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World History & Cultures II
Activity: Age of Discovery/Exploration Movie Titles (Minor Assessment grade)
Activity Time: 35-40 minutes
The Age of Discovery/Exploration included many individuals, great and small. It is
impossible to cover all of them. The following activity will allow you to become
acquainted with the exploits of one famous explorer. You will be assigned one of the
explorers who was a part of the Age of Discovery/Exploration. After reading some
background information about that explorer, you will make up three titles for adventure
movies that deal with their exploits. Movie titles should be clever and say something
significant about what those explorers did. Write your movie titles on a piece of loose
leaf paper and underneath each title, write down what historical information/fact you are
basing that movie title off of. After the activity time, volunteers for each explorer will be
asked to give us their “best” movie title and then the class will vote for which one they
like the best! Yay!
The Portuguese nobleman Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) sailed from Lisbon in 1497 on a mission to reach
India and open a sea route from Europe to the East. After sailing down the western coast of Africa and
rounding the Cape of Good Hope, his expedition made numerous stops in Africa before reaching the
trading post of Calicut, India, in May 1498. Da Gama received a hero’s welcome back in Portugal, and
was sent on a second expedition to India in 1502, during which he brutally clashed with Muslim traders in
the region. Two decades later, da Gama again returned to India, this time as Portuguese viceroy; he
died there of an illness in late 1524.
Born circa 1460, Vasco da Gama was the son of a minor nobleman who commanded the fortress at
Sines, located on the coast of the Alentejo province in southwestern Portugal. Little else is known about
his early life, but in 1492 King John II sent da Gama to the port city of Setubal (south of Lisbon) and to the
Algarve region to seize French ships in retaliation for French attacks on Portuguese shipping
In 1497, John’s successor, King Manuel I (crowned in 1495), chose da Gama to lead a Portuguese fleet to
India in search of a maritime route from Western Europe to the East. At the time, the Muslims held a
monopoly of trade with India and other Eastern nations, thanks to their geographical position. Da
Gama sailed from Lisbon that July with four vessels, traveling south along the coast of Africa before
veering far off into the southern Atlantic in order to avoid unfavorable currents. The fleet was finally
able to round the Cape of Good Hope at Africa’s southern tip in late November, and headed north along
Africa’s eastern coast, making stops at what is now Mozambique, Mombasa and Malindi (both now in
Kenya). With the help of a local navigator, da Gama was able to cross the Indian Ocean and reach the
coast of India at Calicut (now Kozhikode) in May 1498.
Though the local Hindu population of Calicut initially welcomed the arrival of the Portuguese sailors
(who mistook them for Christians), tensions quickly flared after da Gama offered their ruler a
collection of relatively cheap goods as an arrival gift. This conflict, along with hostility from Muslim
traders, led Da Gama to leave without concluding a treaty and return to Portugal. A much larger fleet,
commanded by Pedro Alvares Cabral, was dispatched to capitalize on da Gama’s discoveries and secure a
trading post at Calicut.
After Muslim traders killed 50 of his men, Cabral retaliated by burning 10 Muslim cargo vessels and
killing the nearly 600 sailors aboard. He then moved on to Cochin, where he established the first
Portuguese trading post in India. In 1502, King Manuel put da Gama in charge of another Indian
expedition, which sailed that February. On this voyage, da Gama attacked Arab shipping interests in the
region and used force to reach an agreement with Calicut’s ruler. For these brutal demonstrations of
power, da Gama was vilified throughout India and the region. Upon his return to Portugal, by contrast,
he was richly rewarded for another successful voyage.
Da Gama had married a well-born woman sometime after returning from his first voyage to India; the
couple would have six sons. For the next 20 years, da Gama continued to advise the Portuguese ruler on
Indian affairs, but he was not sent back to the region until 1524, when King John III appointed him as
Portuguese viceroy in India.
Da Gama arrived in Goa with the task of combating the growing corruption that had tainted the
Portuguese government in India. He soon fell ill, and in December 1524 he died in Cochin. His body was
later taken back to Portugal for burial there.
