Despite the riches in the New World, most European nations were focused on trade with the Orient. The lure of spices, silks, gems and other luxury items was more compelling than mundane fish and furs that required more work to obtain. Worse, the New World was full of aggressive natives – “savages” – who fought with the Europeans and often won their battles. But geography was in the way. There were only two maritime trade routes to the Orient and the Spice Islands known: around the southern tip of Africa or the bottom of South America. Both voyages were long and dangerous. Pirates and privateers straddled both routes and could steal both cargo and the ships carrying it. Crews often got mutinous or sick on the long voyages. A long journey meant lower profits – more money was required to pay crews, ships needed more refits and repairs. A shorter passage through the north would both reduce the dangers and the time, as well as increase the profits. It was very attractive to the merchants who invested in the expeditions.
Europe’s economy was rapidly changing in this period, nowhere more so than in England and Holland. The sudden increase in gold and silver caused both to become devalued: the more that arrived, the less valuable it became. The middle class of merchants was on the rise and land ceased to be the basis of wealth as trade propelled incomes. Bills of exchange began to replace cash as the staple of business transactions, and banks began to open in major cities. Businessmen combined their resources to become joint shareholders in large companies, rather than venture merely their own capital – a new concept for capitalism.