Historically speaking, the Iberian Peninsula has been the rudder to Europe’s leviathan. In fact, the tiny country of Portugal ruled the first global empire in history, with colonies stretching as far east as today’s China and as far west as Brazil. The Spanish Empire grew to gain an even broader reach—from today’s California in the west to Indonesia in the east—and has left a cultural and linguistic legacy unrivaled by any other country. How did these two nations expand their reach to the farthest reaches of the earth? One word: Spice.
Discovering the Spice Route by Sea
It might be hard to believe in the 21st century that spices could hold such economic power in the world. But in the Middle Ages they were among the most expensive products on the market. More than food enhancers, spices were used as medicines, in religious rituals, as cosmetics and perfumes, and as preservatives. And some of the most desirable ones were imported from Asia and Africa.
But a major historic event in 1453 cut Europeans off from the trade route between Eastern Europe and Asia: The Ottomans defeated the Eastern Roman Empire, effectively bringing an end to a 1,500-year era of rule by Rome. With the rise of the inhospitable Ottomans, land routes became impassable.
As a result, money was to be made in locating sea routes to Asia. Portugal’s explorers headed down Africa’s west coast and by the year 1488, Bartolomeu Dias sailed around the southern tip of the continent. Dias named the point “Cabo das Tormentos,” or Cape of Storms for its rough seas; it wasn’t until later that the cape was renamed the Cape of Good Hope to convey the optimism it inspired in finding a sea route to India.
Ten years later, Vasco da Gama found that very route. He landed at Calicut on the Indian subcontinent in 1498, expanding Portugal’s spice trade to include pepper and cinnamon and other products that were completely new to Europeans. It was a victorious landing for Da Gama…and for world history. His arrival on Indian shores marked the era’s most significant European establishment of trade in Asia and foretold a wave of global multiculturalism. The Middle East and East Asia followed. Soon, Portuguese outposts traced a route from Lisbon all the way to the China coast.
Conflict with Spain
But the 1400s also saw great growth in neighboring Spain, and the scramble to seize spice and trade transformed into a scramble to seize land. As they each sent out their early expeditions, Spain and Portugal inevitably came to blows. Their fighting ended with the Treaty of Alcacovas in 1479. This agreement essentially limited Portugal’s reach to points accessed via a southern route along the African coast, and restricted Spain’s conquest to points west toward what everyone believed would be Asia.
Spain’s Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella had another conflict to resolve before devoting themselves to discovering new trade routes—the Reconquista, taking back Spain from the Moors. The ten-year Granada War expelled the Moors from Andalucia and from the coveted fortress in Granada known as the Alhambra. With the Reconquista complete, the monarchs’ attention turned toward a Genoese sailor named Cristoforo Colombo.
The Italian had his sights set on finding Cipangu (today’s Japan) via a westward sailing route. He had already sought support from King John II of Portugal, but that monarch showed no interest. Eager to secure a piece of Asia via a route that still respected the terms of the Alcacovas Treaty, Ferdinand and Isabella appointed Columbus viceroy and governor of Cipangu and financed his journey of 1492. Of course, Columbus reached today’s Caribbean islands instead of the Far East, and Spain ended up gaining more wealth and territory than it ever could have imagined.
One World, Two Powers
The race was on for new land and ever greater power. With it, another treaty became necessary to avoid conflict. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas divided the entire globe—parts of it that had yet to be discovered or inhabited by Europeans, anyway—between Spain and Portugal. Six years later, some historians believe that the Portuguese king secretly sent Pedro Alvares Cabral westward, in defiance of the treaty. Cabral landed in Brazil and raised his country’s flag on its beaches. At the time, the story circulated that Cabral had been blown off course and stumbled on those shores by accident.
Of course, the treaty had limited practical application. The vast majority of the land under consideration was unknown to Europeans, which only spurred more exploration. Over the next century, the Portuguese sailed east to claim the “spice islands” of Maluku, sources of nutmeg and cloves. Macau also fell under the nation’s rule. For 80 years, Persian Bahrain was also colonized. The Spanish, meanwhile, sailed west to the Americas. Vasco Nunez de Balboa, upon reaching today’s Colombia, headed north in search of the “other sea” he had heard about. At the Isthmus of Panama, he became the first European to lay eyes on the Pacific Ocean from the New World.
Connecting the Global Puzzle Pieces
If this all sounds to you like the explorers of the day devoted their lives to piecing together a huge global puzzle, you would be pretty close to correct. And it was Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese adventurer who had already sailed to India and heard about the “other sea” off the coast of the New World, who wanted to connect the final pieces. King Manuel I of Portugal refused to fund him, so Magellan accepted support from the newly crowned Charles I of Spain. Sailors, navigators cartographers, cosmographers, and merchants from several nations accompanied him on a voyage of true international interest: They intended to reach the spice islands of Maluku by sailing west.
The voyage was a success, though Magellan died in a battle with Philippine islanders. But his fleet reached their destination in 1521, and one of their ships even returned to Spain.
The courageous men who sailed from the shores of Portugal and Spain began the process of mapping the globe for Western eyes and ushering the world from the medieval age to the modern one. And it all started, in part, because of the European love of spices.
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