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Hakluyt’s Promise

Review by: Jeffery R. Hankins, Louisiana Tech University

Hakluyt’s Promise: An Elizabethan’s Obsession for an English America Peter C. Mancall (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) 378 pages

This well-researched and very accessible book addresses a long-standing dearth of objective study of the sixteenth-century English geographer and author, Richard Hakluyt. Peter C. Mancall takes us through the inner workings of Hakluyt’s treatises on discovery and reveals the many complexities that accompanied this one man’s dedication to English settlement in the New World. Mancall explores Richard Hakluyt’s own writings while augmenting these with references from actual accounts which Hakluyt himself drew upon. In this way, the reader is able to evaluate at the ground level the progression of Hakluyt’s interests, set-backs, and successes. Through eleven chapters and forty-one maps and illustrations, Peter Mancall masterfully reconstructs an investigator whose comprehensive writings had much to do with the eventual settling of North America’s Atlantic seaboard.

Like many sixteenth-century Europeans, Richard Hakluyt was intrigued by the diverse flora, fauna, and peoples reported by sailors and discoverers returning from around the world. According to Mancall, Hakluyt combined this fascination with a Protestant zeal to “present knowledge that would allow others to see the works of the Lord”. (p. 23-24). As reports were printed from each new voyage to the Americas, Hakluyt complemented scientific findings with second-hand accounts from those who traveled with Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert, Francis Drake, and Walter Raleigh. Richard Hakluyt successfully published books and pamphlets that described a world of glittering abundance, the geographic touch-points to lead people to that world, and the promise of benefits for the English realm through settlement, industry, and trade. Mancall reminds us that while Hakluyt drew from many non-English contributors, it remained his individual agenda to further England’s superior piety, character, and prosperity.

Peter Mancall describes his subject as “an elusive quarry” and tries to fill in some of the evidentiary gaps by “recreating aspects of the world he [Hakluyt] inhabited”. (pp. 303-304). Through the inventory of Thomas Platter, we are treated to curious scientific and geographic discoveries that apparently energized men like Richard Hakluyt. (pp. 156-158). Through the examination of settler David Ingram, we come face-to-face with the behavior and potential of America’s natives. (p. 192). But we are also often invited to wonder about Richard Hakluyt’s mind-set and inner thoughts through suppositions that “perhaps” Hakluyt passed a certain building or “might have” seen a particular map. We are assured of things that Hakluyt must have known or was likely aware of. This of course is the historians’ dilemma, but Peter Mancall makes the best use of extant materials to successfully give human dimension to Richard Hakluyt through documented experiences of his contemporaries.

Still, the reader is at times left puzzling over Hakluyt’s true motivations for his important publications. Is it passion, profit, or piety that drives this Elizabethan cleric to publish the travel accounts of others? Is Richard Hakluyt genuinely concerned by London’s excess population, or is he responding to Elizabethan government routine calls for innovative “projects” to employ England’s poor? To this end, it would be helpful to know more about the geographer’s patrons: Francis Walsingham, William and Robert Cecil, and the Cloth-workers’ Company. As political, commercial, and financial patrons, any of these entities could exercise more than a little influence over Hakluyt’s actions and even his published products. Similarly, it would be instructive to know more about Richard Hakluyt’s cousin, “the lawyer”, who seems instrumental in launching Hakluyt’s career in the 1560s, and whose connections to England’s political and administrative elite could offer additional explanation for his cousin’s literary pursuits.

Peter Mancall fills in Richard Hakluyt’s elusive character by building the geographer’s “obsession for an English America” and convincingly demonstrating Hakluyt’s competency in promoting this worthy goal. We feel Hakluyt’s excitement as he gathers and reads reports from Europe’s adventures and discoverers; and we sense his mounting frustration at England’s systemic failure to colonize parts of North America not already controlled by Spain or France. Mancall brilliantly re-constructs the efforts behind Hakluyt’s writings as each publication builds on new voyages, information, and geographic milestones. Only in the last two chapters does Richard’s Hakluyt’s enthusiasm appear to wane, as he turns from the woes of Jamestown to the promise of the spice trade through the successful East India Company.

The conclusion to Mancall’s stimulating work raises interesting questions about Richard Hakluyt’s place in history. How much, if any, blame can be ascribed to Hakluyt for the rosy picture of American abundance that often preceded English colonial disasters like Jamestown? Can his travel accounts, unaccompanied by any direct experience, be viewed as impersonal “boosterism” that condemned men and women to misery in the early colonial period? These questions cannot be answered definitively or objectively, but Mancall’s book does permit these intriguing speculations. Peter Mancall has thoroughly mined the sources to present us with a rich and complex individual, previously viewed as the disembodied voice of English colonization. This is not only the best work on Richard Hakluyt to date, but a victory for those who see the European settlement of North America as a multi-layered, multi-faceted process.

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