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

V. Seafaring and Travel

§ 3. Samuel Purchas

The mantle of Richard Hakluyt fell upon the shoulders of Samuel Purchas, a great editor of narratives of travel and a man of many words but of less modesty than his predecessor. Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes, contayning a History of the World, in Sea Voyages, and Lande Travells by Englishmen and others, was published in 1625. Purchas, who was born at Thaxted, in Essex, in or about the year 1577, was educated at St. John’s college, Cambridge, where he took the degree of M.A. in 1600, afterwards proceeding to that of B.D. He was vicar of Eastwood from 1604 to 1614. Leigh on the Thames is within two miles of Eastwood, and was then a great resort of shipping, many voyagers on the return from their explorations sojourning there. Purchas, doubtless, began his own collections at this time, and took down some narratives from the lips of those who had travelled far. He was an untiring worker, and could never maintain a “vicarian or subordinate scribe” to help him. In 1614, he was preferred by John King, bishop of London, to whom he expresses unbounded gratitude, to the rectory of St. Martin’s, Ludgate. He died in 1626. Prior to the publication of his Pilgrimes, he had written Purchas His Pilgrimage, or Relations of the World and the Religions observed in all ages and places discovered from the Creation unto this Present (1613), with new editions in 1614, 1617, and 1626. He had also written a volume called Purchas his Pilgrim; Microcosmus, or the Historie of Man (1619).

It is clear from a remark made by Purchas—“I was therein a labourer also”—that he assisted Hakluyt to arrange papers which were unpublished at Hakluyt’s death in 1616, and, hence, his collection is called Hakluytus Posthumus. “Having out of a chaos of confused intelligences framed this historical world,” Purchas was emboldened to dedicate it to Charles, prince of Wales. He explains to the reader that he had received “Master Hakluyt’s many years’ collections,” and that “Purchas and his Pilgrimes” were as a bricklayer providing materials “to those universal speculators for their theorical structures.” Purchas never travelled more than two hundred miles from his birthplace, but he says that bishop King gave him one wing, hoping some blessed hand would add the other, and, not finding this to be the case, the bishop “promised to right me himself (these were his syllables) but death righted him, and I am forced to wrong the world.” What Purchas lacked in experience of travel, he made up by his indefatigable industry, in which he rivalled Hakluyt himself. Knowing that comparatively few of his countrymen could themselves see the world, he offered to them, “at no great charge.”

  • a world of travellers to their domestic entertainment, easy to be spared from their smoke, cup, or butterfly vanities and superfluities, and fit mutually to entertaine them in a better school to better purposes.
  • The design of the book separates the subjects into two main divisions, one dealing with the old world and the other with the new, each being further divided into ten books. The first book is an introduction to the rest, being concerned with Biblical history and travel, man’s life as a pilgrimage, the journeys of Christ and the apostles, classic journeyings and other matters. Then he reaches improvements in navigation, recalls the voyages of Columbus and Magellan, gives narratives of Drake’s, Cavendish’s and later circumnavigations, and of early voyages to the east—Lancaster’s, Middleton’s and others. The first half of the book is devoted to a long array of narratives and statements regarding trading and voyages to India, China and Japan, Africa and the Mediterranean, including a mass of information concerning our dealings with the Dutch and the Portuguese. In the same way, the second division of the Pilgrimes is devoted to narratives of the Muscovy voyages, efforts to discover the north-west passage, explorations in the West Indies and Nova Scotia, including narratives of most of the great expeditions, and much information concerning our dealings with the Spaniards, as well as observations of foreign explorers.

    Purchas was not the equal of Hakluyt, but he was his worthy successor, his collaborator in his later life and the depository of some of his collections. Possessed of the same valiant, untiring spirit, the vast volume of his researches, brought together with indefatigable exertion and invincible zeal, was, though in a much less degree than Hakluyt’s collection, an inspiration and an encouragement to the men who came after. All that Purchas has amassed of the narratives of the explorations of Englishmen breathes the strong spirit of nationality. There is ample room in these accounts for the display of various talents and different temperaments, but there is scarcely one that does not have in it some pride of England. When Robert Fotherby, in 1615, cruised on behalf of the Muscovy company in a pinnace of 20 tons for the discovery of land to the north-east, he was questioned by a Danish admiral as to the right by which English merchants resorted to waters claimed for Denmark, and he replied, “By the king of England’s right.” There was courtesy, also, to the nation that was a greater rival. Thus, James Beversham, writing in July, 1618, from Fairhaven, refers to the insolence of the Dutch, which, however, he overlooked, advising his countrymen

