Early Life and Education
Hakluyt was born in 1552, the son of Richard Hakluyt, a member of the London Skinners Company. He had two brothers, Oliver and Edmund. After his father’s death in 1557, Hakluyt and his surviving family were commended to the care of his cousin Richard Hakluyt (the elder) of the Middle Temple, a lawyer then probably in his twenties. Hakluyt credits his cousin with inspiring in him a passion for geography while he was still a boy at the Westminster School; he also adopted many of the lawyer’s associations and interests, particularly in connection with northern exploration and support for England’s cloth trade.
By January 1571, Hakluyt had enrolled at Christ Church, Oxford, as a Queen’s Scholar; he received an additional scholarship from the Skinners Company. After earning a bachelor of arts degree in March 1574 and a master of arts degree in May 1577, he stayed on to lecture on geography, in his words, “to the singular pleasure, and general contentment of my auditory.” Hakluyt’s further studies in divinity were supported by the Clothworkers Company, and he is recorded as preaching a sermon to members in 1581; he had probably been ordained by 1580. Also in 1580, while still at Oxford, he paid the Italian linguist John Florio to translate from Italian into English two accounts by Jacques Cartier, who had explored the Saint Lawrence River and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and claimed Canada for France. Although the preface proclaiming “the infinite treasures” of the Americas was signed by Florio, Hakluyt likely wrote it himself.
Two years later, in 1582, Hakluyt published under his own name a small collection of miscellaneous materials on northern America, Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America, and the Ilands Adjacent. Included in the collection were notes prepared by Hakluyt’s cousin the lawyer for Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who in 1578 had beenthe six-year right to explore and plant colonies in North America. Divers Voyages seems to have been intended to promote Gilbert’s 1583 voyage to “Norumbega,” a large and loosely defined swath of America’s northeastern coast. According to Hakluyt’s friend, the Hungarian scholar Stephen Parmenius, Hakluyt intended to follow Gilbert on a later ship. He didn’t, however, and Parmenius and Gilbert both drowned in September 1583 when their ship, the Squirrel, sank off Sable Island, south of Newfoundland.
Paris and Roanoke
In September 1583, Hakluyt left Oxford for a position as chaplain and secretary to the English ambassador in Paris, Sir Edward Stafford. Over the next five years, while making frequent trips back to England, Hakluyt collected information about the Americas and worked on new editions and translations of existing writings on the subject. His correspondence with Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen’s secretary of state, indicates that Hakluyt’s activities served the interests of the state by keeping the queen’s advisers informed about various colonial adventures; indeed, Hakluyt’s information gathering was undertaken, in part, at Walsingham’s request. Always a passionate advocate for exploration and colonization, Hakluyt insisted, in a letter to Walsingham on January 7, 1584, that the English lay their claim to the American coast immediately, before the opportunity could “waxe colde and fall to the ground.”
Among the works Hakluyt saw through the press in Paris, several are dedicated to Walter Raleigh, a close adviser to the queen, who inherited Gilbert’s royal patent. (Raleigh and Gilbert were half brothers.) At Durham House on the Thames River, Raleigh gathered experts on navigation, geography, and the Americas in general, and it is clear that Hakluyt joined Thomas Hariot and John Dee among others in planning a western colony. In January 1584, four months before Philip Amadas andset sail on an initial scouting mission that landed in the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina, Hakluyt wrote Walsingham: “Your honour made a motion heretofore unto me, whether I could be contented to goe myself into the action. I am most willinge to goe now.” But for reasons unknown, he was absent from this trip as he had been from Gilbert’s ill-fated mission.
