Sir Thomas Browne (1683) Certain Miscellany Tracts. Tract XII: A Prophecy, Concerning the Future State of Several Nations, pp. 181-192




Concerning the future state of several


In a Letter written upon occasion
of an old Prophecy sent to the Author
from a Friend, with a Request that
he would consider it.1


I take no pleasure in Prophecies so hardly intelligible, and pointing at future things from a pretended spirit of Divination; of which sort this seems to be which came unto your hand, and you were pleased to send unto me. And therefore, for your easier apprehension, divertisement and consideration, I present you with a very different kind of prediction: not positively or peremptorily telling you what shall come to pass; yet pointing at things not without all reason or probability of their events; not built upon fatal decrees, or inevitable designations, but upon conjectural foundations, whereby things wished may be promoted, and such as are feared, may more probably be prevented.



When New England shall trouble2 New Spain.
When Jamaica shall be Lady of the Isles and the Main.
When Spain shall be in America hid,
And Mexico shall prove a Madrid.
When Mahomet’s Ships on the Baltick shall ride,
And Turks shall labour to have Ports on that side,3
When Africa shall no more sell out their Blacks
To make Slaves and Drudges to the American Tracts.4
When Batavia the Old shall be contemn’d by the New.
When a new Drove of Tartars shall China subdue.
When America shall cease to send out5 its Treasure,
But employ it at home in6 American Pleasure.
When the new World shall the old invade,
Nor count them Lords but their fellows in Trade.
When Men shall almost pass to Venice by Land,
Not in deep Water but from Sand to Sand.
When Nova Zembla shall be no stay
Unto those who pass to or from Cathay.
Then think strange things are come to light,
Where but few7 have had a foresight.

p184 THE




When New England shall trouble New Spain.

That is, When that thriving Colony, which hath so much encreased in our days, and in the space of about fifty years, that they can, as they report, raise between twenty and thirty thousand men upon an exigency, shall in process of time become so advanced, as to be able to send forth Ships and Fleets, as to infest8 the American Spanish Ports and Maritime Dominions by depredations or assaults; for which attempts they are not like to be unprovided, as abounding in the Materials for Shipping, Oak and Firre. And when length of time shall so far encrease that industrious people, that the neighbouring Country will not contain them, they will range still farther and be able, in time, to set forth great Armies, seek for new possessions, or make considerable and conjoined migrations, according to the custom of swarming Northern Nations; wherein it is not likely that they will move Northward, but toward the Southern and richer Countries, which are either in the Dominions or Frontiers of the Spaniards: and may not improbably erect new Dominions in places not yet thought of, and yet, for some Centuries, beyond their power or Ambition.

When Jamaica shall be the Lady of the Isles and the Main.

That is, When that advantageous Island shall be well peopled, it may become so strong and potent as to over-power the neighbouring Isles, and also a part of the main Land, especially the Maritime parts. And already in their infancy they have given testimony of their power and courage in their bold attempts upon Campeche and Santa Martha;9 and in that notable attempt upon Panama on the Western side of America: especially considering this Island is sufficiently large to contain a numerous people, of a Northern and warlike descent, addicted to martial affairs both by Sea and Land, and advantageously seated to infest their neighbours both of the Isles and the Continent, and like to be a receptacle for Colonies of the same originals from Barbadoes and the neighbour Isles.

When Spain shall be in America hid,
And Mexico shall prove a Madrid.

That is, When Spain, either by unexpected disasters, or continued emissions of people into America, which have already thinned the Country, shall be farther exhausted at home: or when, in process of time, their Colonies shall grow by many accessions more than their Originals, then Mexico may become a Madrid, and as considerable in people, wealth and splendour; wherein that place is already so well advanced, that accounts scarce credible are given of it. And it is so advantageously seated, that, by Acapulco and other Ports on the South Sea, they may maintain a communication and commerce with the Indian Isles and Territories, and with China and Japan, and on this side, by Porto Belo and others, hold correspondence with Europe and Africa.

When Mahomet’s Ships in the Baltick shall ride.

Of this we cannot be out of all fear: for, if the Turk should master Poland, he would be soon at this Sea. And from the odd constitution of the Polish Government, the divisions among themselves, jealousies between their Kingdom and Republick; vicinity of the Tartars, treachery of the Cossacks, and the method of Turkish Policy, to be at Peace with the Emperour of Germany when he is at War with the Poles, there may be cause to fear that this may come to pass. And then he would soon endeavour to have Ports upon that Sea, as not wanting Materials for Shipping. And, having a new acquist of stout and warlike men, may be a terrour unto the confiners of that Sea, and to Nations which now conceive themselves safe from such an Enemy.10

When Africa shall no more sell out their Blacks.

That is, When African countries shall no longer make it a common Trade to sell away their People to serve in the drudgery of American Plantations. And that may come to pass when ever they shall be well civilized, and acquainted with Arts and Affairs sufficient to employ people in their Countries: if also they should be converted to Christianity, but especially to Mahometism; for then they would never sell those of their Religion to be Slaves unto Christians.11

When Batavia the Old shall be contemn’d by the New.

When the Plantations of the Hollanders at Batavia in the East Indies, and other Places in the East Indies, shall, by their conquests and advancements, become so powerfull in the Indian Territories; then their Original Countries and States of Holland are like to be contemned by them, and obeyed onely as they please. And they seem to be in a way unto it at present by their several Plantations, new acquists and enlargements: and they have lately discovered a part of the Southern Continent, and several places which may be serviceable unto them, when ever time shall enlarge them unto such necessities.

And a new Drove of Tartars shall China subdue.

