The Age of Exploration

Rayyan Maker

The Age of Discovery was a period of European expansion into Asia, Africa and the Americas between the 15th and 18th century that resulted in the interaction of different peoples and cultures that had previously not been in contact. The motives for exploration included trade, the spread of Christianity, and the shear curiosity of discovering new lands. However, the main objective of exploration was trade and the acquisition of resources as Cippola writes, “religion supplied the pretext, gold the motive” (133). Although the phrase seems rather cynical, it is true that Europeans were keen to trade in goods such as spices, and establish primary sector industries such as agriculture and mining in order to transfer wealth from the ‘New World’ back to Europe. To facilitate commercial activities the Europeans established colonies that were initially based on the coast, but spread further inland over time. There were many environmental effects of European expansion, including deforestation, land degradation, the introduction of foreign animal and plant species, and the spread of European diseases. Europeans saw the New World as lands rich in resources and were quick to exploit them.

During the Age of Exploration, the Europeans discovered vast reserves of mineral wealth, especially in countries such as Brazil, Bolivia and Colombia. The discovery of metals such as gold and silver ushered a period of extensive mining activities that were facilitated by European technology. It is no surprise that when the Spanish conquistadors reached South America, they referred to the region as El Dorado because of its rich mineral content. Large amounts of land had to be cleared of vegetation to allow mining of the metals. Furthermore, the excavation of soil and rock resulted in large amounts of soil erosion and scarring as Burkholder writes, “silver mining scarred the land’s surface with pits, tunnels, processing plants, and tailings, while promoting deforestation by using wood for fuel in smelting” (75). Mined areas became devoid of vegetation and lost soil fertility, making it impossible to farm the land. The native population suffered from mining activities as they lost potential farmland and did not receive a share of the mineral wealth. Mining sites also had to be supported by settlements which paved way for urbanization near these sites. However, as more Europeans traveled to the colonized territories, the urban centers expanded away from the mining sites, but were still primarily focused on supporting mining activities as Burkholder writes, “Even regions far away from the major mining centers of Northern Mexico and upper Peru were organized to produce the food, fuel livestock and textiles that mines and miners needed.” (135). Consequently, large areas of land were cleared to establish settlements that supported the activity of clearing and excavating land to extract minerals. Mining therefore had a detrimental impact on the environment of colonized lands as it resulted in large amounts of deforestation, soil excavation and scarring of the land.

The Europeans had to support their colonized territories in terms of food and supplies, and could not rely on imported goods from Europe. To meet their needs, the Europeans established agricultural production and introduced plant and animal species that were foreign to the New World. Large amounts of deforestation occurred as land was cleared for agriculture or livestock farming. The use of European farming technologies, and extensive agricultural practices resulted in soil degradation and exhaustion as Burkholder writes, “The introduction of oxen and the European plow enabled unprecedented extensive agriculture, but also facilitated the spread of Old World weeds and promoted erosion.” (75). Agriculture progressed from subsistence based to a commercial level, with large plantations being established that were usually worked by slave labor. For example, coffee was not native to Brazil, but the environmental conditions were ideal for the crop’s growth and therefore large coffee plantations began to spring up. Large amounts of land had to be cleared to establish these plantations and due to the profit motive, yields were intended to be maximized which resulted in soil exhaustion. The Europeans had mastered animal husbandry long before other regions and therefore introduced many foreign animal species to the New World during the Age of Exploration. Livestock and pastoral farming were major economic activities in the colonized territories but had major environmental consequences. Overgrazing was the biggest issue and many native plant species were unable to support the livestock population and faced extinction as Burkholder notes, “the process of overgrazing affected the landscape as plants unable to survive overgrazing disappeared and others that were capable of sustaining browsing or were inedible replaced them” (75). Overgrazing also resulted in soil exposure to agents of erosion and weathering which caused soil degradation.

The Europeans used their technologically advanced weaponry and ships to help colonize the New World, but they were also silently assisted by microorganisms that proved lethal to the native populations. Europeans had been exposed to many types of diseases since the birth of animal husbandry and over time had built up immunity to many of these pathogens. When the colonists came into contact with indigenous populations, European diseases were able to spread and became endemic in many regions as Haring writes, “smallpox was especially destructive in the early years of the conquest, and later on measles, malaria and yellow fever also spread” (47). The natives had not been exposed to these pathogens and therefore had no immunity against them which resulted in a huge decline in the indigenous population. Burkholder writes how the epidemics facilitated the Spanish conquest in the Americas as it left an astronomical death toll in its wake (73). Approximately 90 to 95 percent of the indigenous population was wiped out between the 15th and 18th century due to European diseases which enabled the Europeans to overcome the natives and establish colonial rule.

The Age of Exploration was a period of extreme environmental degradation as a result of mining, urbanization, agriculture, livestock farming and the spread of disease. The effects of colonial economic and military activities were large amounts of deforestation, soil erosion, scarring of land, overgrazing and the massive decline in indigenous populations.

REFERENCES Cipolla, Carlo M. Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000-1700. New York: Norton, 1976. Print. Burkholder, Mark A., and Lyman L. Johnson. Colonial Latin America. Fourth ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. Print. Haring, C. H. The Spanish Empire in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1947. Print.


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