europe.
Though the great voyages of the Age of Discovery were not the world's first or the first major ones by Europeans, they were very influential. Trade routes were maintained between the Roman Empire and the East via the Silk Road for many centuries.
The period from the 5th to the 15th century AD is in Europe known as the Middle Ages, earlier implied to be a "dark" age between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance and Age of Discovery. This view is today dismissed, and there were indeed many great explorers during the time, both Europeans and others. Vikings reached North America around 1000 CE. Marco Polo's book, published around 1300, told of the riches of the East and strongly influenced later exploration. The Islamic Golden Age produced explorers such as Ibn Batuta, who travelled further than any known person before him. Imperial China made the Ming Treasure Voyages across the Indian and Pacific Ocean in the 15th century.
The European Age of Discovery began in ernest in 1415, as the Portuguese captured the Moorish port of Ceuta in North Africa, marking the start of the Portuguese Empire. They were pioneers in the Age of Exploration, discovering the system of ocean currents and prevailing winds in the Atlantic Ocean, and striving to improve their shipbuilding and seamanship skills in order to use it. The understanding of the trade winds, and the development of triangular sails capable of crosswind sailing, enabled Europeans to sail across oceans and establish global empires.
Inaugurated around 1433, the Sagres nautical school, sponsored by Prince Henry, the Navigator (1394-1460), was set up to study the maritime exploration of the Atlantic Ocean, which led to the reaching of Greenland, Newfoundland, Labrador, and the west coast of Africa. The discovery of a passable route around Cape Bojador by Portuguese mariner Gil Eanes in 1434 was a major breakthrough for European seamanship, of almost mystical significance. After Prince Henry's death, his pupils continued to voyage further and further, enabling Portugal to begin a major chapter in world history with the New World discoveries and a monopoly over trade between the Orient and Western Europe. The Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias would become the first European to sight and sail around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. Explorers Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral reached India in 1498 and Brazil in 1500, respectively, setting in motion the colonial scheme of occupation and exploitation.
Other countries soon joined in. Spain sent Columbus on a series of voyages starting in 1492, and also sent out voyages under other commanders; in 1519 they sent out the Magellan expedition, the first circumnavigation of the world. In the process, Magellan would become the first European to sail through "the Strait that shall forever bear his name", in 1520. This would be the main route for ships sailing between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans until the first European sighting and rounding of Cape Horn further south by the Dutch navigator Willem Schouten in 1616. John Cabot explored Newfoundland and nearby areas for the British starting in 1497. French exploratory voyages began around 1508 under Giovanni da Verrazzano, and what is now Quebec was claimed for the Kingdom of France by Jacques Cartier by 1540. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach Indonesia, in 1512, with British and Dutch traders not far behind.
- Treaty of Tordesillas. This treaty, signed in 1494 after the Pope mediated in their dispute, divided the non-Christian world between Portugal and Spain. The Protestant powers and even Catholic France ignored it.
Spain was granted the right to occupy all of the New World except Brazil, and most of the Pacific. They soon grabbed all of the Americas except areas where the British, Dutch or French beat them to it.
Portugal was granted a free hand in the Old World (except Christian Europe), and rushed to establish bases (though generally not large colonies) all along the trade routes to the riches of the East. They held Angola, Goa and Macau until the late 20th century. They were also in Sri Lanka, Malacca, the Spice Islands and Taiwan until the Dutch or the British displaced them.
The treaty allowed either nation to intrude into the other's zone provided the area was not yet colonized, they formed alliances with local rulers, and they spread the Faith. At least in the mind of the Spanish King, this justified taking the Philippines.
Italy did not develop its own colonial empire until the late 19th century — they took Eritrea in 1882, Somalia in 1889, Libya in 1911, Ethiopia in 1936, and had a few small concessions in China — but many of the explorers in the early days were Italians. These included Columbus, Cabot, Verrazzano and Magellan's chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta.
Along with military conquest and commerce, the other goal of imperialism was Christianizing the indigenous peoples, which was the role of missionaries. And except in Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and most Buddhist areas, and nations with their own longstanding Christian churches, they were very successful in attaining converts, eventually leading to Christianity becoming the world's most prolific religion, a position it maintains today. Many of the early missionaries to nations far from Europe took fascinating journeys which can be retraced, and there are many historical missions around the world with functioning churches and museums that can be visited.
