Investigative Question

Why did Europeans explore?

Students begin their study of the period by investigating this question: Why did Europeans explore? In this unit, students concentrate on the expeditions of the early explorers and learn about the explorers’ European origins, motives, journeys, and the enduring historical significance of their voyages to the Americas. Several important factors contributed to the age of exploration: religious and political conflict in Western Europe, advances in nautical technology and weaponry, and European competition over access and control of economic resources overseas. The global spread of plants, animals, people, and diseases (Columbian Exchange) beginning in the fifteenth century transformed the world’s ecosystems. The exchanges spread new food crops and livestock across the world and initiated the period of European global expansion. The exchanges also had a devastating impact on indigenous populations in the Western Hemisphere, due to the spread of illnesses such as measles and smallpox, for which the native populations had no natural immunity.

This inquiry set aims to challenge an older conception about fifteenth-century European exploration having been initiated with Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the Americas. As the documents in this inquiry set demonstrate, Europeans had been exploring the west coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean before Columbus’s voyage. Indeed, Columbus aimed to build upon earlier explorations by moving west to reach the “far east” to trade and obtain the luxury goods that Europeans desired. This inquiry set contains several sources that reveal the goals of explorers. Source 1, a letter from the astronomer Toscanell to Columbus, indicates that Columbus hoped to find the east by sailing west. Source 2 confirms explorers’ ideas about the world as a sphere covered in oceans and land masses. Students can analyze the globe to discover that European conceptions of the earth — both its surface and its place in the universe — differed in key ways from our contemporary understanding of the geography of the earth and our heliocentric solar system. 

 

Europeans initially explored to obtain wealth, mostly in the form of material goods. Sources 3, 4, and 5 provide evidence to support this purpose. Source 3, a secondary academic text, shows that from Columbus’s first voyage he documented the types of spices that he thought could be obtained from the Americas. The monarchs’ plan to send a physician on Columbus’s second voyage suggests that they were interested in learning how these products could be used to benefit Europeans. Similarly, the map of Brazil in Source 4 depicts the resources of the Americas, as well as the people. The map reveals European goals of trading material goods from one continent to another across the Atlantic world. Source 5 is a description by Bernal Diaz de Castillo that names and describes the items found at the marketplace in the Aztec capital. The exotic goods he listed were items of great luxury for the Europeans. Students may engage in a close reading activity of this source to draw a map of the marketplace based on the description.

 

Europeans’ interactions with the indigenous people of the Americas were violent. On their voyages, Europeans brought along soldiers to conquer native people by military means. Europeans also brought priests to conquer native culture and convert people to Christianity. Source 1 illustrates how European voyagers imagined their mission as a Christian enterprise. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand had the title “Catholic Monarchs.” Religious conquest of both Spain and the Americas was central to their strategic policy. This can be explicitly seen in Source 6, where Guaman Poma depicts the friar and the conquistador as coming to meet as equals with Atahualpa, the Incan leader. The codex in Source 7 includes the image of the Virgin Mary, which represents the military banner of the Spanish noble Guzmán. The codex comes closest to showing ways that natives countered the attempted conquest. It is a testimony of the indigenous people who sued the Spaniard for overtaxation to fund his military battles. The imagery in the codex links conquest and conversion to the broader European exploration effort. 

 

Source 8, the final source, includes an image of California imagined as an island in the Pacific. This seventeenth-century map suggests that Europeans continued to learn more about the world as they moved farther west. The next territory to explore was the Pacific world. As with the Atlantic world, European conquest brought the creation of knowledge — new people, products, and ideas — that inspired and informed the European imagination. By the end of the era of exploration, in the late seventeenth century, the Pacific world was terra incognita, or unknown land, a space that Europeans desired to explore, conquer, and understand.

This literacy activity will help students comprehend and visualize the primary source written by Bernal Diaz de Castillo, in which he described an Aztec marketplace. Students will work as translators, creating maps of the marketplace based on the information included in the primary source. In this way, students will understand the wealth of goods that were traded in the Aztec capital. These goods served as a driving force for European exploration in the Americas. This literacy activity helps students to develop their own language and evidence to respond to the inquiry question, Why did Europeans explore?

 

Directions

 

  1. Introduce the activity. Emphasize that the age of European exploration was a time of immense knowledge production and that the sharing of experiences and items from the Americas was interesting to European audiences. Bernal Diaz de Castillo described his exploration and conquest of the Americas at length. This assignment asks students to translate one of his experiences into the visual format of a map, which people at the time used to better understand the world. 

  2. Read, discuss, and analyze the text. 

    1. Begin by asking students to read the document excerpt and underline the items that were listed for sale at the Tlaltelolco marketplace. 

    2. Next, ask students to reread the source and circle or highlight all the comparisons Bernal Diaz de Castillo makes (the ways that both compare and contrast) to what he knows of markets from his experiences in Europe. 

    3. Students can then work in partners to group the items for sale. For example, he mentions animal skins for sale, “skins of tigers and lions, of otters and jackals, deer and other animals and badgers and mountain cats, some tanned and others untanned...” These items could be categorized into one group of animal skins. 

    4. Once students have grouped items, then they can draw a map of the marketplace. Direct students to include a legend (key) in the map that identifies the different categories of items. For example, their groups could be: food, precious metals, animal skins, etc. 

    5. After the students create the map, ask them to compose a title for the map and a description. The audience for their title, description, and map should be a European audience in the sixteenth century. Be sure to remind students the map and description should allow them to answer the questions, Why did Europeans explore? What were Europeans interested in learning and gaining from their explorations of the Americas?

  3. Extend the learning. Students can study online maps of Tenochtitlan to learn about the ways that cartographers imagined the city based on narratives like Diaz’s. This will help students compare how their maps are similar to and different from the maps made by others.

The subject matter that relates to enslavement, and Spanish and Portuguese treatment of natives and Africans is brutal, especially for fifth grade students.  While it is important to avoid sanitizing the past for students, the descriptions in this set have been intentionally designed for an elementary school audience.  However, teachers should still take care to prepare students for learning about such topics.