Oxford and Durham House
Hariot enters the historical record with his matriculation at Oxford in 1577 at the age of seventeen. His tentative date of birth is based on this information. Notes written at the time indicate that he was raised in Oxfordshire and his father was a commoner. Nothing else for certain is known about his early life.
Hariot arrived at Oxford with exceptional talents in mathematics and the sciences, but at a time when these subjects were not particularly valued. This was beginning to change, however, asbegan to recognize the connection between mathematics and the navigational arts necessary to further the nation’s developing interests in colonization, piracy, privateering, and trade, especially in North America. At Oxford, Hariot met , who went on to edit the influential Principall Navigations of the English Nation (1589), on behalf of future English colonization disguised as a history of past English successes. Hariot also probably knew Thomas Allen, an Oxford faculty member who collected the latest manuscripts, books, and instruments connected with mathematics and astronomy.
After receiving a BA from Oxford in 1580, Hariot relocated to London, where his interest in applying mathematics and astronomy to questions of navigation brought him to the attention of Walter Raleigh. A favorite of, Raleigh had to establish English colonies in North America. By 1583, Hariot was serving Raleigh at his London residence, Durham House, by focusing on open-sea navigation. The Portuguese and Spanish understood how to cross the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, but the English, with notable exceptions such as Sir Francis Drake, did not and were forced to hug the coasts. Before he could teach it, Hariot needed to master the subject himself, and he set about collecting, building, and learning to use standard navigational instruments, including the astrolabe, cross staff, and sextant. He studied the mathematics required to determine one’s position in the open ocean, collected the best sea charts and maps, and learned the basics of astronomy necessary to navigate by the stars, moon, and sun. He then began lecturing to Raleigh’s sea captains on these subjects in his room at Durham House and collected the knowledge in the now-lost Arcticon.
Raleigh was planning to attempt a colony on the mid-Atlantic coast of North America and in 1584 sent a reconnaissance voyage that landed on Roanoke Island. There, commanders Philip Amadas andmet and returned to England with two Virginia Indians, Manteo and Wanchese. Recognizing that communication with the Indians would be crucial for a successful colony, Hariot worked with the two men and learned to speak their form of the Algonquian language. Hariot even developed his own phonetic alphabet, which allowed him to record the sounds of Algonquian words and to create a now-lost English-Algonquian dictionary. Hariot’s work in this area made him one of the most advanced linguists of the day and recommended him as a member of Raleigh’s Roanoke expedition in 1585.
Roanoke and A briefe and true report
The Roanoke colonists were mostly military men, the most prominent exceptions being Hariot and the artist John White, who had served as expedition artist on one of Martin Frobisher’s voyages to Greenland. The colonists arrived at Roanoke late in June 1585, but one of their ships ran aground and they lost much of their provisions. After the departure in August of the colony’s two commanders, Sir Richard Grenville and Thomas Cavendish, Ralph Lane assumed governorship, and his relations with the local Indians were friendly at first. The situation deteriorated, however, as the Englishmen failed to find reliable sources of food, and when Sir Francis Drake arrived in June 1586, Lane decided to return the surviving colonists to England.
The year had not been a waste for Hariot, though. With the help of Manteo and Wanchese, and in the company of John White, he had explored the area surrounding Roanoke and, with White, joined a party that sailed north to the Chesapeake Bay and up the Elizabeth and Nansemond rivers, even encountering the Chesapeake Indians at their principal town of Skicoac. He and White used these travels to collaborate on the first accurate maps of the east coast of North America. Using angle-measuring tools to establish latitude and longitude, Hariot mapped out triangle-shaped areas and either recorded these angles in a notebook for later use or, while in the field, sketched these triangles directly onto a sheet of paper attached to a plane table. White, an accomplished painter and illustrator, then finished the maps. While some of the White-Hariot maps remained in manuscript form and did not receive wide circulation, others—such as the small map of Roanoke Island and the large map of the entire Outer Banks region—appeared in Theodor de Bry’s illustrated edition of Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, becoming models for their time of accurate cartography in the New World.
A briefe and true report was, perhaps, Hariot’s most important contribution to England’s colonization efforts. First published in 1588, it appeared again the next year as part of Richard Hakluyt (the younger’s) Principall Navigations. Hakluyt then convinced de Bry to publish a third version as the initial volume in his America series. This last includes etchings of the White-Hariot maps as well as etchings based on White’s watercolor portraits of Virginia Indians and scenes of Indian life. Published in English, French, German, and Latin, the de Bry version enjoyed a wide European audience.
While the Report is sometimes considered scientific, it is more accurately viewed as commercial discourse. Throughout, Hariot argues four related points. First, the 1585 colony failed because many members of the colony were unprepared for the rigors of colonization. Although these men slandered the colony and its leaders upon arriving home, in Hariot’s view Raleigh’s colonization program should be allowed to continue. Second,are not to be feared by the English, who possess superior technology and culture. Third, the land in Virginia is abundant enough to provide future colonists with adequate food and building materials. And fourth, Virginia offers a less expensive source for a wide range of trade goods, including shipping supplies, dyes for the cloth industry, and wine.
In 1595, Hariot received land from Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland, to allow him to continue his scientific and mathematical work. Percy was imprisoned in 1605 for his connection to the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt on the life ofon behalf of greater freedom for English Catholics. Hariot’s connection to Percy also landed him in prison, but only briefly. (Percy’s younger brother was one of the original colonists.) Sir Walter Raleigh also ran afoul of the king and was beheaded in 1618. In the meantime, Hariot pursued his interest in astronomy. His unpublished notes on the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1607 were later used to accurately calculate its orbit. In 1609, he used a telescope of his own making to sketch the moon—four months before the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei more famously accomplished the same feat. In 1610, he was the first to observe sunspots, and in 1611, he produced the first map of the moon.
Hariot died in London on July 2, 1621, of cancer of the nose, probably caused by heavy tobacco use. A posthumous work, Artis Analyticae Praxis, published in 1631, helped to establish the English school of algebra.
- A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588–1590)