Later in the year, after the return of Amadas and Barlowe, Hakluyt presented Queen Elizabeth and her advisers with his Discourse on Western Planting, a sustained and forceful argument for investment in colonization of the Americas. Originally intended as confidential counsel, the Discourse was not published until the nineteenth century; nevertheless, in addition to Hakluyt’s own research, it drew on some information already widely available. In twenty-one chapters, Hakluyt argued that colonization would be an ideal opportunity for the English to spread the Protestant faith to Indians and lift “the soules of millions of those wretched people … from darkenes to lighte, from falshoodde to truthe, from dombe Idolls to the lyvinge god, from the depe pitt of hell to the highest heavens.” He focused primarily, however, on opportunities for the English to exploit the natural resources of the Americas and perhaps reap the kinds of rewards the Spanish had claimed in the West Indies. While happily dispatching to the new colony the underachievers of England’s expanding population, England also would create a needed market for its own goods. Finally, Hakluyt argued that the Spanish in America were weak—their colonies undermanned and spread too far apart—and that allying with the Indians might be enough to destroy their empire.
Hakluyt’s case was powerful and passionate, and his expertise on the Americas would be sought by Elizabeth’s ministers in the years that followed. In 1584, however, the queen was not persuaded to provide state support for Raleigh’s enterprise. She granted him permission to plant a colony (by this time called Virginia) at Roanoke Island in 1585 and then, in 1587, near the Chesapeake Bay, but relied on Raleigh and his investors to pay for it themselves. (The 1587 expedition, intended for the Chesapeake, landed instead at Roanoke Island and became the fabled “Lost Colony.”) In 1589, Hakluyt was named among the “merchants of London, and adventurers to Virginia” to whom Raleigh granted trade privileges—should the colony come off—in the regions under his patent and particularly in “the cittie of Raleigh” intended to be built on the Chesapeake Bay. The document suggests that Hakluyt may have invested or been willing to invest in another voyage to Roanoke, but by 1591 the colony was extinct.
Perhaps the most important tangible outcome of the Roanoke settlements was a publication, in 1588, of A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia by Thomas Hariot, a mathematician and one of Raleigh’s Durham House advisers who had been among the colonists in 1585–1586. Hakluyt was responsible for bringing Hariot’s account, and the related watercolor paintings of Roanoke by John White, to the attention of the Flemish engraver and printer Theodor de Bry. Hakluyt encouraged de Bry to make what originally was a slim pamphlet into the multilingual folio volume, accompanied by de Bry’s engravings of White’s illustrations, that appeared as the first volume of de Bry’s America series in 1590. (Hakluyt also translated the illustration captions from Latin into English.) De Bry’s edition of A briefe and true report was the product of a remarkable collaboration between Hariot, White, Hakluyt, de Bry, and a number of others, including the famous botanist Charles de l’Écluse; it made the English colony famous. The illustrations quickly became iconic images of Native Americans, andborrowed from them to illustrate his Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624).
In the meantime, about 1587, Hakluyt married Douglas Cavendish, likely a cousin of the English explorer Sir Thomas Cavendish, who circumnavigated the globe from 1586 until 1588. The couple had one child, Edmond, who was born in 1593. Douglas Cavendish Hakluyt died in 1597, and on March 30, 1604, Richard Hakluyt married a widow named Frances Smithe. In 1590, Hakluyt was named rector of Wetheringsett, in Suffolk, a small rural parish about ninety miles from London. In 1602, he became a prebendary, or administrator, of Westminster Abbey; in 1603 he was named archdeacon, and in 1608 steward of Westminster.
Hakluyt wrote that during his time in France, he both “heard in speech, and read in books other nations miraculously extolled for their discoveries and notable enterprises by sea, but the English of all others for their … continuall neglect of the like attempts … either ignominiously reported, or exceedingly condemned.” This experience led him to undertake a new documentary collection on an altogether grander scale than the 1582 pamphlet. In 1589, the year after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the 825 folio pages of Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation both made the case for the past achievements of his countrymen and urged them to consider what more they might do with the information thus provided. A second edition, whose three volumes appeared successively in 1598, 1599, and 1600, brought the record of voyages up to date and expanded the coverage of both medieval material and recent incidents in the sea war with Spain. This new edition spelled its title Principal Navigations and, despite its greater length, had little to add about the mid-Atlantic aside from John White’s report of histo Roanoke in 1590. This absence reflects a lack of English activity in the region rather than a failure of interest on Hakluyt’s part; he continued to collect documentary evidence as it was produced, and would be one of the prime movers in securing a charter for the first Virginia company.
