History Summarized: Atlantic Exploration

The turn of the 1500s was an absolutely wild time 
for the cartography industry, and, of course,   also the sailing industry, food import business, 
aspiring Empire-Builders, and basically anything   that stood to profit from the realization that 
there was about twice as much globe as previously   imagined. Sure, people had known the world was 
round for literally millennia, but what shocked   them was learning there was stuff over there. 
Between the fully-accidental discovery of a   (nominally) “new” continent and the realization 
that one could bypass Ottoman toll-booths by   taking the scenic route to India, the world 
suddenly became very much larger but also vastly   more accessible. There is plenty to be said about 
the Conquistadorks and all the transcontinental   trade routes that got going in the 1500s, 
but my goal today is to rewind to where the   Age of Exploration started, and look at how the 
kingdoms of Iberia laid the groundwork for this   worldwide wayfaring by bopping around in their 
Atlantic backyards. SO, to see how the Azores,   Madeira, & Canaries launched Spain and Portugal 
into worldwide power, Let’s do some History! Okay so I know I just said “Spain” like literally 
six seconds ago, but that’s not actually correct.   In the 1400s Iberia was home to four separate 
states: the Christian Kingdoms of Portugal,   Castile, and Aragon, with the Muslim Emirate of 
Granada at the southern tip of the peninsula.   And this was all a fairly recent development, 
because most of the Medieval period had it the   other way around, with powerful and prosperous 
Muslim states in Al-Andalus presiding over an   ethnically-diverse and multireligious society 
during the Golden Age of Islam. That’s a lot of   fancy words to basically say “It was cool” but, 
I mean, yeah, it was VERY cool. And even their   Christian adversaries recognized that. Despite 
fighting centuries of wars against the Muslim   states to conquer the peninsula, they borrowed 
heavily from the culture and scholarship of their   newly-incorporated domains. Al-Andalus was part 
of a vast, transcontinental society that shared   notes on topics like astronomy, cartography, 
and navigation, which would become invaluable   to Iberia’s new Christian landlords. But while 
Aragon, Castile, and Portugal were rich in the   culture and smartbois they inherited, they burned 
a lot of money on armies to get to that point,   and as a result they were in the 
doubly-unpleasant position of being   isolated at the southwest edge of the Christian 
world and quite handily cashflow-negative. So with Mediterranean trade routes bottlenecked 
by Venetian, Ottoman, & Mamluk middlemen, the   Iberians had to get a little creative. Although 
Castile might have looked to be in the strongest   spot, with coastlines on both seas and by far the 
biggest land to draw from, they were spread pretty   thin, and had three actively-hostile frontiers to 
deal with. Aragon was arguably better-situated,   with mountains guarding the land and a wide 
open coast that reached out to their chain   of islands. They still had to suffer exorbitant 
Venetian markups if they wanted anything from   beyond Sicily, but hey, half the Mediterranean 
is not bad. Then there’s Portugal, who, on paper,   really didn’t come out of the Reconquista 
so hot, but, they turned this objectively   suboptimal situation to their advantage by working 
with what they had. In this case, the Atlantic. Several different factors worked together to 
draw Portugal out to sea. In typical Renaissance   and Medieval Muslim fashion, they saw scientific 
inquiry and natural exploration as a celebration   of God’s world, and with so many secondhand 
accounts of magnificent lands just beyond the   straits of Gibraltar, it was an easy sell. But 
this high-minded curiosity paired with a hefty   Christian zeal to Convert And Conquer which 
came pre-packaged in a history of multicentury   crusading. All of these traits were embodied in 
one Prince Henry “The Navigator”, younger brother   to King Edward, and the architect of Portugal’s 
naval power. His epithet is a little erroneous   since he personally never sailed out of line of 
sight of Iberia, BUT, his generous patronage of   maritime R&D gave Portuguese sailors the tools, 
