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Discovery of America and the Scientific Revolution in Europe

Updated on August 15, 2014


The Discovery age is essentially an historical period in Spanish and European global exploration[1]. It began in early 15th century with the discoveries of Africa by the Portuguese and America by Spain in 1492 as well as the discovery of the ocean routes to Asia in 1498. In the early modern period, the voyages by Columbus triggered other European explorations and colonization of the continent of America and it was therefore, a great significance to the history of the world. Columbus made four voyages to America in 1492 and which led to the discovery of America in the perspective of Europe[2]. While Columbus could not have been the first European to discover the “New World” and did not actually reach the mainland until 1498, his discovery greatly contributed to extensive knowledge on the “New World” for the first time in history[3].

The scientific revolution refers to the emergence of the modern science during the time of early modern period when development in physics, mathematics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and human anatomy transformed the views of nature and society[4]. Before the discovery of this “New World”, there were widespread believes that people living in such places were not normal. The Romans in particular held a belief that people who were living in northern Africa were monsters, and abnormal. Such beliefs went on into the medieval era[5]. The discovery of the “New World” by Columbus assisted a great deal in removing this ignorance and superstitions. Further, this discovery made Europeans to be more interested in discovering the physical world. The relation with nature changed and it had to be controlled in order to have a desired effect. This was actually the beginning of scientific revolution[6].

Alongside these developments, there was also cultural and political change that occurred in Spain and the rest of Europe as result of exploration and extension of the overseas empires. The early modern period saw a tremendous rise with European engagement with and knowledge of the “outside world”. This paper discussed the relationship between the discovery of America and the rise of scientific revolution in Spain and subsequently to Europe.

Columbus Discovery of America and Scientific Revolution in Spain

The Columbian explorations in the New World led to the development of the new transportation technologies that could facilitate navigation and other forms of transportation between Spain and the New World[7]. European explorers improved the new transport technologies that were developed by Spain. These explorers gathered from the “New World” information concerning the culture of the local people, and people who were not previously known. Spanish and other Europeans were introduced to a diversity of beliefs and lifestyles. These worldlier perspectives provided European thinkers in the enlightenment era with motivations, inspirations and impetus for change[8].

Columbus’ discovery of the “New World” and the subsequent other European explorers led to more interests in discovering new trade routes to Asia, and new lands to conquer for their empires and kingdoms, as well as interest in converting the natives of the New World to Christianity[9]. These explorations, which led to colonization of America, stimulated the world trade patterns, more particularly across the Atlantic Ocean and destroying the native cultures of Americans. The wealth from these explorations, alongside the end of feudalism also resulted into the strengthening of the European empires. Absolute monarchs such as Peter the Great and Louis XIV transformed Russia and France in a great extent[10]. The new discoveries during this era resulted into many people questioning the beliefs that were had been previously held. Consequently, scientific revolution began by the discoveries of the orbits of the planets, the human body and the physical world[11].

In essence, Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World opened routes for other Europeans to discover new truths. It is at this time when the printing press was also invented and which greatly helped in spreading challenging ideas, both new and old among European thinkers[12]. The age of European exploration also fuelled in a great deal scientific research especially in the field of mathematics and astronomy. Explorers and navigators required better instruments as well as geographical measurements[13]. An example of the instruments that were developed ware those that were used in determining the location in open seas. Scientists began to be more interested on the world around them. They made new discoveries that challenged the ancient perceptions and beliefs. They had previously thought that their classical world’s knowledge had reached a limit, but the discovery of the “New World” enlightened them on the need to know more[14].

The breakthrough in geographical science resulted into the colonization of America by Spain and other main European powers. This is in most cases regarded as the beginning of the modern era. Spain, Portugal, and other European powers sent explorers and established colonies in the “New World”. They created large trade networks, converting the natives into Christianity, introducing new food crops, animals and plants in this continent[15].

