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

§ 9. Richard Willes

An appetite for further knowledge now existed throughout the land, and eager enquirers were demanding information as to the voyages of the navigators and the riches of the newfound lands. In 1577, a new edition of Eden’s Decades of the Newe Worlde appeared under the title of The History of Travayle in the West and East Indies, and other countreys lying either way towards the fruitfull and ryche Moluccaes … with a discourse of the North-west Passage. It was augmented and finished by Richard Willes, who says that he was moved to place in an orderly manner what Eden had “confusely gyven out.” He omitted some things which he thought superfluous, and added to the three decades of Peter Martyr, and to the fourth, which is given under another title, four others, besides including many additional accounts of voyages relating to Japan and the Guinea coast, Muscovy voyages and travels, the exploits of Magellan and the explorations of Sebastian Cabot. The most interesting of his additions is his argument regarding the projected passage by the north-west. First, he gives the arguments advanced against the project, and then attempts to show the reasonableness of it. “M. Frobisher’s prosperous voyage and happy returne wyl absolutely decide these controversies.”

Eden and Willes were the precursors of Hakluyt, and lived in a time when many seamen were leaving our ports to penetrate the mysteries of the unknown world. Hakluyt’s first book, a voyage of discovery to America, was published in 1582, and he issued a new edition of Peter Martyr’s De Orbe Novo in 1587. He was preparing himself then for his great work. The imperial imagination was stirred, and the importance of colonising and developing the new-found lands was in all men’s minds. Ralegh received his charter of colonisation in 1584, and three expeditions were despatched to the new colony to which he gave the name of Virginia. In the introduction to the second book of The Faerie Queene, Spenser bids the man who does not know “where is that happy land of Faery,” in which he has drawn his immortal allegory, to see how little of the world he is acquainted with.

  • But let that man with better sence advize,
  • That of the world least part to us is red;
  • And daily how through hardy enterprize
  • Many great Regions are discovered,
  • Which to late age were never mentioned.
  • Who ever heard of th’ Indian Peru?
  • Or who in venturous vessell measured
  • The Amazon huge river, now found trew?
  • Or fruitfullest Virginia who did ever vew?