The great Voyages of discovery

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What was the economic significance of the Great Voyages of Discovery during the late fifteenth century? Compare the consequences for the Venetian Republic and Portugal.

The Great Voyages of Discovery dates back to the late fifteenth century and this period can be termed as the ‘Age of Discovery’. The Portuguese navigators had a major role during this period. The voyages had a long run impact on global economy, thus it can be inferred that the voyages had great economics significance. They had significant consequences on both the Venetian Republic and Portugal. It is also worth noting that the Economic significance of the voyages of discovery were two folds:

  • Opening up of new routes to east around southern tip of Africa broke the Venetian monopoly of trade between Europe and East.
  • Discovery of New World opened up new possibilities of international specialisation between the New world and Europe.

It is important to note that during that period Venice played a major role in opening the Mediterranean economy to West European commerce. It had important connections with North Europe. In building up its trade, Venice created a political empire. Between 1388-1499, Venice acquired territory on Italian mainland, by 1557, total population of these territories was about 1.5 million. It developed types of ship suitable for venetian commerce and the conditions of trade in the Mediterranean. The biggest enterprise in Venice was the Arsenal, a public shipyard . The other big sectors of Venetian economy apart from international trade were banking, book production, sugar production, trades in timber, carpentry, rope etc. There were also considerable manufacturing activities producing goods for local use and export. It was a leader in glass blowing. Venice traded with Asia in raw silk and silk products, but eventually this led to import substitution in Europe. The Venetian government regulated production of silk and related products. The products were of very high quality and they made a substantial contribution to Venetian exports. They also traded in spices. For trade with east, they relied on Mediterranean followed by Egyptian and Syrian middlemen. Thus briefly stated, Venice had a political empire and it also had trade monopoly with the east.

Europeans wanted direct access to the spices and trade with Asia, thus discovering a route to east was not a new idea. By 15th century, it was clear that such a venture would be very expensive and highly risky, but developments in eastern Mediterranean made it clear that the old Venetian route through Egyptian and Syrian middlemen was under threat, and the benefits from a new route would be enormous and rewarding. Therefore, there were preparations for this venture. It started when Prince Henry established a marine research station in Portugal. There had been developments in ship design, rigging and seamanship which made it possible to undertake long distance trips in deep waters. Further the Portuguese undertook trial voyages to explore possible route and wind patterns, like the one by Bartolomeu Dias. He discovered the Cape of Good Hope (May 1488).

The Portuguese strategy of doing by knowing made good sense. Each trip built on the one before; each time they went a little farther.

All these finally led to the voyage of Vasco da Gama around Africa to Calicut, India during 1497-99. The voyage itself was not very feasible, but he had proved the feasibility of the route and found a new source of gold in east Africa. He also confirmed that there were no maritime fleets in the Indian Ocean which could impede Portuguese access to spice trade.

Following da gama’s first voyage, Padro Cabral set sail to improve on the route, bring back a significant cargo and establish a base on Kerala coast. Cabral went farther west in the Atlantic than da Gama, and accidently found Brazil, which was within the boundaries allotted to Portugal in the Treaty of Tordesillas. It was further followed by da gama’s 2nd voyage to India.

All these developments led Portuguese Kingdom discovering and mapping most of the Globe.

It is also worth noting that Europeans also went west. In 1492, Spain financed Columbus for his venture, he set sail and sighted West Indies. Later, to protect the respective interests, Spain and Portugal negotiated for a line of demarcation to divide the world into two halves for purposes of further exploration, with western half reserved for Spain and eastern for Portugal. The demarcation line even gave Brazil to Portugal.

The Venetian role in spice trade was greatly reduced at the beginning of the 16th century because of restrictions on trade with Syria and Egypt imposed by the new Ottoman authorities, and competition from direct Portuguese shipments from Asia. Venetian spice import fell from 1600 tons a year towards the end of 15th century to less than 500 tons a year by the first decade of the sixteenth century. Thus the leading role of Venice in trade had declined.

Its sugar industry in Crete and Cyprus also declined because of competition from Portuguese production in Madeira and later in Brazil.

There were changes in shipbuilding technologies because of which the Venetian galleys became obsolete, because of which there was a sharp decline in the main product of the Arsenal. The Venetian merchants increased their purchase from abroad. Venice could not adapt to technological change because it did not have access to cheap timber unlike other Atlantic economies.

The great old mercantile and industrial city state of Venice eventually lost out. Venetian republic along with other city states had been at the forefront of the medieval commercial revolution and had led the way into international trade and division of labour, but they never really capitalized on the opportunities opened by the great discovery; there was no Italian ship in Indian Ocean or crossed Atlantic. It was entered and caught in the great inland sea.

It is also worth noting that over the 16, 17, 18th centuries Venice did not expand much in population and per capita income, but it remained one of the richest parts of Italy and Europe until overtaken by the Dutch in the 17th century.

After da gama’s second voyage, he returned to Lisbon with 13 of his ships and nearly 1700 tons of spices i.e. about the same as annual Venetian imports from the middle east at the end of the 15th century. However, the Portuguese margins on this trade were much bigger than the Venetian.

Portugal’s primary commercial objective in the east was to obtain pepper and other spices and ship these directly to Europe, bypassing the intermediaries that the traditional traffic faced across Asia into the Mediterranean. The Portuguese did this by purchase or seizure. The Portuguese displaced Asian traders who had supplied spices to Red Sea and Persian gulf ports for onward sale to Venetian traders. Initially, these measures were a huge success and earned a large share of trade i.e. 40 percent of the pepper imported into Europe was going around the cape of good hope. This significantly hurt the venetians. But as time progressed, the older trade routes were being reused. The direct Portuguese share fell back to about 20 percent. To make up for the shrinking spice trade, the Portuguese foot into intra Asia exchange. There was trade within the Asian waters in textiles, porcelain, precious metal, carpets, perfume, jewellery, horses, timber, salt, raw silk, gold, silver, medicinal herbs and many other commodities. In the 1550s to the 1630s this kind of trade between China and Japan was a particularly profitable source of income for Portugal. Silk and porcelain played an increased role, and in the 17th and 18th century, cotton textiles and tea became very important.

The Portuguese completely controlled the Indian Ocean. All merchant vessels were required to purchase a Portuguese trading license. Those who did not abide by the rules were liable to seizure. This domineering had another positive effect for Portugal: many fewer ships went out from Europe to Asia.

In 1570, the crown gave up its monopoly of trade between Lisbon and Goa. This led to decline of Portugal as a trade leader.

The various voyages by Portuguese navigators (Dias, Cabral, da Gama) had laid the foundations of the Portuguese trading empire in east Africa and Asia. Portugal maintained a monopoly of traffic round the Cape of Good Hope until the last decade of the 16th century. Thus it can be comfortably said that without advances in shipbuilding and navigation, journey to far east would not have been successful. Overall, the costs of trade were much low for Portugal as compared to the Venetian method-through Mediterranean and by land across Asia. Thus, the great voyages of discovery completely transformed European trading with the east, breaking the monopoly held by the venetians and making many of the goods found in Asia more accessible to rest of Europe.


  • Maddison, A.(2001).The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective. Paris: OECD
  • Maddison, A.(2007). Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macro-economic History.Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Landes, D.(1998). The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: why some are so rich and some so poor .Little, Brown and Company
  • Winius, G.(2007). Portuguese Indian Ocean Exploration Voyages, 1497-1515,The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Maritime History. Ed. John B. Hattendorf. (online) ( Oxford: Oxford University Press(Accessed 06 December 2009)

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