The age of discovery can be viewed as a bridge between the middle ages and the modern era. In addition to the Renaissance movement, the discovery age triggered the modern period and the rise of the European nation states. European explorations, and expansion resulted into colonial empires, with the interaction between the old and New Worlds resulting into the Columbus exchange such as wide transfer of a variety of foods, animals, human population, the culture between the Western and Eastern hemispheres, communicable diseases and discovery of medicine[16]. These were among the most significant global events that concerned ecology, culture, and agriculture and world history. The European exploration led to the global mapping of the worldview as well as distant civilizations acknowledging one another[17]. The scientific revolution was one of the most significant developments in the Western intellectual tradition. This revolution was particularly in the way in which people viewed the world. Owing to this, the revolution was regarded as an epistemological one, changing the thought process of many individuals[18].

The Columbian Exchange highly affected many societies on earth. For instance, the impact of the new diseases to the native people of America was immense. This was because they had no immunity and as such; the America culture was highly depopulated. However, this led to the discovery and introduction of new medical therapies and introduction of medicine to fight the new communicable diseases[19]. The contact between the two areas led to a circulation of new livestock and crops, which subsequently increased the population in both the “New World” and Europe. Explorers went to Europe with such crops as maize, tomatoes, potatoes and beans, which became essential crops in Europe by 18th century. On the other hand, Europeans introduced peanuts and manioc among other plants, which supported increase in population in these places.[20]

The discovery of America by Christopher Columbus and subsequent European voyages of explorations altered the environment for scientific revolutions. This discovery undermined the closed Eurocentric cosmos of the middle ages era and the science of geography offered its own stimulus in scientific revolution[21]. With a focus on practical experience, and observational reports, the discovery of the “New World” challenged the received authority, thus providing novel ways of learning on the New World in particular. Alongside the need for better navigational instruments, there was also development of other devices that could be used in expansion of commercial interests in America[22]. For example, there was a need for devices that could be used in exploiting metallic resources and those used in retrieving the pearl of oysters from the sea. The accumulation of theory and experience established ties between the local expertise who lived in Spain and America. According to Osorio, the common framework for these actors was the commodified considerations of nature, practical and empirical approach to its exploitation[23].

It is during this Columbian exploration and other European voyages in the “New World”, which led to an increased need for Spain to acquire accurate information on its American colony. These subsequently gave rise to empirical scientific practices, and their institutionalization, which was the chief contribution of Spain to the early scientific revolution[24]. This early scientific revolution lead to ecological transformation of the New World, development of enhanced information gathering practices, technologies and equipments of exploiting the natural resources in America, the use of questionnaires and reports for information gathering as well as writing of articles and books on American natural resources[25].

Columbian voyages in the new world stirred an interest among Spanish bureaucrats, solders, adventurers, merchants, ship pilots, physicians and friars who actively engaged themselves in exploring the “newly found World” drawing maps, gathering data as well as specimens of the vast resources of plants, animals and minerals[26]. These led to the amassing of empirical knowledge concerning the possessions of Spain in the “New World” which surprising had far-reaching effects. This also changed the traditional understanding of nature that had been included in classical texts and helped in initiating scientific revolution. In addition, it also enabled Spain and other Europeans empires to control Portugal, and commodify the natural resources upon which to establish its American empire[27].

The impact, intellectual and the new world discoveries was by far, greatest in Spain and majority of the Spanish writing on this issue was highly translated into other European languages. Investigators from Spain became the dominant in the natural history of the New World, producing a series of works[28]. The major disciplines that were adversely affected by the new Knowledge included zoology botany and natural history. The properties of all forms of plants and animals that were previously unknown to Europeans had to be worked out with the assistance of the ancients. Europeans acquired immense knowledge from the native informants ranging from the tribes and ethnic groups of South Americans, the Hindu physicians and many others[29].