Though the exact details of his life and expeditions are the subject of debate, John Cabot (or Giovanni
Caboto, as he was known in Italian) may have developed the idea of sailing westward to reach the riches
of Asia while working for a Venetian merchant. By the late 1490s, he was living in England, and gained a
commission from King Henry VII to make an expedition across the northern Atlantic. He sailed from
Bristol in May 1497 and made landfall in late June. The exact site of Cabot’s landing has not been
definitively established; it may have been located in Newfoundland, Cape Breton Island or southern
Labrador. After returning to England to report his success, Cabot departed on a second expedition in
mid-1498, but is thought to have perished in a shipwreck en route.
Giovanni Caboto was born circa 1450 in Genoa, and moved to Venice around 1461; he became a Venetian
citizen in 1476. Evidence suggests that he worked as a merchant in the spice trade of the Levant, or
eastern Mediterranean, and may have traveled as far as Mecca, then an important trading center for
Oriental and Western goods. He studied navigation and map-making during this period, and (similarly
to his countryman Christopher Columbus) appears to have become interested in the possibility of
reaching the rich markets of Asia by sailing in a westward direction.
Did You Know?
John Cabot's landing in 1497 is generally thought to be the first European encounter with the North American
continent since Leif Eriksson and the Vikings explored the area they called Vinland in the 11th century.
For the next several decades, Cabot’s exact activities are unknown; he may have spent several years in
Valencia and Seville, Spain, and may have been in Valencia in 1493, when Columbus passed through the
city on his way to report to the Spanish monarchs the results of his western voyage (including his
mistaken belief that he had in fact reached Asia). By late 1495, Cabot had reached Bristol, England, a port
city that had served as a starting point for several previous expeditions across the North Atlantic. From
there, he worked to convince the British crown that England did not have to stand aside while Spain
claimed most of the New World, and that it was possible to reach Asia on a more northerly route than
the one Columbus had taken.
In 1896, King Henry VII issued letters patent to Cabot and his son, which authorized them to make a
voyage of discovery and to return with goods for sale on the English market. After a first, aborted
attempt, Cabot sailed out of Bristol on the small ship Matthew in May 1497, with a crew of 18 men. The
expedition made landfall in North America on June 24; the exact location is disputed, but may have been
southern Labrador, the island of Newfoundland or Cape Breton Island. When Cabot went ashore, he
reportedly saw signs of habitation but no people. He took possession of the land for King Henry, but
hoisted both the English and Venetian flags.
Cabot explored the area and named various features of the region, including Cape Discovery, Island of
St. John, St. George’s Cape, Trinity Islands and England’s Cape. These may correspond to modern-day
places located around what became known as Cabot Strait, the 60-mile-wide channel running between
southwestern Newfoundland and northern Cape Breton Island. Like Columbus, Cabot believed that he
had reached Asia’s northeast coast, and returned to Bristol in August 1497 with extremely favorable
reports of the exploration.
In London in late 1497, Cabot proposed to King Henry VII that he set out on a second expedition across
the north Atlantic. This time, he would continue westward from his first landfall until he reached the
island of Cipangu (Japan). In February 1498, the king issued letters patent for the second voyage, and
that May Cabot set off from Bristol with about five ships and 200 men.
The exact fate of the expedition has not been established, but by July one of the ships had been damaged
and sought anchorage in Ireland. It was believed that the ships had been caught in a severe storm, and by
1499, Cabot himself was presumed to have perished at sea. In addition to laying the groundwork for
British land claims in Canada, his expeditions proved the existence of a shorter route across the
northern Atlantic Ocean, which would later facilitate the establishment of other British colonies in
North America.
In the 15th century, spices were at the epicenter of the world economy, much like oil is today. Highly
valued for flavoring and preserving food as well as masking the taste of meat gone bad, spices like
cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and especially black pepper, were extremely valuable. Since spices could not be
cultivated in cold and arid Europe, no effort was spared to discover the quickest sea route to the Spice
Islands. Portugal and Spain led the competition for early control over this critical commodity.
Europeans had reached the Spice Islands by sailing east, but none had yet to sail west from Europe to
reach the other side of the globe. Magellan was determined to be the first to do so.
