Expanding Outward

At the end of the fifteenth century, the confluence of a number of long‐developing factors and several major events launched the European exploration and colonization of the Western Hemisphere. In 1096, European Christians had embarked on a succession of military expeditions to free Palestine from Muslim rule. Although ultimately unsuccessful, these Crusades fostered economic ties between Europe and the Middle and Far East. Trade in spices (which were needed to preserve food) and silks attracted the new merchant class that was emerging in the growing medieval cities. The Italian Marco Polo's account of his travels to and extended stay in China at the end of the thirteenth century further stimulated interest in Asia, and the city‐states of Genoa and Venice became the centers of international trade.
As Europe slowly recovered from the devastating effects of the Black Death (1347–51), the epidemic of bubonic plague that killed a third of its population, political developments disrupted economic ties with Asia. In 1453, the Muslim Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, strategically located on the eastern Mediterranean. As Ottoman power spread throughout the Middle East, Europeans found their traditional overland trade routes effectively blocked. The prohibitively high tribute charged by the Turks led to dramatic price increases for luxury products from the Far East. Searching for a solution to this dilemma, European merchants reasoned that if land routes were problematical, perhaps trade could continue by sea.