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Science and Empire


Since the 16th century, science has significantly contributed to the development of empires. During ancient times, scientific activities led to the establishment of empires because they involved aspects that included expansion and exploration. Sailors, researchers, geologists, and other scientists facilitated expansion after discovering a new world. Often, the discovery of the new world occurred during scientific exploration. Research and writings from the participants of the scientific explorations show that the new world was full of nature yet to be exploited or used. The land was “virgin” and full of natural resources that attracted the European empires and prompted them to expand their territories. In the process, colonization was coined, with most European nations colonizing several regions, including the West Indies, Middle East, and Africa. Also, slavery was practised as a way of obtaining cheap labour to facilitate mineral mining, processing, and working in the plantations. Thus, the aspect of science came in as a way of facilitating the exploitation of natural and mineral resources, manufacturing (medicines) and war experiments, and enlightenment.

Thesis Statement

Science played a significant role in the development of empires by facilitating the expansion, exploration and exploitation of natural resources. Thus, causing the expansion of European empires and strengthening of the existing ones. Therefore, the paper will seek to better understand the making of science and empires by tracing the history of European expansionism, exploration, and colonization and explaining why it went hand in hand with the study of nature.


History shows that the explorers were eager to understand what was happening or existed overseas. Often, they planned to participate in voyages for research, tours, and identification of the new world. During the process, they came across the wonders of nature or natural environments, topographies, and unexplored vegetation. Thus, they documented their findings and experiences that prompted the European empires to express interest in expansionism.

According to the Charles Darwin research journal, Darwin was inspired by reading Alexander Von Humbolt’s writing on a “voyage to a new world”. The term voyage to a new world shows that Alexander was on a mission to see or explore a new world that was different from the world he was living in. Notably, Darwin applied the same narrative and theory after the end of his university days to attempt to see beyond the Europe shores (Herbert, 2011 pg. 1839). During the voyage, Darwin explains how they interacted with nature and different forms of topographies pleasing to the eyes. He describes his wondering in the Brazilian forest by saying that “among the multitude of striking objects, the general luxuries of the vegetation…elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, glossy green of the foliage…” (Herbert, 2011 pg. 1839) Thus the voyage to the new world beyond Europe was an expansion mission full of nature encounters.

Also, Thomas Jefferson’s passages from the book, “In Notes of the States of Virginia,” had several descriptions of the Indian accounts that were meant to direct future explorers to find the mammoth (big buffalo) that was suspected of having retired towards the Western and Northern part of America. Jefferson acknowledges that “…such is the economy of nature…” the exploration and findings of the remains of the mammoth were found across the great lakes, and “…tusks, grinders, and skeletons of unparalleled magnitude were found in great numbers some lying on the surface of the earth, and some below it” (Jefferson- Herbert, 2011 pg. 1787). The description of the submission by Jefferson (who at the time believed that the animal existed) shows how the acts of nature impact the existence of animals. Relatively, Alexander Von Humboldt, a geographer and a traveller, played a role in both exploration and revealing the denominated natural history. The personal narrative explains a journey to the Equinoctial regions where Alexander was glad to explore different counties. Alexander exclaims, “a traveller does not need being a botanist, to recognize the Torrid Zone on the mere aspects of the vegetation…. (Alexander-Herbert, 2011, pg. 1814)

Further, exploration was conducted in the form of experiments and trials. Scientists used the exploration opportunity to advance their medical research. Notably, regions like the western Hindis provided access to natural trees and animals used for medicinal purposes. For example, Drake’s Manuscript highlights a type of tobacco called pectin; “a special herb which the Indians use for food as well as an extremely beneficial medicine” (Henderson & Powell, 2009 pg. 2). The medicinal plants and animals were processed to be medicine and the experiments were conducted on the people of color or the natives at overseas to test its functionality. “Thomas experiments with skin colour, however (as far as we can ascertain), exploited only enslaved African bodies (Schiebinger, 2017 pg. 28). Notably, the medicine projects utilized the natural resources that were available to facilitate science. Eventually, the exploration of medical tests and experiments achieved its objectives by eradicating the traditional ways of treatment. Notably, American empires were suffering from medical challenges, including those of traditional midwifery. Thus, the introduction of science eradicated the traditional medication methods to adopt the scientific methods. According to Thatcher, “women historians have argued that male doctors promoted science at serious cost…midwives were not only deprived of their occupation but were also shut out of the new medical education (Leavitt & Numbers, 997 pg. 72). Benjamin Franklin conducted another form of exploration in his balloon experiment that involved the flying a balloon object that could later be used to transport adventurers. Franklin says, “I am relieved from my anxiety by hearing that the adventurous descended well near L’lsle before sunset ” (Rotch, 1908 pg. 1 first letter). Thus, it shows that his exploration of the world outside Europe was excellent and involved interaction with the untouched natural world across the continent.

