Voyages and Discoveries

Reading collections of 16th century travel writing is guaranteed to send you down a few rabbit holes. Case in point, I just spent an hour researching the introduction of corn/maize into Europe, since I learned reading Guns, Germs, & Steel that this was an American export, but I saw such extensive mention of “corn” throughout the book that I had to fact-check Jared Diamond. The confusion arises from the fact that British English refers to “corn” as whatever is the most popular grain grown in a region, so it could be wheat or barley. Which explains why Anthony Jenkinson’s account of the Tartars growing “a certain corn called iegur” is really just referring to sorghum, another grain.

This Penguin edition is much abridged, pared down to 10% of the total, since the full Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation is a collection of 16th century documents totalling over 1,500,000 words. The introduction snidely sniffs that the “many volumes of the complete Hakluyt, usually unopened, were often enough to be found on private bookshelves years ago when England thought of herself as imperial.” The collection favors eyewitness accounts and real business correspondence over other more conflated tales, making the volumes useful to sailors. The third voyage of the East India fleet floundered off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607 and the captain sent for “The Book” (Hakluyt) that unearthed facts about the coast enabling him to find safe anchorage (and saving the East India Company £20,000).

One of my aha! moments reading this was the 1553 discovery of the kingdom of Moscovy… for some reason I hadn’t realized that Russia was not a known entity to the English prior to that. Hakluyt writes about Sir Hugh Willoughby’s financing and Richard Chancellor’s piloting the ship through the unknown north passage. “This country was called Russia, or Moscovy, and Ivan Vasilivich (which was at that time their King’s name) ruled and governed far and wide in those places.” What follows are business documents and personal recollections of that voyage, and after installing an ambassador, the attempt to reach China over land via Russia.

From a 1557 business letter: “Also we do understand that about the river of Pechora is great quantity of yew, which we be desirous to have knowledge of, because it is a special commodity for our realm. Therefore we have sent you a young man, whose name is Leonard Brian, that hath some knowledge in the wood: if there be none found that will serve for our purpose, then you may set the said Leonard Brian to any other business that you shall find most fittest for him, until the return of our ships the next year. For he is hired by the year only for that purpose… Also we have sent you one Anthony Jenkinson gentleman, a man well travelled, whom we mind to use in further travelling, according to a commission delivered him.”

Jenkinson, traveling with Richard Johnson and Robert Johnson, writes a highly readable account in 1558 of his voyage from Moscow to Bokhara, and later (1561) an explanation of his trip to Persia, a voyage fraught with thieves and zealous Moors looking to kill Christians. Arthur Edwards’ 1568 trip to Persia is also recounted, “to travel in this country is not only miserable and uncomfortable for lack of towns and villages to harbour in when night cometh, and to refresh men with wholesome victuals in time of need, but also such scarcity of water… besides the great danger we stand in for robbing by these infidels, who do account it remission of sins to wash their hands in the blood of one of us. Better it is therefore in my opinion to continue a beggar in England during life, than to remain a rich merchant seven years in this country…”

Melville includes bits of Hakluyt in Moby Dick, of course; I found the 1575 response to a man’s request for advice on killing a whale to be extensive and most likely perused by Herman whilst researching MD.

Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1577 is also covered with a first-hand account of someone on the trip, including my favorite line where they find a Spaniard lying asleep on the beach beside 13 bars of silver… “we took the silver, and left the man.”


Discovered via Virginia Woolf’s reminisces about her father lugging home volumes of Hakluyt from the library for her to read as a teenager (because women weren’t allowed). She mentions him at least 3 times in her diaries, and includes this from the Common Reader:

Part of their charm consists in the fact that Hakluyt is not so much a book as a great bundle of commodities loosely tied together, an emporium, a lumber room strewn with ancient sacks, obsolete nautical instruments, huge bales of wool, and little bags of rubies and emeralds. One is for ever untying this packet here, sampling that heap over there, wiping the dust off some vast map of the world, and sitting down in semi-darkness to snuff the strange smells of silks and leathers and ambergris, while outside tumble the huge waves of the uncharted Elizabethan sea.