Chapter V – The Great Encounter

Europe in the XV Century

Great changes took place in Europe through all of the XV century, the feudal production system was in it's last stages of decay, because of which, the society was beginning to wake up from an intellectual regression and the economic limitations that had kept it immersed during the entire Middle Ages. A new economic model, and thus social, was starting to take it's place: Mercantilism, the first phase of the modern Industrial Capitalism.


From large tracts of land or feudal domains, controlled by a Feudal lord to whom serfs paid for protection with labor. People were migrating to the cities, growing larger and larger, with diverse trades and social levels: artisans, day laborers, merchants, builders, bankers, architects and artists, specially of moral or religious nature.

The system of thought that accompanied this reaction was called Humanism, the ideological platform of the Renaissance. From the start, without breaking with the church's precepts, Humanism relocated man's position on the earth, dignifying him as the center of creation and by divine will, making him nature's master and in charge of his own destiny.

This new way of thinking contributed the sense of direction and unity that the budding middle class needed; the new vision of successful merchants and manufacturers, that through supply and demand, metals forged into coins, and banks, achieved a considerable increment of control in the society.

Starting with Humanism, there were great developments in the sciences; since natural phenomenons would no longer be attributed to the hand of God, magic, or mysticism, Europeans would question, explore and analyze, deducting and proving a whole new horizon full of possibilities. These were the early times of logic and reason, of the development of a new scientific culture.

With the invention of the press in 1440, books were produced at less cost and in larger quantities, facilitating the communication of new findings and ideas. Larger groups had access to fountains of information that, through centuries of war, had remained secluded in monasteries throughout Europe.

Of course, this marvelous splendor only included the nobility, the clergy and the vigorous bourgeois; the large mass of illiterate farmers and artisans made their living during the day and found themselves without any type of rights or comforts, defenseless in front of the arbitrary authority of kings and princes.

Likewise, the population, in general, lived very tightly within walled cities, with very bad of no sanitary conditions, accosted by regular plagues and hunger crises. Within this panorama, it is easy to comprehend the high level of sacrifice that people would endure to reach titles, glory and gold in American lands.

Nocturlabio de Apiano2

Politically, order also took a different direction; favored by the collection of taxes paid in cash and not in wheat, some feudal lords became powerful and were able to incorporate, each time, more of the neighboring small townships and feudal domains. Thus, after centuries of fragmented power, some monarchies were large government units in the process of becoming nation-estates, while, at the same time, transferring the Church's power and collections under their local control.

On the military side, the use of gun powder along with the invention of the arquebus, allowed the soldiers to have more individual fire arms, turning a small war unit into a destructive force. Likewise, canons were not only used on land, but could also be installed on board of vessels and make it easier to bombard and destroy coastal settlements or cities.

Alongside these innovations, the evolution in the design of ships resulted in larger naval construction. With the use of key navigation instruments to get your bearings in the sea like the compass and astrolabe, these conditions turned Europe into a true naval power that dominated all the Mediterranean and northwestern Africa.

The commercial land routes that connected it with Asia were controlled by Venetian and Genevese merchants, who distributed in Europe very important imports such as spices, fabrics and precious stones. With the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, Italian merchants were forced to pay high taxes to transport goods, provoking an increase in the cost of said articles.

Portuguese factories or posts in northeast Africa were strategically located within maritime commercial routes. Imports from this area included gold, ivory, woods and slaves.

At the end of the century, Europe found itself with two fundamental problems: the need to import more gold, valuable metal that was starting to be scarce since local mines were depleting, and the need to establish new commercial routes with Asia, so that the newly formed states could import directly the spices and other goods, as well as export the growing industry of European goods.

Equally, European monarchs considered the possibility of colonial establishment that secured the exploitation of riches at lower costs.