The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IV. The Literature of the Sea

§ 13. Richard Hakluyt

It is to Richard Hakluyt that we are indebted for our knowledge of many matters that have been alluded to above. Shakespeare undoubtedly studied his pages. Scattered treatises and manuscript descriptions alone existed when Hakluyt set to work. He had long been amassing material, and his writings, as we have mentioned, began to appear in 1582, while the first edition of the Principall Navigations was published in 1589. The latter is the first great body of information we possess relating to the voyages of the sixteenth century. Purchas and others followed in his steps, and carried on the task, but the nation and its literature owe a debt to Hakluyt which is imperfectly recognised even now. His whole life was given up, with a singleness of purpose that has rarely been matched, to the literature of navigation and discovery. When he undertook his labours he set himself an arduous task. Proceeding to France as chaplain to Sir Edward Stafford, ambassador to the French court, in 1583, he learned much of foreign discoveries and enterprises at sea, but, in Paris, he found the English noted of all others for “their sluggish security.” Eden had been but an interpreter of what others had done; and it was because Hakluyt heard much obloquy of our nation, and because few or none were able to make reply, that, with the object of “stopping the mouths of our reproachers,” he determined forthwith to undertake the work, which others, he said, owing to the heavy labour involved, and the small profit that would result, had rejected. One cause of the state of things which Hakluyt deplored must not be overlooked. It was that English voyages and expeditions had been undertaken mainly with a commercial purpose, and with the object of gain, and that merchants who invested their capital in these enterprises were not always anxious that the results of their discoveries should be made known for the advantage of others. The guild of the merchant adventurers did much to extend the range of discovery, and gave a fresh impulse to seamanship and navigation, particularly in the east, but it did not promote the general knowledge of those operations which were its especial privilege, and nowhere can we discern any direct encouragement to the publication of the records of maritime discovery.

All honour, therefore, is due to Richard Hakluyt for his lifelong devotion to the subject he made his own. His writings are informed with the qualities of his enthusiasm, and he has brought together an immense mass of original material, without which our knowledge would have heen restricted and our understanding of the maritime events of his time uncertain. He has himself told us, in the dedication to Sir Francis Walsingham of the first edition of his Principall Navigations, how he was attracted to the subject which afterwards engrossed his attention until his death. He was born about the year 1553, in London, as is conjectured, but belonged to a family long seated at Yatton, in Herefordshire. He was one of the queen’s scholars at Westminster school, that “fruitful nursery,” as he describes it, and it was his fortune, he tells us, to visit the chamber of his cousin, Richard Hakluyt, a gentleman of the Middle Temple, who had greatly interested himself in maritime discovery and the science of navigation, in relation to the ventures and expeditions of the Muscovy and Levant merchants. The writings of Peter Martyr and Pigafetta, the translations of Eden and the works of the great cosmographers had, doubtless, been his study. The Westminster boy found lying open upon a board in his cousin’s room certain books of cosmography and a universal map. In these, he displayed some curiosity, whereupon his kinsman began to instruct his ignorance by explaining to him the divisions of the earth according to the old account and the new learning. With a wand, Richard Hakluyt pointed out to the youth all the known seas, gulfs, bays, straits, capes, rivers, empires, kingdoms, dukedoms and territories. He spoke also of their commodities and their particular wants, which, by the benefits of traffic and the intercourse of merchants, were plentifully supplied. Then he touched the boy’s imagination by taking down the Bible, and, turning to the 107th Psalm, directed him to read in the 23rd and 24th verses that “they which go downe to the sea in ships and occupy the great waters, they see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.” These words of the psalmist, together with his cousin’s discourse, were, says Hakluyt, things of high and rare delight to his young nature, and made upon him so deep an impression that he resolved that if ever he were preferred to the university, where he might have a more convenient place and better time for such studies, he would, by God’s assistance, prosecute the knowledge of this kind of literature, the doors whereof, he says, after a sort, were so happily opened before him.

He was elected, in 1570, to Christ Church, Oxford, where he did not forget the resolution he had made, and fell to the course he had intended; so that by degrees he read whatever he could find of printed voyages in all languages. He lectured, but where is not definitely known, upon subjects relating to navigation, and became familiar, by reading, with the personalities of sea captains, and the enterprises of great merchants. He was incessantly employed in the examination of collections, and transcription of accounts of voyages and travels, and of all things bearing on the subject, and, in his later years, he was engrossed in this work, and in correspondence with all who could impart information.

