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October 21, 1999
1600-1700: THE EARTH MOVES; NORTH AMERICA IS SETTLED
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
As the 17th century dawned, the New World adventures of Southern European countries (Spain and Portugal) were already headed toward failure, but the glory days of Northern European (British, French, and Dutch) expansion into North America were just beginning - a development that would change the face of human society.
Prophetically, back in England, William Shakespeare closed his career in 1611 by writing a play titled The Tempest," a fantasy about wizards, lovers and monsters in a "brave new world." In 1605 his Spanish contemporary, Miguel Cervantes, had given the reading public Don Quixote, who, along with Shakespeare's Hamlet, set the type of the modern personality: conflicted, delusional, noble, doomed.
Increasingly, trade knit the expanding world together - Europe with America, Asia with Europe, Africa with Europe and Asia, West with East, South with North. Since prehistory, trade had brought peoples and cultures together across regions and localities; now, for the first time, advancing marine technology and navigation science created a global commercial network that served as the lifeblood of nations everywhere.
There were still a few holes in the expanding picture, however. In India, a kind of parallel universe was unfolding, with the Mogul dynasty reigning powerfully but precariously over a vast population comprising many ethnicities and, most significantly, two antagonistic religions, Islam and Hinduism. As for the African continent, it was still mainly something to be gotten around en route to India and China or back again. Its tangled physical interior with its tangled skein of aboriginal cultures so far was proof against penetration by Europeans, who contented themselves with slave raids along the coasts. The Middle East slumbered as the traumatic memories of the Crusades faded into history.
But growing international trade ate at those undigested bulks like a slow-working chemical, with caravans and ships in constant motion bearing goods, money, and people from region to region.
Commercial ambition short-circuited the Spanish and Portuguese project in what is now known as Latin America. After rapidly establishing mines, haciendas and plantations during the previous century to exploit resources like gold, sugar, and slaves, the Southern Europeans were running the continent and its people into the ground, leaving their own governments on the verge of bankruptcy, even as the first English Pilgrims were traveling to Plymouth on the Mayflower In 1620.
Instead of avariciously committing royal and state capital to intensive exploitation of the continent's resources, as the Southern nations had done the English, French and Dutch subsidized the efforts of merchants to establish colonies largely composed of religious dissidents, criminals, and other social outcasts whose presence at home was obnoxious.
Of course, men and women had known that the Earth was round since at least Columbus' time. But as the 17th century began they still didn't know that the Earth travels around the sun. Two things were lacking: a tradition of precise observation, and telescopes. Johannes Kepler gave the world the first, and Galileo the second. By 1639 Galileo was being condemned by the Church for suggesting that the Earth moves, although educated religious people everywhere reckoned he was probably correct.
Humanity's picture of the cosmos continued to crystallize as Isaac Newton embarked on a series of scientific breakthroughs, including the theory of universal gravity and thus the mechanism by which Earth and the other planets move through space. In 1675, a Dutch thinker named Anton van Leeuwenhoek turned Galileo's brainstorm upside down to create the microscope, for the first time demonstrating the existence of a realm too minute to be seen by the naked eye. Macrospace and microspace were now permanent adjuncts of the human world.
The Northern European expedient of sending religious dissidents to North America achieved very mixed results. It did not save the old-order, divine-right-based governments from violent overthrow. No matter how many Puritans held Thanksgiving feasts with Indians near Massachusetts Bay, there were enough Puritans back in England to produce a leader named Oliver Cromwell, who led a civil army against King Charles I, ultimately charging him with treason and causing his head to be chopped off in 1648.
The ghost of Martin Luther and his Protestant reformation loomed heavily over the West in the 17th century. Charles' beheading came at the end of a Thirty Years' War, in which the nations of Europe worked out their religious animosities on (mostly German) battlefields over a full generation. Even after the British monarchy was restored, the end result was an environment far less congenial to absolute monarchy, with the stage set for the rule of law.
Yet as late as 1692 the American colony of Massachusetts was torn apart by widespread accusations of witchcraft, for which citizens - most of them defenseless women - were executed. The Age of Enlightenment was just around the corner, and the stars and the cells had been opened to view, but many still lived in a universe charged with supernatural fear and horror.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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