The Europeans often maintained control over their colonies through a "divide and conquer" strategy, in which they would deliberately stoke tensions between different groups. Moreover, many people were shipped between far flung regions of the colonial empires to provide labour for the respective colonial masters. This has resulted in significant ethnic and religious tensions that have persisted even after the colonies gained independence, sometimes even resulting in civil wars or genocides.
This section lists many of the more famous explorers of the period.
Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was a Genoese colonizer and explorer who made several voyages across in Atlantic in the service of the Spanish crown from 1492-1502, thus kickstarting the Age of Discovery and the formation of the Spanish colonial empire. While he never set foot in what are now the states of the United States of America, his voyages are celebrated in the form of the public holiday Columbus Day.
- See the article on the Voyages of Columbus for more information.
Vasco da Gama
Vasco da Gama (c.1460-1524) was a Portuguese explorer who became the first European to reach India by sea, going around Africa in the process. His voyages thus allowed Portugal to establish a colonial empire in much of Africa and Asia.
- See the article on the Cape Route for more information.
Ferdinand Magellan (c.1480-1521) was a Portuguese explorer in the service of the Spanish crown who organised the first circumnavigation of the globe, and became the first European to reach Asia from the east, by first sailing through the strait that was later named after him. Magellan himself was killed in a tribal war in Mactan in what is now the Philippines, and the circumnavigation was completed by his subordinate commander Juan Sebastián Elcano.
- See the article on the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation for more information.
John Cabot, or Giovanni Caboto, was a Venetian working for the English King who made three trips west from Bristol in 1497 and 1498. The records are scanty and their interpretation controversial, but it seems that he was the first European since the Vikings to reach Newfoundland.
One of his sons, Sebastian, was also an explorer; working for the English King between 1504 and 1512 he explored the North American coast as far south as Chesapeake Bay and became the first to look for the Northwest Passage, following the north coast of what is now Quebec until the weather forced him to turn back. Later he worked for Spain exploring South America.
Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) was a Breton who explored the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the Saint Lawrence River for France between 1531 and 1542. He was the first European to reach what were then Indian settlements and are now Quebec City and Montreal. He could not go beyond Montreal due to rapids.
He did not command the third voyage in 1541-42. This was to be France's first attempt at establishing a permanent settlement in the New World, and overall command was given to de Roberval who was to be governor of the colony; Cartier was chief navigator. The colony failed, but by then Cartier was already retired in St Malo.
St. Francis Xavier
St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) was a Navarrese Catholic missionary who was one of the founders of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). He led evangelization efforts in much of the Portuguese colonial empire in Asia, in particular India, and became the first Christian missionary to reach Borneo, the Maluku Islands and Japan. He was on a diplomatic mission to China when he fell ill and died on the island of Shangchuan near Taishan, Guangdong. Initially buried on a beach on the island, the site on which the St. Francis Church now stands, his body was later exhumed and moved to St Paul's Church in Malacca (now in ruins). He would later be moved again to the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, where he lies to this day.
Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596) was an English explorer, famous for sailing around the world and for his many raids on Spanish waters. The most notable of these were his attack on Cartagena de Indias in April 1586 with 23 ships and 3,000 men, burning 200 houses and the cathedral, and departing only after a ransom was paid a month later; and the "singeing of King Philip's beard" in 1587, against Cádiz, A Coruña and the Spanish Armada, occupying the harbours and destroying 37 naval and merchant ships. Legend says, on his return, he raided and destroyed the old Sagres school, a Spanish asset at this time; when Golden Hinde arrived and docked at the Tower of London, Queen Elizabeth I went aboard with the French ambassador, announced him "Sir", and handed the Frenchman a sword to perform the deed (and embroil the French and Spanish empires against each other). His legacy is mixed; in Latin America, El Draque is remembered mostly as a pirate, whereas the Anglosphere sees him as a bona fide explorer.
Samuel de Champlain
Samuel de Champlain (1567–1635) was a French colonist, navigator, cartographer, draftsman, soldier, explorer, geographer, ethnologist, diplomat, and chronicler. He made between 21 and 29 trips across the Atlantic Ocean, and founded Quebec City, and New France, on 3 July 1608. An important figure in Canadian history, Champlain created the first accurate coastal map during his explorations, and founded various colonial settlements.
