I’m working on a new Renaissance English History Podcast about trade and exploration (because of course the two were linked – without the possibility of new trading markets, there could be no exploration of new lands). It’s impossible to read much about any of the early English explorations without stumbling across Richard Hakluyt, England’s first travel writer. An ordained priest, Hakluyt never traveled further than Paris, but he was the chief promoter of English colonization in America, and it’s largely down to his influence and support that the colonies happened in the first place. So who was this man who wrote voluminously about the recently-discovered Americas, though he never actually set foot in them himself?
Hakluyt was born in 1553 in Herefordshire, and his early education was at the Westminster School in London, near his uncle, also a Richard Hakluyt, who was a lawyer at the Middle Temple. His parents died when he was young, and the elder Richard was his guardian. While at school, he visited his uncle, and saw in his offices maps, books about cosmography and other reports of travel and exploration. This would have been around the mid 1560’s when there were reports coming back from the Spanish in the New World, and England was woefully behind in claiming any of the lands there, having been too preoccupied with the succession and instability in their own country to do much exploration abroad.
The study of cosmography was an interesting and imperfect science in the Renaissance. It encompassed what we would consider geography, astronomy, and some physics. At the time, cosmography was concerned with mapping all of the features of the universe, both the heavens and on earth. It included literally making maps of the world, but also more far flung studies like the Music of the Spheres (the idea that each planet has its own vibration and makes music as it travels).
Hakluyt immediately became fascinated with the Americas, and the discovery of new worlds, and he dedicated himself to reading every travelogue and report about the New World that he could find. By the early 1580’s he was an ordained minister (he studied at Christ Church, Oxford) and had published his first work on the travel in the America’s, Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America and the Ilands Adjacent unto the Same, Made First of all by our Englishmen and Afterwards by the Frenchmen and Britons.
His work caught the attention of the court, and Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, sent him to France to report back on Spanish and French explorations, as well as learning anything he could that might help the English to make a successful voyage. Sir Walter Raleigh then commissioned him to write A Particuler Discourse Concerninge the Greate Necessitie and Manifolde Commodyties That Are Like to Growe to This Realme of Englande by the Westerne Discoueries Lately Attempted, Written in the Yere 1584.
It was largely a promotion of why England should go to America, and includes the now-famous arguments to convert the natives to Christ, and keeping up with the Spanish, who were becoming more and more of a threat. As a minister, one of his chief concerns was that the native Americans should receive a Christian education that was Protestant. The idea of an entire continent of Catholics was too much for him to stomach.
He moved back to England at the end of the decade, and became the personal minister to Robert Cecil (William Cecil’s son). He continued to publish every bit of travel writing he could find, financially supported the early joint-stock companies to fund voyages, and it was his life’s mission to encourage and promote English exploration until he died in 1616.
To learn more about Richard Hakluyt and his times, I recommend Hakluyt’s Promise: An Elizabethan Obsession for an English America by Peter C. Mancall.