The initial European discovery of lands in North America was most likely made by the Vikings around 1000 A.D. Although renowned in song and story, these exploits meant little in the longer view of history. A handful of settlements was planted, but none lasted for any appreciable period. However, the Viking tales did find their way to other European ears, which planted seeds that would be harvested by much later generations.
In 1000, Europe was unprepared to undertake great voyages of exploration. The continent was politically fragmented and thoroughly enmeshed in local issues. Further, there was no compelling need to confront the considerable perils lurking in the open ocean. It would be more than 400 years before European conditions had changed enough to justify the expense and danger involved in such ventures.
By 1500, Europe was experiencing, or about to experience, a series of transforming events:
The Protestant Reformation precipitated the decline in influence of the Roman Catholic Church in broader European affairs.
- The Renaissance was an explosion of creativity in the arts that fostered a belief among many Europeans that they had the native ability to mold their own futures.
- Political unification came about as strong regional leaders emerged to displace feuding local nobles.
- Technological advances were made in shipbuilding and navigational equipment.
- Lucrative international trade, developed by the merchant-princes of the Italian city-states of Genoa, Florence and Venice, brought the fantastic riches of Asia into Europe.
Traders outside of Italy grew jealous of the merchant-princes' success and began to envision a means to displace them. The newcomers hoped that the discovery of an all-water route to the riches of the East would circumvent the dangers and heavy expense of crossing the Middle East in caravans.
Portugal was the first new nation-state to emerge and devote considerable energy to exploration. The Portuguese heyday was short, however; Spain, England, France and Holland quickly entered the competition. Lesser efforts were mounted in the New World by Sweden and Denmark.