His first published work was Divers Voyages touching the Discoverie of America & the Islands adjacent unto the same, issued in 1582, and dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney. This book, which is of extreme rarity, but has been republished by the Hakluyt society, 1850, had the direct and practical object of increasing the knowledge of navigation, and spreading abroad the fast growing impulse towards the colonising of newly discovered lands. In Paris, as chaplain to the ambassador, Hakluyt discovered a manuscript account of Florida, which was published at his expense in a French edition at Paris, in 1586, dedicated to Sir Walter Ralegh as the discoverer of Virginia. This volume was afterwards published in an English version in London, in 1587, under the title A Notable Historie containing foure voyages made by certayne French Captains unto Florida, the object being to promote the colonisation of Virginia. In 1587, Hakluyt published in Paris a revised edition of Peter Martyr of Anghiera’s De Orbe Novo, which, also, was dedicated to Ralegh, and was intended further to extend the knowledge of discovery, seamanship and nautical astronomy among English mariners. With the age of Columbus and his successors the necessity of astronomical study had been realised, and improved methods of navigation grew with the thirst for maritime enterprise. This knowledge came originally from the continent, in its scientific form, and Johann Müller of Königsberg, known as Regiomontanus, compiled the Ephemerides, from 1475 to 1506, which were used by Columbus and da Gama, while Martin Behaim, of Nürnberg, invented an improved application of the astrolabe to navigation, and constructed the earliest globe now extant. Spanish students continued to work upon the exposition of these teachers for the next two hundred years. The best English work upon the subject was William Bourne’s Regiment of the Sea, 1573. Hakluyt’s edition of Peter Martyr, subsequently translated into English at his suggestion by Michael Lok, was an important addition to scientific knowledge, and was followed, in 1594, by The Seaman’s Secrets of John Davys, to which reference has already been made. Hakluyt had been profoundly interested in the scientific aspect of navigation, and in “the means of bringing up skilful seamen and mariners in this realm,” and had laid before Charles Howard, earl of Effingham, lord high admiral, in the dedication of the second edition of the Principall Navigations, the importance of establishing a lectureship in navigation for seamen in London, having in view the many noble ships that had been lost, the many worthy persons “drenched in the sea,” and how the realm had been impoverished by loss of great ordnance and other rich commodities through the ignorance of seamen.

We have been led to speak of this aspect of Hakluyt’s literary work and his practical purposes by his publication of the revised edition of Peter Martyr’s book at Paris in 1587. During many years previous to this date, he had been amassing materials for his great work, The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation, made by sea or over land to the most remote and farthest distant quarters of the earth at any time within the compasse of these 1500 yeeres, of which the first edition appeared in one volume folio published by George Bishop and Ralph Newbery in 1589. It was dedicated to Sir Francis Walsingham, while the second edition, containing the navigations within the compasse of these 1600 yeeres, in three volumes, dated 1598, 1599 and 1600, was dedicated, the first volume to Charles Howard, earl of Nottingham, and the others to Sir Robert Cecil, “whose earnest desires to do him [Hakluyt] good, lately broke out into most bountiful and acceptable effects.”

It has already been shown that Hakluyt was a pioneer in the literature of English maritime discovery. He remarks, in an epistle dedicatory to an English translation of Galvano’s Discoveries of the World, that, if any man should marvel that, in these discoveries, for the space of almost 4000 years, the British nation was scarcely four times mentioned, he was to understand that when Galvano completed his task about the year 1556, “there was little extant of men’s travailes,” and that, for aught he, Hakluyt, could see, no great matter would have come to light if he had not undertaken the “heavy burden.” In the dedication of the first edition of his great book, he speaks of it as a burden, because these works lay so dispersed, scattered and “hidden in several hucksters’ hands” that he wondered at himself to see how he was able to endure the delays, the curiosity and the backwardness of many from whom he was to receive his originals. Again, in the dedication of the first volume of the second edition to the lord high admiral, he says that “after great charges and infinite care, after many watchings, toils and travels and wearying out of my weake bodie,” he had at length collected the materials for his volumes, and had