In November 1642, Dutch East India Company commander Abel Tasman, exploring from Mauritius under orders of Anthony van Diemen, governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, found Tasmania island, and claimed it. He named it "Van Diemen's Land" after his patron. A cape and a group of islands in northern New Zealand are still called by names given by Tasman while underway. He reportedly reached Fiji and Tonga, later returning to Batavia. His second voyage took place in 1644; he mapped a part of Australia's northern coast, but failed to find the Torres Strait and a possible trade route, and the expedition was deemed a failure.
Danish cartographer and explorer Vitus Jonassen Bering (1681-1741), also known as Ivan Ivanovich Bering, an officer in the Russian Navy, explored the Bering Sea region and claimed Kamchatka (1725-28) and Alaska (1741) on behalf of the Russian Empire. The Bering Strait, the Bering Sea, Bering Island (where he is buried, after dying while underway), the Bering Glacier and the Bering Land Bridge were all named in his honor. He was neither the first Russian to sight North America (that having been achieved by Mikhail Gvozdev during the 1730s), nor the first Russian to pass through the strait which now bears his name (an honour which goes to the relatively unknown 17th-century expedition of Semyon Dezhnev). Reports from his second voyage were jealously guarded by the Russian administration, preventing Bering's story from being retold in full for at least a century after his death. Nonetheless, Bering's achievements, both as an individual explorer and as a leader of the second expedition, have never been doubted. Captain James Cook, despite knowledge of Dezhnev's earlier expedition, chose to use the name "Bering Strait".
Born in 1728, Cook joined the Royal Navy in 1755. He saw action in the Seven Years' War and subsequently surveyed and mapped much of the entrance to the Saint Lawrence River during the siege of Quebec, which brought him to the attention of the Admiralty and Royal Society. This led to his commission in 1766 as commander of HM Bark Endeavour for the first of three expeditions around the Pacific Ocean, during which he achieved the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand, as well as the first European contact and waypoint naming on the eastern coastline of Australia. He was killed at Kealakekua Bay on 14 February 1779, in a conflict with locals.
- See the article on the Voyages of James Cook for more information.
Louis Antoine de Bougainville
Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville (12 November 1729 – August 1811) from Saint-Malo was a French admiral and explorer. A contemporary of James Cook, he took part in the Seven Years' War in North America and the American Revolutionary War against Britain. Bougainville later gained fame for his expeditions, including a scientific circumnavigation of the globe in 1763, the first recorded settlement on the "Isles Malouines", and voyages into the Pacific Ocean. Bougainville Island of Papua New Guinea, as well as the Bougainvillea genus of tropical ornamental plants, were named after him.
Vancouver was a British officer of the Royal Navy best known for his 1791–95 expedition, to lay formal British claim and start colonization of North America's northwestern Pacific Coast regions previously mapped by James Cook. The Canadian city of Vancouver, as well as the nearby Vancouver Island were named after him.
- See the article on the Voyages of George Vancouver for more information.
Captain Matthew Flinders (16 March 1774 – 19 July 1814) was an English navigator, cartographer and officer of the Royal Navy who led the second circumnavigation of New Holland, that he would subsequently call "Australia", and identified it as a continent. Flinders made three voyages to the southern ocean between 1791 and 1810. In the second voyage, George Bass and Flinders confirmed that Van Diemen's Land was an island. In the third voyage, Flinders circumnavigated the Australian mainland; heading back to England in 1803, Flinders' vessel needed urgent repairs at Isle de France. Although Britain and France were at war, Flinders thought the scientific nature of his work would ensure safe passage, but a suspicious governor kept him under arrest for more than six years. Although he reached home in 1810, he did not live to see the success of his widely praised book and atlas, A Voyage to Terra Australis. The location of his grave was lost by the mid-19th century, but archaeologists excavating a former burial ground near London's Euston railway station for the High Speed 2 (HS2) project, announced in January 2019 that his remains had been identified. On 17 October 2019, it was announced that Flinders' remains will be reinterred in the parish Church of St Mary and the Holy Rood in Donington on Bain, Lincolnshire where he was baptised. While largely forgotten in his home country today, he is a household name in Australia, where many places and monuments have been named after him.