ships, and skills to succeed out in the ocean.   Henry was able to do this in part because he was 
a royal but also because he was the GrandMaster of   the Order of Christ, which, you may wish to note, 
Is Literally The Templars. The original group was   abolished by the Pope and some fire in 1312, but 
in 1319 Portugal’s King Denis reconstituted them   as The Order of Christ, to thank the knights 
who helped in the Reconquista. So Henry had the   additional motive of taking the Crusade across 
the straits of Gibraltar, to campaign against   Islam in Morocco and beyond. Specifically, he 
wanted to investigate Africa to find the mythical   kingdom of Prester John, with whom he hoped to, I 
guess, outflank the Muslims? and, eh—look, Prester   John is one of those things that’s everything and 
nothing at once, and the mystique of “A Long-Lost   Christian Kingdom Beyond The Muslim World” is 
vague enough to let anything be Prester John   if you cherry-pick and squint. It’s Portugal’s 
version of the El Dorado goose-chase except if you   drop the fantasy parts then it does actually exist 
and It’s Just Called Ethiopia! *Sigh* My friends,   I have gone off-topic. Let us correct 
this error by jumping into the ocean. SO, Portugal’s first foray was local, 
capturing the Moroccan port of Ceuta in 1415,   but soon Portugal found the island of Madeira and 
discovered the Azores archipelago. Rediscovered is   probably a better word, because medieval maps did 
feature island chains approximating the Azores,   so there’s the non-zero chance that Scandinavian 
and/or Andalusian and/or Genoese sailors had   spotted them first. As far as Portugal was 
concerned: nobody lived there — it’s free real   estate. Early settlement began in the 20s and 
30s, but colonization ramped up substantially   in the middle of the century. More than being 
some neat little spots of land to claim, Madeira   and the Azores soon revealed their usefulness as 
waystations to the rest of the Atlantic, and for   growing cash crops, once they had a large enough 
labor-force. Portugal wasted absolutely zero time   in writing the gut-punchingly grotesque playbook 
of colonization: importing slaves from the west   coast of Africa to irrigate, farm, harvest, 
and refine sugarcane. It took a couple decades   for Portugal to realize what exactly the Islands 
could be used for, but once they did, Oh Boy. The   crucial piece of this profit-puzzle was definitely 
the slaves, because it’s only after Portugal   sailed down the African coast and bought slaves 
that they could suddenly staff all these colonies. Portugal’s interest in exploring Africa started 
from their rivalry with Morocco and grew into a   desire to visit the lands of legendarily rich 
kings like Mansa Musa. And, as they might have   hoped, Portugal found itself very much the junior 
trading partner of the Mali empire. At first,   Portugal actually had a hard time getting Malian 
merchants to buy any of their junk. But even what   little they could take back was worth a lot more 
in Europe, and soon Portuguese traders were able   to do more substantive business and, of course, 
export more slaves. On the African side of things,   Portugal pushed ever-further southwards, 
taking Cape Verde in 1458 and reaching all   the way down to Namibia by 1486. As they 
built a chain of coastal and island forts,   they cut what on its own was an impossibly-long 
continental journey down into a series of small,   easy hops. Just two years later, in 1488, sailors 
rounded what they called “The Cape of Storms” and   made it to east Africa, which opened up to 
the Indian Ocean. The King was so delighted   that he renamed it the “Cape of Good Hope” to 
make the prospect of More Countless Riches For   Crown & Country look less like Certain Doom to 
the sailors who would actually be going there. Back on the Atlantic side of things, the island 
colonies were farming so aggressively they nearly   destroyed their ecosystems, knocking the colonists 
back down to subsistence farming because the soil   was nutritionally broke. Luckily, they were still 
invaluable waystations to the African coast and,   after 1500, to Brazil. See, the sailors had 
figured out it was easier to pass the Cape   of, eh, Storms, if they sailed out west to 
catch the South Atlantic Wind Current, which   would comfortably carry them east across the cape. 
