Hakluyt’s Voyages – understated epic of an island nation

Hakluyt’s Voyages – understated epic of an island nation

Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages (1) was once standard reading for British schoolboys, but has now sadly fallen into desuetude. Sadly, because it provides an intimate and entrancing record of the Elizabethan age of exploration, an age which helped to shape England’s self-image – Froude called it “the prose epic of the English nation” – and which still exerts a considerable effect amongst historians and romantics. The Cambridge Guide to English Literature calls the book “a priceless compendium of information on travel and discovery”, while a noted maritime historian has said

Hakluyt was the first great English writer on the sea, and by some standards the greatest there has been (2)

Richard Hakluyt, who was born in either 1551 or 1552 and died in 1616, came from a Herefordshire family which traced its origins to the 13th century. The unusual surname was probably Welsh in origin and was probably pronounced “Hacklitt”. He is sometimes called “The Younger” to distinguish him from his eponymous older cousin, a lawyer who became his guardian after Hakluyt’s father died – and who got his ward hooked on geography. The Younger later recalled a formative visit to his cousin’s rooms at the Middle Temple:

I found lying upon his board certain books of cosmography, with a universal map. He, seeing me somewhat curious in view thereof, began to instruct my ignorance…He pointed with his wand to all the known seas, gulfs, bays, straits, capes, rivers, empires, kingdom, dukedoms and territories of each part…From the map he brought me to the Bible and, turning to the 107th Psalm, directed me to the 23rd and 24th verses, where I read that they which go down to the sea in ships and occupy by the great waters, they see the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep (3)

The Younger was educated at Westminster School and Oxford. He took holy orders, becoming prebendary of Bristol and archdeacon of Westminster. But his main interest was always geography. He gave lectures to demonstrate

…both the old imperfectly composed and the new lately reformed mappes, globes, spheares, and other instruments of this art(4)

and read voraciously all the travel literature in Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and English. He started to collect, edit and translate mariners’ accounts of their voyages, and corresponded with intellectuals like John Dee, polymath and friend to both Hakluyts, who also took a close interest in hydrography and geography. He spent the period 1583-1588 in Paris as chaplain to the British ambassador (ironically, his only trip abroad), and it is said that he was provoked into writing by meeting there French and Portuguese explorers who gibed at England’s “sluggish security” – her failure to capitalize upon her navigators’ discoveries. While at Paris, he published his A Discourse of Western Planting (1587) at the request of Walter Raleigh, and this became the chief rationale for English settlement of the Americas. Hakluyt was made prebendary of Westminster in 1603, accumulated many livings (including Jamestown) and when he died was buried in Westminster Abbey – although his grave (rather appropriately) has been lost. The first edition of Voyages appeared in 1589 and was an instant success (5). It was followed by the vastly expanded second edition between 1598 and 1600. Hakluyt was fortunate in his timing; as John Hampden wrote in 1970,

Richard Hakluyt was born not only into an expanding England, but into an expanding world and an expanding universe (6)

The deadly rivalry with the Spanish had culminated the preceding year, when the proverbial “Protestant winds” had broken the Armada on the British coast and left the world’s seaways increasingly open to daring freebooters like Raleigh, Drake and Hawkins. There was a fortuitous nexus between patriotism (7), profiteering, philosophical and scientific enquiry, reformed religion and sheer lust for adventure which allowed the English to take the lead in extra-European exploration and expansion. This temperament was well expressed by Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Raleigh’s half-brother who drowned in 1583 on a return voyage from the Americas, whose motto was

We are as near to heaven by sea as by land

Travel writing notoriously lends itself to exaggeration and error, and some has been manufactured from whole cloth (8). Hakluyt sought to be factual and systematic. But although the accounts in Voyages vary greatly in length, eloquence and style, even the tersest convey the energy of the era and the wonder of wanderlust. Simply listing some of the contents constitutes a kind of poetry of proper nouns –

The New Found Land…The first voyage to Guinea and Benin…The Battle of San Juan…A powder-maker’s adventures… Oxenham’s raid on Panama…the captivity of John Foxe…A voyage to India…A trip to Jerusalem…An embassy to the Great Turk…The discovery of Virginia…Drake’s raid on Cadiz…The last fight of the Revenge.

The accounts combine romance, resonant phraseology, reminders of dangers, astute observation and earthiness. Thus the 1553 expedition of Richard Chancellor to Russia, one of many attempts by the English (and Dutch) to find a hypothetical “North-East Passage” to the spice sources of the east:

Master Chancellor held on his course towards that unknown part of the world, and sailed so far that he came at last to the place where he found no night at all, but a continual light and brightness of the sun shining clearly upon the huge and mighty sea.

