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

§ 3. The Impulse from Abroad

The literary impulse to the recording of voyages came from the continent, as was inevitable, since foreigners were the pioneers in exploration, adding new links to the long chain of seafaring enterprise which stretched back to the beginning of Mediterranean history. Angiolo Poliziano, professor of Greek and Latin literature at Florence, in a letter addressed to king John II, tendered the thanks of the cultivated world to Portugal for dragging from secular darkness into the light of day new seas, new lands and new worlds, and offered his services to record great voyages while the materials should be fresh and available. At Seville, in 1522, Peter Martyr of Anghiera, was instructed to examine all navigators who returned, and to write the history of Spanish explorations. He threw his whole mind into the task, was the first historian of the discovery of America and became known as a great cosmographer. The first Decade of his De Orbe Novo was published at Seville in 1511, but appears to have been surreptitiously anticipated at Venice in 1504. Three of the Decades followed at Alcalà in 1516, and other editions, largely augmented, were printed in 1530 and 1532, and were subsequently translated or became the basis of editions and works published in Italy, France and Germany. Giovanni Battista Ramusio published collections of voyages, which went through several editions, and told the story of Magellan’s voyage as recorded by Antonio Pigafetta. Meanwhile, the printing of the Sumario de la natural y general Hystoria de las Indias of Gonçalo Hernandez de Oviedo y Valdes was completed at Toledo in 1526 and was followed, in 1552, by the Istoria de las Indias y conquista de Mejico of Francisco Lopez de Gomara. These, and other works, illuminated the new world for the benefit of the old, and, working like a ferment in the minds of scholars in every centre of learning in Europe, were a new inspiration of Englishmen, and set in motion the navigators who issued from English ports to conquer the mystery and win the spoils of new lands beyond the sea.

The first English book relating to America is said to have been printed in 1511, probably at Antwerp, by John Doesborch or Desborowe. It has been reprinted by Arber, in his First Three English Books on America, 1885, and is entitled Of the newelandes and of ye people founde by the messengers of the Kynge of Portyngale named Emanuel; but it is an arid tract, which relates chiefly to the ten nations christened by Prester John, and reflects the legends of the Middle Ages rather than any real knowledge of more recent explorations. More interesting are the references in a New Interlude and a Merry of the nature of the Four Elements, printed by John Rastell between 1510 and 1520. Here we have an account of the route to the new lands, and of how men could sail “plain eastwards and come to England again.” The object was to cast scorn upon English mariners who had relinquished the enterprise, with assumed reference to a supposed failure of Sebastian Cabot in 1516–7.