exploration by sea

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For Europeans was, for many centuries, nearly always motivated by trade and profit. The desire for conquest and to spread Christianity were also important corollaries for exploration, and in more recent times science has been the motivator. The Arabs were commercially oriented, too, as were the Chinese, who, as they expanded southwards and eastwards, sent trading fleets to Japan and Korea, and into the Indian Ocean.

It should be remembered that many voyages of exploration were clouded in secrecy, so important was it to keep sea routes from trading rivals. That, and the loss of documentary evidence, both in Europe and the Orient, may have left undocumented the achievements of some of the earliest voyagers. It should also be remembered that what is called exploration by some is called invasion by others.

The Earliest Voyages.

Exploration by sea began centuries before the time of Christ. The Greek historian Herodotus (c.480–c.425 bc) wrote how the Pharaoh Necho II, who lived in the late 7th and early 6th centuries bc, sent Phoenicians in ships from the Arabian Gulf with orders to return by way of the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar) which, after three years, they duly did. In the 3rd century bc the Greek navigator Pytheas sailed to northern Europe and reached as far north as the Orkneys. Possibly he also reached Iceland, which may have been the Arctic land shrouded in mist to which he give the name Thule.

For centuries the south-west monsoon wind in the Indian Ocean was known as Hippalus, after the Greek pilot who first sailed with it in about 100 bc from the Gulf of Aden to India. By then western traders had certainly sailed to several South-East Asian countries and may even have reached China, or Cathay as it was then called. By the time of the Roman Empire Greek ships, using the monsoon winds, traded regularly between the Red Sea ports and India. From the 3rd century, when the Roman Empire was in crisis, to the 15th century, when the European powers began to expand into the area, the Arabs dominated these sea routes. They founded trading posts down the east African coastline from the 8th century, and gradually explored southwards, reaching Madagascar in the following century. This is why, though fiction, the tales of Sinbad the Sailor are based on centuries of the ways of the sea and the adventures of those who sailed them.

Later, the expansion of the Greek states into the western Mediterranean brought Greece into conflict with Rome, to whom control of that sea passed after the battle of Mylae in 260 bc. On the other hand, the Phoenicians, who founded Carthage, preferred trading to war. They sold their goods by sea from their ports in present-day Lebanon and before 1000 bc they had sailed beyond the Mediterranean to colonize the Spanish and North African coasts. Gades, as Cadiz was at first known, was a typical Phoenician city. The Carthaginians also explored beyond the Mediterranean as early as 500 bc, with Hanno sailing forth around the African coastline with 60 ships and 30,000 colonists ‘to found cities’; and Himilco, around the same time, sailing north to reach Brittany, and perhaps Britain.


Subjects: Maritime History.

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