(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Richard Hakluyt c. 1552–1616

English editor, geographer, and translator.

As a translator and editor, Hakluyt played an important role in the dissemination of navigational and topographical information which encouraged English explorers to set out on voyages of discovery and conquest during the sixteenth century. His Voyages (1598-1600) constitutes a unique record of European exploration that provides insight into Elizabethan thought preceding England's colonial expansion. A founding member of the Virginia Company, Hakluyt was also instrumental in the establishment of a permanent English colony in North America.

Biographical Information

Hakluyt was born in London, the second of five children, to Margery and Richard Hakluyt of Hereford-shire. At the age of five, following the death of his father, Hakluyt was taken in by his cousin and guardian—also named Richard Hakluyt—then a student in the Middle Temple, and later a lawyer much involved in international exploration and mercantilism. The elder Hakluyt first sparked his younger cousin's interest in geography by showing him a map, then drawing the young scholar's attention to the 23rd and 24th verses of the 107th Psalm of the Bible, which states: "They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep" (King James translation). Subsequently, a dual interest in exploration and religion was to characterize Hakluyt's entire career as both geographer and cleric. Following his schooling at Westminster, Hakluyt was admitted to Christ Church College, Oxford University, where he was a contemporary of Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Philip Sidney. He received his B.A. 1574 and an M.A. in 1577; he was ordained in 1580, and in 1583 he was appointed chaplain to Sir Edward Stafford, the English ambassador to Paris. In Paris, Hakluyt became familiar with French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese narratives of exploration, and while translating the voyage narratives of Antonio Galvano and Ferdinando de Soto, he became determined to promote English exploratory seafaring. In 1582 he published his first collection of voyage narratives, Divers Voyages Touching the Discouerie of America (1582), and followed this with A Discourse on Western Planting (1584). Hakluyt's career as a cleric sustained his scholarship, and his literary endeavors brought royal preferment in the form of clerical appointments. Elizabeth's pleasure with Hakluyt's Discourse on Western Planting resulted in his appointment as a prebendary of Bristol, a major port city, in 1584. In 1590, following the publication of his most important work, The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589), he was granted the rectory of Witheringsett-cum-Brockford, in Suffolk. Here he prepared a new enlarged edition of the Principall Navigations, and worked with Raleigh to publicize and encourage investment in the Virginia Company. In 1602 Hakluyt received a prebend at Westminster, and the following year he was appointed Archdeacon. During the last four years of his life, Hakluyt was rector of Gedney, Lincolnshire. He died on November 23, 1616.

Major Works

Hakluyt's Divers Voyages Touching the Discouerie of America presented legal argument for England's claim on American land, accounts by Giovanni da Verrazano and Giovanni Battista Ramusio with maps by John Lok describing the east coast of North America, and practical advice for potential explorers. His next work, A Discourse on Western Planting (1584) gained the attention of Queen Elizabeth I. Designed to persuade the Queen to support American colonization, it was intended as a private court document with the title, "A Particular Discourse Concerning the Great Necessity and Manifold Commodities That Are Likely to Grow to This Realm of England by the Western Discoveries Lately Attempted." Finally published in 1877, it provides the most direct evidence of Hakluyt's own thoughts on the links between economics and geography, and the likely material benefits of English colonization of North America.

Hakluyt is best known as the editor of The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589; enlarged edition, 1598-1600). The enlarged edition of this work, reprinted in 1908 as Hakluyt's Voyages, included such new exploration chronicles as the voyages of Sir John Hawkins, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Martin Frobisher, and Sir Francis Drake. Blending the romance and wonder of travel with the sparse, restrained style of the sailor witness, Hakluyt's Voyages was Hakluyt's magnum opus, and remains his most celebrated work. Although Hakluyt's motives were strongly patriotic, he also acknowledged and translated many foreign narratives, including René de Laudonnière's A Notable Historie Containing Foure Voyages Made by Certayne French Captaynes unto Florida (1587), Antonio Galvano's The Discoverie of the World from Their First Originall unto the Yeere of Our Lord 1555 (1601), and Ferdinando de Soto's Virginia Richly Valued, by the Description of the Maine Land of Florida, her Next Neighbour (1609).

Critical Reception

Hakluyt's industrious and painstaking scholarship brought him substantial royal favor, the friendship of Raleigh and Sidney, and the patronage of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's secretary of state. While Hakluyt's Voyages was used as both a practical guide by explorers and as a spur to motivate the next generation of adventurers, Hakluyt also contributed a significant literary influence: Shakespeare's Othello, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest all make reference to Hakluyt's Voyages, as does Milton's Paradise Lost. Hakluyt's reputation as an editor grew markedly after his death, when readers were disappointed with the comparatively lackluster editing of his successor and literary executor Samuel Purchas. In the eighteenth century, the practical value of Hakluyt's Voyages diminished as English geographical knowledge became more refined, but the literary quality of his endeavors found new favor. His reputation received a considerable boost in 1846 with the founding of The Hakluyt Society, which has continued to publish accounts of exploratory travel. In the modern era, critics such as Clennell Wilkinson have found the appeal of Hakluyt's Voyages to lie in the documentary flavor of its "true stories." Virginia Woolf emphasized the influence of Hakluyt's editions on the English language, and detected in Hakluyt's Voyages a new, self-conscious literary mode. More recently, the descriptive language of Hakluyt's narratives has been analyzed from a postcolonial perspective, with critics such as Emily C. Bartels providing a re-assessment of the Elizabethan colonial mind.