Geographical Discoveries, Great

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Geographical Discoveries, Great


the conventional term employed in literature (primarily historical) to designate the major geographical discoveries made by European voyagers from the mid-15th to the mid-17th centuries (in foreign literature, usually only from the mid-15th to the mid-16th centuries).

The general reasons for the dispatch of expeditions were the growth of commodity production in the countries of Europe; the lack of precious metals and the concomitant quest for new land where, it was hoped, gold and silver, spices, and ivory (in the tropics), and (in the northern countries) valuable furs and walrus tusks would be found; and the search for new trade routes from Europe to India and East Asia, prompted by the striving of Western European merchants to rid themselves of trade intermediaries and to establish direct ties to the Asiatic countries (the Turkish conquests closed the trade route to the East through Asia Minor and Syria almost entirely). The great geographical discoveries became possible thanks to such achievements of science and technology as the creation of sailing ships (caravels) sufficiently reliable for ocean navigation and the perfection of the compass and sea maps. The idea that the earth is spherical (associated with it was the idea that it was possible to find a western sea route to India across the Atlantic Ocean), which was ever increasingly taking hold, played a large role. The achievements in the area of geographical knowledge and the development of navigation among the peoples of the East were important to the great geographical discoveries.

Major events of the first hundred years. By 1488, Portuguese navigators had investigated the entire western and southern coasts of Africa (D. Cam, B. Dias, and others). Between 1492 and 1494, Columbus discovered the Bahamas and the Greater and Lesser Antilles (1492 was the year in which America was discovered); between 1497 and 1499, Vasco da Gama discovered (with the aid of Arab pilots) a continuous sea route from Western Europe around South Africa to India; during 1498-1502, Columbus, A. Ojeda, A. Vespucci, and other Spanish and Portuguese navigators discovered the entire northern coast of South America, its eastern (Brazilian) coast to 25° S lat, and the Caribbean coast of Central America. Between 1513 and 1525, the Spanish crossed the Isthmus of Panama and reached the Pacific Ocean (V. Nunez de Balboa); discovered the Gulf of La Plata, the Florida and Yucatan peninsulas, and the entire coast of the Gulf of Mexico (Ponce de Leon, Cordoba, Grijalva, and others); conquered Mexico and Central America (Cortes, and others); and investigated the entire Atlantic coast of South America. During 1519-22, F. Magellan and his associates completed the first voyage around the world (around the southern extremity of America, through the strait later named after Magellan). Between 1526 and 1552, the Spaniards F. Pizarro, D. Almagro, P. Valdivia, G. Quesada, F. Orellana, and others discovered the entire Pacific coast of South America, the Andes from 10° N lat to 40° S lat, and the Orinoco, Amazon, Parana, and Paraguay rivers. The French navigators Verrazano (1524) and J. Cartier (1534-35) discovered the eastern shore of North America and the St. Lawrence River, while the Spanish voyagers H. De Soto and F. Coronado discovered the southern Appalachians and the southern Rocky Mountains and the basins of the lower courses of the Colorado and Mississippi rivers (1540-42).

Major events of the second hundred years. After Ermak’s journey to Western Siberia (1581-84) and the founding of the city of Mangazei (1601) on the Taz River, Russian explorers, after discovering the basins of the Enisei and Lena, crossed all of northern Asia and reached the Sea of Okhotsk (I. Moskvitin in 1639); by the middle of the 17th century, they had traced the course of all the great Siberian rivers and the Amur (K. Kurochkin, I. Perfil’ev, I. Rebrov, M. Stadukhin, V. Poiarkov, E. Khabarov, and others), while Russian navigators had sailed around the entire northern coast of Asia, discovering the Yamal, Taimyr, and Chukchi peninsulas. They sailed from the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific (through the Bering Strait), thus demonstrating that there was no point at which Asia was linked to America (the F. Popov-S. Dezhnev expedition). In 1594, the Dutch navigator W. Barents sailed around the western shore of Novaia Zemlia (to its northern cape), and in 15%, around Spitsbergen. Between 1576 and 1631, the English sailed around the western coast of Greenland; they discovered Baffin Island and, doubling the Labrador Peninsula, the shores of Hudson Bay (M. Frobisher, J. Davis, H. Hudson, W. Baffin, and others). The French in North America (S. Champlain and others) discovered (1609-48) the northern Appalachians and the five Great Lakes. The Spaniard L. Torres circled the southern coast of New Guinea in 1606 (the discovery of the Torres Strait), and the Dutchmen W. Jansz, A. Tasman, and others discovered the northern, western, and southern coasts of Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand between 1606 and 1644.

The great geographical discoveries were events of world historical importance. The outlines of the inhabited continents were established (except for the northern and northwestern coasts of America and the eastern coast of Australia) and much of the earth’s surface was explored; however, many interior regions of America, Central Africa, and the entire interior of Australia remained unstudied. The discoveries provided an enormous amount of new material for many other areas of knowledge (including botany, zoology, and ethnography). As a result of the discoveries, Europeans were first acquainted with a number of agricultural crops (potatoes, maize, tomatoes, and tobacco) that subsequently were disseminated in Europe.

The great geographical discoveries had important socioeconomic consequences. A discovery of new trade routes and new countries helped make it possible for trade to become worldwide in nature; there was a huge increase in the quantity of goods in circulation. This accelerated the processes of the decay of feudalism and the emergence of capitalist relations in Western Europe. The colonial system that took shape after the great geographical discoveries (as early as this period, the Europeans annihilated indigenous populations in seizing vast territories in America and organized bases on the coast of Africa and in South and East Asia) was one of the key factors in the so-called primitive accumulation of capital. This process was also promoted by the influx, after the discoveries, of cheap American gold and silver into Europe, resulting in a substantial increase in prices in the latter. The shift in trade routes from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean that resulted from the great geographical discoveries contributed to the economic decline of some European countries (Italy and, to some extent, Germany) and the rise to prominence of others (the Netherlands and England). The Russian great geographical discoveries facilitated the colonization of Siberia.


Peschel, O. Istoriia epokhi otkrytii, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1884. (Translated from German.)
Hart, G. Morskoi put’ v Indiiu. Moscow, 1959. (Translated from English.)
Magidovich, I. P. Ocherki po istorii geograficheskikh otkrytii, 3rd ed. Moscow, 1967.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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