IN the age of Renaissance and Reformation -- the age of an awakening to a new life the men of Europe began to explore, convert, trade, and settle overseas, in new and old worlds. The age of colonial empires had arrived. Let us for a moment glance at the discovery of "the World" by the men of Europe.
One of the chief things in studying history is to watch the progress by which men have made what they call "the World" bigger and bigger. For "the World" at any particular time has been that part of the globe with which men were familiar; the part in which they themselves lived, the seas on which they sailed, the countries which they visited for war and trade. Beyond these limits there were always great stretches of land and great expanses of sea which were unknown; strange people, cities, customs, whose very existence was unknown.
The Greeks and Romans knew mainly about that small part of the earth which is round the Mediterranean Sea; and this was their world. Other countries were only dim, shadowy lands, about which they could tell wonderful stories.
In the Middle Ages, what men called "the World" grew a little bigger. Gradually -- as a result of travelling, trading, fighting, and preaching -- the Christian world spread from that little world of the Greeks and Romans till it included Germany, Poland, Scandinavia, and Ireland. Energetic kings and devoted priests spent their lives in extending the bounds of Christian Europe; forests were felled, towns made, governments built up. Instead of being barbarous lands out of touch with the civilized peoples, these countries were added to the Mediterranean world during the Middle Ages, and all Europe, except Russia, shared a common life.
Russia was not brought into this society until much later; indeed, it has even yet hardly taken its proper place.
At the end of the fifteenth century, by "the World" most men meant, roughly speaking, Europe. and the north coast of Africa, and the parts of Asia that touch Europe on the east. People had heard of Persia and India. Some travellers, like Marco Polo, went to China and had the most astonishing adventures. But it was difficult for the Christian world to have any certain knowledge of Asia, because hostile Muslim peoples had conquered all the lands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and had made even trade difficult.
Though the world to most men of Europe in the fifteenth century was still very small, it had grown considerably since the days of the Greeks and Romans. And then, right at the end of that century, came, one after another, the most surprisingly sudden and vast discoveries that men have ever made.
Not only America and Africa were thus discovered; we may say that Asia was also added to the world of the western men. For, although Europe had traded with Asia in silks and spices for centuries, there had been few people who came and went all the way, especially since the Turks had occupied the countries lying between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. But now, by means of the voyages of Vasco da Gama, a new way to Asia had been found -- a way which the Turks could not bar.
Thus two adventurous sailors -- Da Gama and Columbus -- added America, Africa, and Asia to the world. And these discoveries followed closely upon the Turks' capture of Constantinople (1453), from which modern history is usually dated.
No one could expect that after such events the nations of Europe could proceed with their own concerns unmoved, careless of the New and Old Worlds which had been brought to their notice. At once Europe began to interest itself in the new continents, and from about 1500 the history of Europe cannot be told without continual references to the history of America, Africa, and Asia.
The enterprising peoples of western Europe spent a great part of their strength in trying to influence the new parts of the world for their own advantage. They only slowly learned how to do this. They tried one plan after another, gradually learning by experience what were the best methods, thinking sometimes about trade, sometimes about gold and silver mines, sometimes about religion.