European exploration or the Age of Exploration profoundly affected the world we live in today. It led to the discovery of new continents, the rise of new empires, and technological advances that still benefit us today.

But the effects of European exploration weren’t always positive. European exploration also had a dark side. It led to the commercial and physical exploitation of people around the world, it led to the introduction of European diseases which devastated local populations and it led to the evils of slavery.

In this article, we’ll review the effects of European exploration – both good and bad – and discuss how this phase of human history forever changed the world.

Understanding the Effects of European Exploration

A balanced look at the effects of European Exploration requires us to look at it from all sides. From the point of view of European monarchs, merchants, people, and the Church, as well as from the point of view of people in distant lands who came in contact with and often suffered at the hands of European explorers.

Only by taking an honest look at the good and bad effects of European Exploration can we truly appreciate this period for what it was. Also, we need to look at European Exploration as a part of the Age of Exploration within the context of the Renaissance.

Effects of European Exploration
The Discovery of America – Johann Mortiz Rugendas
(Image Source)

European exploration did not happen in a vacuum. It was a by-product of enormous changes sweeping Europe. And to a large degree, these changes were for the better – for Europe and the world.

So with that background, let’s analyze the effects of European Exploration.

European Exploration:

  1. Opened new trade routes and markets for European products
  2. Brought new products from distant lands into Europe
  3. Generated enormous wealth and power for European merchants
  4. Discovered new continents
  5. Set the stage for Imperialism and Colonization
  6. Spread Christianity around the world
  7. Triggered the Slave Trade

Let’s now look closely at each of these effects of European exploration.

#1. Opened new trade routes and markets for European products

The primary motivation for European Exploration was to find new trade routes and markets for European products. European Exploration was started as the Age of Discovery and Exploration during the Renaissance.

Since the start of the Renaissance in Florence, merchants, financiers and bankers played an outsized role in the direction of the Renaissance.

The Medici family, for example, were merchants and bankers. They would go on to rule Florence and fund some of the most well-known artists of the time – Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, etc.

These merchant families were interested in growing commerce and trade, and with their backing European Exploration opened new trade routes and new markets to increase their wealth and political power. This was one of the primary effects of European exploration.

#2. Brought new products from distant lands into Europe

The Renaissance saw a rise in consumer interest in new and exotic products. These included gold, musk, silk, tea, spices, and jade. European exploration saw merchant ships carrying products like guns and weapons and returning with products like spices and silks.

European merchants flocked to the east for trading opportunities. Companies like the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company were created to control trade with distant lands in the East.

This opening up of trade routes for products flowing in both directions started a trade and commercial revolution. But the commercial exploitation of people with whom Europe traded was also one of the effects of European exploration.

#3. Generated enormous wealth and power for European merchants

The Renaissance in general and European Exploration in specific had a tremendously positive impact on merchants. Merchants became wealthy, funded more explorations, and eventually began rising the political ladder in all parts of Europe.

This is most notable in Italy where the city-states were republics and unlike France, Spain, Britain, and the Netherlands were not ruled by hereditary monarchs. So merchants could rise in these city-states and in some cases, as with the Medicis, even end up as rulers.

#4. Discovered new continents

The discovery of new continents by Europeans can be directly attributed to European exploration. Explorers like Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama opened up new lands to Europeans.

Columbus, trying to find the Western route to India, stumbled upon the Americas, Henry Hudson discovered what would become Canada and Hudson Bay, and Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India. Each of these discoveries opened up new opportunities for Europeans, as well as new resources and people to exploit.

#5. Set the stage for Imperialism and Colonization

An unfortunate consequence of European exploration was the rise of Imperialism and Colonization in distant lands. The Europeans discovered that they could gain political power and wealth not just through trade but by colonizing and dominating countries.

This led to the decline of local rulers, cultures, and religions in favor of European domination. Colonization led to the commercial exploitation of colonized lands and people. Often raw materials would ship to European factories, get converted to finished products, and then be sent back to the colonies to be sold at exorbitant prices with no local alternatives.

Imperialism in Africa also triggered a massive slave trade in which millions of people were shipped across the Atlantic and forced into slavery.

#6. Spread Christianity around the world

When maritime explorers like Christopher Columbus, Magellan, and Vasco da Gama set out to find new lands, they also brought Christianity with them. The missionaries that accompanied the explorers spread Christianity to the new lands they discovered.

This led to a drastic change in the religious landscape, with Christianity replacing many of the local religions and belief systems. In some cases, the effects were so drastic that entire cultures and belief systems ended up disappearing forever.

This spread of Christianity found support in Europe with the Church as well as some of the monarchs. For instance, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, dubbed the “Catholic monarchs” by their peers, openly supported the missionaries and their mission to spread Catholicism around the world.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V funded Magellan’s attempt to find a spice route by sailing west around South America to Indonesia and then to India. On reaching the Philippines, Magellan demanded that the local people convert to Christianity. In turn, they killed him.

#7. Triggered the Slave Trade

By far the most hideous and revolting effect of European exploration was the expansion of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Since the start of the Age of Exploration, European explorers forcibly captured and enslaved millions of people from Africa and the Americas.

A blight on humanity, the Slave Trade was on of the most shameful legacies of European exploration, the devastating effects of which are still felt around the world in the form or racism and inequality.

Though some people may (incorrectly, in our opinion) argue that the slave trade was not a direct result of exploration, it is undeniable that by opening up new lands to Europeans, explorers helped create a market for slavery and enabled the barbaric practice to grow.

The Bottom Line

The effects of European exploration were both good, bad and far-reaching.

On the one hand, it ushered in an age of discovery, opening up new lands and peoples to Europeans.

On the other hand, it triggered a wave of imperialism and colonization that led to the commercial exploitation of indigenous people, the spread of Christianity and even supported the abhorrent slave trade. All in all, it’s a complex legacy that continues to shape our world today.