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Early European Maritime Expeditions, 1492-1522
Early European maritime expeditions in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, using caravels, were dominated by Portugal and Spain. The main goal was to find a maritime route to Asia (China/India), which could be done by sailing east or west from Europe:
  • Eastern maritime route. In the mid 15th century, Portuguese ships explored the western coast of Africa. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope and returned to announce that the road to India was opened. Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in his 1497-1499 expedition and reached India. He was the first European to reach Asia (India) by a maritime route. Portugal was able to trade with India without the traditional Arab intermediaries and gradually took control (forcefully) of all the trade routes between Europe and Pacific Asia. Because of superior naval military technology (faster and better armed ships), most of the Arab merchant fleet was sunk by 1515. In 1511, Malacca, the most important commercial center in Southeast Asia, fell to the Portuguese. In 1513, Portuguese explorers reached Canton in China and were able to use Macao as a trade depot (1557). The eastern maritime trade route to Asia was thus established.
  • Western maritime route. Christopher Columbus tried to find the western route to Asia, but stumbled upon the Americas (in the Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola) in 1492, still believing to have reached India. The reason why the Caribbean were reached first, even if Labrador is closer, is related to prevailing winds and sea currents on the North Atlantic. Cabot would also try to reach Asia in 1497 by finding a northern route, but unsuccessfully as the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador were reached instead. In 1519, Magellan embarked in an expedition to find the western maritime route to Asia. He reached the Pacific Ocean by rounding the southern tip of South America (1520) and by going through the strait that will later bear his name. After crossing the Pacific Ocean he was killed in 1521 in Southeast Asia (Philippines). However, one of his ships made the trip back to Europe through the Cape of Good Hope and completed the first round-the-world journey in history (1522). Encouraged by this success, Spain  conquered the Philippines between 1565 and 1571 and established their colonial capital at Manila. By using the isthmus of Panama as an overland route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the western maritime route to Asia was established.
Following the discovery of Columbus, Spain and Portugal met at Tordesillas, Spain in 1494 to negotiate the ownership of the new lands. An agreement, which was a renegotiation of a Papal decree made the previous year, was reached. It stated that all lands discovered west of a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands should belong to Spain while new lands discovered east of that line would belong to Portugal (1 league equals about 4.8 km).
The Treaty of Tordesillas did not address the antimeridian and how newly discovered territories in the Pacific were to be divided. In the early 16th century, as Spanish and Portuguese explorers reached the Pacific and the "spice islands" (Moluccas), a new treaty was signed; the Treaty of Zaragoza. Under the treaty, Portugal could claim ownership of all territory east of the 142 meridian. However, Spain did colonize the Philippines from 1565 mainly based on the claim the it was first discovered by Magellan. A geographic division of the world was established. Obviously other European powers such as France and Britain, would not abide to these treaties.