By now an experienced seaman, Magellan approached King Manuel of Portugal to seek his support for a
westward voyage to the Spice Islands. The king refused his petition repeatedly. In 1517 a frustrated
Magellan renounced his Portuguese nationality and relocated to Spain to seek royal support for his
When Magellan arrived in Seville in October 1517, he had no connections and spoke little Spanish. He
soon met another transplanted Portuguese named Diogo Barbosa, and within a year he had married
Barbosa’s daughter Beatriz, who gave birth to their son Rodrigo a year later. The well-connected
Barbosa family introduced Magellan to officers responsible for Spain’s maritime exploration, and soon
Magellan secured an appointment to meet the king of Spain.
The grandson of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who had funded Columbus’ expedition to the New
World in 1492, received Magellan’s petition with the same favor shown by his grandparents. Just 18 years
old at the time, King Charles I granted his support to Magellan, who in turn promised the young king
that his westward sea voyage would bring immeasurable riches to Spain.
STRAIT OF MAGELLAN On August 10, 1519 Magellan bade farewell to his wife and young son, neither of whom he would ever see
again, and the Armada De Moluccas set sail. Magellan commanded the lead ship Trinidad and was
accompanied by four other ships: the San Antonio, the Conception, the Victoria, and the Santiago. The
expedition would prove long and arduous, and only one ship, the Victoria, would return home three
years later, carrying a mere 18 of the fleet’s original crew of 270.
In September 1519 Magellan’s fleet sailed from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain, and crossed the Atlantic
Ocean, which was then known simply as the Ocean Sea. The fleet reached South America a little more
than one month later. There the ships sailed southward, hugging the coast in search of the fabled strait
that would allow passage through South America. The fleet stopped at Port San Julian where the crew
mutinied on Easter Day in 1520. Magellan quickly quelled the uprising, executing one of the captains and
leaving another mutinous captain behind. Meanwhile Magellan had sent the Santiago to explore the
route ahead, where it was shipwrecked during a terrible storm. The ship’s crewmembers were rescued
and assigned out among the remaining ships. With those disastrous events behind them, the fleet left
Port San Julian five months later when fierce seasonal storms abated.
On October 21, 1520 Magellan finally entered the strait that he had been seeking and that came to bear
his name. The voyage through the strait was treacherous and cold, and many sailors continued to
mistrust their leader and grumble about the dangers of the journey ahead. In the early days of the
navigation of the strait, the crew of the San Antonio forced its captain to desert, and the ship turned and
fled across the Atlantic Ocean back to Spain. At this point, only three of the original five ships remained
in Magellan’s fleet.
MAGELLAN: CIRCUMNAVIGATING THE GLOBE After more than a month spent traversing the strait, Magellan’s remaining armada emerged in
November 1520 to behold a vast ocean before them. They were the first known Europeans to see the
great ocean, which Magellan named Mar Pacifico, the Pacific Ocean, for its apparent peacefulness, a
stark contrast to the dangerous waters of the strait from which he had just emerged. In fact, extremely
rough waters are not uncommon in the Pacific Ocean, where tsunamis, typhoons and hurricanes have
done serious damage to the Pacific Islands and Pacific Rim nations throughout history.
Little was known about the geography beyond South America at that time, and Magellan optimistically
estimated that the trip across the Pacific would be rapid. In fact it took three months for the fleet to
make its way slowly across the vastMar Pacifico. The days dragged on as Magellan’s crew anxiously
waited to utter the magic words “Land, ho!” At last in March 1521 the fleet reached the Pacific island of
Guam, where they finally replenished their food stores.
Magellan’s fleet then sailed on to the Philippine archipelago landing on the island of Cebu, where
Magellan befriended the locals and, struck with a sudden religious zeal, he sought to convert them to
Christianity. Magellan was now closer than ever to reaching the Spice Islands, but when the Cebu asked
for his help in fighting their neighbors on the island of Mactan, Magellan agreed. He assumed he would
command a swift victory with his superior European weapons, and against the advice of his men,
Magellan himself led the attack. The Mactanese fought fiercely, and Magellan fell when he was shot with
a poison arrow. He died on April 27, 1521.
