Francis Bacon and the Mastery of the Winds

In 1622 Sir Francis Bacon published his Historia ventorum, a systematic natural history of the winds. In the work Bacon sought to answer a number of outstanding questions about the nature of the winds, which had exercised scholars from Aristotle onwards, including notably their origins and the causes of their potentially threatening ‘great and violent motion’. This chapter argues that, as well as an important intervention into early modern science, Bacon’s history of the winds also sprang from his political philosophy and his lifelong interests in trade, commerce, and colonization. While these elements have all received careful attention from Baconian scholars in recent years, their significance for the Historia ventorum has not been sufficiently noted. In this chapter I therefore trace their connections with Bacon’s natural history to offer a new account of that work and thereby show how it (and his interest in the winds more generally) belonged to both his scientific and his political programmes. Bacon’s underlying aim in the work, the chapter argues, was the mastery of the winds—with how the winds might be controlled and put to human use and improvement, and with how the threat of natural disaster that they otherwise posed might therefore be averted. From discussions of the designs of ships’ sails to investigations of wind power, and reports of his own experiments into both wind and air, the subjects of the history all reflected that central aim. They were also, the chapter shows, intimately connected with his commercial and colonial interests, with what we might call his ‘mercantile imperialism’. They therefore reinforce that the Historia ventorum was, indeed, as much a civil and political project as a scientific one.

Angus Vine (University of Stirling)

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