The Age of Exploration began with sailing, and Europeans (notably the Portuguese) discovered the value of utilizing the trade winds to speed their progress across the Atlantic, in particular. The phenomenon of the trade winds was first noted by the Portuguese in the 15th century, although the term itself “trade” winds comes from an even earlier Middle English term meaning “path” or “track.”
Without the modern conveniences of fuel-powered sailing vessels, early European sailors had to learn to harness nature, in particular wind patterns. In their exploration of the “New World,” they became adept at deciphering the wind patterns of the Atlantic Ocean. For example, Columbus used the clockwise winds of the Northern Atlantic to reach the West Indies, and da Gama used the counterclockwise winds of the South Atlantic to reach the Cape of Good Hope.
Used by sailors for centuries the trade winds (“trades”) are a system of wind patterns in the oceans identified by those navigating the seas. In the North Atlantic Ocean, the winds blow predominantly from the northeast, and south of the equator (the delineating point), the winds blow from the southeast. These winds strengthen in the winter when the Arctic oscillation is in effect. The calm winds near the equator are known as the “doldrums.”
A very different wind pattern dominates the Indian Ocean, and monsoon winds over the continent of Asia result in different seasonal sailing patterns (toward India in summer and toward Africa in winter).
These wind patterns were particularly important to help sailors expedite their trade journeys. Using wind to their advantage (and avoiding areas of storm and confrontation with nature) enabled them to develop a thriving business atmosphere. Where goods once required long, difficult overland travel, the modern age of sailing (circa the 1500s) afforded (first) the Portuguese to corner the market on the spice trade via its ships, and later other countries would join in.
After the widespread domination by Portugal of the Asian spice delivery to Western Europe, rivals (including the English, Dutch, and Spanish) began seeing the value of such commerce. By the mid-1500s, the Spanish had begun to focus on silver gleaned from South America, while the English started a thriving cod business, based on fishing from Newfoundland, off the Canadian coast. By the end of the century, the Dutch had their own thriving business in spices and other goods, albeit based farther to the east than the early Portuguese routes.
What is clear is that the use of the trade winds and other helpful nautical information enabled the nations of Western Europe build their empires through trade. Colonization, and the attendant amassing of wealth, depended on solid knowledge of trade winds and safe routes to foreign destinations. By 1849, English oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury had compiled a complete guide to the currents and winds of the oceans. In 1855, his “Physical Geography of the Sea” would be published, providing a comprehensive tool of the trade winds, ocean currents, and shipping lanes around the globe.