Exploration and the English

Treaty of Tordesillas

Tordesillas lines

Extent of the Spanish Empire

Extent of Spanish Empire 16th Century

English Explorers:

John Cabot (1450?-1498?)

Sebastian Cabot (1484?-1557)

Martin Frobisher (1535?-1594)

Francis Drake (1543-1596)

Humphrey Gilbert (1539?-1583)

John Davis (1543-1605)

Bartholomew Gosnold (1572-1607)

Henry Hudson (?-1611)

William Baffin (1584?-1622)

Walter Raleigh (1552-1618)


The story of the exploration of the western hemisphere by Europeans is a large and interesting subject. Well all know that Christopher Columbus “discovered”, at least so far as Europeans are concerned, a whole New World in 1492. In actuality of course, the world he discovered was not “new” in any meaningful sense, since it had already been long occupied and exploited by various groups of human beings from before the great Ice Age. But the fascination with this discovery, fueled not least by the reports of the Admiral of the Ocean Seas himself, began almost immediately.

In 1493, the matter had arisen over who would hold control – rights – to these newly discovered lands. Pope Alexander VI, operating in what no doubt seemed to him to be a logical and reasonable way, declared that all the unclaimed lands beyond a line drawn 100 leagues (345 mi) west of the Cape Verde Islands would belong to Spain, and those inside that demarcation would belong to Portugal. These two great nations were, clearly, the dominant sea powers of the day and the only ones who had the potential and capacity to actually engage in exploration and development.

But as this new world unveiled its extent and riches, and its attractions, Portugal found this arrangement totally in sufficient. The next year, a new decree went out from the Pope that pushed the line farther west. Its provisions were embodied in the famous Treaty of Tordesillas. According to the terms of that agreement, the line would now be placed 370 leagues (1277 mi) west of the Cape Verde islands.

Even this, however, did not satisfy. In the end, there were many adjustments to this line of demarcation, and the two powers, Spain and Portugal, would work out independent arrangements as more and more was learned of about the New World and its extent.

What is remarkable is that at this stage only these two nations appeared to be engaged in world-wide exploration. The reason for this, however, is relatively simple. Portugal was a sea-going nation with a very profitable trading base. Both because of its able seamen and shrewd merchants, Portugal had the interest and the wherewithal to engage in significant exploration. Spain too was a trading country, but its economic power derived from much of Europe as well as its exploitation of its colonies. In the 16th century, Spain became in fact the dominant economic power of Europe.

For both of these nations, the economic ability to launch ventures of exploration largely explains why they were at the forefront of exploration. Both were aggressive in pursuing their policies. And both reaped great rewards from their ventures.

As we look back, we see that England lagged behind these efforts. In 1519, the Spanish conquistadores began to bring the Aztecs and the Incas under their control. And their victories continued to expand the Spanish Empire until it had touched virtually all of the New World – from the North American West, to Florida, the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and Northern and Western South America. In 1572, Spain controlled Manila and eventually all of the Philippine Islands.

A survey of the earliest explorers finds a raft of Spanish and Portuguese names, such as Cortez, De Gama, Balboa, Cabrillo, Pizarro, Magellan. And while Columbus was not Spanish by birth, he and many other foreigners found support by Spain (and some by Portugal.)

By comparison, the English were slow to get started in the exploration game and their names show up predominantly in the second half of the 1500s. John and Sebastian Cabot may be the only recognizable English names before 1550.


Why were the English late in the game? I do not know of any analysis of this matter. But it would make sense that they were so because of the following reasons:

  • The economy of England was much smaller than of the other European powers at the time. It is estimated that that England’s population grew from about 3.5 million in 1500 to a little over 4 million in 1600. It would grow to over 5 million by 1700. Its population was small by comparison to other European nations and its economy was largely agrarian. This would change dramatically in the 17th century, but in the 16th, it hampered England in its approach to the world.
  • England was always a part of the ever changing political tensions in the Old World. As we know, the throne was not all that stable in 1500. Henry VIII was concerned about his succession and during his reign and after he died, there was a power play involving other powers and their interests. This continued into Elizabeth’s reign. Concern with stability and security, then, may have caused the English to concentrate more on home than on the larger world scene.
  • Although all the exploring countries undertook exploration for economic gain, and largely “contracted” with venturous personalities to do so, England seems to have left this matter to entrepreneurs – people who would put up their own money to finance these schemes. Spain and Portugal seem to have been more centralized in their approach, with the government (the monarchs) actually footing the bill for exploration and colonization. This “decentralization”, if that is correct, would mean that only people with both enough money and enough interest, and enough confidence in the future, would be able to support and actually undertake exploration.
  • The fact is that England was not a power at sea in any sense in 1500. Henry VIII was the first to take maritime power into account and is generally credited with beginning the building of an English navy. After the attack and defeat of the Spanish Armada, no doubt the expansion of the navy and the development of a significant maritime capacity became important to the English. Without the technology and the skilled people to engage in long distance voyages, the English could hardly hope to be a world power. There seems to have been a difference, too, in the spiritual realm.
  • Although all the powers were intrigued and motivated by economic gain to undertake exploration, the Roman Catholic countries were spurred on as well by a missionary impulse. It was a central part of their explorers’ commissions to bring the Church to foreign lands, and they did so with much success in Asia. The New World offered even more opportunities, and the missionary societies (of clergy) sought to exploit them. The English, too, sent clergy along on these trips. But for the most part, these clergy were more chaplains and less missionaries. Although in the commissions given to groups to explore and colonize, spreading the faith was a priority, but a fairly low one. The spiritual impetus was not a large factor in motivating English exploration, at least early on.

Over the 16th century, and into the 17th, all these factors would change dramatically. It is instructive to note that Spain was at the height of her power, wealth and influence in the middle of the 16th Century. By the end of the century, she would begin to decline on all fronts. For England, as for Holland and for France, Spain’s decline represented an opportunity for development and ascendancy. Not surprisingly, in the 17th century, England and Holland would parallel each other in the economic development brought about by exploration and colonization.