Magellan would never make it to the Spice Islands, but after the loss of yet another of his fleet’s vessels,
the two remaining ships finally reached the Moluccas on November 5, 1521. In the end, only the Victoria
completed the voyage around the world and arrived back in Seville, Spain, in September 1522 with a heavy
cargo of spices but with only 18 men from the original crew.
Seeking riches and personal glory, Magellan’s daring and ambitious voyage around the world provided
the Europeans with far more than just spices. Although the trip westward from Europe to the east via
the Strait of Magellan had been discovered and mapped, the journey was too long and dangerous to
become a practical route to the Spice Islands. Nevertheless, European geographic knowledge was
expanded immeasurably by Magellan’s expedition. He found not only a massive ocean, hitherto
unknown to Europeans, but he also discovered that the earth was much larger than previously thought.
Finally, although it was no longer believed that the earth was flat at this stage in history, Magellan’s
circumnavigation of the globe empirically discredited the medieval theory conclusively.
Though Magellan is often credited with the first circumnavigation on the globe, he did so on a
technicality: He first made a trip from Europe to the Spice Islands, eastward via the Indian Ocean, and
then later made his famous westward voyage that brought him to the Philippines. So he did cover the
entire terrain, but it was not a strict point A to point A, round-the-world trip, and it was made in two
different directions. His slave, Enrique, however, was born in either Cebu or Mallaca and came to
Europe with Magellan by ship. Ten years later, he then returned to both Cebu (with Magellan) and
Mallaca (after Magellan died) by ship on the armada’s westward route. So Enrique was the first person
to circumnavigate the world in one direction, from point A to point A.
In 1488, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450-1500) became the first European mariner to
round the southern tip of Africa, opening the way for a sea route from Europe to Asia. Dias’ ships
rounded the perilous Cape of Good Hope and then sailed around Africa’s southernmost point, Cabo das
Agulhas, to enter the waters of the Indian Ocean. Portugal and other European nations already had
long-established trade ties to Asia, but the arduous overland route had been closed in the 1450s due to
the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of the remnants of the Byzantine Empire. A major maritime victory
for Portugal, Dias’ breakthrough opened the door to increased trade with India and other Asian
powers. It also prompted Genoan explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), then living in Portugal, to
seek a new royal patron for a mission to establish his own sea route to the Far East.
Almost nothing is known about the life of Bartolomeu de Novaes Dias before 1487, except that he was at
the court of João II, king of Portugal (1455-1495), and was a superintendent of the royal warehouses. He
likely had much more sailing experience than his one recorded stint aboard the warship São Cristóvão.
Dias was probably in his mid- to late 30s in 1486 when João appointed him to head an expedition in
search of a sea route to India.
João was entranced by the legend of Prester John, a mysterious and probably apocryphal 12th-century
leader of a nation of Christians somewhere in Africa. João sent out a pair of explorers, Afonso de Paiva
(c. 1460-c. 1490) and Pêro da Covilhã (c. 1450-c. 1526), to search overland for the Christian kingdom in
Ethiopia. João also wanted to find a way around the southernmost point of Africa’s coastline, so just a
few months after dispatching the overland explorers, he sponsored Dias in an African expedition.
In August 1487, Dias’ trio of ships departed from the port of Lisbon, Portugal. Dias followed the route of
15th-century Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão (c. 1450-c. 1486), who had followed the coast of Africa as
far as present-day Cape Cross, Namibia. Dias’ cargo included the standard “padrões,” the limestone
markers used to stake Portuguese claims on the continent. Padrões were planted at the shoreline and
served as guideposts to previous Portuguese explorations of the coast.
Dias’ expedition party included six Africans who had been brought to Portugal by earlier explorers. Dias
dropped off the Africans at different ports along the coastline of Africa with supplies of gold and silver
and messages of goodwill from the Portuguese to the indigenous people. The last two Africans were left
at a place the Portuguese sailors called Angra do Salto, probably in modern Angola, and the expedition’s
supply ship was left there under guard of nine men.
In early January 1488, as Dias’ two ships sailed off the coast of South Africa, storms blew them away
from the coast. Dias is thought to have ordered a turn to the south of about 28 degrees, probably
because he had prior knowledge of southeasterly winds that would take him around the tip of Africa and
keep his ships from being dashed on the notoriously rocky shoreline. João and his predecessors had
obtained navigational intelligence, including a 1460 map from Venice that showed the Indian Ocean on
the other side of Africa.
