Century Maritime World
DID BRITAIN DOMINATE THE "SECOND AGE OF DISCOVERY"?
DID BRITAIN CHOOSE TO EXPLORE?
IDEA OF "GLOBAL CONSCIOUSNESS"
ABOUT EXPLORATION AND MARITIME HISTORY
This page consists of lecture notes and supporting links
for a class I give in my HIST 112 "The Modern World" course at the
University of Alberta. The purpose of the lecture is to introduce the
history of European expansion in the eighteenth century, including its
political and economic motivations.My lecture revolved around two big
questions: Why did Europe, rather than another region of the
world, make a global maritime impact? and Why did
Britain become Europe's leading maritime power?
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To help answer the first
question, we need to review some historical background:
By the eighteenth century several parts of the world
featured large regional maritime networks and had launched far-flung
exploring expeditions. Websites for the following examples will tell
By the eighteenth century some of these countries or
regions had turned inward, and were no longer launching long-distance
exploration voyages or trade contacts: Polynesia and China are good
examples of this. Other areas saw the devastation of indigenous
populations through European contact; especially the transmission of
European diseases like smallpox. Some areas always remained important,
especially the commercial networks of southeast Asia, India and the
But the main point to remember is that
all of these non-European networks were regional. Some of the
regions were enormous, as in the Pacific, and some countries' explorers
ventured far afield, as Arab and Chinese mariners did. But none of
these maritime networks expanded on a global scale.
Europe, on the other hand, was already beginning to
make a global impact by the eighteenth century. During the "first age
of discovery", Prince Henry ("The Navigator") of Portugal had
launched exploration voyages that led to Portuguese settlements and
trade in Africa and India. In the wake of Columbus' discoveries, Spain's empire stretched
across the Atlantic to the West Indies and Americas, and across the
Pacific to the Philippines. Other countries, notably the Netherlands, France
and England all had colonies or trading outposts on at least two other
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Why did Britain dominate the
"second age of discovery" in the eighteenth century?
- Britain enjoyed the political luxury of choosing
between continental and overseas operations during the eighteenth
century. Unlike the continental maritime powers of Europe, Britain was
not forced to concentrate its attention on land-based warfare.
- The British government extensively taxed overseas
commercial operations, and as a result, could finance the building of
more and better naval vessels for exploration and defence.
- A larger state navy needed to pay, feed and care for
the health of large numbers of seamen. The Marine Society
was founded in 1756 to help train, educate and support British sailors.
- Navigation technology underwent drastic changes in
the eighteenth century. The accurate measurement of a ship's longitude
had been a longstanding problem at sea, making early
navigation difficult and dangerous. Some scientists tried to use
astronomical measurements to calculate these time differences, but John
Harrison, a British clockmaker, invented a portable timepiece called a
chronometer which ships' captains could take to sea. The chronometer
kept track of the time in England, and by comparing this with local
time, a captain could find the longitude of his ship. Solving the
"longitude problem" produced a revolution in European exploration
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Where did Britain choose to
Almost all of the Pacific region, except for parts
of the American and Chinese coasts, remained unknown to Britain at the
beginning of the eighteenth century. Spain kept its geographical
knowledge about the Americas a closely guarded secret. The Dutch began
to explore the north and western coasts of Australia
in the seventeenth century, but little else was known about the south
Pacific. The Russian emperor Peter the Great had launched exploring
expeditions to northeast Asia, and Vitus Bering had discovered the
strait bearing his name that separates Asia from North America. Most of
far northern North America, however, was still unexplored by Europeans.
British geographers were curious about the Pacific,
especially about the possibility of a wealthy, undiscovered Southern
Continent or the fabled Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and
Pacific oceans at the top of North America.
But Britain also wanted to challenge Spain's
domination of the Pacific, and to increase its trade with Asia. This
trade was the preserve of the East India Company, which was especially interested
in finding new trade routes to China.
Britain also had French competition to consider.
France established its own Compagnie des Indes in the eighteenth
century, and began launching exploration voyages to the Pacific in the
later part of the century; the Comte de La Pérouse's voyage was one of the most
famous of these.
All of these factors formed the background to Captain
James Cook's first voyage to the Pacific in 1768. Cook also
benefited from the scientific developments we discussed earlier,
especially in navigational technology. During his first voyage, he used
the "lunar distances" method to calculate his ship's longitude. On his
second voyage, however, he took along a copy of John Harrison's famous
chronometer, and his journal is full of praise for "the Watch".
Finally, the publication of Cook's voyage narratives promoted the
commercial possibilities of the Pacific in whaling, sealing and fur
Cook's third voyage was of particular
importance for Canadian history. Apart from Bering and a handful of
other Russian-sponsored explorers, no other Europeans had ever visited
the far north Pacific. Maps of the coast of what is now British
Columbia and the Yukon did not yet exist. Look at a copy of Cook's north Pacific chart to see how much he accomplished
on that third voyage before his death in 1779.
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The idea of "global
The European explorations of the "second age of
discovery" meant that, for the first time in human history, the whole
globe could be mapped and its oceans navigated, using a consistent
technological method. This happened at a time when other important
developments in world history were taking place:
- The increasing importance of Asian markets
- The rise of industrialisation in Europe
- The expansion of global trade networks
Britain was especially anxious to protect its
existing trade routes in Asia, and to expand markets for its
manufactured goods. It was also importing increasing amounts of tea
from China and needed new products - like seal and sea otter fur from
the Pacific - to pay for it. The exploration of the Pacific was crucial
to these plans, and to the development of what we now call the
Asia-Pacific trade region. In fact, the foundations of the modern world
system were put in place in the eighteenth century and its maritime
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For more about exploration
and maritime history:
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Site updated on 1 January, 2004.
© Jane Samson, 2004.