Then there are the reminders of exactly what it was like to sail off northern Russia:

Our mariners which we left in the ship in the meantime to keep it, in their going up only from their cabins to the hatches had their breath oftentimes so suddenly taken away that they eftsoons fell down as men very near dead, so great is the sharpness of that cold climate.

There are memorable encounters with locals, in this case not especially productive:

Two Tartarians, which were then of the king’s stable, were sent for…they were demanded touching their country and the manners of their nation. But they were able to answer nothing to the purpose, being indeed more acquainted (as one there merrily and openly said) to toss pots than to learn the states and dispositions of people.

The account also describes 16th century Moscow and other Russian cities, the Emperor of Muscovy and his court, the local economy, military tactics, crime and punishment, the Orthodox Church, shamanic survivals, and how ordinary people live, even down to their headgear. The colourful tale of Job Hortop, a country boy from Lincolnshire who went to London at the age of 12 to serve an apprenticeship and was there press-ganged into going to sea in 1567, is justly celebrated (9). The commander of his expedition was Sir John Hawkins, making his third voyage to the West Indies. There were six ships in the expedition, two state-owned and four belonging to Hawkins (10), one commanded by Francis Drake. The voyage started inauspiciously, with seven days and nights of storms, during which several men were lost. More excitement came when they captured a Portuguese caravel off Cape Verde, then they landed and “took certain negroes” (11) at the cost of eight of their own men, shot by poisoned arrows. One of their longboats had a collision with a walrus, an unlikely-sounding event in those latitudes, and two more men were lost. They became involved in a tribal war, allying themselves with three local kings and helping them to capture a town. Here they took another 500 slaves for sale in the Americas (those unfortunates were however luckier than the 7,000 captives drowned by the victorious monarchs). Then they fought a successful battle with seven Portuguese caravels, after which they set sail for the West Indies. Here there were natural perils (although this fantastical animal does not feature in today’s taxonomy) –

We found a monstrous venomous worm with two heads; his body was as big as a man’s arm and a yard long…Here be many tigers, monstrous and furious beasts, which by subtlety devour and destroy many men…we killed a monstrous lagarto or crocodile…he was 23 feet by the rule, headed like a hog, in body like a serpent, full of scales as broad as a saucer; his tail long and full of knots as big as a falcon shot; he hath four legs, his feet have long nails like unto a dragon.

There were also the Spanish, with whom they alternately exchanged cannonballs and compliments. They eventually had a full-scale battle, described in Boys’ Own-like detail:

Our General courageously cheered up his soldiers and called to Samuel, his page, for a cup of beer, who brought it to him in a silver cup, and he drinking to all men willed the gunners to stand lustily by their ordnance like men. He had no sooner set the cup out of his hand but a demi-culverin shot struck away the cup and a cooper’s plane that stood by the mainmast, and ran out of the other side of the ship; which nothing dismayed our general, for he ceased not to encourage us, saying: ‘Fear nothing, for God, who hath preserved me from this shot, will also deliver us from these traitors and villains.’

There was hunger – “We were driven to eat hides, cats, rats, parrots, monkeys and dogs” – and at last Job and 95 others were set ashore because there was not enough food to go round (Hawkins was justly criticized when he got back to England because he had left the men, but made room for lucrative slaves). Here they were attacked and robbed of their clothes by Indians –

…we made wreaths of green grass which we wound about our bodies, to keep us from the sun and the gnats of that country

– who also killed several of their company. Then they were captured by the Spaniards and brought to Mexico City, where they met with threats of execution and pressure to convert from the Inquisition, and refused to do slaves’ work. They were imprisoned for two years before being sent to Spain, in a ship containing ginger and “the anatomy of a giant”. Treated chivalrously by the Spanish captain, they saved the fleet from running aground and saw – a merman! –

…a monster in the sea who showed himself three times unto us from the middle upwards, in which parts he was proportioned like a man, of the complexion of a mulatto or a tawny Indian.

In Spain, they were imprisoned in Seville. They broke prison after a year but were retaken, and spent another year in prison. Two were burnt at the stake, then some were sentenced to serve aboard the galleys, where they were

…chained four and four together…our lodging was on the bare boards and banks of the galleys, our heads and beards were shaved every month; hunger, thirst, cold and stripes we lacked none.