  • not to impute to that nation what some frothy spirit vomits from amidst his drinke, but to honour the Hollanders’ worth, and to acknowledge the glory of the Confederate Provinces; howsoever they also have their sinks and stinking sewers (too officious mouths such as some in this business of Greenland, beyond all names of impudence against his Majestie and liege people, as others elsewhere have demeaned themselves) whose loathsomeness is not to be cast as an aspersion to that industrious and illustrious nation.
  • When Purchas opens the glowing story of the western exploration, he has a fruitful field of interesting record and description, and here, in the sharp rivalry of interests which had brought us to war with Spain, the spirit of nationality glows still more brightly, not seldom marred by the bitterness of religious hate and intolerant invective. With the practical purpose of encouraging and assisting navigators and planters, he has given summaries of the writings of Spanish and Portuguese discoverers, coloured, sometimes, by his lively imagination, and descriptive of the curiosities and resources of the western lands. He has gathered with a rather indiscriminate hand, but ever with the purpose of adding new lustre to England’s fame. The narrative of Peter Carder, who is said to have set out with Drake on his circumnavigation, to have separated from the company and, after many marvellous adventures, to have returned home nine years later, reads more like fiction than fact, and makes one think of the later writings of Defoe. Like most writers of his time, Purchas loves to note the freaks and peculiarities of nature, and revels in the wonderful. When he introduces a tragic narrative, like that of the unfortunate Cavendish, on his last journey, he improves the occasion. Cavendish’s last letter to his friend and executor, Sir Tristram Gorges, is a pathetic page in our literature; for the dying man, with enfeebled hand, pours forth therein the utter depth of his misfortune. He speaks of tempest, cold, famine, cowardice, mutiny and the ill-fortune of war, saying:

  • And now by this, what with grief for him [his kinsman, John Locke] and the continual trouble I endured among such hell-hounds, my spirits were clean spent; wishing myself upon any desert place in the world, there to die, rather than thus basely to returne home again.… And now consider whether a heart made of flesh, be able to endure so many misfortunes, all falling upon me without intermission. I thank God that in ending of me, he hath pleased to rid me of all further trouble and mishaps.
  • But this poignant narrative does not escape the somewhat “precious” pen of Purchas, who had drunk at the Euphuistic spring. He likens the life of the navigator to the change from sunshine to shadow; from day to night, from summer to winter:

  • And if the elements, seasons, and heaven’s two eyes, be subject to such vicissitudes, what is this little molehill of earth, this model of clay, this moveable circumference of constant inconstancy, immutable mutability, this vanishing centre of diversified vanity, which we call man; that herein also he should not resemble this sampler of the universe, as becometh a little map to be like that larger prototype.
  • And he goes on to express the glow of his pride in the deeds of English seamen:

  • This we see all, and feel daily in ourselves; this in Master Candish here, in Sir Francis Drake before, the sea’s two darlings, there, and thence both living and dying; if dissolution of the body may be called a death, where the soul arriveth in heaven, the name fills the earth, the deeds are precedents to posterity, and England their country hath the glory alone that she hath brought forth two illustrious captains and generals, which have fortunately embraced the round waist of their vast mother, without waste of life, reputation and substance; yea victorious over elemental enemies, illustrious in wealth and honour, they have come home, like the sun in a summer’s day, seeming greatest nearest his evening home, the whole sky entertaining and welcoming him in festival scarlets and displayed colours of triumph.
  • Among the most interesting pages in the travel-literature of the time are those which relate to the colony of Virginia. Hakluyt had a proprietary right in the colony; its exploration occupies a large place in his Navigations; and his last work was Virginia Richly Valued (1609), being a translation from the Portuguese of de Soto’s narrative. “I shall yet live to see Virginia an English Nation,” wrote Ralegh to Sir Robert Cecil, shortly before Elizabeth’s death. His own efforts had left a shadowed memory. Purchas has preserved two narratives of the voyage of Gosnold to northern Virginia in 1602, as well as his account of the fertility of its soil, together with narratives of Pring’s voyage from Bristol in 1603 and others. James’s charter for the colonising of Virginia was the signal for great enterprise, which was urged by Hakluyt and his friends, and cheered on by Michael Drayton:

  • Britons, you stay too long;
  • Quickly aboard bestow you,
  • And with a merry gale
  • Swell your stretch’t sail,
  • With vows as strong
  • As the winds that blow you.