Dias’ decision was risky, but it worked. The crew spotted landfall on February 3, 1488, about 300 miles
east of present-day Cape of Good Hope. They found a bay they called São Bras (present-day Mossel Bay)
and the much warmer waters of the Indian Ocean. From the shoreline, indigenous Khoikhoi pelted Dias’
ships with stones until an arrow fired by either Dias or one of his men felled a tribesman. Dias ventured
further along the coastline, but his crew was nervous about the dwindling food supplies and urged him
to turn back. As mutiny loomed, Dias appointed a council to decide the matter. The members came to
the agreement that they would permit him to sail another three days, then turn back. At Kwaaihoek, in
present-day Eastern Cape province, they planted a padrão on March 12, 1488, which marked the
easternmost point of Portuguese exploration.
On the journey back, Dias observed the southernmost point of Africa, later called Cabo das Agulhas, or
Cape of Needles. Dias named the rocky second cape Cabo das Tormentas (Cape of Storms) for the
tempestuous storms and strong Atlantic-Antarctic currents that made ship travel so perilous.
Back in Angra do Salto, Dias and his crew were aghast to find that only three of the nine men left
guarding the food ship had survived repeated attacks by locals; a seventh man died on the journey home.
In Lisbon, after 15 months at sea and a journey of nearly 16,000 miles, the returning mariners were
met by triumphant crowds. In a private meeting with the king, however, Dias was forced to explain his
failure to meet up with Paiva and Covilhã. Despite his immense achievement, Dias was never again put in
a position of authority. João ordered that henceforth, maps would show the new name for Cabo das
Tormentas–Cabo da Boa Esperança, or Cape of Good Hope.
Following his expedition, Dias settled for a time in Guinea in West Africa, where Portugal had
established a gold-trading site. João’s successor, Manuel I (1469-1521), ordered Dias to serve as a
shipbuilding consultant for the expedition ofVasco da Gama (c. 1460-1524). Dias sailed with the da Gama
expedition as far as the Cape Verde Islands, then returned to Guinea. Da Gama’s ships reached their
goal of India in May 1498, nearly a decade after Dias’ historic trip around the tip of Africa. Afterward,
Manuel sent out a massive fleet to India under Pedro Álvares Cabral (c. 1467-c. 1520), and Dias captained
four of the ships. They reached Brazil in March 1500, then headed across the Atlantic toward South
Africa and, further ahead, the Indian subcontinent. At the feared Cabo das Tormentas, storms struck
the fleet of 13 ships. In May 1500, four of the ships were wrecked, including Dias’, with all crew lost at sea.
At the end of the 15th century, it was nearly impossible to reach Asia from Europe by land. The route was
long and arduous, and encounters with hostile armies were difficult to avoid. Portuguese explorers
solved this problem by taking to the sea: They sailed south along the West African coast and around the
Cape of Good Hope.
But Columbus had a different idea: Why not sail west across the Atlantic instead of around the massive
African continent? The young navigator’s logic was sound, but his math was faulty. He argued
(incorrectly) that the circumference of the Earth was much smaller than his contemporaries believed it
was; accordingly, he believed that the journey by boat from Europe to Asia should be not only possible
but comparatively easy. He presented his plan to officials in Portugal and England, but it was not until
1491 that he found a sympathetic audience: the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of
Columbus wanted fame and fortune. Ferdinand and Isabella wanted the same, along with the
opportunity to export Catholicism to lands across the globe. (Columbus, a devout Catholic, was equally
enthusiastic about this possibility.) Columbus’ contract with the Spanish rulers promised that he could
keep 10 percent of whatever riches he found, along with a noble title and the governorship of any lands
he should encounter.
On August 3, 1492, Columbus and his crew set sail from Spain in three ships: the Nina, the Pinta and the
Santa Maria. On October 12, the ships made landfall–not in Asia, as Columbus assumed, but on one of the
Bahamian islands. For months, Columbus sailed from island to island in what we now know as the
Caribbean, looking for the “pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices, and other objects and
merchandise whatsoever” that he had promised to his Spanish patrons, but he did not find much. In
March 1493, leaving 40 men behind in a makeshift settlement on Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the
Dominican Republic), he returned to Spain.