But as it happened, one ship’s journey slightly   too far west revealed a shiny new landmass 
that would be perfect for more exploitative   agriculture. Keen to replicate past successes on 
the Azores and Madeira without dallying on pesky   roadblocks like the environment AND SLAVERY, 
Brazil earned Portugal quite a pretty penny,   and the Atlantic Islands were both the springboard 
and the prototype that made it possible. So with Portugal’s oceanic avenues wide open and 
money pouring in, let’s rewind slightly to see how   Castile was handling their Atlantic frontier 
in the 1400s. As it happens, slowly. Like we   said at the start, Castile had enough problems to 
handle just in Iberia, so aquatic exploration got   bumped down the To-Do list. Castile did send an 
expedition to the Canary Islands off the coast of   Morocco in 1402, but they delegated the job to 
some French Nobles. The colonized islands were   technically under the Crown of Castile, but in 
reality, they were private operations. Portugal   tried to muscle in on a few occasions without 
making and real progress, but no one could lay a   strong hold on all islands because the Canaries, 
unlike the Azores and Madeira, were inhabited.   Being rather close to the continent, these islands 
had been lived on for thousands of years, with   records tracing back to Rome, Numidia, Greece, and 
Carthage. Even in the medieval period, explorers   from North Africa, Iberia, and Italy had visited 
these islands and traded with their indigenous   Guanche people. Castile was just the first state 
to actually try and take it. This century-long   process rapidly accelerated after 1479, when king 
Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile   combined their domains into the new Kingdom of 
Spain. So, suddenly, the Crown had more resources   on hand and fewer problems to throw them at. That 
was good news for their conquest of the Canaries,   and also bad news for the native Guanches. Let’s 
not be surprised that Spain is a co-founder of the   Gross Colonial Conduct Club. So the crown spent 
the next two decades conquering the canaries,   and in 1492, they finally subdued their longtime 
rivals in Granada to complete their Reconquista.   With Iberia done, they set about catching up to 
Portugal’s maritime lead, and later that year they   sponsored the accidentally-world-changing 
voyage of the notorious Crisco Clambo,   who took a stopover in the Canaries on his way 
to find The Indies — nothing else, because if it   wasn’t The Indies that would mean his math was way 
off, and that would make him a doofus, which he   super definitely wasn’t. Sooo, must’ve just been 
the Indies guys, I don’t know what to tell you. Anyway, I know you know the rest of that 
escapade, so let’s wrap our story here.   Despite the unassuming size of the Canaries, 
Azores, and Madeira, they played an outsized   role in launching Spain and Portugal from 
humble beginnings into imperial stardom.   They started the 1400s poor and isolated but 
wound up set to rule the damn world. In 1493,   a Papal treaty officially split the globe into 
The Spain Half and The Portugal Half. Of course,   as swiftly as they yoinked the world, 
they’d eventually lose it too. More   nations joined the contest in the 16 and 1700s, 
and bigger ships could just bypass the islands;   so even before the Spanish and Portuguese empires 
declined, the islands languished as backwaters.   That is, until certain 20th century events that 
I am woefully unqualified to explain. Still,   what I find most remarkable about this first 
chapter in long-distance seafaring is how   swiftly Spain and Portugal wrote the colonial 
playbook that other European empires would   follow — using coastal forts and island bases 
to break up long trips, cultivating cash-crops   with imported slave labor, and enslaving 
or destroying native populations, gang’s   all here in the 1400s. Quick, no one tell Spain 
what platinum looks like, it’ll be hilarious. Thank you so much for watching! Leave it to me 
to tackle a period in history that’s strongly   associated with one very specific person and 
then fully refuse to even mention him by name.   Enough people have dunked on ol’ crisco clambo 
that I wouldn’t be adding anything new, so I   enjoyed taking a much more structural look 
at early Atlantic exploration. As always,   huge thanks to our patrons for supporting our 
channel, and I will see you all in the next video.
Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXFcGj_CsmY

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