The management of natural resources in long distance perspective became an increasing preoccupation with Spanish authorities. These were mandated to formulate new methods of gathering, disseminating and administering information. Through commissioning expeditions and dispatching lengthy questionnaires, these authorities had to solicit detailed reports from individuals, which described most aspects of the “New World”[30]. Viceroys, governors, archbishops, and other officials alongside the native people were charged with providing information for the large bureaucratic enterprise. Other places also saw the formation of expert communities among natural historians, physicians, royal officials, and merchants. The rapid dissemination of their publications also led to establishment of international information networks, and a more standardized perception of nature[31].

Another development was in the area of Columbian exchange where animals, plants, microorganisms, and other things were exchanged between the Americans, and Afroeurasia. These followed the achievement of the Spanish European sailors in permanently connecting the two hemispheres. The demographic and ecological impact of the great global convergence were immense, particularly during the period of the “great dying” of many of the America’s native people[32]. The Spanish greatly benefited from this problem by increasing the western population with American immigrants as both settlers and slaves. They also gained access to crucial new sources of fiber and food. These included among others potatoes, tobacco, and maize among others from America. On the other hand, plants from the country such as cotton among others were also introduced in American soil[33].

Scientific Revolution in the rest of Europe

The Spanish exploration and colonization of the “new world” saw a tremendous rise in European engagement with and knowledge of the “outside world”. This new knowledge ultimately changed European science, making it clear that the ancient books were not complete repositories for the natural knowledge. The exploration brought to light the falsity that had existed in traditional European knowledge. For instance, the assumption by Aristotle that the earth’s surface was too hot to be inhabited was thoroughly disapproved when they encountered the American people[34]. Traditional believes on the existence of monsters since the classical times gradually declined during the early modern period since more insights were gained from this discovery. Columbus’ letters concerning the New World did not point out the existence of monstrosities. The new problems from explorations were also put into considerations on the intellectual agenda, more particularly those of cartography and navigation[35].

Europeans had known Africa, and Asia, and the lack of this knowledge on America presented a challenge. When it was realized that America was not simply an extension of Asia, a major intellectual issue in Europe became the ignorance of the “New World” not only on classical writings, but also on the bible. Attempts in solving this issue involved grafting biblical and classical knowledge into the Americas[36]. The Europeans gradually developed awareness that America was not dealt with specifically by the bible, or classical literature and that neither of these did help further expansions of Asia. By 1570, the classical traditional work on geography especially that espoused by Ptolemy was regarded has merely having an historical interest. The Spanish exploration eventually became the standard example provided by those who argued that the modern form of civilization had improved beyond the classical world. This was regarded as intellectual revolutionary[37].

The Europeans specifically became interested in the medical properties of the new plants since many of the knowledge gatherers and explorers from Europe were physicians. These investigators were in most cases carried away with enthusiasm concerning the medical potential of foreign plants. For instance, tobacco, which was a new plant from the “new world”, was considered as being psychologically beneficial in calming the mind and making men to be more attractive to women. The myriad of the new animal and plant species found finally made much of the conventional history to be irrelevant[38]. Amerigo Vespucci through his writings pointed out the existence of the new species in the “new world” which could not be found in the works of Roman or European historians. The new species discovered did not have the conventional allegorical and symbolic relations of plants and animals that were already known to Europeans and hence, could now be debated in an empirical way[39].

The production of natural histories required a substantial dedication of resources, both to the gathering of knowledge and publication of this knowledge in the book format, thus necessitating development of printing machines. In particular, local knowledge of natural history, geography, and local diseases became highly valued by Europeans. The Europeans went on to establish permanent settlements in the New World, whereby, the practices and institutions went along with them. Among the most famous institutions established by the Europeans are the Mexico University, and the re-known Harvard University, which incorporated European curriculum. European intellectuals who were based in American colony participated in European scientific discourses, although from a distance[40].

