The Colonial No One Remembers

USC College historian Peter Mancall traces the tale of an enigmatic 16th-century advocate for English expansion.
By Orli Belman
“People make history happen, and Richard Hakluyt was one of those people,” said Mancall, director of the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute.

Photo/Irene Fertik
Richard Hakluyt may be the most important figure responsible for the English colonization of North America that you’ve never heard of.

Though this contemporary of Shakespeare published even more writings than the Bard himself, the 16th-century travel writer closely guarded details of his own life. Key facts, including the date of his birth and exact site of his grave, remain unknown.

“We don’t know what he looked like. We don’t know where he lived,” said Peter C. Mancall, author of Hakluyt’s Promise: An Elizabethan’s Obsession for an English America (Yale University Press, 2007).

Four hundred years after the founding of Jamestown, Mancall answers many outstanding questions and offers fresh insights about who Hakluyt (pronounced Haklet) was, what shaped his views and how he established himself as the foremost proponent of English expansion, though he himself never ventured farther than Paris.

“People make history happen, and Richard Hakluyt was one of those people,” said Mancall, professor of history at USC College and director of the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute.

At its core, Mancall said the book is a story of one man’s power to determine the course of a nation. He described how Hakluyt, who was fluent in six languages, became an adviser to the queen and a trusted source on the outside world to the general public.

“He was the early modern equivalent of a scientist,” Mancall said. “He was almost single-minded in his passion for advancing knowledge and information.”

With Hakluyt’s influence over policy makers, his insistence that the English settle foreign lands and his inherent faith that the New World could be a Protestant Holy Land, Mancall credited him with laying the groundwork for the rise of the British Empire.

Mancall, whose previous books include Deadly Medicine: Indians and Alcohol in Early America, pays tribute to Hakluyt’s travel writing legacy by taking readers on a vivid tour of the colonial’s world, weaving together details of his life and times.

The book recreates the sights and smells of Elizabethan England, from the odors of decaying carcasses hanging over the Thames to the flickering lights emitted from candles used for illuminating dark London days. It also includes maps and illustrations that have never been published before.

Mancall was motivated to write this biography after coming across Hakluyt’s writings while researching his 1995 book Envisioning America: English Plans for the Colonization of North America.

“The English had a desire to spread Christianity, a desire to extract resources and a desire to have more land,” Mancall said. “But big forces need someone to tie them together and Richard Hakluyt was that person. He turned ideas into actions that shaped our world as we know it.”