- 1 Matthew Flinders Memorial, North Terrace, Adelaide, South Australia. Flinders is seen as being particularly important in South Australia, where he is considered the main explorer of the state. His statue stands on an attractive, tree-lined boulevard in a South Australian colonial tradition.
- 2 Flinders Island, between Victoria and Tasmania. James Cook named the islands Furneaux's Islands, after Tobias Furneaux, commander of HMS Adventure, the support vessel on Cook's second voyage. Flinders charted it, and it is unclear how they were renamed.
- 3 Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park (The Flinders Ranges), South Australia (400 km north of Adelaide). An Outback mountain range in South Australia, reputed as one of Australia's great national landscapes, a rich environment to experience. The Flinders Ranges provide an emotionally uplifting and tranquil travel destination.
- 4 Bass and Flinders Memorial, Cronulla, New South Wales (south along the beachfront esplanade from South Cronulla Beach). Bass and Flinders discovered the Port Hacking waterway around Cronulla. A memorial to them and explanation of their journey is on the headland near the entrance to Port Hacking. Nice views across the river and ocean from here.
- 5 Matthew Flinders' Lookout, Urangan, Queensland. Commemorates Flinders' explorations of the Hervey Bay area.
- 6 Flinders Street Station, Melbourne, Victoria. A famous landmark in Melbourne and favourite meeting spot for locals. The main hub of Melbourne's suburban railway network.
Wikivoyage has itinerary articles for some of the greatest voyages of the Age of Discovery:
- Voyages of Columbus — Spain to the Caribbean, 1492
- Cape Route — Vasco da Gama, Portugal to India by going south around Africa, 1498
- Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation — around the world, by going past the southern tip of mainland South America, 1519-1521
- Voyages of James Cook — United Kingdom to the Pacific, 1766-1780
- Voyages of George Vancouver — United Kingdom to the west coast of North America, 1791–1795
In Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, see the Torre de Belém where Portuguese explorers embarked on their voyages to distant lands, and where they disembarked on their return to the motherland. The Museu da Marinha (Maritime Museum) in the Belém district, evokes Portugal's domination of the seas. Its collections include model ships from the Age of Discovery onward. The oldest exhibit is a wooden figure representing the Archangel Raphael that accompanied Vasco da Gama on his voyage to India.
Seville was the main base for Spanish expeditions in this period and has the General Archive of the Indies, a library of documents on Spanish exploration and colonization.
In Saint-Malo, France, you can visit the Jacques Cartier Museum in his former house, which has been restored and fitted out to evoke the daily life and travels of Cartier who explored and claimed Canada for France in the mid-16th century.
In Bristol, in the United Kingdom, you can board the Matthew of Bristol, a replica of the ship used by John Cabot (an Italian also known as Giovanni Cabot) to explore the coast of North America for England.
In London, in the United Kingdom, you can board a replica of Sir Francis Drake's The Golden Hinde built using traditional methods. Buckland Abbey, in Yelverton near Plymouth, was owned by Sir Francis Drake, and is now a museum. A number of mementos of his life are displayed there.
In Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, you can visit the "Faro a Colon", a huge lighthouse and monument built to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas in 1492. It is also a museum that claims to house his remains. Santo Domingo was the first major European settlement in the New World. Christopher Columbus walked these streets! The Cathedral of Seville, Spain, has the results of DNA testing to back its claim to having the explorer's remains.
In Punta Arenas, Chile, the Museo Nao Victoria hosts a replica of the Nao Victoria, one of the ships used by Juan Sebastián Elcano, a Spaniard, who completed the first circumnavigation of the Earth (1519-21). It also has a replica of the HMS Beagle.
Sitka in Alaska is a Russian-born city, the former capital of Russian Alaska.
Mossel Bay, South Africa, has a Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex with information about European explorers and a replica of the ship used by 15th-century Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias.
At Kwaaihoek, Alexandria, near Port Elizabeth in South Africa, the Dias Cross Memorial is a replica of the cross erected in 1488 by Bartolomeu Diaz, the famous Portuguese navigator.