At the level of human species in general, the most conspicuous aspect in the period of the “New World” explorations was the immense extension of communication networks as well as the exchanges that connected societies and individuals in a more tight way. The Spanish endeavored to look for easy means of connecting to the New World and Europe. These networks of communications were also extended to other regions of Europe and eventually to the world, which eventually became intricately connected to one another, a development which is commonly referred as the great global convergence[41]. It is also through this era when the American population begun to increase due to introduction of improved therapies and enhanced farming practices which increased crop yields. This era saw dramatic changes in human history with a number of transformations in key sectors[42].

Human societies and the networks, which connected them, became increasingly complex. For example, for the first time in history, Afroeurasia people began to interact on a large scale with American people (from as early as sixteen century). American exploration by Spain also led to the development of the global economy. This was one of the effects of the great global convergence, which had linked major world regions in a main web of exchange. Most of the important minerals mined from America such as silver was introduced in Spain and then to Western Europe. Silver became an important financier of European economy of maritime Asia, and was the basis for the development of the Atlantic centered world economy during the 1800s[43].

The remarkable development of the European military and political power in relation to other parts of the world was also another peculiar development during the discovery of America. This was a result of the spread of technological innovations in Western Europe, which had originated from Afroeurasia. It was also as a response of Western Europe to the warfare challenges during the age of gunpowder weapons. A complete transformation in the manner in which people fought and paid for wars occurred in the New World. Historians have named this development as the fiscal and military revolution since it involved unprecedented developments in military technology plus the strategies employed by governments in raising the public money for warfare. The cultural and intellectual development in the new world assisted in establishing rational science as a standard for measuring and explaining human behavior as well as natural science. They highly enhanced the capability of humans in manipulating nature. Since they challenged the long established philosophical and religious perspectives, such movements raised profound queries concerning the ultimate meaning of society and nature as well as the sources of nature[44].

The Great Dying in America because of the diseases that were caused by Europeans resulted into massive economic, social and cultural upheavals in the American societies. The calamity had a major impact on the advancement of the new Spanish empire in the “New World”. The high loss of population meant that the Spanish had to face severe labor shortages and decreasing taxes. Hence, they had to create a system of administration, which prioritized the mining industry in order to ensure a consistent export of silver. It also led to the establishment of legal and social institutions, which forced surviving Native Americans to work for Spanish in the mining industry and commercial farming[45].

The subsequent arrival of other Europeans in the “New World” after Spanish explorations also altered the natural environment in the new land because they brought along with them new organisms of all forms , including food plants and domestic animals which had not existed in America as well as a substantial number of weed species. Since America’s biota, which had preexisted in America, was in most cases unable to successfully compete with these invading species, many environments in the Eastern hemisphere came within several centuries to resemble the northwestern European environment. In 1500 for instance, many people in North America did not know wheat crop. After the introduction of this crop by the Europeans to North America, it subsequently became a staple food to the natives of North America. This was also true for people who were thriving in South America[46].

The great dying because of tropical diseases resulted into forced migration of African women across the Atlantic. This was an attempt of keeping the plantations, mines and haciendas’ produce enough for the European markets. As such, European estate and mine owners had to find more labor. Additionally, European entrepreneurs were consistently unable to find the local Indian labor they wanted, while Europeans with no jobs were not willing to cross the Atlantic in large numbers just to take up manual and be exposed to tropical diseases. For them to continue making good profits from production and sale of such substances as silver, sugar and other commodities, African slaves were brought in the region[47].

There were far reaching changes in maritime ship navigations and constructions, which subsequently speeded global exchanges. Novel maritime technology alongside the European innovations of mounting cannons on shipboard facilitated the rise of Spanish and British empires. These empires and Monarchs became more diverse and larger than the former ones. New technology on firearms greatly contributed to the expansion of the Afroeurasian empires, which subsequently became more organized in terms of tax collections and controlling the subjects in comparison to earlier ones. These states included Safavid Persian, Turkish Ottoman, Russian empires, the Mughal Indian and other nations in inner Eurasia. The exploration and colonization of the new lands by Spain and eventually Europe opened doors for the new range of challenges and ideas. The cultural exchanges in and out of Europe set the stage for dramatic explosion with regard to intellectual activities.

