The age of exploration - hiSTORY 2


Once upon a time

Once upon a time there was a gigantic castle filled with many, many rooms but it had no windows. Rather, it had little slits high up on walls or in distant corners that permitted a person to look upwards at the heavens and stars but did not give much of a view of the surrounding countryside. There were, it is true, one or two dingy glassy windows scattered here and there but these were cloudy with grime and only for the rich and privileged to look out of, anyway.
            Many, many people lived in different parts of the castle, in small groups, each with their own language and customs. Most had kings and smaller, select groups with inordinate power. Most of the people, however, lived short and fairly brutal lives. These different groups of different language peoples often had very little knowledge of the next group… and mostly they had no idea whatever about other parts of the gigantic castle, never mind the world outside. They knew it was a large and frightening place – that was enough.  
Sometimes different peoples fought with each other over disputed corridors or enclosed garden spaces. They fought over rich dirt and spaces and who had control of different courtyards or certain plants…
But mostly of late they fought over spices. Everyone loved spices. And because no-one really knew where the spices came from they became even more desirable. Spices made drab lives more liveable, spices cured all manner of diseases, spices made bad meat palatable, spices granted love and maybe even immortality.
            And then the spices stopped coming. Little trickles of cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cardamom, all spice, star anise, saffron, nutmeg; that was all. Prices soared, food tasted awful, contagions spread and kings questioned sages. Men wondered if they had offended the gods.
And then a young boy, named Francis Duckworth, spoke up; just because he was near someone who happened to listen to children (a very rare occurrence indeed) and just because that someone happened to be related to the king, he was (eventually) heard. What did he say?
            ‘There are great waters out there and I have seen men travelling in gigantic trees. I think they bring the spices.’
            ‘How have you seen?’ surly men asked.
            ‘I climbed the tallest tower and looked out and down from the great slit cut in the wall,’ Francis said.
            ‘And you saw all this with your own eyes?’ the surly men sneered.
            ‘No,’ said Francis, ‘with this.’ He held a funny long metal tube.
            ‘Ah,’ said the wise man who listened to children, ‘that is indeed intriguing. May I see?’
            Francis told him to put the narrower, long end to his eye and the wise man started. His eyes were wide. He looked again, then whistled (just as a small boy given a treat would have). ‘Amazing. Amazing… I can see the eyes of the lice crawling about your collar Sir Frizzle,’ he boomed to one of the surly men, standing more than 50 metres away.
            The king looked through the telescope (as the boy called it) and he too was amazed.
            ‘What should we do?’ the king asked his wise relative.
            His wise relative, who was indeed wise, said, ‘I think, your majesty, that we should ask the one who sees far… Francis, what would you do?’
            ‘The world,’ said Francis, ‘is surely much larger than we know. Those men in the great trees must travel to get the spices from some far-off place. Because they are greedy they will not tell us where the spices come from, nor who sells them to them.’ Francis laughed; ‘if I were they I too would not reveal the goose that lays the golden egg, so I cannot condemn them too much. But now we know, and now, surely, we must also be able to travel out and away from our homes. If others can build the trees that go on the oceans we can. And if they can travel the world, so can we. Let us find the people who sell the spices and undercut the merchants…’
            ‘Kneel,’ commanded the king and straightaway he knighted Francis Duckworth. The flat blade of his sword caressed young Duckworth’s shoulders. He arose, a drake.
OVERVIEW OF THE MAKING OF THE MODERN WORLD Age of exploration: Once upon a time (the story) 
STORY and activities copyright of Stephen J Kimber

Once upon a time
History knowledge and understanding:
the nature and extent of the movement of peoples in the period (slaves, convicts and settlers) (ACHHK123)
the emergence and nature of significant economic, social and political ideas in the period, including nationalism (ACHHK127)

The setting:
This story is a kind of parable, a fairy tale version of events: the gigantic castle is meant to represent Europe in the early 16th century, just as the age of exploration begins. Where is the history?

[Source: "Cantino planisphere (1502)" by anonymous Portuguese (1502) - Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, Modena, Italy. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -]
  1. What features of the castle suggest that Europe was a closed and fairly ignorant world at this time?
  2. How does the writer suggest that European states were frequently at war at this time?
  3. What is the key motivation that causes the people in the gigantic castle to go out exploring, according to this fairy tale?
  4. The story hints at significant aspects of life at this time to try to make it seem real. Use clues in the text and research to help you complete the questions below. The first one has been done for you:
  • ‘Filled with many, many rooms but it had no windows’ (paragraph 1) suggests to me that Europe is a closed place at this time, with little concept of the outside world. Research reveals maps from this time, which indicate that there is very little idea of the world outside Europe, Europe, parts of northern Africa and some parts of Asia are shown and that is it.
  • ‘These  [glass windows] were cloudy with grime and only for the rich and privileged to look out of, anyway....’ (paragraph 1)  and ‘Tree, who carried our coals…’ (paragraph 2) suggests to me that … Research reveals that …
  • ‘Most of the people, however, lived short and fairly brutal lives…’ (paragraph 2) suggests to me that … Research reveals that …
  • ‘But mostly of late they fought over spices. Everyone loved spices. And because no-one really knew where the spices came from they became even more desirable…’ (paragraph 4) suggests to me that … Research reveals that …
  • ‘The king looked through the telescope (as the boy called it) and he too was amazed…’ (paragraph 14) suggests to me that … Research reveals that …
Beliefs and Values of the times 
  1. Wars are terrible things – what causes wars in this fairy tale history?
  2. Is this an informed time – with a good knowledge of science? Explain your response.
Material Circumstances of the times
  1. Trade in spices is a key aspect of economies at this time – why were spices valued, according to the story?
  2. This is a class-based society; cite evidence in the story which reveals this to be so.
History skills
Historical questions and research
Identify and select different kinds of questions about the past to inform historical inquiry (ACHHS166)
Evaluate and enhance these questions (ACHHS167)
Identify and locate relevant sources, using ICT and other methods (ACHHS168)
The research process.
How did the writer research this story and what prior knowledge did he bring to the writing? Prior knowledge of what the west calls ‘The Age of Exploration’ (people in other parts of the world have different names for it) helped provide the motivating force for this story. Many historians believe that this age was a key part of the making of the modern world, because it broadened the movement of peoples and led to the age of European imperialism, where European countries had control of vast areas of the world.
  1. Use research to discover answers to these questions:
  • What factors did cause the European age of exploration – also called the age of discovery?
  • How important was the spice trade to the process of exploration?
What the writer made up
It seems to me that in many ways the age of exploration or of discovery bears many of the hallmarks of a fairy tale; certainly this is true of the sanitised version of this period as taught in many schools in the 20th century. The act of labelling it an ‘age of exploration’ or ‘discovery’ ignores much of its exploitative nature… as such the work is a work of fiction and not a historical reality… At its heart is something at least this writer holds true; the notion of how important the spice trade was to the initial impetus to go out from Europe.
Where did the writer get his information? (Bibliography)
Briney, A., 2014, Age of exploration,,, 2014, Age of exploration infographic,, 2014, Age of exploration: 1505 – 1650,

Sample story learning activities - hiSTORY 2