The Dawn of a New Age

By Barreto, Luis Filipe | UNESCO Courier, April 1989 | Go to article overview

The Dawn of a New Age


Barreto, Luis Filipe, UNESCO Courier


AT the end of the fourteenth century, the extent of the known world was, at most, equivalent to barely one quarter of its true area. Islamic civilization was the repository of this knowledge. When, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, gaps in geographical knowledge were gradually filled, it was on the initiative of Christian Europe.

As a result of the great maritime expeditions of this period Portugal became largely responsible for bringing Europe closer to Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania. The significance of the Portuguese discoveries in the history of civilizations is that they made an extraordinary contribution to the opening up of the planet. As a result of Portuguese endeavours, Eurolled peans sailed round the Capes of Tarfaya and Bojador, the traditional limits of navigation along the west coast of Africa, which had only seldom been passed. They went on to reach equatorial regions and the southern hemisphere and gave the lie to the traditional European idea that these regions were uninhabitable. These discoveries established for the first time that there was a link between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans-the so-called "route to India"-thus refuting the widely-held traditional view that the Indian Ocean was landlocked.

A new world-picture

As a result of this revolution in communication and knowledge, a relatively accurate picture of the planet began to emerge for the first time. The tropics and the southern hemisphere were not inferior to the northern hemisphere but different, possessing a wider variety of minerals, and plant and animal life. The revolution also made a decisive contribution, in both theory and practice, to the discovery that humankind, one and the same, existed aU over the world.

The new awareness of life on a planetary scale, which came into being with the discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, began to stimulate a world economy based on the unequal terms of trade which the Europeans imposed in their dealings with other societies. A mercantile economy centred on cities such as Lisbon and Seville came into being, with central and northern Europe and the Italian cities providing the main outlets and sources of finance.

The first signs of a world culture also began to emerge. Books, letters, reports and maps were published and circulated in southern Europe but also in Goa, Macao and Nagasaki. The Portuguese discoveries thus made a fundamental contribution to the transition from an age of tightly-knit societies to a wider, more open world.

Portuguese navigators settled in Madeira and the Azores in the 1420s and 1430s and then advanced through the Atlantic and along the west coast of Africa. Gil Eanes rounded Cape Boador in 1434. Between 1440 and 1460 further progress was made along the coast of Guinea and the Cape Verde islands were discovered. The islands of Fernando Po, Sio Tome', Principe and Annobon were discovered in 1470. In 1483, Diogo Cio reached the River Congo and then, in 1487-1488, Bartolomeu Dias established the existence of a link between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans by sailing round the Cape of Good Hope, which he called the Cape of Storms. Vasco da Gama's great voyage of 1497-1499 opened the sea route between Europe and Asia.

In the sixteenth century, the drive for expansion took the Portuguese into the interior of Africa, with the exploration of the Monomotapa empire (present-day Zimbabwe) in 1514, and to the Americas, with the arrival in 1500 of Pedro Alvares Cabral in Brazil and of the Corto Real brothers in Newfoundland. Joao Rodrigues Cabrilho played a decisive role in the exploration of Florida in 1539 and of California in 1542-1543. The Portuguese also went on to Asia and Oceania, reaching Malacca and the East Indies in 1509-1511, China in 1513 and japan in 1542-1543.

Other European peoples spread out into the wider world later than the Portuguese, who can be said to have ushered in a new era of knowledge and human history in the 1420s and 1430s. …

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