Sailing through the Ages Part 3: Age of Exploration

Replica world map from the age of exploration
Replica world map from the age of exploration

The age of exploration refers to a period of history that spans from the early 15th century to the early 17th century. During this time, Europeans took to the seas in search of new trade routes, knowledge, and sources of wealth. Some of the most famous explorers of this age include Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, Henry the Navigator, Hernando de Soto, and Ferdinand Magellan. The journeys that explorers like these took had dramatic global implications that helped to shape the course of history. Up to this point in time, maritime exploration in Europe and around the Mediterranean was limited by how far they could travel from land. It was not until the Renaissance when novel technologies and ideas were developed that allowed for greater maritime expansion and exploration.

Painting of a 15th century carrack
Painting of a 15th century carrack

Over the course of the Renaissance there were incredible advances in cartography, navigation, and shipbuilding. One of the most important developments during this period was the construction of the Carrack followed by the Caravel. The carrack was a style of ship that blended designs of Mediterranean and Northern European ships. This style of ship had a rounded hull in the stern as well as an aft and forecastle. The aft and forecastles were superstructures, build on top of the ship’s main deck, that were typically used to house the captain and crew of the ship. The caravel ships were based on the design of the carrack and were created by Prince Henry the Navigator for long distance trade. Caravel ships were smaller than the carrack and had a completely rounded bottom. They were faster than most other ships of the time and were primarily used for carrying cargo and fishing. The development of these ships allowed sailors to leave the relatively tame waters of the Mediterranean and begin sailing on the open Atlantic. Both of these types of ship were commonly used by one of the earliest explores of the age, Prince Henry the Navigator.

The age of exploration is often considered to have begun in Portugal under Prince Henry the Navigator. Prior to this time, most sailors kept within sight of land or along well established trade routes. However, Prince Henry encouraged the exploration of unmapped areas, beyond the view of land, in an effort to establish new trade routes to West Africa. Early in this new age of exploration, sailors from Portugal discovered the Madeira Islands in 1419 and the Azores in 1427. Both of these regions became Portuguese colonies. Over the following decades Henry the Navigator explored the west coast of Africa, progressively pushing farther south along the coast. This exploration continued after his death in the 1460s, eventually reaching the Cape of Good Hope in 1487 and establishing access to the Indian Ocean. About a decade later, in 1498, Vasco da Gama used this route to become the first European to sail to India.

Statue of Henry the Navigator in Sagres, Portugal
Statue of Henry the Navigator in Sagres, Portugal

While new sea routes were being established along the coast of Africa, explorers also began looking for trade routes to China and the Far East. In 1492, Christopher Columbus, an Italian sailing under the Spanish flag, first sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. Columbus made landfall in San Salvador, which is presently known as the Bahamas, and also explored the island of Hispaniola, the island where present day Haiti and Dominican Republic are located. He made three more voyages to the Caribbean and explored parts of Cuba and Central America. The journeys taken by Columbus paved the way for Spain’s exploration, conquest, and colonization of the Americas. Conquistadors, such as Francisco Pizarro, Hernán Cortés, and Juan Ponce de León traveled to the New World in search of wealth and notoriety. During their conquests they decimated the indigenous peoples through disease and warfare, ultimately overthrowing the Aztec and Incan Empires and establishing Spanish rule.

Artist representation of Incas meeting Conquistadors
Artist representation of Incas meeting Conquistadors

One of the most relevant explorers and conquistadors, with regard to Florida, was Hernando de Soto who explored the New World during the 16th century. Born and raised in Spain, de Soto was a young man when he first arrived in the West Indies. Shortly after his arrival he helped supply ships for Francisco Pizarro’s expedition into South America. More than supplying ships, de Soto also accompanied Pizarro on his conquests through Colombia and Peru in 1531 before returning to Spain. Several years later, in 1538, de Soto left Spain with 10 ships and 700 men with the intent to explore and claim Florida for the Spanish. In May of 1539, de Soto and his men landed in Tampa Bay and explored the Gulf coast of Florida. He eventually moved inland and set up a winter camp near present day Tallahassee. Continuing his expedition through, what would become, the southeastern United States, de Soto explored areas of Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Alabama using Native Americans as guides. In 1541, de Soto and his Spaniards became the first Europeans to view and cross the Mississippi River. After crossing, he and his men reached and explored parts of Arkansas and Louisiana. However, de Soto did not explore west of the Mississippi for long. In 1542, less than a year after crossing the Mississippi, de Soto and his men returned to the great river on their way back to Florida. Unfortunately, soon after de Soto made his return crossing of the Mississippi River he fell ill with a fever and died. Although this expedition claimed his life, de Soto was one of the first Europeans to explore not only the Southeastern United States but America in general. He achieved many firsts for Europeans exploring the United States and his expeditions greatly impacted the course of Florida’s history.

Portraite of Hernando de Soto
Portraite of Hernando de Soto

While the Spanish had their sights set on exploring the new world, explorers from many other nations also accomplished some of history’s greatest feats of maritime exploration. During this period of history Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to discover the Cape of Good Hope (1498); Ferdinand Magellan discovering, what are referred to today as, the Strait of Magellan (1520); and Sir Francis Drake led the first English voyage around the world (1577-1580), even claiming San Francisco bay for Queen Elizabeth. The age of exploration led to many scientific contributions in fields such as geography, navigation, biology, ecology, and agriculture. Several long-term impacts from this period persist to this day, such as the start of global maritime trade and the establishment of European colonies in regions all over the world.


· Bridges, R. C. (1973) Europeans and East Africans in the Age of Exploration. The Geographical Journal, 139(2), 220–232.

· Briney, A. (2020). A Brief History of the Age of Exploration. Thought Co.

· Editors. (2019). Hernando de Soto. History.

· Sloan, D. (1992). The Expedition of Hernando De Soto: A Post-Mortem Report. The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, 51(1), 1–29

· Voorhies, J. (2002). Europe and the Age of Exploration. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image 1: photo © Aelita,

Image 2: photo © Archivist,

Image 3: photo © rmbarricarte,

Image 4: photo © Erica Guilane-Nachez,

Image 5: photo © Morphart,

Author: Andrew Pressly, Education and Engagement Coordinator at FMM


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