At my institution, all history majors take “World History II” as part of a two-class one-hundred level sequence. My colleague teaches Ancient & Medieval World History in the Fall, and then I offer Modern World History in the Spring. (Most students take these courses as freshman but there is usually a smattering of older students who transferred into the college and/or the major.) Because these classes are foundational courses, one of the goals of the class is to help students build skills in reading, analyzing, and critiquing different types of texts used by historians, including primary sources. The writings Richard Hakluyt collected, edited, and compiled into works like Principal Navigations (1587) give students a unique lens into the motivations and lived experiences of the European sailors, merchants, and armchair explorers who took part in “the Age of Exploration” as well as valuable experience working with early-modern historical texts. Additionally, the range of authors and materials in Hakluyt’s work offers a variety of European perspectives for students and a chance to compare not just these experiences but also the types and purposes of these different primary sources.
For the following examples, students read the accounts as homework and then we spent the 50-minute class period discussing these texts both in small groups and as a class. The assigned texts were partly chosen for their geographical diversity.
Text #1: “Ordinances for the Direction of the Intended Voyage for Cathay, compiled and delivered by the Right Worshipful Sebastian Cabot Esquire, governor of the mystery and company of the Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominion Islands, and Places Unknown” (1553)
These rules allow students to think about the ideals, challenges, and underlying goals of English voyages. This lively text lists the expectations for the crew and the officers, gives clues about the daily lives of sailors, and makes explicit the moral expectations handed down from their Company’s governor. For instance, Cabot is emphatic that ship gambling leads to “strife, variance, brawling, fighting, and oftentimes murder.” These ordinances cover both the voyages themselves and what to do once you begin trading. For example, according to these ordinances, you are not to use physical or sexual violence to gain any trade advantage but getting interlocutors drunk is highly recommended. In my class, students especially want to discuss these trading encounters and what Cabot’s ordinances explained about global trade and power during this period. As far as primary source training, this text is an excellent tool for talking about the differences between prescriptive and descriptive primary sources and how historians use each differently to build arguments and narratives.
Text #2: “The Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana, with a relation of the great and golden city of Manoa (which the Spanish call El Dorado) (1595) by Sir Walter Raleigh
This text introduces students to Walter Raleigh, a man most of my students have never heard of, and his quest to redeem his reputation and regain political power through the gold of El Dorado. This text is dramatic, fanciful, and explicit about why Raleigh thought Guiana needed to be brought under England’s orbit. According to Raleigh, Guiana “cannot be equaled by any region either in the east or the west.” Raleigh lists the commodities available for trade, speculates about the quantity of gold available for plunder, and extols Guiana’s convenience for English exploitation. Not only does he emphasize the ease of conquest, but Raleigh also promises that “whatsoever prince shall possess it, shall be the greatest.” Therefore, throughout the text, Raleigh instructs students in the power of European wishful thinking, intra-European competition over the so-called New World, and the desperation of European explorers. My students especially wanted to discuss Raleigh’s instructions for taking Guiana, his hatred for the Spanish, and the different ways he described Amerindians. Additionally, the drama of Raleigh’s exploration and the high cost of his failure to prove El Dorado is captivating and a useful text for discussing writing motivations and intended audiences.
Text #3: “Certain directions given by Mr. Richard Hakluyt of the Middle Temple, to Mr. Morgan Hubblethorne, sent into Persia 1579”
While Hakluyt devoted his life to publicizing and encouraging overseas exploration and trade, Hakluyt himself never ventured farther than Paris. Instead, his contact with the outside world was through reading, collecting, and corresponding. Hakluyt also interacted with the outside world through the work and example of his uncle, Mr. Richard Hakluyt, who also never travelled around the globe but still wrote letters of instructions to travelers. In this text, Hakluyt the lawyer provides a glimpse into the patriotism and economic motivations behind English voyages. For him, there is no better producer of wool and cloth in the world than England. According to Hakluyt the lawyer, England has an exemplary precious product but it needs Persia’s knowledge of dyeing to bring “honor to the realm,” to boost cloth sales, and to provide employment for England’s poor. Hakluyt the lawyer is explicit that it is only through travel that England will gain valuable knowledge— “It behooves you to care to return home with more knowledge than you carried out.” His letter to Hubblethorne is peppered with instructions to learn things like how Persians dye carpets that are impervious to vinegar stains or to collect the seeds of anil to cultivate the useful plant in England. He even instructs Hubblethorne to make careful notes “lest God should call you to his mercy.” This text gives students a glimpse of the ways Europeans carried knowledge alongside goods back to their countries as well as how a patriotic Englishman like Hakluyt the lawyer could maintain a fullhearted belief in English products (and Englishness) but insist that Englishmen needed to go abroad to learn trade secrets to help England and English products dominate.
These three texts give students a richer and more nuanced understanding of European trade, exploration, and the lived experience of those who participated in the “Age of Exploration.” Even so, these texts are limited for a Modern World History class since they only give a Eurocentric perspective. Nevertheless, Hakluyt and his compilation of texts are wonderful teaching tools when contextualized by lectures and class activities that go beyond centering the European perspective on a global and profoundly multi-faceted phenomenon.
Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation, ed. Jack Beeching (New York: Penguin Books, 1972), 56.
Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, 57.
Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, 408.
Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, 410.
Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, 206.
Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, 206.
Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, 207.