Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 5. The Spirit of Imperialism

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

§ 5. The Spirit of Imperialism

The book named Sir Francis Drake Reviv’d, calling upon this Dull and Effeminate age to follow his noble steps for gold and silver, 1626, published by Sir Francis Drake the younger, is the source of most of our knowledge of Drake’s exploits in Central America, though Froude, without much reason, has thrown doubt upon its authenticity. It is mentioned here as suggesting, by its title, the motive with which the navigators of that age entered upon their enterprises. There was the double incitement of adventure and spoil, and the honour of England was an added reason for successive navigations to the west. Both Hakluyt and Purchas wrote in the same spirit. So, also, the Tudor poets and balladists gave expression to the imperialism born of the increasing influence of England’s naval power, the widely-spread knowledge of the seamen’s explorations and the ever-growing impulse towards colonisation. The verses entitled Neptune to England, printed in Halliwell’s Early Naval Ballads, sound this note:

  • Goe on, great state, and make it knowne,
  • Thou never wilt forsake thine owne,
  • Nor from thy purpose start:
  • But that thou wilt thy power dilate,
  • Since narrow seas are found too straight
  • For thy capacious heart.
  • So shall thy rule, and mine, have large extent:
  • Yet not so large, as just and permanent.
  • How, too, the sea life, with its wider outlook, attracted the more daring spirits of the nation is indicated in a ballad In Prais of Seafaringe Men, in Hope of Good Fortune (Sloane MSS.):

  • Too pas the seaes som thinkes a toille,
  • Sum thinkes it strange abrod to rome,
  • Sum thinkes it a grefe to leave their soylle,
  • Their parents, cynfolke, and their whome.
  • Thinke soe who list, I like it nott;
  • I must abrod to trie my lott.
  • In The Relation of a Voyage to Guiana … Performed by Robert Harcourt (1609), given by Purchas, and issued independently in an enlarged form in 1626, the objects are set forth in order. First comes the “glory of God, for the conversion of the heathen”; secondly, “the honour of our Sovereign”—“the obtaining and gaining the sovereignty of so many great, spacious, and goodly countries and territories”; and, thirdly, “the profit of our country,” by the enrichment of the many commodities “in those parts daily found and easily obtained.” Harcourt says that

  • all young gentlemen, soldiers, and others that live at home in idleness and want employment, may there find means to abandon and expel their slothful humours, and cast off their fruitless and pernicious designs, and may worthily exercise their generous spirits in honourable travels and famous discoveries of many goodly and rich territories, strange and unknown nations, and a multitude of other rarities, hitherto unseen, and unheard of in these northern parts of the world; which may be thought incredible, but that our own experience (besides the general and constant report and affirmation of the Indians) doth assure us thereof.
  • Another volume, devoted to westward expansion, with an analogous purpose, is A New Survey of the West Indies, or the English American, his Travail by Sea and Land, by Thomas Gage, published originally in 1648, and issued in several subsequent editions. By this time, Hakluyt and Purchas had many followers, who, though not in collected narratives, were describing the new places of the world, and, in a versified introduction to Gage’s book, Thomas Chaloner thus speaks of the author:

  • Reader, behold presented to thine eye
  • What us Columbus off’red long ago,
  • Of the New World a new discovery,
  • Which here our author does so clearly show;
  • That he the state which of these parts would know,
  • Need not hereafter search the plenteous store
  • Of Hakluyt, Purchas and Ramusio,
  • Or learn’d Acosta’s writings to look o’er;
  • Or what Herrera hath us told before,
  • Which merit not the credit due from hence,
  • Those being but reckonings of another score,
  • But these the fruits of self experience.