Richard Hakluyt was born probably early in the 1530s, the son of Thomas Hakluyt at Eyton, in Herefordshire, England. He had three sisters, Winifred, Elnor, and Barbara. After the death of his father, his stepmother, Catherine, and her husband Nicholas Depden became his guardians. In 1555, he was admitted to the Middle Temple, one of London’s Inns of Court, to study law. In 1557, he was named as “overseer” in the will of his uncle, Richard Hakluyt, with a small legacy for the trouble, and it is likely he became the guardian of his younger cousins. Among these was Richard Hakluyt (the younger), who was five or six years old at the time. This younger cousin later credited Hakluyt for his own lifelong passion for geography; on a visit to the lawyer’s Middle Temple chambers in 1568, Hakluyt (the younger) showed an interest in “certain books of cosmography, with a universal map” lying open on the table, and years later described the geography lesson the lawyer then gave him: “he pointed with his wand to all the knowen Seas, Gulfs, Bayes, Straights, Capes, Rivers, Empires, Kingdomes, Dukedomes, and Territories of ech part, with declaration also of their speciall commodities, & particular wants, which by the benefit of traffike, & entercourse of merchants, are plentifully supplied.”Hakluyt practiced as a lawyer and was elected to the Parliament of 1558 to represent Leominster, a market town in Herefordshire. All his surviving writings, however, are related to geography and colonization. About 1568, Hakluyt wrote to the Flemish cosmographer Abraham Ortelius with a proposal for construction of a world map and an accompanying piece of furniture, one that would make it easier to use the large maps then being produced for use in the small rooms of most private residences. (Ortelius’s groundbreaking work, the atlas Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or “Theater of the World,” was published in 1570.) The details Hakluyt provided in his letter about particular geographical features, sources of information, and the importance of both scale and latitude/longitude markings make clear that he had studied both geography and cartography in some depth.
Evidence for the lawyer’s work during this period appears in Hakluyt (the younger)’s Principal Navigations. Materials attributed to him include letters and reports from India, Roanoke, New Spain, and Newfoundland as well as instructions for Englishmen traveling to Turkey, to the Americas, or in search of a Northeast Passage to China. In the preface to his 1589 collection, the younger Hakluyt acknowledged his cousin the lawyer, along with Sir John Hawkins and Sir Walter Raleigh, as a source of his “chiefest light” regarding the Americas.
One of Hakluyt’s neighbors in the Middle Temple was Adrian Gilbert, who later supported the English explorer John Davis’s search for a Northwest Passage to China along the shores of Greenland and Arctic Canada. Gilbert’s brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, had been engaged with this particular geographical problem as early as 1567, when he wrote A Discourse of a Discoverie for a New Passage to Cataia, arguing that a Northwest Passage must exist. (The text was published in 1576.) In 1578, Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Humphrey Gilbertto explore and plant lands not already claimed by other Christian rulers. Although the patent did not specify a location, Gilbert and others understood it as granting him rights in North America.
As Gilbert planned his voyage of the same year—one that would fail to reach North America—Hakluyt prepared recommendations for voyagers to northern America, and these would later be printed by Hakluyt (the younger) in Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America, and the Ilands Adjacent (1582), part of an effort to promote a later phase of Gilbert’s American project. Hakluyt’s notes make clear that he imagined Englishmen undertaking not only the search for a passage through North America to China and the East Indies but also the planting of a colony on the North American continent, somewhere between present-day Philadelphia and northern Maine. His advice bears particularly on ideas for making the colony self-supporting by producing goods (largely agricultural) for trade, ideas later echoed by his cousin.
Gilbert died at sea in 1583, and the next year the queen transferred his patent to Gilbert’s half brother, Walter Raleigh. Raleigh’s efforts to settle a colony along the mid-Atlantic coast of North America evidently appealed both to Hakluyt and to his younger cousin, who during the mid-1580s was the instigator of several publications on North America dedicated to Raleigh. Hakluyt (the younger) authored as well an extended argument for colonization, Discourse on Western Planting (1584), addressed to the queen. Also in 1584, Hakluyt (the elder) prepared a set of notes, or “inducements,” for Raleigh’s proposed colony. (These exist in two versions; the longer of the two was printed after Hakluyt’s death.)
The hope of sailing “into the South Sea” and from there toward China and the Indies, still important for Gilbert, had now become secondary to the objective of settlement in a temperate region (roughly between Cape Fear and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay). Hakluyt argued that colonization would provide new markets for English exports, especially cloth; new employment for England’s poor; and new sources for goods currently provided by England’s European competitors. Virginia Indians were envisioned as potential trade partners whom the English would seek to convert to Christianity, and perhaps to subject. But it was vital not to become “hateful unto them,” as the Spanish had become to their own New World subjects.
Hakluyt’s interests were not only in North America, and he supplied advice for travelers to the Near East as well as for a 1580 expedition in search of a Northeast Passage. Although the documentary record of his life is sparse, the range of his interests, his contacts, and his expertise indicate that he must have played a significant role in planning and theorizing for the early decades of English expansion beyond Europe.
Hakluyt wrotein 1587, “considering the mortal state of man and the pestilent fevers so commonly reigning.” Although all evidence suggests that he was healthy at the time, he died in 1591; his will was proved on March 4 of that year. It indicated no wife, children, or burial place. He left his farm in Eyton, in succession, to Richard Hakluyt (the younger)’s brothers, Oliver and Edmund, followed by Hakluyt himself. The lawyer left some of his belongings to his sisters, the “eldest and beste beloved” Winifred Bruton, Barbara Evissham, and Elnor Conesbie.
Although Hakluyt died before England established Jamestown as its first permanent settlement, his thinking about colonization continued to be influential. The second edition of John Brereton’s work A briefe and true relation of the discovery of the North part of Virginia (1602), describing‘s voyage to “North Virginia” (New England) in the same year, included along with the narrative of that voyage a version of the notes Hakluyt had prepared for the in 1584. Gosnold would be among the first settlers of Jamestown in 1607.