Brits at their Best.com: British History, Culture & Sports, History of Freedom, Heroes, Inventors

Old map of the Americas

English exploration of the world was the result of exploits and "virtual reality" write-ups.

ARMCHAIR ADVENTURER

At Westminster School, Richard Hakluyt is a serious Queen's scholar apparently preoccupied with his clerical studies. Then, sometime around 1570, he visits his cousin and namesake, Richard Hakluyt, at his chambers in the Middle Temple. The older man show him his “universall mappe” of the world, and the young Brit is fascinated and enthralled.

Virtual reality exploration

He sets out to read about every voyage and discovery he can find. When the books all too quickly run out, he interviews all the English captains, merchants, and mariners who are sailing to unknown parts of the world. He observes that the Queen's bucanneers and privateers are rounding the world in pursuit of the treasure on ships, while the exploration of new lands and the establishment of new settlements and trade are largely ignored.

It has to be said that while Hakluyt is passionate about exploration, it's in a virtual reality sort of way. He remains on solid ground in England, where he completes his BA and MA at Oxford, and enters the Anglican Church. At the age of 30 he gathers all his research and publishes Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America.

To become a spy

This publication propels Hakluyt abroad. He is offered a position as chaplain to the English ambassador in Paris, and invited to become a secret agent. He accepts. His mission is to acquire information for England’s first spymaster about Spanish and French explorers and their explorations in the New World.

The information he collects dazzles him. He writes yet another manuscript, this time urging the English to plant settlements in America. His papers will disappear from sight for 200 years, but not before he places a copy in the bejeweled hands of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, in 1584. We imagine the Queen smiled a private smile.

Elizabeth I, bejewelled, rests one hand on a globe

Elizabeth I in 1588 by an unknown artist, with the Armada
visible behind her. Judging by the hand she rests on a globe,
she is thinking about world exploration.

As Elizabeth knew, Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the globe, completed in 1580, had inspired him to claim the West Coast of America for the her and to name it "Nova Albion" (New Britain). However, she has his maps and journals classified and Drake and his sailors sworn to secrecy on pain of death, to keep his explorations unknown to Spain.

Electrifying words

At Raleigh's request, Hakluyt wrote the 'Discourse' portraying the Americas as a promised land of honey, venison, palm trees, wine, sassafras (a cure for venereal desease), gold and red copper. He insisted the Spanish genocidal policies were an outrage and that the Queen should give every assistance the Native Americans. Raleigh was much influenced by these ideas and decided to arrange another expedition. This time, however, he was to remain at home.

Hakluyt is impatient. He has dreams. The Queen is preoccupied with fighting off a Spanish invasion and defeating the Spanish Armada. Hakluyt wants to see action. In 1589, he publishes The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation, an account of the Brits' geographical discoveries that is a million and a half words long. Bristling with eye-witness accounts, it electrifies Brits, turning land loafers into sailors in less than a decade.

Eleven years later, Hakluyt is advising the East India Company about global markets and supplying them with maps from his colleague Edward Wright, a brilliant Cambridge mathematics don who has corrected Mercator projection maps. Hakluyt presumably has some pastoral duties, but he is also a leading adventurer in the Virginia Company in London. He's keen to see America settled by Brits. In 1607 stockholders of the Virginia Company, named after the Virgin Queen, send settlers to Virginia.

The Jamestown settlement barely survives, but the Brits are off and running in America. Hakluyt never crosses water any wider than the English Channel, but many consider Brits more indebted to him for their trans-Atlantic experiences than any other man of his time. Four years after he dies in 1616, the London Adventurers sponsor the Mayflower's voyage to the New World.

One hesitates to blame Hakluyt for pirate Henry Morgan's spectacular raid on Gran Grenada in 1663, which was distinguished by Morgan's military strategy and gentlemanly regard for prisoners, but if not for Hakluyt, it is doubtful Morgan would have been in the Caribbean, or Shakespeare would have written The Tempest and America as we know it might never have been. The Hakluyt Society, founded in 1846, continues to print rare and previously unpublished accounts of voyages and travels.

 

English bulldog puppy

When you contribute to this website,
you support Brits at their Best.

Join the Circle of Friends

 

 

Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass