By about 1400 the breakup of the Mongol empire and the growth of the Ottoman Empire had blocked Europe's overland trade routes to the East. The search for new trade routes, the rise of merchant capitalism, and the desire to exploit the potential of a global economy initiated the European "age of discovery." Henry the Navigator promoted voyages along the coast of Africa that helped dispel the superstition and misinformation that had impeded previous attempts to sail through the torrid zone. The extent of the globe was revealed by Bartholomew Diaz's rounding of the Cape of Good Hope (1486–87), Vasco da Gama's voyage to India (1497–98), Christopher Columbus's first voyage to America (1492), and the circumnavigation of the globe by the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan (1519–22). In the 16th cent. Spanish explorers, notably Vasco de Balboa, Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Cabeza de Vaca, Hernán De Soto, and Francisco de Coronado, explored large areas of the Americas. Much of the interior of North America was revealed in the 17th cent. by Samuel de Champlain, Sieur de La Salle, Louis Jolliet, Jacques Marquette, and other French explorers.
A Spanish and Portuguese monopoly of the new trade routes stimulated attempts to find other passages to the East (see Northeast Passage and Northwest Passage) and was soon challenged by English and Dutch voyages in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Most of the major islands of the Pacific and the coastline of Australia became known to Europeans through the voyages of Francis Drake, Abel Tasman, William Dampier, James Cook, Vitus Bering, George Vancouver, and others. European exploration of the interior of Australia took place in the mid-19th cent., and by the end of the century most of Africa had been explored by David Livingstone, H. M. Stanley, and Richard Burton.
European exploration and colonization frequently had disastrous results for the indigenous peoples. Diseases brought to the Americas and Australia by Europeans decimated the inhabitants, and European intervention in Africa expanded the already thriving slave trade. The aboriginal peoples often viewed the presence of explorers as an encroachment, inevitably leading to war, repression, and dislocation.