The Impact on Venice of Columbus' Discovery of America

The lesson of Columbus' discovery of America in 1492 is the supremacy of technology and economics in the shaping of great historical trends. The 500-year territorial expansion of Venice had been founded in technology: In the period around the year 1000 Venice had developed a technically advanced war galley and within the next century had begun to put in place its Arsenale -- a huge and efficient shipyard for the rapid and efficient mass production of her war ships.

The voyage of Columbus demonstrated that the fixed-oar galleys that Venice had found so effective in the circumscribed Mediterranean theater were technologically obsolesced by the large sail-powered ships that Atlantic countries such as Spain, Portugal and England had now mastered.

Economically, the trading and natural resource opportunities of the newly-discovered continents dwarfed the financial rewards that Venice so effectively exploited in its trade with the Far East and around the Eastern Mediterranean. Scholars have debated the degree to which Venice's Asian trade was adversely affected in an absolute sense by Columbus' discovery, but there can be no doubt that in a relative sense Venice would soon be outstripped by the giant economic powers who were building their strength on the riches of the New World.



1998 C. I. Gable