About six months later, in September 1493, Columbus returned to the Americas. He found the Hispaniola
settlement destroyed (to this day, no one knows what happened there) and left his brothers Bartolomeo
and Diego behind to rebuild, along with part of his ships’ crew and hundreds of enslaved natives. Then he
headed west, with his own complement of native slaves, to continue his mostly fruitless search for gold
and other goods. In lieu of the material riches he had promised the Spanish monarchs, he sent some 500
slaves to Queen Isabella. The queen was horrified–she believed that any people Columbus “discovered”
were Spanish subjects who could not be enslaved–and she promptly and sternly returned the explorer’s
In May 1498, Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic for the third time. He visited Trinidad and the
South American mainland before returning to the ill-fated Hispaniola settlement, where the colonists
had staged a bloody revolt against the Columbus brothers’ mismanagement and brutality. Conditions
were so bad that Spanish authorities had to send a new governor to take over. Christopher Columbus
was arrested and returned to Spain in chains.
In 1502, cleared of the most serious charges but stripped of his noble titles, the aging Columbus
persuaded the Spanish king to pay for one last trip across the Atlantic. This time, Columbus made it all
the way to Panama–just miles from the Pacific Ocean–where he had to abandon two of his four ships in
the face of an attack from hostile natives. Empty-handed, the elderly explorer returned to Spain, where
he died in 1506.
Leif Eriksson was the son of Erik the Red, founder of the first European settlement on what is now
called Greenland. Around A.D. 1000, Eriksson sailed to Norway, where King Olaf I converted him to
Christianity. According to one school of thought, Eriksson sailed off course on his way back to
Greenland and landed on the North American continent, where he explored a region he called Vinland.
He may also have sought out Vinland based on stories of an earlier voyage by an Icelandic trader. After
spending the winter in Vinland, Leif sailed back to Greenland, and never returned to North American
shores. He is generally believed to be the first European to reach the North American continent, nearly
four centuries years before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492.
Leif Eriksson (spelling variations include Eiriksson, Erikson or Ericson), known as “Leif the Lucky,” was
the second of three sons of the famed Norse explorer Erik the Red, who established a settlement in
Greenland after being expelled from Iceland around A.D. 980. The date of Leif Eriksson’s birth is
uncertain, but he is believed to have grown up in Greenland. According to the 13th-century Icelandic
Eiriks saga (or “Saga of Erik the Red”), Eriksson sailed from Greenland to Norway around 1000. On the
way, he was believed to have stopped in the Hebrides, where he had a son, Thorgils, with Thorgunna,
daughter of a local chief. In Norway, King Olaf I Tryggvason converted Eriksson to Christianity, and a
year later sent him back to Greenland with a commission to spread the faith among the settlers there.
Historical accounts differ on the subsequent events. According to the Eiriks saga, Eriksson sailed off
course on his return to Greenland and landed on the North American continent. He called the region
where he landed Vinland after the wild grapes that grew in abundance there and the general fertility of
the land. Another Icelandic saga, the Groenlendinga saga (or “Saga of the Greenlanders”), which
scholars consider more reliable that the Eiriks saga, holds that Leif Eriksson heard about Vinland from
the Icelandic trader Bjarni Herjulfsson, who had sighted the North American continent from his ship 14
years before Leif’s voyage but not set foot on land.
In addition to uncertainty about the context of Eriksson’s arrival in North America, the exact location
of his landing is also in doubt. The Groenlendinga saga claims he made three landfalls at Helluland
(possibly Labrador), Markland (possibly Newfoundland) and Vinland. The location of Vinland has been
debated over the centuries, and has been identified as a variety of spots along the northern Atlantic
coast. In the early 1960s, excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northernmost tip of
Newfoundland, turned up evidence of what is generally believed to be the base camp of the 11th-century
Viking exploration, though others believe that the region is too far north to correspond to the Vinland
described in the Icelandic sagas.