Because of Western civilization’s built-in characteristics (like initiative), Europeans didn’t stop creating new things once kings took control of the continent. In fact, Europe’s commercial revolution and its Renaissance made people more likely to step out on their own and try new things. These people became the sources of large and unexpected changes.
The changes we’ll examine in this lesson were not planned or desired by rulers and churches. Frequently they were completely unwelcome and opposed; other times the royals participated for selfish reasons.
Long distance trading was underway well before 1400 AD, and it was making port cities very rich. This motivated more or less all of Europe’s rulers to start doing the same.
In 1415 the rulers of Portugal captured a Muslim city in northern Africa that had been the home of pirates. (These pirates stole many boats full of merchandise and enslaved the people on them.) Once the pirates were eliminated, the Portuguese rulers sent boats out in search of new markets and resources to sell. Step by step they traveled south in the Atlantic, around Africa and into the Indian Ocean. They built trading posts along the way and made it to Calcutta, India in 1498. There they could obtain new spices, among other things.
At the same time many other people were searching for profitable routes to the east. One of these was Christopher Columbus. Columbus eventually struck a deal with the monarchs of Spain and set across the Atlantic in 1492, confident that he would find a better route to India.
Columbus was an excellent sailor and captain, though a rather quirky individual. But he held to his convictions and sailed, at great peril, to the west. And as we know, he found new continents, even though he held to his claim that he had reached India.
The news of new and largely empty continents was shocking and invigorating to Europeans. It opened their imaginations to new and unexpected possibilities.
The Portuguese rulers instantly sent their own ships and sailors, setting up posts in South America. Columbus stayed mainly in the Caribbean. The English and the Dutch sent their sailors to North America. The people of Europe followed these events carefully.
The Spanish and Portuguese rulers, and their associates, began enslaving the people they found in South and Central America. They had vastly superior weapons and a lot of hardened fighting men with nothing to do. At the same time, the Dutch sent traders and fur trappers to North America, where they treated the inhabitants fairly well. The English did similarly to the Dutch and began setting up colonies after about 1600.
Slavery had free run in South America and the Caribbean (later in the southern parts of North America) over most of the 16th century (1501-1600). North America had no real settlements at this time, just traders going back and forth.
And then, throughout the 17th century (1601-1700), English colonies (and a few Dutch) began to appear in North America. This gave non-conformists of Europe unruled places they could escape to. The travel was difficult and dangerous, but once in North America they could live as they pleased. And so they began leaving a continent that had become unfriendly and unkind to them. Here are some highlights in the settlement of North America:
- In 1607 the London Company established a colony at what is now Jamestown, Virginia After many struggles it began to thrive.
- In 1614 Henry Hudson and the Dutch East India Company began trading furs with Native Americans and established a fur-trading fort in what is now Albany, New York. The Dutch traded peacefully with a large number of migratory Indian tribes and the area became known as New Netherlands. Their policy was that all land would be properly purchased from the existing peoples, not seized.
- In 1619, a group of religious outcasts called Pilgrims made business arrangements with the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London to establish a new colony in North America. They arrived in 1620 and formed a colony in what is now Plymouth Massachusetts.
- In 1629, another group of non-conformists established the Massachusetts Bay Colony with 400 settlers.
- In 1632, a Roman Catholic colony formed in what is now Maryland. (Catholics were then being persecuted in Protestant England.)
- In 1636, the Massachusetts Bay Colony expelled a group of people who were too radical for even them. These people founded the Rhode Island colony, which became a haven for still other refugees.
- In 1663 a Utopian settlement was founded in what is now the state of Delaware.
- In the late 1670s and early 1680s, the Religious Society of Friends (also known as the Quakers), began settling in what is now Pennsylvania. Again, they were escaping mistreatment in the Old World.
And so, many people escaped to the New World, bringing new ideas and transformative energies with them.
The northern parts of the New World, then, became radically different from the southern parts, which remained hardened in slavery.
The Scientific Revolution
As we noted in Lesson 11, a stream of inventions were improving life in Europe. But in the early 17th century, something new appeared; something that massively increased the speed and scope of what could be invented.
That new thing was the scientific philosophy of Francis Bacon. Bacon wasn’t alone in developing such ideas, but he was the leading developer of this “new method,” and he was the one who put it most clearly into the world. Bacon’s most important work was a book was called the Novum Organum, which means The New Instrument in Latin, published in 1620.
What Bacon did was not to invent new things, but to show people how to think of science, so they could invent new things. And to give you some understanding how powerful this new method was, here are just some of the things invented and developed in Europe, within just 100 years of Bacon’s writings:
- Practical steam engines. (Newcomen.)
- High-quality iron. (Darby’s blast furnace.)
- Electricity. (von Guericke, Gray, Gilbert.)
- Pendulum clocks. ( Huygens.)
- Microscopes and the discovery of bacteria. The foundations of biology. (van Leeuwenhoek.)
- Laws of gravity, mechanics and planetary motion. Calculus. (Newton, Leibnitz, Kepler.)
- Dentistry. (Fauchard.)
- Calculating machines (Schickard.)
- Coffee, tea and ice cream; coffee houses.
- Newspapers. (Johann Carolus of Strasbourg.)
- The slide rule. (Oughtred.)
- Submarines. (Drebbei.)
- Flintlock muskets. (de Bourgeoys.)
- Dictionaries. (Cockeram.)
- The public opera house. (Venice.)
This was when the medieval world became the modern world. At the core of Bacon’s new teaching – his gift to humanity – was the idea that we should deal with reality directly and not through words and word formulas.
Prior to Bacon, Europeans tended to rely on word formulas called syllogisms. A syllogism is actually a very simple thing. It’s a logical formula by which a conclusion is inferred from two other facts. For example:
All men die
Peter is a man
Therefore, Peter will die
These formulas work, so long as their underlying information is perfect. For a very simple statement like the one above, that’s not a problem, but for complicated things, it is. It’s very, very hard to attain perfection with statements that are stacked up, one upon another. As in, “And because of this, XYZ is true; it then follows that ABC must also be true, and that DEF must be false.”
Once conclusions are added to one another as if they were numbers… once we chain these sealed packets of knowledge one to another to another… error is almost certain.
Bacon insisted that symbols are not perfect and are not to be taken as equal to real things. Every fact, according to Bacon, must be rigorously compared to reality… must be checked in careful experiments. And it the experiments failed, the idea would have to be rejected.
The process of “science” discovers small, specific truths first, arranges them into larger theories, and comes to the most general truths last of all. It demands that only facts obtained through observation and experimentation may be built upon. And even then, if you find new evidence that contradicts the existing structure, you have to start over.