You may well ask, “Who first wrote about all the earliest voyages to the New World?” You might also wonder why they wrote. The answers to both questions are fairly easy. The “why” is simple—a lot of folks were interested. Today we may overlook the fact that the European discovery of North America and South America was an enormous world-changing event greater than any living person had ever known. George Best wrote in 1578 that “...more regions and countries have been discovered in the previous eighty years than in the past five thousand years.” He then added that more than half the known world had been discovered by men still alive at the time. These statements expressing fascination and pride are similar to those we hear today regarding achievements in science and technology. Such a rapid change in the known world was naturally a subject of great interest among literate people of the period. They were eager for more information about the unknown exotic people and environments. This enthusiasm continued through the nineteenth century until all parts of the New World had been discovered. In short, there was a ready audience. Some writers were driven by a second motive, i.e. to encourage settlement in the new areas.
In nearly every case the explorer himself or someone on the voyage kept records, and those logs, reports, and letters contained vital information for later writers compiling the first histories of the voyages. Three sixteenth century writers stand out as the first and most prolific recorders of voyages to the New World: Peter Martyr, Richard Hakluyt, and Samuel Purchas. It’s worth knowing a bit about these men.
The earliest one was Peter Martyr d’Anghiera (1457-1526), an Italian-born historian living in Spain. He was a well-known and prolific writer who personally knew many of the prominent people of his time, and his hundreds of letters have given today’s scholars much information about the character and appearance of important men in Spain. As an educated man and teacher, he became tutor for the nobles of the Spanish court.
Beginning in 1511 he wrote a series of accounts on the Spanish and Portuguese explorations in the Caribbean, Central and South America, grouping them into ten chapters he called “Decades.” His works were published in Latin after his death with the title, De Orbe Novo (On the New World, 1530). The publication included information on the explorer’s routes and descriptions of the first European experiences with Native Americans. He wrote detailed descriptions of native civilizations in the Caribbean and Central America, and recorded the first reference to “India rubber” by a European writer. Martyr’s De Orbe Novo was first published in English in 1555, and again in 1912.
Richard Hakluyt took up the torch in 1582 with his first major record of English exploration to North America, Divers voyages touching the discovery of America. Hakluyt became acquainted with all the important sea captains, merchants, and sailors in England with the goal of learning everything available about North America. He intended to interest Queen Elizabeth I in the political and economic benefits of settlement in the new colonies. To this end Hakluyt wrote an extensive book, The Discourse on the Western Planting (1584), which gave an account of the economic potential in the New World in support of Sir Walter Raleigh’s efforts in Virginia. The book was regarded as a secret document of strategic advantage to England for nearly 300 years and not made public until 1877.
The outbreak of England’s war with Spain in 1588 temporarily ended exploration, and Hakluyt turned to the task of compiling all the English voyages worldwide. In 1589 he wrote his major work, The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation. The scholarship and scope of this book surpassed any geographical work up to that time and is still considered an important resource.
In 1846 a group in London formed the Hakluyt Society, a fitting legacy to Richard Hakluyt’s work, and today carries on the task begun by its namesake in the sixteenth century. They continue to publish the records of historic voyages and other geographical materials of all nations. The Society also organizes conferences on the history of exploration. In the 167 years from 1847 to 2014 the Hakluyt Society (www.hakluyt.com) has published 317 volumes, and is a major source of worldwide exploration accounts.
A third writer of early expeditions to North America was the Englishman Samuel Purchas (1577-1626). He was a clergyman who never traveled more than 200 miles from his home in Essex in southeast England, but he recorded many accounts of mariners returning from their voyages. In 1613 he published his first book under the ambitious title, Purchas His Pilgrimage: or Relations of the World and the Religions observed in all Ages and Places discovered, from the Creation unto this Present. This book focussed on the great diversity of God’s creation with very little about voyages, but it was very popular reading in England. A second book soon followed, but again had little about exploration, Purchas his Pilgrim or Microcosmus, or the Historie of Man. Relating the Wonders of his Generation, Vanities in his Degeneration, Necessities of his Regenerations.
When Richard Hakluyt died in 1616, Purchas received an enormous windfall when a large collection of Hakluyt’s unsorted manuscripts were left to him. He edited Hakluyt’s work and combined it with his own large collection of narratives and created his third book, Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes (he managed to include his name in every title). This was a massive, four-volume collection of travel accounts that amounted to a continuation of the Hakluyt tradition of voyage histories. It covers voyages to all parts of the world, and only volume four concerns the Americas. Purchas unfortunately died a poor man despite the great popularity of his books.
The writings of these three men, Martyr, Hakluyt, and Purchas all had eager readers in their time and their books are still considered primary sources of information about early voyages of exploration.
Best, George. The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher: In Search of a Passage to Cathaia and India by the North-West, A. D. 1576-8. With Introduction by Sir Richard Collinson. New York: Burt Franklin, Publisher, 1963. (Reprinted from the 1867 edition of Hakluyt’s Voyages.)
McCoy, Roger M. On the edge: Mapping North America’s coasts. New York: Oxford University Press. 2012.