Our book today is Richard Hakluyt’s improved, expanded, and totally revised 1598 edition of his enormous masterpiece The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, which we can refer to as The Principal Navigations to keep from running out of room on the Internet. The Principal Navigations is a strange and in many ways unprecedented book – not so much a work of history as a collage of reporting, a vast anthology and dispatch-collection. It’s hundreds and hundreds of pages are filled with navigational information, coastline descriptions, trading tips, and long eyewitness accounts of the great days of Elizabethan sea-dog naval battles, epic voyages, and explorations so filled with new discoveries that even in all this space they crowd each other. Instead of imposing his own narrative on his sources, Hakluyt lets them all speak for themselves – sometimes at length, sometimes briefly, sometimes in jarring discord with each other (or with subsequently verifiable reality) – and then artfully amasses the results. He spent a good deal of his own money to help the Principal Navigations see the light of day, and he expended lots of personal energy as well, travelling all over France and England in the hunt for eyewitness accounts of the burgeoning world of great sea-voyages. In his Preface to that 1598 edition, he allows himself an uncharacteristic veiled complaint or two:
For the bringing of which into this homely and rough-hewn shape, which here thou seest, what restless nights, what painful days, what heat, what cold I have endured; how many long and chargeable journeys I have travelled; how many famous libraries I have searched into; what variety of ancient and modern writers I have perused; what expenses I have not spared; and yet what fair opportunities of private gain, preferment, and ease I have neglected.
But he can’t resist putting a polish on it all:
Howbeit, the honour and benefit of this Commonweal wherein I live and breathe hath made all difficulties seem easy.
Hakluyt was born in the early 1520s to a very prosperous and established Herefordshire family of local grandees (their large Leominster country seat of Eaton Manor boasted clean linen all the year round), and he attended Christ Church, Oxford, with the beautiful young Philip Sidney. Hakluyt got his degree in 1577 and in 1583 – as was expected of younger sons – he took Holy Orders. By that point he’d already published – at his own expense, but eventually to some profit – a work called Divers Voyages touching the discovery of America (he dedicated it to Sidney), and he’d already entered the sometime employ of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State and resident intelligence master, and been sent on a multi-layered mission to the port at Bristol. He also accompanied Sir Edward Stafford to Paris when Stafford was appointed ambassador to France.
Hakluyt saw everything, noticed everything, recorded as much as he could. He picked up languages like lint, and he had a knack for ingratiating himself; old salts and dangerous sea-dogs willingly talked to him, and he very much valued what they had to say. In 1588 all of England became euphoric upon the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and England’s overseas trading and exploration were expanding every month. The Queen’s fierce professional adventurers were eager to fit out ships and cross the world in search of shortcuts to the Indies or the Orient, in search of new lands where they could plant Elizabeth’s flag, in search of profit in any of the thousand new forms it could take in a New World.
Our humble author wanted to be a part of that great national (and nationalistic) explosion – indeed, he was bumped at the last minute from going on the ill-fated Roanoke voyage – but instead, he kept earning promotions and accruing small livings in the shadow-civil service that was Elizabeth’s Church of England. He took fees for government consulting work, but the main intellectual occupation of his settled life was the expansion and improvement of his Principal Navigations, which kept growing in size and scope, a hustling, bustling collection of that quintessential Elizabethan combination: hard-headed practical knowledge and soaringly whimsical inquiry. On almost every page, modern-day readers will find something picturesque or fascinating, as when an eyewitness to Martin Frobisher’s second Northwest Passage voyage recounts an odd discovery:
On this west shore we found a dead fish floating, which had in his nose a horn straight and torqued, of a length two yards lacking two inches, being broken in the top, where we might perceive it hollow, into which some of our sailors putting spiders they presently died. I saw not the trial thereof. By the virtue thereof we supposed it to be the sea unicorn.
(Also, penguins everywhere will be insulted to know that more than one such chronicler attributes their flightless status to how fat they are)
Readers will also regularly come across gruesome reminders of the stark human cost of these far-flung voyages. Men are crushed, starved, swept overboard and never seen again, and even the ones who stay on board can suffer horrifying fates, like the men from Thomas Cavendish’s last voyage in the South Atlantic, when the combination of incessant rains and nonexistent hygiene led to agonies even Hakluyt’s hardened interlocutor clearly didn’t want to remember and couldn’t forget:
In this time we freed our ship from water, and after we had rested a little, our men were not able to move; their sinews were stiff, and their flesh dead, and many of them (which is most lamentable to be reported) were so eaten with lice, as that in their flesh, did lie clusters of lice as big as peas, yea and some as big as beans.
Most of the accounts gathered here are more or less completely unaffected, the straight reckoning of what really happened to men and vessels. This quality (it’s amazing Hakluyt thought to step out of the way and just let it speak for itself – to put it mildly, that wasn’t the typical Elizabethan way of doing things) is of course much to be prized by historians, and it’s balanced out every now and again by a conscious prose stylist working a familiar bit, like that studied (and criminally underrated – his own masterpiece isn’t even readily in print these days) and evocative prose stylist, Sir Walter Raleigh, forever dramatizing his voyage to Guyana:
I thought it time lost to linger any longer in that place, especially for that in the fury of Orinoco began daily to threaten us with dangers in our return; for no half day passed but the river began to rage and overflow very fearfully, and the rains came down in terrible showers, and gusts in great abundance: and withal, our men began to cry for want of shift, for no man had place to bestow any other apparel than that which he wore upon his back, and that was thoroughly washed on his body for the most part ten times in one day …
Hakluyt died in 1616, and his Principal Navigations was quarried in subsequent centuries by novelists and the worst kinds of popular historians, everybody intent on snatching some choice tidbits about sea-monsters, vulnerable enemy shipping, and strange new discoveries in distant lands. Neither Hakluyt nor any of those later grave-robbers could possibly have anticipated the infinite navigational miracles so many 21st century people completely take for granted – hand-held phones that allow us to casually take in the view of virtually any spot on the planet. But the modern developed world has sacrificed something for all that accuracy. Wonder? Humility? Driving curiosity? It’s difficult to put a name to it – but Martin Frobisher would have recognized it in an instant and put it to work earning him money, and Richard Hakluyt would have known it too, and how could he not? He was its Homer. Or at the very least, its first Sears & Roebuck catalogue.