How did the voyages of Christopher Columbus express the general political, social, and scientific outlook of the fifteenth century?
by Ami Patel
The 2003 essay contest winner was a junior at Stoughton High School in Stoughton, Massachusetts. Her participation was sponsored by the Brockton Chapter of the NSDAR.
In the twilight of the Renaissance. during a time when Europe was swathed by the dusky robe of knowledge and bathed by the steadfast light of ambition. was birthed a permanent interaction between a New World and an Old World that would forever impact Western civilization. The precedent being referred to is of course, the fateful 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus and his subsequent contributions to the Americas. The journey represented more than the trifling pursuits of one man to turn a profit or substantiate his claims of a spherical Earth. Indeed his travels truly symbolize the growing priorities of a progressive Europe, a Europe emerging from the shadows of the Middle Ages. Simply the funding of Columbus’s brazen expedition seemed to distinguish the continent which centuries before had consisted of scattered fiefdoms from a continent revitalized and awakened by the scientific illuminations of the Renaissance. This new Europe was defined by a number of distinct nation-states typified by varying cultural identities. potential nations which contained peoples of particular political loyalties and social customs. These loyalties. among other political, social and scientific outlooks of the fifteenth century were reflected in the voyages of Columbus.
Columbus himself was a man molded by the persevering ideals of the Renaissance period. Improvements in technology. especially navigation, were vital to the success of his journeys. Columbus lived in an era of philosophical thought, scientific experimentation and technological innovation. Inventions such as the sailing compass, gunpowder and the printing press provided the means for the efficient spread of information and the sustenance of young countries like France, England, Spain and Portugal. People thrived on the works of Copernicus. Vesalius and Galileo. The writings of Ptolemy, a 2nd century geographer, may have influenced Columbus in his endorsement of a western route to India. In fact it can be said that Columbus’s explorations were fueled by the scientific beliefs concerning the shape of the Earth. involving heliocentric theory, and formed by the most prominent Renaissance thinkers of Columbus’s time. The seaworthiness of Columbus’s three ships showcased the advances which had been made in shipbuilding during this period. Of particular interest to a skilled navigator such as Columbus would have been the great improvements in mapmaking which occurred during l5th century. In total, Columbus’s voyages reflect the achievements of the intellectual inquiry which characterized the Renaissance.
Columbus’s voyages also represented the pursuits of a developing middle c!ass in Europe. This middle class consisted largely of merchants, artisans and traders, a class to which Columbus belonged. The proletariat had emerged after the Crusades, when crusaders were first introduced to the wonderful Asian market of spices, silken cloths, and jewelry. A merchant class arose from this European desire for such luxuries. Columbus’s famous voyage was motivated by such commercialism. He had encouraged and pursued the idea of a western trade route that would facilitate more efficient interactions between Asian lands and Europe.
Often, such ventures were supported directly by the monarchs of nation-states. Columbus’s expeditions were financed by the country of Spain, newly united through the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, the queen and king. In 1492, the regents had succeeded in driving the Moors out of their last stronghold in Spain, Granada. This transfer of power from the Moors to the Roman Catholics was the goal of the Reconquest. an agenda which sought to purge Spain of Islamic heritage. Columbus’s voyage represents the ambitions of these newly-formed nations. which were displayed by an increased competition for trade among neighboring kingdoms. His search for a Western sea route to India exemplifies the economic and rationalistic motives of these political entities. who wished to claim a stake of the b[ooming spice empire of Indochina. Columbus, riding on the heels of the Reconquest, also displayed a certain duty to the Catholic Church and the spread of Christianity. These were ideals encouraged by the developing nations of his day. and explorers asserted these views in the lands they conquered, which included present-day Cuba and Hispaniola for Columbus.
The travels of Columbus cannot be localized to the outlooks of Spain alone, they embody the views of all Europe during the l5th century. The l5th century was an age of discovery and rebirth. Scientific, political and social revolutions swept through the European continent, stimulating the search for knowledge, instigating economic and religious contention between countries and contributing to a stratified society in which resided a noticeable middle class. The adventurous voyages of Columbus depict an improved, headstrong and enterprising young Europe.
Newman, John J. and Schmalbach, John M. United States History. New York: Amsco School Publications. 1998.
“Renaissance.~ Compton’s Encyclopedia, CD-ROM. 1999 ed.
“Voyages of Columbus.” www.top-biography.com/9OI5-/voyage.htm.200.. 2000 christopher%20Columbus
2006 – Catharine Magdalene Wingfield Clayton
2005 – Irtefa Anwara Bibte-Farid