Malacca was first colonised by the Portuguese in 1511, after Alfonso de Albuquerque defeated the Malacca Sultanate in a war. The Dutch would gain control of it after defeating the Portuguese in a war in 1641. It would remain under Dutch rule until the signing of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty in 1824, when the British took over Malacca in exchange for the Dutch taking the British colonies in Sumatra. Today, you can visit the Portuguese settlement, where descendants of the Portuguese colonisers who intermarried with the locals reside, and some continue to speak a Portuguese-based creole. It is also a good place to sample the distinctive Portuguese Eurasian cuisine. Other sites dating back to the Portuguese colonial era include the ruins of the A Famosa fort and the Church of Saint Paul. Several Dutch colonial buildings also survive, including the Stadhuys and the adjacent Christ Church.
Penang was colonised by the British in 1786, when the Sultan of Kedah sold it to Captain Francis Light of the British East India Company, making it the first British colony in Southeast Asia. Today, George Town, the capital of Penang, is known for being one of the best preserved examples of a British colonial capital in Southeast Asia. Light died of malaria in 1794, and is buried in the Old Protestant Cemetery on the island, where his grave can be visited.
Macau was colonised by Portugal in 1557, when China's Ming Dynasty granted them the right to establish a permanent trading post as gratitude for helping the Chinese to eliminate coastal pirates, making it the first European colony in East Asia. Portugal would hold on to Macau until 1999, when it was returned to China, which incidentally also marked the end of European colonialism in Asia. Today, Macau is home to an exceptionally high concentration of well-preserved Portuguese colonial architecture, particularly around the Largo do Senado, complete with the traditional Portuguese pavement, and you could easily mistake it for somewhere in Europe were it not for the people and Chinese-language signs. There is also the Ruins of Saint Paul, the remnants of a Portuguese Roman Catholic church that was destroyed in a fire in 1835. Another legacy of Portuguese rule is the unique Macanese cuisine, with perhaps its most famous dish being the Macanese egg tart, which was originally derived from the Portuguese pastel de nata.
Taiwan's history is more complex. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to sight it in 1544 and named it Ilha Formosa (beautiful island), the name by which it first became known to the West. Formosa was the usual name in English until it was replaced by the Chinese name "Taiwan" in the late 20th century. The Spanish held parts of it in the early 1600s but were driven out by the Dutch, who were driven out by Ming Dynasty loyalist Koxinga (known in China as Zheng Chenggong) in 1661. He set up an independent kingdom which lasted until the Qing Dynasty invaded in 1683. The Qing kept control until 1895 when Japan took the island. Japan was forced to give it back to China in 1945 after their defeat in World War II.
Gulangyu in Xiamen has a museum for Koxinga who drove the Dutch out of Taiwan. Although popularly remembered as a pirate in the West, he is one of the few historical leaders considered a hero by the governments in both Beijing and Taipei; defeating the foreign devils makes him a good guy in everyone's books. There are also numerous sites dedicated to him across the strait in Tainan, including the Chih-kan Tower and several temples. Tainan is also home to the ruins of several forts that were built during the Dutch colonial period.
The first Europeans to reach the Philippines were a Spanish expedition under Magellan in the 1520s, during which Magellan himself was killed in Mactan by local tribal chief Lapu-Lapu. The Spanish returned to colonize in the 1560s and held it until 1898 when the Americans took it over (along with Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam) after the Spanish-American War. Today many attractions in the country are remnants of the Spanish colonial period.
Wikivoyage also has a number of articles on things that were influenced by European exploration and colonialism.
The "Big Five" colonial empires were:
- British Empire and its "jewel in the crown", the Dominion of India
- Dutch Empire
- French Colonial Empire
- Portuguese Empire
- Spanish Empire
Other articles on related topics include:
- Austro-Hungarian Empire
- Atlantic slave trade
- Nordic history
- Swedish Empire
- Russian Empire and its successor, the Soviet Union
- Indigenous cultures of North America
- Indigenous cultures of South America
- Indigenous Australian culture
- Maori culture
- Western food in Asia
- American colonialism
The Germans, Italians, Belgians and Danes also built smaller colonial empires. Denmark's colonial empire is covered under Nordic history, while Wikivoyage does not have articles on the German, Italian and Belgian colonial empires (as of Sep 2020), though there is an article on German East Africa.