The two editions of Principal Navigations make apparent the real scope of Hakluyt’s interests and relationships. No longer relying mainly on previously published materials, as he had done in Divers Voyages and the editions published during his years at Oxford and in Paris, he drew on state and company archives as well as on personal connections for manuscript and oral accounts, information that never would have been available without his work. The rich and diverse set of documents printed in the second edition ranged from lists of weights and prices used for trade at Ormuz and statutes regulating English trade with the Hanseatic League, to accounts of missions to the Mongols, voyages up the coast of Greenland, and the circumnavigations of Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish. Both editions of the collection reprinted Hariot’s Briefe and true report, along with letters, journals, and other manuscript material relating to the Roanoke colony, some of it written up by participants at Hakluyt’s request or his cousin’s.
Virginia and East India
The breadth of knowledge demonstrated by the two editions of Principal Navigations made Hakluyt a useful advisor to the East India Company (founded in 1600) as he had been earlier to the Muscovy Company (chartered in 1555 to trade in Russia) and the group interested in the Roanoke colony. Hakluyt appeared at a meeting of the directors of the East India Company on January 29, 1601, and the notes describe him as a “historiographer of the viages of the East Indies.” Copies of Principal Navigations were supplied to the company’s ships. He also continued his practical involvement with the exploration and colonization of North America. On April 10, 1606, Hakluyt’s name appeared as one of the original eight petitioners on the charter granted byto the Virginia Company of London. Later that year, he received a dispensation to travel to without surrendering his ecclesiastical positions (by then, quite numerous), but in the end, again for reasons unknown, he did not go. On May 23, 1609, his name appears, as an investor, on the Virginia Company of London’s second charter. After Hakluyt’s death, his two shares passed to his son. (Edmond Hakluyt sold the shares in 1621.)
Following the appearance of Principal Navigations, Hakluyt continued to collect information about the world outside of Europe, and occasionally to publish materials he thought would be helpful to English commercial and colonial undertakings. In 1609, he dedicated to the Virginia Company of London his translation of Virginia Richly Valued, by the Description of the Maine Land of Florida, Her Next Neighbor, a narrative of the explorations of the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto. In it, he made the unsettling suggestion that, “if gentle polishing will not serve,” then “hammerours and rough masons” (i.e., soldiers) would be necessary to prepare Virginia Indians for conversion by English ministers.
In July 1616, the English explorer William Baffin, in search of the Northwest Passage, named for Hakluyt “Hakluits Ile,” an island at 78 degrees north latitude. Four months later, on November 23, 1616, Hakluyt died; he was buried three days later in Westminster Abbey. Most of the materials Hakluyt had collected after 1600 were left unpublished until 1625, when the Reverend Samuel Purchas printed Hakluytus Posthumus, or, Purchas His Pilgrimes. Materials on Jamestown originally collected by Hakluyt and later published by Purchas included the narratives ofand , as well as letters by and . John Smith drew on Hakluyt’s collections extensively to supplement his own narrative in the Generall Historie; as was common at the time, he often did so without acknowledgment, but he cites Hakluyt in his text as the basic reference for a history of English exploration before 1600.
- Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America, and the Ilands Adjacent (1582)
- Discourse on Western Planting (1584)
- Principall Navigations of the English Nation (1589)
- The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques, 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, 3 vols. (1598–1600)
- The Discoveries of the World from Their First Original unto the Year of Our Lord 1555, English translation of work by António Galvão (1601)
- Mare Liberum (The Free Sea), English translation of work by Hugo Grotius (ca. 1609)
- Virginia Richly Valued, by the Description of the Maine Land of Florida, Her Next Neighbor, English translation (1609)