Richard Hakluyt (ca. 1530–1591)


Richard Hakluyt, better known as Richard Hakluyt (the elder) or Richard Hakluyt (the lawyer) to distinguish him from his younger cousin of the same name, was an active propagandist of English colonization of North America. Although his cousin, the editor of Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589), was better known and more influential, Hakluyt had been his guardian and introduced him to the study of geography. Elected to Parliament in 1558, he corresponded over several decades with cosmographers, merchants, fishermen, and other travelers, gathering information on the new regions they contacted and providing advice and instructions for the pursuit of trade, colonization, diplomacy, and exploration. Hakluyt’s arguments that colonization of the Americas would be a boon to English commerce and an opportunity to Christianize the Virginia Indians likely influenced the views of his cousin, who gave them wider currency. In 1585, concurrent with Walter Raleigh‘s proposed settlement in the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina, he authored two pamphlets in favor of colonial ventures, but he died in 1591, before the permanent colony, at Jamestown, could be established.

Early Years

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.”

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

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.

American Colonization

Queen Elizabeth I

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 Gilbert a six-year patent to 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.

Sir Walter Raleigh

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.

Later Years

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.

A Briefe and true Relation of the Discoverie of the North part of Virginia

Hakluyt wrote his will in 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 Bartholomew Gosnold‘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 Roanoke colony in 1584. Gosnold would be among the first settlers of Jamestown in 1607.

Richard Hakluyt (the elder) is admitted to the Middle Temple, one of London's Inns of Courts, to study law.
Richard Hakluyt (the elder) is named as "overseer" in the will of his uncle, Richard Hakluyt, and likely becomes the guardian of his younger cousins, including Richard Hakluyt (the younger).
Richard Hakluyt (the elder) is elected to Parliament to represent Leominster, a market town in Herefordshire.
While a student at Westminster School, Richard Hakluyt (the younger) visits his elder cousin of the same name at his Middle Temple residence. He finds the chambers full of maps and globes, likely the beginning of his lifelong interest in geography and colonization.
ca. 1568
Richard Hakluyt (the elder) writes 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 being produced for display in the small rooms of most private residences.
Richard Hakluyt (the elder) commissions an account of New Spain that is published in Richard Hakluyt (the younger)'s Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589).
Richard Hakluyt (the elder) prepares detailed recommendations, advice, and geographical background for members of a proposed colonizing expedition led by Sir Humphrey Gilbert. His notes are later published by Richard Hakluyt (the younger) in Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America, and the Ilands Adjacent (1582).
Richard Hakluyt (the elder) prepares notes for an Englishman traveling to Persia, asking him to pay attention to things that might be learned from the Persian textile industry.
Richard Hakluyt (the elder) prepares instructions for a Northeast Passage search planned by the Muscovy Company, including suggestions for gifts to bring to the Chinese court and things to be observed and brought back from China.
Richard Hakluyt (the elder) prepares two memorandums on trade with Turkey; both are concerned with learning new techniques for finishing textiles, identifying new dye stuffs, and finding new markets for English cloth.
Richard Hakluyt (the elder) prepares a set of notes, or "inducements," for Walter Raleigh's proposed colony in the Outer Banks region of present-day North Carolina. The longer of two extant versions will be published posthumously.
September 13, 1587
Richard Hakluyt (the elder) makes his will, "considering the mortal state of man and the pestilent fevers so commonly reigning." All evidence, however, suggests that he is healthy.
Richard Hakluyt (the elder)'s instructions, notes, and memorandums, along with other geographical information he has collected, mostly concerning North American colonization, are published in Richard Hakluyt (the younger)'s Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation.
March 4, 1591
The will of Richard Hakluyt (the elder) is proved and specifies no wife, children, or burial place. He leaves the bulk of his estate to his cousins.
Notes written by Richard Hakluyt (the elder) in 1584 on behalf of Walter Raleigh's attempts to establish an English colony at Roanoke are reprinted in John Brereton's work A briefe and true relation of the discovery of the North part of Virginia.
  • Mancall, Peter. Hakluyt’s Promise: An Elizabethan’s Obsession for an English America. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Quinn, David B., ed. New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612. With the assistance of Alison M. Quinn and Susan Hillier. 5 vols. New York: Arno Press, 1979.
  • Parks, George B. Richard Hakluyt and the English Voyages. 2nd ed. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1961.
  • Taylor, E. G. R. Original Writings and Correspondence of the Two Richard Hakluyts. London: Hakluyt Society, 1935.
  • Taylor, E. G. R. Tudor Geography, 1485–1583. London: Methuen, 1930.
APA Citation:
Fuller, Mary. Richard Hakluyt (ca. 1530–1591). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/hakluyt-richard-ca-1530-1591.
MLA Citation:
Fuller, Mary. "Richard Hakluyt (ca. 1530–1591)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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