Richard Hakluyt Essay - Critical Essays

Hakluyt, Richard


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.

Principal Works

Divers Voyages Touching the Discouerie of America, and the ilands adiacent vnto the same, made first of all by our Englishmen, and afterwards by the Frenchmen and Britons (travel essays) 1582

A Notable Historie Containing Foure Voyages Made by Certayne French Captaynes unto Florida [translator] (travel essay) 1587

De orbe novo Petri Martyris Anglerii Mediolanensis [editor] (travel essay) 1587

The Principall Navigations, Volages and Discoveries of the English Nation, Made by Sea or over-land, to the remote and farthest distant quarters of the Earth, at Any Time within the compasse of these 1500 yeeres (travel essays) 1589; revised and enlarged, 1598-1600; also published as Hakluyt's Voyages 1908

The Discoveries of the World from Their First Originall unto to Yeere of Our Lord 1555 [editor and translator] (travel essays) 1601

Virginia Richly Valued, by the Description of the Maine Land of Florida, Her Next Neighbour [translator] (travel essay)

A Discourse on Western Planting, Written in the Year 1584 (essay) 1877


Virginia Woolf (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "The Elizabethan Lumber Room," in Collected Essays, Vol. I. Harourt, Brace & Company, 1966, pp. 46-53.

[Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was an influential modern British novelist and essayist associated with the Bloomsbury Group. In the following review essay, originally published in The Common Reader (1925), Woolf detects Hakluyt's influence on the English language, arguing that the "extravagance" and "hyperbole" of Elizabethan literature stems from the Elizabethan passion for discovery that was promoted by Hakluyt's publications.]

These magnificent volumes [Hakluyt's Voyages] are not often, perhaps, read through. Part of their charm consists in...

(The entire section is 3146 words.)

Clennell Wilkinson (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: "Hakluyt," in The London Mercury, Vol. XVII, No. 97, November, 1927, pp. 62-9.

[In the following laudatory essay, Wilkinson provides an overview of Hakluyt's life and work and considers his qualities as an editor. Wilkinson suggests that the strength of The Principal Voyages lies in Hakluyt's artless editing and his skill at finding the romance in true stories.]

I think it was Mr. Hilaire Belloc who once divided funny stories into two classes—those which are funny simply because they are funny, and those which are funny because they are true. He might have gone further and applied his theory to stories of all sorts. Even then he would not have reached...

(The entire section is 4093 words.)

James A. Williamson (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: An introduction to Richard Hakluyt and the English Voyages, by George Bruner Parks, edited by James A. Williamson, American Geographical Society, 1928, pp. xi-xvii.

[In the following excerpt, Williamson places Hakluyt's English Voyages in a historical context. Williamson considers Hakluyt the major historian of Elizabethan colonial expansion, and finds in his work crucial evidence of the "ideas and outlook of the Elizabethans. "]

The Elizabethan age was not spacious, as we are sometimes told, but narrow and needy. It was a time of industrious study of man and nature as well as of books, and its adventures were undertaken not from swashbuckling zest but...

(The entire section is 2808 words.)

James A. Williamson (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "Richard Hakluyt," in Richard Hakluyt & His Successors: A Volume Issued to Commemorate the Centenary of the Hakluyt Society, edited by Edward Lynam, The Hakluyt Society, 1946, pp. 9-46.

[In the following excerpt, Williamson describes the conditions that prompted English maritime expansion and considers Hakluyt's role as a publicist and "master mind" behind Elizabethan colonial enterprise.]

That Hakluyt was consciously a publicist and a historian as well as a geographer may be seen from his own words. In his dedication of a publication to Raleigh in 1587 he remarks that 'geography is the eye of history', in a context which leaves no doubt that history is the...

(The entire section is 3530 words.)

W. Nelson Francis (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: "Hakluyt's Voyages: An Epic of Discovery," in The William and Mary Quarterly, third series, Vol. XII, No. 3, July, 1955, pp. 447-55.

[In the following essay, Francis notes the commercial and patriotic origins of English seafaring in the late sixteenth century. Providing a brief sketch of a typical voyage from The Principal Voyages, Francis praises Hakluyt's restrained editorial style and his industrious scholarship.]

In an age when tales of strange voyages are reasserting their age-old fascination, when any strange craft from Heyerdahl's primitive balsa raft to Beebe's super-scientific bathysphere is almost sure to produce a best seller, an older...

(The entire section is 3701 words.)

Christopher Hill (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Ralegh—Science, History, and Politics," in Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1965, pp. 154-62.

[Hill is an important Marxist historian whose work focuses on the English Civil War. In the following excerpt, Hill considers Hakluyt's work as publicist and foreign policy propagandist for Sir Walter Ralegh.]

Ralegh's foreign policy was not his private affair, but was the policy of a whole group, whose main publicists were the two Richard Hakluyts. Ralegh was intimately connected with them. The younger Hakluyt's Discourse of Western Planting was written in 1584 'at the request and direction of Ralegh', to whom...

(The entire section is 2290 words.)

David B. Quinn and Alison M. Quinn (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: An introduction to Virginia Voyages from Hakluyt, edited by David B. Quinn and Alison M. Quinn, Oxford University Press, London, 1973, pp. vii-xvii.

[In the following essay, the critics provide an overview of Hakluyt's career and chronicle his involvement, along with that of Grenvilie and Ralegh, in the discovery and settlement of North America.]

(The entire section is 4782 words.)

Peter Vansittart (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Hakluyt's Emporium," in The Times Educational Supplement, No. 3404, September 25, 1981, p. 25.

[In the following review essay, Vansittart provides a vivid sampling of Hakluyt's narratives of discovery, and considers their place in the English literary tradition.]

Geographer, linguist, historian, Richard Hakluyt was also Archdeacon of Westminster, diplomat, and busy advocate of Elizabethan sea-power, overseas trade, colonial enterprise. Often considered chiefly as a maritime narrative … [Hakluyt's Voyages] is an anthology of both land and sea travels, from eye-witnesses of most varied classes, ranks, occupations, involving Raleigh (as author), Humphrey...

(The entire section is 986 words.)

Emily C. Bartels (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Imperialist Beginnings: Richard Hakluyt and the Construction of Africa," in Criticism, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 517-38.

[In the following essay, Bartels provides a close textual analysis of the accounts of voyages to Africa in The Principal Navigations. With particular reference to descriptions of Moors and Negroes, Bartels detects and discusses an implicit "strategy of representation" in the narratives and in Hakluyt's editorial policy.]

In 1589, when Richard Hakluyt produced his first edition of the Principal Navigations, England was a long way from securing an empire or articulating an imperialist policy. Despite some forty years of...

(The entire section is 7503 words.)

Further Reading


Review of The Principal Navigations, by Richard Hakluyt. The Athenaeum, No. 3979 (30 January 1904): 137-8.

Review of two volumes of The Principal Navigations which finds in Hakluyt's literary style an echo of Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Jones, John Winter. Introduction to Divers Voyages Touching the Discovery of America and the Islands Adjacent. London: The Hakluyt Society, MDCCCL, 171 p.

A wide-ranging introduction to Hakluyt's first major work. Addresses the French exploration of Florida, includes Hakluyt letters, dedicatory...

(The entire section is 423 words.)