Christian Expansion: Portuguese and Spanish Voyages of Discovery

The Renaissance of the later Middle Ages led to significant demands for renewal and reform, as well as the reinvigoration of Christian arts. Yet other developments which took place around this time opened up new possibilities for western European Christianity – above all, the possibility of physical expansion, as new trade routes were established with Asia, and as new lands were discovered.

The European powers that spearheaded the “Age of Discovery” were Spain and Portugal, two staunchly Catholic nations, who regarded the spread of the Catholic faith as a natural expansion of national influence. They were later joined by another Catholic maritime power, France.

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The great Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama opened up trade routes with the east coast of Africa, and subsequently across the Indian ocean to India itself. In addition to establishing the highly profitable spice trade route, da Gama’s exploration led to Portugal establishing the east African colony of Mozambique as a staging post on the route to India.

Christopher Columbus ( often referred to by his Spanish name, Cristobal Colón) initially intended to establish a western trade route to India. Based on a mistaken figure for the size of the earth, Columbus reckoned it would be just as quick to sail west- wards to India than eastward. Although some popular accounts of Columbus’s voyages suggest that people believed the world was flat, this is clearly incorrect. The spherical shape of the world was widely accepted in the Middle Ages. Columbus intended to sail around the world to India, using a route that he believed would be faster. In the end, he discovered the Americas, and laid the foundation for the Spanish colonization and eco- nomic exploitation of this vast new territory, which soon became known as the “New World.” Portuguese navigators such as Pedro Álvares Cabral  made landfall further south, and established the colony of Brazil.

Catholicism developed an early concern for the spread of the Christian faith outside Europe. Spanish and Portuguese rivalry became so great that, during the early 1490s, two popes made rulings concerning the extent of their political and economic influence over newly discovered territories. The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) finally resolved the issue, dividing the world beyond Europe between the Portuguese and the Spanish along a north– south meridian 370 leagues (1560 km) west of the Cape Verde Islands. This was a treaty between Spain and Portugal, and did not involve the pope.