After Marco Polo whetted the appetite of Europeans for Asian goods with his fantastic tales, monarchies and courts focused their attentions on finding a cost effective route. Wanting to go to Asia and getting there quickly were not the same things. There were other obstacles as well.
From 1348-1350 the Black Death, an especially deadly outbreak of bubonic plague wiped out as much as half of the European population. It took centuries before the population could recover, but as terrible as the plague was, there were some unforeseen positive outcomes for the survivors. Europe had been overcrowded, underfed, and generally in a state of stagnation.
The massive death redistributed the land and wealth, provided more job opportunities, and gave people access to more food.
New powerful monarchs emerged, grouped together vacated lands, and looked for ways to increase their power, holdings, and wealth. The population also looked for a better life and more wealth. European markets knew of Asian goods, wanted them, and had the money to buy them.
Today Portugal is not considered a major world power, but in the 1400s it took the lead in exploration and discovery. Led by Prince Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese created a school to educate explorers in the mathematical, scientific, engineering, shipbuilding, astronomical, and cartographical skills necessary to find a water route to Asia. The school was equivalent to NASA, and the explorers were like our astronauts.
In 1460, Bartolomeu Dias, the first great Portuguese explorer, rounded South Africa, “discovering” the southern end of the continent, and establishing the distance needed to sail south before heading northeast towards India. Thanks to Marco Polo, India’s location was known. Of course, those living in South Africa already knew where Africa ended, but for Europeans the “discovery” was a key moment in the push for Asia.
Editors Note: Travis Childs is a history instructor at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. He is a graduate of Midway High School and lives in Bluegrove. He is currently president of the Clay County Historical Society.