Saturday, April 30, 2011

Updated: The Age of Discovery

Those of use who are history buffs tend to have a particular interest in certain specific time periods or places. For example, especially here in the United States, there are Civil War buffs. Others are fascinated by Tudor England, the Italian Renaissance, World War Two, the Roman Empire, ancient Greece, and so forth.

While I enjoy reading about the history of just about any place and any time period, of late I have focused my attentions on an era that is both very broad and yet still can be put into a specific framework that ties the disparate events and locations into an interconnected whole. That era encompasses the entire 16th century, beginning with the voyages of exploration of the 4th quarter of the 15th century and ending in the early years of the 17th century. Thanks to the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, the written accounts of explorers, novels, plays, religious tracts, and philosophical works, among others, could be disseminated widely and rapidly. Fran├žois Rabelais makes note of this in his popular book Pantagruel (1534) in this passage:

"Now all disciplines have been brought back; languages have been restored: Greek - without which it is a disgrace that any man should call himself a scholar - Hebrew, Chaldean, Latin: elegant and accurate books are now in use, printing having been invented in my lifetime through divine inspiration just as artillery, on the contrary, was invented through the prompting of the devil. The whole world is now full of erudite persons, full of very learned teachers and of the most ample libraries, such indeed that I hold it was not as easy to study in the days of Plato, Cicero nor Papinian as it is now." (Underlined and bolded for emphasis).

The 16th century period was a time not only of expanding physical frontiers, but of mental frontiers as well, with the former often stimulating the latter. It was an era that saw, from at least a European perspective, the discovery of two vast continents and the peoples who inhabited them, and the first circumnavigation of the globe. Though other continents and geographical regions remained to be found by European navigators, such as Australia, Antarctica, and the Polynesian Islands, the circumference of the Earth had at last become truly known.

As I wrote above, the discovery of hitherto unknown lands and peoples challenged previously held assumptions about the world held by European societies whose understanding of it was based on the Bible. How come the Bible did not account for the Americas and the people and creatures that lived there? One hint of this can be found in a report by Amerigo Vespucci:

What should I tell of the multitude of wild animals, the abundance of pumas, of panthers, of wild cats, not like those of Spain, but of the antipodes; of so many wolves, red deer, monkeys, and felines, marmosets of many kinds, and many large snakes? We saw so many other animals that I believe so many species could not have entered Noah’s ark.” (Underlined for emphasis)

Though the voyages of discovery were initiated by Europeans, the process of discovery was itself a two way street. The natives of the Americas were discovered by the Europeans, but at the same time the Native Americans, as well as other indigenous peoples, discovered that they too were part of a world that was greater than they had realized.

For the most part, the written accounts we have are from the perspective of the European explorers. Many of my upcoming posts will based on my reading of these works. While they are of course of immense value to us, we also need to be mindful that what they tell us influenced by their own biases and misunderstandings. Fortunately, we are not entirely without written records of the people visited and impacted by the Europeans. From the Kongo Kingdom of Africa, for example, we have a letter by the King of Kongo complaining to the Portuguese king about the activities of Portuguese slave traders in his kingdom. In Japan, the introduction of firearms by two shipwrecked Portuguese men is remembered in a written account of a Japanese witness some sixty years after the event.

In another example of the opening of mental horizons, the 16th century was also the time of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Western Christendom would no longer be synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church, an event that would reverberate beyond the confines of Europe. It was also the time of the Moguls in India and the Ottoman Turks under Suleyman the Magnificent, to name but a few.

It must also be noted that while this period, which saw the birth of today’s global economy, was a period of great discovery, it was also a period of tremendous violence and destruction, especially for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. I’m reminded of a line by Jeff Goldblum’s character in the movie Jurassic Park, “What's so great about discovery? It's a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.” We are certainly still living with the scars of that period today.

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