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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

The Second European Expansion

As feudal-bourgeois society became better adjusted, every effort was made to take advantage of all the opportunities offered by the economy as it had been shaped after the first expansion. But those opportunities were neither infinite nor inexhaustible. After the demographic explosion of the eleventh century, population growth came to a halt and began to shrink around the mid-fourteenth century. Societies remained at a standstill and markets were limited. The political and social crises became fierce and made the trade routes either unsafe or impassable, which caused the markets to shrink or dry up. Each local trade route intensified its commerce, but the larger routes suffered the effects of all the battles being fought to establish boundaries. Would Burgundy finally become a state? Would the Kingdom of France gain control of the entire Atlantic coast? Would England retain its influence in Flanders? Would the Baltic states be unified? Would the Empire itself achieve internal unity? Would the Kingdoms of Hungary, Bohemia and Poland survive? Would Barcelona be an independent principality? Would Castile and Aragon merge their interests? Indeed, the entire political map of Europe was a question mark. Behind it, another question was looming in sight: that of the major economic routes. At issue here was whether it would be possible to secure new areas of influence and to control certain routes. European economy entered into a state of suspension.

At the time, the most promising possibility was that of trade in goods from the Orient. Even before the first Crusade, the Venetians had discovered that they could gain access to the eastern trading system. They had been, in fact, the forward scouts of the first Crusade. Once the Crusaders established fiefs and controlled ports, business was increased by trade in natural products—which were exotic for westerners—and in refined handicraft. Gradually, a different view of the Orient began to take shape. As far back as Roman times, the Orient was perceived, above all, as the source of luxury. Slowly, however, the West became aware that what was coming from the Orient were not just the creations of a different and refined culture, but rather the products of a radically foreign nature, yet unknown in Europe, such as sugar and spices. From the imprecise and highly suggestive notion that the Orient evoked, the image of a tropical world began to emerge.

During the thirteenth century, the trade with the Orient had prospered, and the signs of its expansion were visible all over Europe. It was, in fact, international trade on grand scale, and it was important to keep it alive and well. As news broke about the changes that had taken place on the hinterland of the Muslim world, the Venetians—as the Castilians would do later—tried to make contact with the enigmatic world of the Mongols, who might become the allies of Western Christians but were, in any case, lords of the regions where highly desired products, silk among them, were coming from. Marco Polo and his brothers followed the route of the Orient into the heart of Asia, but with meager results. Out of the upheaval in Asia came the crisis in the world of the Seijuk Turks and the increasing power of the Ottomans, who, by the first half of the fourteenth century, had taken Anatolia and finally set foot in Gallipoli, on the European coast of the Dardanelles.

That new Ottoman power upset the entire trading system of the Mediterranean. In 1360, the Ottomans vanquished the armies of the Greek Empire at Adrianople—today’s Edirne—and there established their capital awaiting for the fall of Constantinople. The victory of Kossovo in 1389 ensured their grip over almost the entire Balkan peninsula. In 1396, at Nikopol, they vanquished the Crusaders of King Sigismund of Hungary, who had among their ranks the best of the French Knights. Only the threat of Tamerlane, who was on their backs and finally defeated them at Ankara in 1402, managed to halt their westward advance. It was then that Portugal—at the other end of Europe— conceived the idea of seeking out its own tropical world and its own orient by exploring the westerly islands and the coasts of Africa.

This move by Portugal began with the profound changes it underwent after 1380, when the progressive dynasty of the Avis came to power with the help of the bourgeoisie. In 1372, when the Castilian fleet laid siege to Lisbon, Portugal had been unable to confront it, because it lacked naval resources. But it rapidly transformed itself into a formidable maritime power, largely thanks to the persistent efforts of one of the sons of the founder of the dynasty, Prince Henry, who would come to be known as “the Navigator.” The Prince harnessed one tendency of the new society that had gained strength with the dynastic change. From his castle of Sagres, in the Algarve, he compiled and organized whatever little experience there was with western navigation; he gathered together maps, trained crews, systematized nautical knowledge and perfected the naval industry. A successful campaign in Ceuta had made him decide to undertake this task. For as he freed the trade between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic from the threat of Moorish pirates, he came in contact with the tropical lands of Guinea.

Wherever they were, the tropical lands seemed to offer limitless prospects. Having seized control of the Madeira Islands around 1420, the Portuguese already had four establishments there by the mid-fifteenth century, when the first sugar mill was set up. Large amounts of international capital—provided above all, by Jews and Flemish, and perhaps by some Genoese—were invested in developing plantations and mills. By 1456, sugar grown and processed on the Madeira Islands had already reached the Bristol market, and soon after it did so in Constantinople, Venice, Genoa and, most important of all, Antwerp, which would become the great emporium of Portugal’s new wealth. The cane plantation and the sugar industry spread later to the Azores, which the Portuguese entrusted to Flemish capitalists. Then it spread to the Cape Verde Islands, and later still to Brazil. The slave trade from African began to develop in 1441; within three years, there was a slave trading company in the city of Lagos, headed by Prince Henry the Navigator. Not long thereafter, the Casa dos Escravos [Slave House] was established in Lisbon, under royal jurisdiction. At the time, Castile was exploiting the slave trade on the Canary Islands.

The Portuguese continued with the advance they had began on the African coasts. After reaching Cape Bojador in 1434, they arrived, in 1441, at Cape Blanco. South of Cape Blanco, on Arguim Bay, they built the first port in 1448, and there they began the slave trade which later became so important to the development of the plantations. They had also reached Cape Verde, in 1445, and from there the Cape Verde Islands. With the death of Prince Henry, exploration came to a temporary halt. When it eventually resumed, it headed first for the equatorial zone. Then, in 1448, under Bartolomeu‚ Dias, the Portuguese went as far as the meridional extreme of Africa. A dazzling image of the tropical world—one that Camoens would later transmute into poetry in Os Lusiadas—began to take hold of the Portuguese, who were quick to link the tropics, above all, with slave trade. New fortunes were made on account of that trade; Portuguese agriculture came back to life, and large-scale colonization seemed possible in some regions on the basis of slave labor.

The Castilians had some maritime tradition in the Atlantic, as their fleet—which was far from negligible as a political and military force in Europe—generally operated out of ports in Galicia and Asturias. At the time of the Portuguese discoveries, the Castilians had managed to land on the Canary Islands, and their conquest of those islands was completed when they took Palma in 1490 and Tenerife in 1492. But they had long before ceased to compete with the Portuguese on the African coasts, as the Treaty of Alcaçovas formally stated in 1479. This is how the Castilians felt inclined to look into other projects and gave their support to the one by Columbus, which led to the discovery, in 1492, of the American continent.

In the next ten years, the Spaniards continued to explore the Caribbean coasts with minute intensity, while the Portuguese managed to navigate around the Cape of Good Hope and reached Calicut, on the Malabar coast of India, in 1498. Shortly after that, another Portuguese fleet, under the command of Pedro Alvarez Cabral, took the same route that Vasco da Gama had just opened and reached the Brazilian coastline in April 1500. The markers had been laid. A vast economic and military undertaking would, within the space of a few decades, build the first two great colonial empires: the Spanish and the Portuguese.