Expansionism and Colonialism

Expansionism was the driving force behind colonialism by the European nations. The exploration allowed for identifying the new world that needed invasion, encroachment, and exploitation of its natural resources. Research shows that the European nation was searching for untouched resources that could make them richer. A glance at the natural history of west Hindis shows that the country was rich in natural resources, including plants, animals, trees, insects, reptiles, and birds. Each natural resource had a role in placing in the Indies (Henderson & Powell, 2009 pg. 1). Thus, the colonizers were keen on expanding their empires and exploring the natural potentials to facilitate the activities back home. Research shows that Europeans admired the natural resources that eventually changed or expanded the European culture of coffee. The authors highlight that “the European travellers and merchants first noticed people drinking coffee in the Middle East in the late sixteenth century. Thus, influencing consumption that has spread across Europe (Hunt & Martin et al., 2012 pg. 79). Currently, the coffee culture has spread over the European countries after coffee production started booming.

The availability of natural resources prompted the need for labour to facilitate production. Notably, the invention of natural resources overseas led to the establishment of larger industries and plantations for plant production and sites for mining. Overseas labour was deemed cheap and an avenue to exploit the unskilled men and women in the farms and mining sites. Olaudah Equiano’s autography describes how the slaves were captured and sold to provide cheap labour. According to Equiano, “we were not many days in the merchant’s custody before we were sold after their usual manner…” (Hunt & Martin et al., 2012 pg.78). Further, slavery was conducted according to color or race, and people of color were subjected to medical experiment. The Europeans explored the natural resources available and manufactured medicine that was used to treat the slaves to enable them to go back to work whenever they fell sick. However, “Thomas experiments with skin colour, however (as far as we can ascertain), exploited only enslaved African bodies (Schiebinger, 2017 pg. 28). Notably, the medicine projects utilized the natural resources that were available to facilitate science.

Lastly, history shows that enlightenment was achieved through the exploration and expansion of colonies because of the experiences obtained from different regions. Science experiments and practice influence the respective empires’ cultures (colonizers and the colonized). Every empire has its practice but is influenced by local interests. According to the article Grief and Headhunter’s Rage in the Book Culture and Truth, the vengeful nature of the author is influenced by the occurrence of local activities, including slavery. The article acknowledges that “truths of case studies that are embedded in the local context, shaped by local context, shaped local interest, and coloured by local perception (Da Silva, 1992 pg. 21). Thus, the practice of science influences the culture of the empire depending on the colonies they interact with during exploration, expansion, and colonization. Further, history shows that enlightenment is a result of “scientific demonstration or lecture, travel, or just invest in books about people in the other world” (Jacob, 1991 pg. 1). Also, the author proposes that every society has people who are enlightened beyond their cultural norms and practices because of absorbing the contemporary outcome of science that includes; “read books and journals, frequenting coffeehouses, salons, Masonic lodges, and reading clubs (Jacob, 1991 pg.1).


Evidence from the historical study shows a significant relationship between nature and the thematic areas of expansion, exploration, and colonization. Notably, the activities that took place in ancient times, including exploring a new land, were acts of science. Often, explorers wanted to scientifically analyze the potential of the other world for exploration. Thus, it led to the expansion and colonization of other regions. The experiences, occurrences, and scientific success, including in the medical fields, labour, culture, and economy, were significant in building European empires. Therefore, science makes empires.


Primary Sources

Henderson, R. W., & Powell, R. (2009). Natural history of West Indian reptiles and amphibians.

Herbert, S. (Jefferson, Alexander and Charles articles) (2011). Charles Darwin and the Question of Evolution: A Brief History with Documents. Macmillan Higher Education. (Jefferson, Alexander and Charles articles)

Rotch, A. L. (1908, April). Benjamin Franklin’s Original Letters about Balloons. In Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society (Vol. 19, p. 100). American Antiquarian Society.

Secondary sources

Da Silva, A. L. (1992). Culture and Truth. The Remaking of Social Analysis.-Introduction; Grief and a Headhunters Rage

Hunt, L., Martin, T. R., Rosenwein, B. H., & Smith, B. G. (2012). Making of the West, Volume II: Since 1500: Peoples and Cultures (Vol. 2). Macmillan.

Jacob, M. C. (1991). Living the enlightenment: freemasonry and politics in eighteenth-century Europe. Oxford University Press.

Leavitt, J. W., & Numbers, R. L. (Eds.). (1997). Sickness and health in America: Readings in the history of medicine and public health. Univ of Wisconsin Press.

Schiebinger, L. (2017). Secret cures of slaves: People, plants, and medicine in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Stanford University Press.


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