Sunday, March 04, 2007

Book Review: "Hakluyt's Promise"

It's not often that I would go out on a limb as early as the first days of March and write that I have found one of my top books of the year. But I'll make an exception in this case, and have absolutely no hesitation in doing so. Peter Mancall's Hakluyt's Promise: An Elizabethan's Obsession for an English America (just out from Yale University Press) is a well-written, meticulously-researched account of the life of the man who rates as the single more important figure in creating the "spirit of colonization" in England during the latter years of Elizabeth I's reign.

Richard Hakluyt, educated as a cleric, spent the majority of his life collecting, translating, and publishing travel accounts. These included the writings of those who explored the East Indies, China, and Russia (among other places) - but the Americas quickly became his main focal point. Long before it was popular, Hakluyt saw the potential for English expansion (both in terms of trade, colonization, and the extension of Protestantism) in the northern portions of America, and he worked relentlessly to promote that potential.

Through the publication of his collections of travel accounts - Divers Voyages touching upon America (1582), The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589), and a greatly-expanded and more America-centered version of the latter published as The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (3v., 1598-1600) - not to mention the many other accounts of which he encouraged publication, arranged translation or supported with his imprimatur, Hakluyt laid the groundwork for
the system of English colonization that would begin with the attempts at Roanoke and finally succeed (after a fashion) with the Jamestown settlement.

Carefully using a variety of contemporary sources to fill in the documentary gaps which surround Hakluyt (and they are many), Mancall has managed to recreate his remarkable life. Though he never traveled farther abroad than Paris (he was granted permission to go to Virginia in 1606, but didn't go, never saying why), Hakluyt became - through his extensive reading and publication on the subject - the expert witness of choice on all matters concerning exploration and travel. When the East India Company needed advice, they called on Hakluyt. When publishers or authors wanted to promote their books, it was Hakluyt's 'blurb' they sought. Mancall tells us why that was.

One of the most fascinating and welcome parts of this book was the inclusion of significant research into the publishing and printing worlds of Hakluyt's era. Mancall argues, convincingly, that Hakluyt recognized the potential of the printed word for speading his message, and put the new technologies to optimal use. Synthesizing this information with the intellectual history and the biographical account, Mancall has created a brilliant narrative which deserves wide attention.

[Update: I forgot to mention Mancall's excellent bibliographic essay and his source notes, which are as noteworthy as the rest of the book.]