Sunday, 28 February 2016

THE IMPULSE THAT CREATED THE MODERN WORLD

Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation
by Richard Hakluyt
448 pages
Buy at Amazon.com

Reviewed by Colin Liddell

History is best not written by historians. In particular, I mean the present-day academic types who always have some politically correct axe to grind, or new theory purposely designed to shock and distort for the sole purpose of making a name for themselves.

To really enjoy history, it is better to sidestep this self-aggrandizement of the historian and go straight to the source, reading genuine narratives written by those closest to the events and the period described. This is why I highly recommend this book which covers the period of Elizabethan exploration, trade, and piracy.

In terms of its effects on our modern World, this great impulse to cross oceans, to trade, fight, and colonize was of vital importance. Without the daring and ambition of a few hundred gentlemen and merchants, and the toughness of the 'sea dogs' they employed, there would have been no British Empire and no United States, as we now know it.

During his life, Richard Hakluyt compiled an enormous collection of documents and narratives relating to this great outward impulse. This Penguin Classics volume represents a selection of only about one tenth of the original work. Besides ocean voyages, Hakluyt also documented overland explorations, particularly the attempts by the Muscovy Company to establish trade routes from the Arctic Sea ports to Persia and Central Asia

The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson
According to the book’s notes, Hakluyt compiled this collection of narratives by seamen and traders to encourage further voyages of discovery and trade with distant lands. However, if this is the case, this must be the worst propaganda ever. Most of the accounts reveal such suffering and danger that reading this book would dampen the enthusiasm of even the most adventurous person today. We are given terrible tales of shipwreck, cannibalism, starvation, scurvy, disease, betrayal, slavery, torture, fatigue, exposure, freezing, and simple butchery. With all these being highly probably occurrences, it seems miraculous that men could be found to fill the ships. Yet filled they were!

The more upbeat tales usually involve successful pirating expeditions, such as Drake's incredibly successful foray around the World from 1577 to 1580, which broke in upon Spain's monopoly of plunder from the New World. The proceeds of this voyage effectively set Britain up as a capitalist power.

Whereas most of the expeditions had realistic objectives, that is, to discover feasible routes to known places, there are occasionally misdirected attempts to discover El Dorados, most notably Sir Walter Raleigh's exploration of Guiana, where he continuously talks about glittering rocks and shiny ores, and undiscovered cities stacked with gold greater than that of the Incas and Aztecs.

The unaffected way the voyagers and merchants describe the peoples and cultures they encounter is a real pleasure, and often very funny. I particularly enjoyed Sir Walter Raleigh's chaste lechery towards the native women of Guiana:
"I protest before the majesty of the living God, that I neither know nor believe, that any of our company, by violence or otherwise, ever knew any of their women, and yet we saw many hundreds, and had many in our power, and of those very young, and excellently favoured, which came among us without deceit, stark naked."
A very early case of 'No sex, please, we're English'!!!

The book has some drawbacks. The narratives by merchants often smell too much of the counting house, the focus being on the details of trade, therefore the reader shouldn't feel too bad about skipping the occasional page or two. A more serious problem was the complete lack of maps, very surprising in a work of this nature. Also, I think a lot more could have been done with footnotes, as several of the narratives don't tell the full story, and it would be interesting to hear what subsequently happened to some of the men and their ships.


 

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