ALREADY, by the end of the 15th century, the world was feeling small.
In places like Genoa, a city-state hugging mountains with only the sea for its expansion; in small countries like Portugal, limited by Spain but open to the ocean; and in countries as large as Spain, where despite an impressive land mass the control of that land was with a wealthy, noble few, a growing sense of physical limitation fed dreams of new ventures beyond domestic confines where riches, or simply the means for building a better life, might lie.
This desire to push out beyond the tight and disputed world of the Mediterranean basin was just one of the factors in 1492 that impelled Europeans toward the discoveries that in coming decades would confirm the existence of a much larger, varied Earth than the one they knew.
"It would be very narrow-minded to focus on one reason, one factor, that was pushing in the direction of western exploration and discovery," says Juan Gil, a noted Spanish expert on Columbus and the period of exploration he ushered in. "Today, if you don't like Spain, you say it was all for the love of gold," he adds. "And if you do, you say it was to spread the faith."
"Everywhere there was a desire for more land," says Mr. Gil. "It's not that the land was used up, but it was all in the hands of a few lords, so for everyone else it was not easy to live."
For centuries, the voyages of discovery beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492 and continuing through subsequent explorers like Hernando Cortez, Francisco Pizarro, and Juan Ponce de Leon have been explained either in lofty terms of curiosity and quest for discovery, or with dark images of lust for lucre and conquest. Spain's role and motivation in the conquests of two newly discovered continents have been seen in especially black hues by other Europeans for hundreds of years.
Certainly a desire for new wealth, both on the part of governments and individuals, contributed an essential impetus. Martin Alonso Pinzon, a well-known Spanish navigator of the period, who was chosen by Columbus to command the Pinta, promised the "gold-tiled houses" reputed to exist in an exotic Japan to any sailor willing to sign on to the initial voyage.
Yet as Gil and other experts point out, other factors were also pushing Europeans westward. One was a spreading Turkish and Muslim dominance across parts of Eastern Europe and Mediterranean.
In a recent book on the Europe of 1492, Bartolome and Lucile Bennasser, two French scholars of the period, note that in 1475 Genova was routed from its colony on the Black Sea. That event caused the entrepreneurial Genovese to begin thinking about westward expansion of trade.
"Christopher Columbus's presence in Lisbon and Seville, [and] on the ocean routes, was not in the least by chance," write the Bennassers.
The Black Plague of the middle of the 15th century acted as a kind of "economic brake" in Europe, says Gil. But by the end of the century the economy had started rolling again. It was at this point that Spain and other powers began feeling the confines of Mediterranean commerce.
"It was a closed world, one that was chafing more all the time those confined within it," says Rosario Parra, director of the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain, the world's largest repository of archives from the discoveries period.
Portugal had already expanded beyond the Mediterranean, seizing control of trade along Africa's west coast and with the Atlantic islands. Spain accorded the Portuguese this monopoly as part of a war armistice, but not unreservedly.
"Spain was of course a participant in Mediterranean trade," says Mrs. Parra, "but it didn't have a monopoly. That's what it wanted," she adds, "and that was one factor that intrigued the Catholic kings about the idea of going west."
The Muslim empire's hold in the Mediterranean region was an important impetus for exploration. Some scholars point out that the Spanish and Portuguese benefited from Muslim science and scholarship, that both encouraged an exploration of the unknown and offered new technologies for undertaking it.
"It was not by chance that America was discovered from Spain, by a Spanish expedition," says Alonzo Buron, former director of Madrid's Institute for Cooperation with the Arab World and now ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Earlier in the 15th century, Muslims had already given the Spanish "an instrument and calculations showing the Earth to be round," he adds.
In addition, what some historians call an obsession with "taking back Jerusalem" from Islam motivated crowns and explorers to seek the riches to make such a conquest possible. A new route to the spice-laden Indies promised such wealth.
"The reconquest of Jerusalem is a Colombian leitmotif," says Gil. "He was obsessed with the idea that, with the riches of the Indies, Jerusalem could be reconquered and the temple rebuilt."
According to the Bennassers, Columbus believed until his death that on the island of San Domingo he had discovered Ophir and Tarsis, the two Biblical kingdoms supposed to have furnished the gold used to build the temple of Jerusalem.
Beyond the terrestrial Jerusalem, nothing short of paradise became the destination of explorers once land was found. On his third voyage, Columbus wrote of having found "paradise on Earth" on what he named the island of Trinidad.
In a different way, a growing confidence that the Moorish tide was ebbing from Western Europe made contemplation of far-flung voyages even more possible. Just as the end of Portugal's battles with the Moors freed it to turn its attention to exploration, the same came true for Spain with the end of a Muslim state on the Iberian peninsula in January 1492.
A new obsession arose from the discovery of indigenous people in the New World: converting natives to the Christian faith. "The spreading of the faith was very important for the kings," says Parra.
The aim was not just to convert the New World to Catholicism, but to keep other faiths out. "As the New World became known over the following century," she adds, [the kings] wanted to make sure Protestantism and the Jewish faith didn't spread there."
Yet while no one doubts the interest of Spain's Queen Isabella and subsequent monarchs in spreading their faith, the depth of Columbus's interest in this aspect is doubted by some.
"Columbus was simply using the religious issue to maintain the crown's interest in the voyages," says Juan Izquierdo, a historian in Palos de la Frontera, the Spanish village from which Columbus sailed. Columbus "figured out quickly that the economic results were not enough for the kings, and it was at that point that he started speaking of paradise and converting the newly discovered peoples."
In the end, however, what made the discoveries possible was not just that a few kings and determined explorers were motivated by gold, Jerusalem, curiosity, or the spirit, but that ordinary people were desperate for a better way of life.
More than 1,200 people quickly signed on to Columbus's second voyage, when only a year earlier he had such trouble assembling 100 sailors for the maiden trip, notes Columbus specialist Consuelo Valera. "You realize how ready people were to leave for other places if there was any suggestion life there might be better," he says.
This was evidence of "a new idea taking hold," says Mr. Izquierdo, that an individual was not fated to remain trapped within the social class of his birth.
"At that time you were born to a predetermined social echelon, but the promise of a new world was that it might allow you to earn a better life and know more freedom," Izquierdo says.
"For many of those who went on these voyages, the motivation was those ideas that became associated with America - life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness - basic desires that at the time were impossible here."