The fifteenth century saw an upsurge in maritime exploration in Europe which was led by the Portuguese. Several factors contributed to this, and I am now going to take an in depth look at these factors Firstly the Portuguese had a seventy year head start over the Spanish due in part to the distraction caused by the Spanish civil war and the Reconquista of Granada.
The Moors who were a group of Moslems conquered the Iberian Peninsula in 711. Over the next 750 years there would be numerous battles between the Christian and Muslims to gain control; it came to end in 1492 when the last of the Moorish kingdoms were driven from the Iberian Peninsula. This period is known as the Reconquista.
The Muslims during the 13th century made a lot of strides in geography, mathematics astronomy and medicine. With the influx of Muslims the European nations became immersed in their philosophies; many people became frightened by the Muslim influence consequently there was a demand to increase the centralization of the Christian Kingdom which helped to unite Europe.
This need to spread Christianity was one of the pivotal factors for the exploration in that time. The Europeans also wanted to establish their own economic links with the east to obtain gold, silver and other precious metals and in so doing they would find new sea routes to Asia.
Portugals geographic location was ideal for the natural development of a sea fearing tradition. Their position on the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula contributed to them becoming the preeminent European pioneer in maritime exploration of the African coast. Portugal benefited from a relatively stable monarchy whose kings encouraged maritime trade and shipping ventures.
The Crown gave every possible incentive by implementing tax privileges and insurance funds to protect the investments of ship owners and builders. Also there were members of the aristocracy who were investors and they used their political position to facilitate the crowns granting of royal sanctions that regulated the voyages of exploration made by the merchant community. This action by the aristocrats spawned entrepreneurship among the merchants as was mentioned earlier in the passage.
It would be remiss of me if in an essay of this nature I failed to mention Prince Henry the Navigator. He indeed played a very influential role in the maritime affairs of his day. He also possessed the finances which would bring many of his taught into fruition. The third son of King Jo£o king of Portugal, Henry was able to influence his father at the tender age of twenty to embark on an expedition to the Muslim port of Ceuta. His primary objective was to extend the Holy Faith of Jesus Christ and bring it to all souls who wished to find salvation.
To this end he sought for a Christian Kingdom that for love of Our Lord Jesus Christ would help in that war (the implication being that he was seeking Prester John, the legendary Christian Priest-King of Africa). In August 1415, the Portuguese fleet attacked and swiftly took the port. During his time in Ceuta he saw evidence of the trading riches of the interior spices, oriental rugs, gold, silver etc., merchandise which was delivered by caravans from the Sahara and the Indies.
Henry learnt about the African caravan trade, which of course had ceased when the Portuguese took Ceuta. He learnt about the interior lands, and the silent trade which was used by people who did not speak each others language.(sourced from http://www.thornr.demon.co.uk/kchrist/phenry.html). As time elapsed Prince Henry gained more knowledge about the ships and navigation equipment which he encountered on his many expeditions to the east.
After the civil war ended I 1492 Spain was now in a more Autonomous position to embark on its own ventures. The focal point of these expeditions being the search of new routes to the east and trading with the various merchants from India.
References: European Voyages of Exploration the Portuguese Empire