Before men could sail on long offshore ocean voyages, a new type of ship was necessary -- one that could sail close-hauled and therefore make headway against an adverse wind, one sufficiently seaworthy to deal with ocean gales, and at the same time suited to running before a steady trade wind. For this, the Mediterranean ship was not suited.
The Vikings are supposed to have been able to sail close-hauled in the one-masters in which they crossed the Atlantic. When trade increased and the traders of northern Europe needed a bigger vessel with more sail, they added a second mast. With this mast square-rigged, the ship lost most if not all of her ability to sail close-hauled; lateen-rigged, she was hard to steer. To achieve a balance, another mast was added in front of the mainmast (the northern Europeans had always placed the mainmast amidships or aft while the Mediterraneans placed it forward), which they square-rigged. This was the type of vessel used by Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Cabot, and Drake.
It was not by accident that the early explorers sailed in Spanish and Portuguese ships. Located on the Iberian Peninsula, these two countries stood at a crossroads between the learning of the Mediterranean and the practical knowledge of northern Europe. The Renaissance had stimulated interest in astronomy, navigation, and map making; the compass had come into general use about 1300; and travelers such as Marco Polo, a Genoese merchant who had been "detained" at the court of Kublai Khan from A.D. 1276 to 1292, had stimulated interest in the Orient. Furthermore, European traders and merchants were straining under the Italian-Arabian monopoly of trade, with its countless middlemen ready and able to exact their fees and thereby add to the cost of goods imported into Europe. On precious cargoes such as spices, freights were so high that the commodities were twice as expensive in Flanders as in Venice.
By the early 1500's, Spain and Portugal were recognized as the maritime powers of the world, but neither was fitted to exploit its position. Little more than a century after Vasco da Gama had visited the Spice Islands and "Calicut" to establish Portugal's claims there, that nation was unable to defend her sea lanes against the energetic Dutch. Since Portugal and Spain were rolled into one under a Spanish king from 1580 to 1640, she shared also in Spain's downward commercial path.
A feudal state, Spain had little on which to build an overseas commerce. During the Inquisition, she had liquidated her most productive agricultural workers, she had little industry and a negligible merchant class, and her explorers were gentlemen adventurers, not traders. The Spanish were forced to pour out their treasure from America -- to the English and Dutch for goods and services that they should have been producing at home, to German and Italian bankers from whom their kings borrowed money continually, and to mercenaries who waged their ceaseless wars.
From 1516 to 1556, Spain was a part of the realm of the Hapsburg Emperor Charles, whose noncontiguous dominions, including the Spanish Netherlands (our Benelux countries), Austria, and holdings in Italy, had to be held together by force. Both Charles and his son Philip ( 1556-1598) waged ceaseless wars with France over the control of Italy, with the Moslems over the control of the Mediterranean, and with Protestant Europe, for each considered himself the commander-in-chief of the Counter Reformation. When Philip, who was supposed to have been as rich as Croesus, died, there was not enough in the royal treasury to meet the immediate needs of the royal household. Spain's government had "depended for its support, not upon a wide-spread healthy commerce and industry that could survive many a staggering blow, but upon a narrow stream of silver trickling through a few treasure-ships from America, easily and frequently intercepted by an enemy's cruisers." 2 In the hands of two impertinent young upstarts to the north, the Dutch and the English, commerce was being made of sturdier stuff.