Distinguishing characteristics of the Seventeenth Century—The more thorough exploration of regions previously discovered—To the thirst for gold succeeds Apostolic zeal—Italian missionaries in Congo—Portuguese missionaries in Abyssinia—Brue in Senegal and Flacourt in Madagascar—The Apostles of India, of Indo-China, and of Japan.

The seventeenth century has a distinctive character of its own, differing from that of the preceding century in the fact that nearly all the great discoveries have been already made, and that the work of this whole period consists almost exclusively in perfecting the information already acquired. It contrasts equally with the century which is to succeed it, because scientific methods are not yet applied by astronomers and sailors, as they are to be 100 years later. It appears in fact, that the narratives of the first explorers—who were only able, so to speak, to obtain a glimpse of the regions which they traversed while waging their wars,—may have in some degree exercised a baneful influence upon the public mind. Curiosity, in the narrowest sense of the word, is carried to an extreme. Men travel over the world to gain an idea of the manners and customs of each nation, of the productions and manufactures of each country, but there is no real study. They do not seek to trace what they see to its source, and to reason scientifically upon the why and wherefore of facts. They behold, curiosity is satisfied, and they pass on. The observations made do not penetrate beneath the surface, and the great object appears to be to visit, as rapidly as may be, all the regions which the sixteenth century has brought to light.

Besides, the abundance of the wealth diffused on a sudden over the whole of Europe has caused an economic crisis. Commerce, like industry, is transformed and altered. New ways are opened, new mediums arise, new wants are created, luxury increases, and the eagerness to make a fortune rapidly by speculation, turns the heads of many. If Venice from a commercial point of view be dead, the Dutch are about to constitute themselves, to use a happy expression of M. Leroy-Beaulieu, "the carriers and agents of Europe," and the English are preparing to lay the foundations of their vast colonial empire.

To the merchants succeed the missionaries. They alight in large numbers upon the newly-discovered countries, preaching the Gospel, civilizing the barbarous nations, studying and describing the country. The development of Apostolic zeal is one of the dominant features of the seventeenth century, and it behoves us to recognize all that geography and historic science owe to these devoted, learned, and unassuming men. The traveller only passes through a country, the missionary dwells in it. The latter has evidently much greater facilities for acquiring an intimate knowledge of the history and civilization of the nations which he studies. It is therefore very natural that we should owe to them narratives of journeys, descriptions, and histories, which are still consulted with advantage, and which have served as a basis for later works.

If there be any country to which these reflections more particularly apply, it is to Africa, and especially to Abyssinia. How much of this vast triangular continent of Africa was known in the seventeenth century? Nothing but the coasts, it will be said. A mistake. From the earliest times the two branches of the Nile, the Astapus and the Bahr-el-Abiad, had been known to the ancients. They had even advanced—if the lists of countries and nations discovered at Karnak by M. Mariette may be believed—as far as the great Lakes of the interior. In the twelfth century, the Arab geographer Edrisi writes an excellent description of Africa for Roger II. of Sicily, and confirms these data. Later on, Cadamosto and Ibn Batuta travel over Africa, and the latter goes as far as Timbuctoo. Marco Polo affirms that Africa is only united to Asia by the Isthmus of Suez, and he visits Madagascar. Lastly, when the Portuguese, led by Vasco da Gama, have completed the circumnavigation of Africa, some of them remain in Abyssinia, and in a short time diplomatic relations are established between that country and Portugal. We have already said something of Francesco Alvarez; in his train several Portuguese missionaries settle in the country, amongst whom must be named Fathers Paez and Lobo.

Father Paez left Goa in 1588 to preach Christianity upon the eastern coast of North Africa. After long and sad mishaps, he landed at Massowah in Abyssinia, traversed the country, and in 1618 pushed on as far as the sources of the Blue Nile,—a discovery the authenticity of which Bruce was hereafter to dispute, but of which the narrative differs only in some unimportant particulars from that of the Scotch traveller. In 1604, Paez, arrived at the court of the king Za Denghel, had preached with such success that he had converted the king and all his court. He had even soon acquired so great an influence over the Abyssinian monarch, that the latter, in writing to the Pope and to the King of Spain to offer them his friendship, asked them to send him men fitted to teach his people.