  • brought to light many rare and worthy monuments which long have lien miserably scattered in mustie corners, and retchlessly hidden in mistie darknesse, and were very like for the greatest part to have been buried in perpetuall oblivion.
  • There is surely a note of disappointment where he says, in another place in the dedication of the first volume of the second edition to the lord high admiral:
  • For the bringing of which into this homely and rough-hewen shape which here thou seest; what restlesse nights, what painefull dayes, what heat, what cold I have endured; how many long, and chargeable journeys I have travailed; how many famous libraries have I searched into; what varietie of ancient and moderne writers I have perused; what a number of old records, patents, privileges, letters, etc., I have redeemed from obscuritie and perishing; into how many manifold acquaintance I have entered, what expences I have not spared; and yet what faire opportunities of private gaine, preferment, and ease I have neglected, albeit thyself canst hardly imagine, yet I by daily experience do finde and feele and some of my entire friends can sufficiently testifie.
  • The gratitude he expresses to Cecil in the later introductions encourages the belief that his plaint did not go unheard. Though Hakluyt had to deplore the scarcity of his materials, and to labour under the multitude of his enquiries and the magnitude of his task, he was sustained until the end and spurred to boundless enthusiasm by the subject which he had made his own. He was full of pride in the deeds of Englishmen in former ages, but declared that in Elizabeth’s time, they had excelled all the nations and people of the earth. Their half-concealed achievements were at last embodied in his own pages. Which of English kings, he said, before her Majesty, had seen their banners in the Caspian sea? which of them had ever dealt with the emperor of Persia, obtaining large privileges for merchants? whoever saw, “before this regiment, an English Ligier in the stately porch of the Grand Signor at Constantinople?” Who, he asks, had ever found English consuls and agents before at Tripolis in Syria, at Aleppo, at Babylon and at Balsara, and, what was more, who had ever heard of Englishmen at Goa before that time?
  • What English shippes did heretofore ever anker in the mighty river of Plate? passe and repasse the impassable (in former opinion) straight of Magellan, range along the coast of Chili, Peru, and all the backside of Nova Hispania, further than any Christian ever passed, traverse the mighty bredth of the South Seas, land upon the Luzones in despight of the enemy, enter into alliance, amity, and traffike with the princes of the Molluccas and the Isle of Java, double the famous Cape of Bona Speranza, arrive at the Isle of Santa Helena, and last of al returne home most richly laden with the commodities of China, as the subjects of this now flourishing monarchy have done?
  • Hakluyt ransacked chroniclers for such records of voyages as he could find. He investigated the papers of the merchant companies and, as he tells us, he travelled far in order to interview travellers and examine records of exploration. He gives the state of the ships of the Cinque Ports from Lambarde’s Perambulation of Kent. He also included that remarkable essay The Libel of English Policy. The voyages to the north-east are mostly taken from the documents of the Muscovy company and include the navigations of Willoughby, Chancellor, Stephen Burrough and others. The volumes also include some records of the naval fighting of the time, including The Miraculous Victory atchieved by the English flete under the discreet and happy conduct of the right honourable, right prudent and valiant Lord, the lord Charles Howard, lord high admiral of England. The voyages to the south and south-east are taken largely from records of the Levant traders, and include the explorations of Challoner and Lok, Jenkinson, John Foxe and others. Some papers relating to these voyages appear to have been taken from the records of Hakluyt’s uncle, Richard Hakluyt, who was interested in these ventures. There are James Lancaster’s expedition to the Cape of Good Hope, Zanzibar and Malacca, and Drake’s expedition to Cadiz. In relation to the voyages to the north-west there are scanty accounts of the expeditions of the Cabots, and fine descriptive narratives of the voyages of Hawkins. These, and the expeditions of Gilbert and Frobisher, have already been alluded to. The expeditions of Philip Amada and Arthur Barlow, and various accounts of the enterprises of Drake, Ralegh and others also hold a notable place in the volumes.

    There is no purpose in cataloguing the contents of Hakluyt’s volumes here, nor in offering more than a general comment upon them. The object has been to indicate their place and significance in national literature and to describe their origin and character. Hakluyt was no doubt the editor as well as the collector of these records. Amid all their variety and diversity of qualities and merits, it is possible to discern a certain unity and the influence of an individuality. Much excellent prose, strong and vigorous in character, often dignified and persuasive, is to be found in the book. Lucid and careful description, often lighted up by imagination and literary power, distinguishes many of these relations of voyages. They constitute a body of narrative literature which is of the highest value for an understanding of the spirit and tendency of the time, and, together with the later collection of Purchas, who brought together some things which had escaped the vigilance of Hakluyt, they are the basis of our knowledge of the part which Englishmen played in enlarging the boundaries of the known world in the great age of exploration and discovery.