Encounters: European Merchants and West Africa

Map of the World from Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Belgium, 1591. National Art Library Pressmark: RC.S.13

Map of the World from Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Belgium, 1591. National Art Library Pressmark: RC.S.13

This audio was originally made for Room 63 in the V&A's Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. Entitled A World of Goods 1450–1600, the gallery examines how design ideas were exchanged within and outside Europe. Exploration, conflict and diplomacy all played a part, with traditional trade relationships with the Islamic world complemented by new markets in the Far East and the New World.

Merchants in Europe had long been familiar with their Egyptian and Turkish counterparts. Goods circulated across political and religious boundaries and often influenced the design of local products.

In 1453 the Turkish ruler Mehmed II conquered Constantinople, the last major outpost of the Roman Empire, and trade routes fell into Islamic control. To compete with Arab and Venetian spice-traders, Portugal and Castile sponsored exploratory voyages to discover alternative sea routes. A Genovese in Spanish pay, Christopher Columbus arrived in the Bahamas in 1492. The Portuguese nobleman Vasco da Gama reached Goa in 1497. The Spanish and Portuguese presence in the Americas and India brought slaughter or slavery to their opponents. It also meant they dominated the international trade in exotic hardwoods, porcelain and ivory.

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