Age of Discovery – Explorers

The Age of Discovery was a period between the 15th Century and 17th Century when Europeans sailed across the world’s oceans to discover previously unknown (to Europeans) land.

Map from 1502 showing the major explorations Columbus to Central America, Gama to India and Cabral to Brazil.

It led to a growth of trade and new products being imported to Europe – such as potatoes, corn, tobacco, spices and gold. It was also a period which saw a new period of colonialism – with European nations racing to gain control of foreign territories to increase their wealth. For many indigenous people, the arrival of Europeans led to a spread of infectious diseases which they did not have resistance to. In the Americas, infectious diseases cost millions of lives. The Age of Discovery also led to the Transatlantic slave trade with millions of African slaves shipped to colonies in America.

Causes of the age of exploration

  • The Renaissance allowed to new thinking and a willingness to try new technology, such as sailing direct across oceans, rather than ‘hugging the coast.’
  • Missionary Christianity. Explorations to other countries fitted in with a philosophy of converting native people to Christianity
  • Wealth. When the Ottoman Empire closed trade routes through Constantinople, Europeans wished to find an alternative and cheaper trade route to the Indias.
  • A desire for name and fame. The explorers who willing to undertake perilous maritime journeys (where death rates were very high) were motivated by money, national pride and also the reflected glory of being the first to discover new land.

The age of discovery was also a period of technological progress with improvements made to mapping, shipbuilding and better knowledge about the state of the world.

At the start of the Age of Discovery, Portugal and Spain played a leading role, with many of the great expeditions being led by the Portuguese.

Towards the end of the period, the British were gaining increased military and naval strength and the British Empire would become the dominant force in global expansion.

Famous explorers of the Age of Discovery

Christopher_Columbus Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506) An Italian born explorer, Columbus made four ground-breaking voyages to the Americas. Sailing in uncharted seas, Columbus’ voyages across the Atlantic led to landing on the Americas. His journeys paved the way for others to follow.

JohnCabot John Cabot  (1450 – 1499) An Italian navigator and explorer.  In 1497, he sailed west from Britain hoping to reach Asia. He actually landed in Canada which he claimed for King Henry VII.

cabral Pedro Cabal (1467 – c. 1520) A Portuguese sailor and explorer. He was the first European to sail to Brazil arriving on  22 April 1500. He was also the first to lead an expedition which landed on four main continents: Europe, Africa, America, and Asia.

Henry_the_Navigator1 Henry the Navigator – (1394 – 1460) A Portuguese prince, Henry was an influential person in the Age of Discovery. He encouraged a new policy of outward expansion and voyages of discovery. His court was a focus for improving technical and practical knowledge about ocean sailing. Finding reliable trade winds, significantly helped improve cross-Ocean travel. He wished to explore new lands by sea and claim them for a Portuguese Empire. It encouraged other European nations to follow suit.

Vasco_da_Gama Vasco de Gama (1469 – 1524) Vasco de Gama was a Portuguese explorer who was the first European to reach India by sea. De Gama made a direct voyage to India – travelling around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa – arriving in Calicut in 1498.

Gaspar_Côrte-Real Gaspar Corte-Real (1450 – 1501) A Portuguese explorer who led pathfinding voyages towards Newfoundland, Greenland, Canada and the northwest passage. He was sponsored by the Portuguese crown. He disappeared while on exploration and was never found.


Ferdinand Magellan (1480 – 1521) Portuguese sailor and adventurer who led the first expedition to make a successful circumnavigation of the globe. Magellan also made the first crossing from the Atlantic into the Pacific and also the first successful crossing of the Pacific Ocean. He died before the expedition reached Europe.

Hernan_Cortes-100 Hernando Cortes (1485 – 1547) Born in Medellin, Spain, Cortes was an adventurer and conquistador who conquered the Aztec lands of modern-day Mexico and brought them under Spanish rule.

Sir Francis Drake (1540 – 1597) Drake was an English explorer who made the second successful circumnavigation of the world in 1577-1580. He also fought the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Sir_Walter_Raleigh Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 – 1618 ) Raleigh was an English explorer who made several journeys to the Americas and also led expeditions in search of the legendary ‘El Dorado’.

Captain-cook Captain James Cook (1728 – 1779) Cook was a British explorer who made groundbreaking voyages to the Pacific Ocean. He made the first European contact with Eastern coast of Australia and he chartered several islands in the Pacific.



Kings and sponsors of the age of discovery

John_II_of_Portugal John II (1455–1495), King of Portugal and of the Algarves. Under John II, Portugal became established as a major European power. In particular, he promoted a policy of expansion and colonialism sponsoring expeditions to Africa to try and open routes up to India. He also transformed the economy and state.

manueli Manuel I (1469 – 1521) King of Portugal. During Manuel’s time, Portugal remained the leading pioneer in promoting global exploration. He sponsored the expedition of Cabal to South America and Brazil.

Isabel_I_of_Castile-100 Queen Isabella I of Castile (14511504) Isabella ruled Castile with her husband King Ferdinand of Aragon, effectively united the Spanish provinces. She allowed and financed the journey of Christopher Columbus and also set up the Spanish Inquisition.

Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) Queen from (1558 to 1603). Her ascension to the throne led to British explorers gaining prominence in the age of discovery. She permitted explorers who wished to claim land for the British crown. Her greatest explorers were Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.


Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Age of Discovery – Explorers” Oxford, UK. Published 10 July 2019.

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