During the big era six, Asia was particularly the centre of global economic activity. However, there was a westward shift towards Europe especially in the late eighteenth century. This came about because of the linking of Americas and Afroeurasia as another significant factor. The swift entrance of the large quantities of silver in sixteenth century on the world markets resulted into the rapid increase of commercial exchanges of all forms. This was particularly true for Asia, where most of the economies of India and China were based on silver coinage. America greatly contributed to this by supplying increased amount of silver and other precious metals to the global market. In the end, it was clear that Europeans were the most beneficiaries of this development. American silver, which was produced from the earth by African slaves and Native Americans, offered a solution for European entrepreneurs. Europeans began purchasing Asian commodities such as spices, tea, coffee, porcelain, and pepper, and silk, cotton cloth and so on with the American silver and to some level gold. With such precious metals to sell in the Asian market, Europeans also benefited as specialists in moving these goods from one part of the world market for instance Africa or Asia to another. There was a boom in world trading especially in the later sixteenth century and early eighteenth century. This boom in trade was particularly beneficial to merchants, European states and Asian countries[48].

American Revolution of 1775-83 and imperial politics dominated the writing of the 18th century. The lasting impact of the enlightenment included a greater social mobility, cultural acceptance of ideas such as quality and reason, plus the supposition of an innate moral sense for all Americans. Between 1865-1914, America was transformed from a nation that had emerged from a destructive civil war to an imperial nation with possession of overseas issues. Although the undesirable effect of the high rate of territorial and industrial expansion plus the population rise were felt most by those who were not able to resist the unscrupulous, greedy and powerful elite at that time. The literature of this period appears to be in context of diversification of American experience, in both regional and ethnic, and the small but consistent movement among the writers in combating the social inequalities that were a rising from the high rate of growth that was being experienced in the new land[49].

The changing conditions of consumptions, production and labor not only in the New World but also in other places around the world highly affected the lives of many men and women. There was a transformation in work habits, family structure and to some extent in the ratio of men and women. The sugar plantations and silver mines in the New World did much in creating new international division of labor where Africans, Asians and Native Americans had to increasingly supply raw materials, and labor while the Europeans made finished products by use of complex technologies[50].

The military revolution in Europe was fiscal since it necessitated deep transformation in state bureaucracy, accounting and taxation in paying for the increasingly expensive warfare. In this revenue race, only those who were fiscally fit could survive. Their rivals who were more successful significantly reduced the power of states that were not able to finance expensive artillery and weapons. The ability of Britain in financing the warfare as noted by its victories over France was supported by its resources in the New World. By the late eighteenth century, the balance of military power in the world was shifting to the side of Europe, which was financially capable in adopting the new weaponry. By the later eighteenth century, the balance of military power in the world was shifting to the European side[51].

At the age of discovery, Europe emerged as a center of scientific and technological development, a hotbed of inventions and ideas greatly contributed to the building of the denser networks of human interactions. It should however, be noted that Europe was able to achieve its role since its experimenters, and thinkers were able to establish a legacy of technological and scientific exchanges which had for many years been part of the Afroeurasian history. Internal cultural trends that developed due to interaction with Americans also became a key element in the transformation of Europe in many aspects including science. The renaissance in Europe was for instance, a cultural expression of the new prosperity in Europe, which had been fed by the newly acquired knowledge that came into this region during European conquests, and explorations across the oceans. The renaissance in the world perspectives raised the degree of refinement and sophistication of the European elite culture to that of the urban societies in the rest of Afroeurasia. The scientific revolution was a more decisive form of transformation, which was felt during the seventeenth century


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