Which is no strange thing if we consult the Histories of China, and successive Inundations made by Tartarian Nations. For when the Invaders, in process of time, have degenerated into the effeminacy and softness of the Chineses, then they themselves have suffered a new Tartarian Conquest and Inundation. And this hath happened from time beyond our Histories: for, according to their account, the famous Wall of China, built against the irruptions of the Tartars, was begun above a hundred years before the Incarnation.12

When America shall cease to send forth its Treasure,
But employ it at home for American Pleasure.

That is, When America shall be better civilized, new policied and divided between great Princes, it may come to pass that they will no longer suffer their Treasure of Gold and Silver to be sent out to maintain the Luxury of Europe and other parts: but rather employ it to their own advantages, in great Exploits and Undertakings, magnificent Structures, Wars or Expeditions of their own.

When the new World shall the old invade.

That is, When America shall be so well peopled, civilized and divided into Kingdoms, they are like to have so little regard of their Originals, as to acknowledge no subjection unto them: they may also have a distinct commerce between themselves, or but independently with those of Europe,13 and may hostilely and pyratically assault them, even as the Greek and Roman Colonies after a long time dealt with their Original Countries.

When Men shall almost pass to Venice by Land,
Not in deep Waters but from Sand to Sand.

That is, When, in long process of time, the Silt and Sands shall so choak and swallow the Sea in and about it. And this hath considerably come to pass within these fourscore years; and is like to encrease from several causes, especially by the turning of the River Brenta, as the learned Castelli hath declared.

When Nova Zembla shall be no stay
Unto those who pass to or from Cathay.

That is, When ever that often sought for Northeast passage unto China and Japan shall be discovered, the hindrance whereof was imputed to Nova Zembla;14 for this was conceived to be an excursion of Land shooting out directly, and so far Northward into the Sea that it discouraged from all Navigation about it. And therefore Adventurers took in at the Southern part at a strait by Waygatz next the Tartarian Shore; and sailing forward they found that Sea frozen and full of Ice, and so gave over the attempt. But of late years, by the diligent enquiry of some Moscovites, a better discovery is made of these parts, and a Map or Chart made of them. Thereby Nova Zembla is found to be no Island extending very far Northward; but, winding Eastward, it joineth to the Tartarian Continent, and so makes a Peninsula: and the Sea between it which they entred at Waygatz, is found to be but a large Bay, apt to be frozen by reason of the great River of Oby, and other fresh Waters, entring into it: whereas the main Sea doth not freez upon the North of Zembla except near unto Shores; so that if the Moscovites were skilfull Navigatours they might, with less difficulties, discover this passage unto China: but however the English, Dutch and Danes are now like to attempt it again.

But this is Conjecture, and not Prophecy: and so (I know) you will take it. I am,

Sir, &c.


Original marginalia are in green.

1 This tract was apparently occasioned by Browne’s receipt of a “Prophecy”, seemingly à la Nostradame, from a correspondent; whereupon Browne amuses himself by writing a perfectly intelligible “prophecy” based on his own logical induction. Wilkin has a long note here, including a reference to Dr. Johnson’s comments on this tract; he objects to Dr. Johnson’s attributing the idea of a “fifth empire” to Berkeley: “I can, however, find nothing in Berkley [sic] about ‘America becoming the seat of the fifth empire,’ unless it be in his ‘Verses on the prospect of planting arts and learning’ there; — which he closes, after an allusion to the four ages, (viz. of gold, silver, brass, and iron,) by anticipating the arrival of a second age of gold, which he terms the ‘fifth act in the course of empire.’ ” Berkeley writes in his Verses

Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The first four acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time’s Noblest offspring is the last.

Interestingly, Browne’s “Prophecy” occurs in a text that is reproduced on a number of web sites, completely transformed and completely misunderstood: see, for instance, Prophetic Voices Concerning America or Papa's Prophetic Political Page (same text, slightly differing format). The author of Vulgar Errors would have been highly amused.

Wilkin supplies alternate readings from the Bodleian manuscript Rawlinson No. 58, noted below.

2 MS. Rawl. 58 has “terrify” for “trouble”.

3 MS. Rawl. 58 “When we shall have ports on the Pacific side”.

4 MS. Rawl. 58 “But slaves must be had from incognita tracts.”

5 MS. Rawl. 58 "send forth".

6 MS. Rawl. 58 “at home for”.

7 MS. Rawl. 58 “few eyes”.

8 Ms. Rawl. 58 “be a terror to”.

9 Jamaica, occupied by the British in 1655, was used as a base for successful marauding expeditions against Santa Marta in Venezuela (in 1656) and San Franciso in Campeche Bay (in 1663) (not to mention Santiago, Cuba, in 1662), with considerable profit. The Spanish prevailed upon King Charles II to put a halt to these raids in 1663.

10 Ms. Rawl. 58 continues:

When we shall have ships, &c.

On the Pacific side, or west side of America, which may come to pass hereafter, upon enlargement of trade or industrious navigation, when the streights of Magellan, or more southerly passages be well known, and frequently navigated.

11 MS. Rawl. 58 continues this sentence: “; then slaves must be sought for in other tracts, not yet well known, or perhaps from some parts of terra incognita, whenever hereafter they shall be discovered and conquered; or else when that trade shall be left, and slaves be made from captives, and from malefactors of the respective countries.”

12 The earliest parts of the fortifications date to the 7th century B.C.; the wall was first united into a single defensive structure at the end of the 3rd century B.C.

13 Ms. Rawl. 58 ends at this point.

14 See -- well, you can't see it any longer; the page has disappeared.

Sir Thomas Browne, Certain Miscellany Tracts, London: Charles Mearn (1683). Tract XII, pp. 181-192: A Prophecy, Concerning the Future State of Several Nations.

This page is by James Eason.

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