The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
RICHARD HAKLUYT AND THE PRINCIPAL NAVIGATIONS
Britannia may no longer rule the waves but Britons ever will be armchair sailors, reading and writing stories of the sea. Like many Englishmen I fell in love with the sea at an early age and spent most of my working life behind a desk. In my case I grew up beside the Thames in the days when the big liners still sailed upstream to the Royal Docks and I made my career studying, administering, teaching, writing and advising on pension schemes.
Passing from job to job, for the pension world is diverse, I found myself during one of the slower episodes in an office in London close to the Royal Commonwealth Society. I became a frequent visitor to their excellent library, soon to be sold off, and it is there that I discovered Richard Hakluyt and The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation.
In Hakluyt I recognised a kindred spirit, an armchair sailor who never went to sea.. A contemporary described him as the most travelled man who never left England. That was before Hakluyt did a stint in Paris, which was the furthest that he ever travelled in his physical self, although in his imagination he roamed the globe and did much to shape English and American history.
Richard Hakluyt (pronounced Hak-leet) lived from1553 to1616 and came from a Welsh family, not Dutch as some historians have supposed. He studied at Christchurch College, Oxford, from 1570 to 1574 and was ordained as a minister in the Church of England in 1578. In his ‘day job’ he was an active and distinguished churchman, holding important posts at Bristol cathedral and Westminster Abbey, was chaplain to the English embassy in Paris from 1583 to 1588 and he had a parish in Suffolk. ‘Out of hours’ he read all types of travel books and built up an extensive library.
It pained him that nearly all the popular travel books were about the Portuguese and Spaniards in the East and West Indies. He resolved to give England a maritime tradition by publishing a volume of ‘histories’ of English achievements at sea. It was an uphill task. So far England had been almost completely left out of the Age of Discovery. He reached back 500 years to the mythical Welsh discovery of America and plodded on through the Middle Ages, editing manuscripts culled from libraries in Britain and France. Then, as the work reached his own lifetime, it all happened! England exploded into the Age of Discovery and rather than sifting through libraries Hakluyt found himself interviewing newly landed sailors. He would ride from London to Bristol to meet a ship in from America. He sent ‘intelligencers’ into the London taverns to listen to travellers’ tales, question the storytellers and record their answers. From being an antiquarian he became a journalist, a great journalist in an age before newspapers.
The Principal Navigations, containing over a hundred stories, was published in 1589, the year after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. It was an immediate success, riding on a wave of fevered triumphalism. Between 1598 and 1600 Hakluyt republished an extended version in three volumes. There have been several other editions over the centuries. The edition I used in the Royal Commonwealth Library was the Everyman edition published by J M Dent, 1907. It is in 12 handy little volumes which fit easily into a briefcase and can be read conveniently on the train. In 2008 there was a major international conference at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich which launched the Hakluyt Edition Project, to republish the Principal Navigations in 14 volumes between 2014 and 2016, complete with background studies, commentaries, notes and sources, etc. For details see http://www.hakluyt/org.
The Principal Navigations was not Hakluyt’s only, or arguably his most important publication. His reputation won him influential sponsors, including Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster (for whom he did some work in Paris) and Sir Walter Raleigh of Virginia fame. Hakluyt became a director of the Virginia Company at a time when it needed all the direction it could get. As readers of this piece will be familiar England’s first two attempts to colonise Virginia were unsuccessful, the second attempt ending with the total disappearance of the colony in one of history’s enduring mysteries. Hakluyt’s stream of publications, notably his Particular Discourse on the Western Planting presented to Queen Elizabeth in the name of Sir Walter Raleigh, kept faith in the venture alive. Thanks to his efforts there were still investors and colonists ready to risk their money and their lives when the first permanent settlement was established at Jamestown in 1607. A collection of Hakluyt’s writings on North America was published by the Folio Society in 1986 entitled The First Colonists with reproductions of the beautiful water-colour drawings by John White of the flora, fauna and natives of Virginia. Although he never crossed the Atlantic Hakluyt deserves to be ranked among the founding fathers of English speaking North America.
My encounter with the Principal Navigations sparked a strange ambition. I decided to write a series of historical novels, each based on a story in the chronicle. I would not only write them in modern form, I would include the things Hakluyt missed out, such as the love life of his protagonists (and in general write in the women in his all-male epic) and anything that did not reflect well on the English. Obviously there was no record of any of this, so there was great scope for my imagination. My dream was to write my way out of pension scheme policies into a more colourful life.
This never happened. Fortune had an even more unlikely turn in store (see https://busywords.wordpress.com/about/). However, by then I had chosen my first two stories.
The first was about a voyage which left England in the year Hakluyt was born. The promoter was Sir Henry Sydney, father of the poet Philip Sydney who shared rooms with Hakluyt in Oxford. In 1553 a group of London merchants decided to open a new trade route to China by sending three ships on the direct course to Asia across the North Pole. This improbable enterprise is known to history as the Willoughby-Chancellor expedition. Willoughby died an unlikely death in the Arctic (the official story is certainly a cover-up) and Chancellor lost his way and ended up in Moscow at the court of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, where he declared himself England’s first ambassador to Russia. He was murdered on a Scottish beach on his way home.
I called this bizarre tale The Frozen Dream and told it from three alternating viewpoints, two male and one female – in effect a love triangle.
My second story is told from a single first person viewpoint. In 1568 a 13-year old English boy, Miles Philips, went to sea in John Hawkins’ last slaving voyage smuggling slaves from Africa to the Spanish colonies in the West Indies. The voyage was a disaster and Miles and many others were marooned on the Mexican coast. He was caught by the Spaniards, condemned by the Inquisition, escaped and after many adventures reached England 17 years later – in my version with a wife and two children who masterminded his final escape. I called this Freedom’s Pilgrim and sub-titled it A Tudor Odyssey.
The two stories began to bring some modest rewards even before I reached chapter two. The first chapter of The Frozen Dream was a runner up in the WH Smith ‘Raw Talent’ competition in 2001. This earned me a trophy, £500 in book tokens, two bottles of champagne and a night in the hotel opposite the Tower of London. There I visited the dungeon where my fictional hero had been imprisoned and found his name scratched on a column along with those of his fellow prisoners, carefully preserved under a sheet of perspex. The Prologue later won second prize in a competition run by The Mail on Sunday, which earned £300 in tokens and another trip to London. The first chapter of Freedom’s Pilgrim did its bit with first prize (£100) in a Cambridge writers competition.
Then more important things took over my life and my personal Project Hakluyt was put on hold. Now I no longer need to earn my living and I have had adventures enough to have pleased Hakluyt himself. Nevertheless I decided to finish the two books and publish them. Freedom’s Pilgrim was published on Amazon as an e-book in July. A print version may follow and the Frozen Dream will appear in due course. A newspaper reporter asked me if I would be writing any more books. Who knows? If I can share my enjoyment of of England’s Homer with my readers I am content.