Hortop spent 12 years in this purgatory, then another seven years in penal servitude. He escaped at last in a small boat and arrived back in England in 1590, 23 years after he had set sail. Voyages is so rich that it is impossible to do justice to the whole corpus, and one is left remembering fragments. Some are revolting:

They fall into sundry diseases, their gums wax great and swell and they are fain to cut them away; their legs swell, and all the body becometh sore and so benumbed that they cannot stir hand nor foot, and so they die for weakness

Some are harrowing, like Drake’s 1578 execution of the “mutineer” Thomas Doughty. The details are even now disputed by historians, but Doughty apparently confessed to endangering the voyage, then

[S]eeing no remedy but patience for himself, desired before his death to receive the communion, which he did at the hands of Master Fletcher, our minister, and our General himself accompanied him in that holy action. Which being done, and the place of execution made ready, he having embraced our General, and taken his leave of all the company, with prayers for the Queen’s Majesty and our realm, in quiet sort laid his head to the block, where he ended his life.

Some are indicative of the schizophrenic attitude of Europeans to ‘savages’, whom they simultaneously idealized and caricatured. For example, Arthur Barlowe, who travelled in Virginia in 1584, recorded

[W]e found the people most gentle, loving, and faithful, void of all guile and treason, and such as live after the manner of the golden age.

But just a few pages further on “Their wars are very cruel and bloody…and of their civil dissensions which have happened of late years amongst them, the people are marvellously wasted.” There are amusing tales, too. The Spanish Armada ships were not permitted

…to carry any women or harlots in the fleet, for which cause the women hired certain ships wherein they sailed after the navy

One can only imagine the fraught atmosphere aboard these vessels, with their complement of wives and prostitutes. Even better, some of these craft were driven aground on the French coast, and such castaways must have nonplussed the locals. But the overall impression is inspiration for Englishmen –

It cannot be denied, but as in all former ages, they have been men full of activity, stirrers abroad , and searchers of the remote parts of the world (12)

The English acquit themselves honourably against all comers, whether crewmembers – “[T]he boatswain fared amongst the Turks like a wood lion” – or officers like Sir Richard Grenville, whose cannon raked the Spanish ship San Philip – which “shifted herself with all diligence from her sides, utterly misliking her first entertainment”. Perhaps it is this serene confidence in Anglo-Saxon superiority that has made Hakluyt unfashionable – allied to the wider prejudices in educational circles against exciting history and allegedly ‘difficult’ texts. There seems to be a fastidious unwillingness to take the past on its own merits, with all its acknowledged injustices and grittiness. Too many look at the past as being not just another country, but another civilization. And yet as Hakluyt wrote to Walter Raleigh in 1587, “geography is the eye of history” (13), and today’s diminished Europeans arguably need to be aroused out of their “sluggish security”. Those so-distant Englishmen who carved up the world with such confidence have lineal and cultural descendants whose shadowed present grew from this piquant past, and whose lives and prospects would be enhanced by celebrating the fact.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of the Quarterly Review, and was later republished at MannerofMan.com


1. First published as The principall Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English nation made by Sea or over Land, in the most remote and farthest distant Quarters of the earth at any time within the compasse of these 1500 years

2. Michael Stapleton, The Cambridge Guide to English Literature, CUP: 1983. J. A. Williamson, “England and the Sea”, essay in The Character of England (ed. Ernest Baker). OUP: 1947

3. Epistle Dedicatory to the first edition of Voyages, 1589

4. Most famously, 1587 saw the publication of Gerhard Mercator’s revolutionary maps of the world, which projected the meridians as equidistant parallel lines and latitudes as parallel straight lines at right angles to the meridians

5. There have been many editions of or selections from Voyages. The authoritative edition is that published in 12 volumes by the Hakluyt Society between 1903 and 1905, estimated to total around 1,250,000 words (see www.hakluyt.com for details of the Hakluyt Society, founded in 1846). For the purposes of this article, I have relied mostly on The Tudor Venturers (selections, ed. John Hampden), Folio Society, 1970

6. Introduction to The Tudor Venturers

7. Notwithstanding Queen Elizabeth’s lack of real interest in maritime affairs – “The maritime glory of her reign flourished under her general success but owed little to her good will or comprehension” (Williamson, op. cit.)

8. The classic example is The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a 1499 book purporting to have been written by an English aristocrat, but almost certainly put together by Jean d’Outremeuse of Liége from old French accounts and fairy-tales. Amongst many other marvels, “Mandeville” records the Fountain of Youth, and ant-hills of gold-dust

9. Hortop’s memoirs were published in 1591 as The Travailes of an Englishman. Containing his sundrie calamities indured by the space of twentie and odd yeres

10. “The non-professional element has always been prominent and accepted in English sea affairs” (Williamson, op. cit.)

11. In 1568, Hawkins was ennobled and his new coat of arms featured a bound African slave as heraldic “achievement” to signify how the family came to prominence. His descendants no longer use the device

12. Epistle Dedicatory to the first edition of Voyages, 1589

13. In his dedication in A Discourse of Western Planting

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