by Richard Hakluyt March 19th, 2023
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The English voyages begin with the adventures by the Britons northward in the sixth century for conquest. So Hakluyt places in the forefront of the Principal Navigations legendary accounts of the travels of British and Saxon kings. First are reproduced from ancient chronicles records of “the noble actes of Arthur and Malgo,” in the years 517 and 580, respectively, Arthur, after having “subdued all parts of Ireland,” sailing to “Island” (Iceland) and “the most northeast parts of Europe”; and Malgo into the North seas, recovering to his empire the “six islands of the Ocean sea, which before had been made tributaries by King Arthur, namely, Ireland, Island, Gotland, Orkney, Norway, and Denmark.”
featured image - THE EARLY VOYAGES
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The Boy's Hakluyt: English Voyages of Adventure and Discovery by Richard Hakluyt is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. THE EARLY VOYAGES


The English voyages begin with the adventures by the Britons northward in the sixth century for conquest. So Hakluyt places in the forefront of the Principal Navigations legendary accounts of the travels of British and Saxon kings. First are reproduced from ancient chronicles records of “the noble actes of Arthur and Malgo,” in the years 517 and 580, respectively, Arthur, after having “subdued all parts of Ireland,” sailing to “Island” (Iceland) and “the most northeast parts of Europe”; and Malgo into the North seas, recovering to his empire the “six islands of the Ocean sea, which before had been made tributaries by King Arthur, namely, Ireland, Island, Gotland, Orkney, Norway, and Denmark.”

Next follow fragmentary narratives of seventh-century voyages. Two “testimonies” are given of the exploits of the Saxon king, Edwin, with his conquest of the Isles of Man and Anglesey and the other northwestern islands of the Britons lying between Britain and Ireland, in the year 624. The second of these “testimonies” related how Edwin also subdued to the crown of England the Hebrides, “commonly called the Western Islands.” Then is reproduced the story of the voyage of Bertus, “general of an army sent into Ireland by Ecfridus [Ecgfrith] king of Northumberland” in the year 684. This warrior, the chronicler relates, “miserably wasted that innocent nation being always most friendly unto the people of England,” sparing neither churches nor monasteries, while the Islanders “repelled arms with arms and craving God’s aid from heaven with continual imprecations and curses they pleaded for revenge.”

The first recorded English voyage having discovery with expansion of trade for its object was that of one Octher to the northward, at the close of the ninth century, about the year 890. Octher was a prosperous whale-hunter, of Heligoland in the North Sea. The special purpose of his venture was to “increase the knowledge” of the northern coasts and countries “for the more commodity of fishing of horse-whales which have in their teeth bones of great price and excellence.” He found what he sought, and brought home some specimens of big whalebones, which he presented to the English king. The skins of the horse-whales he reported were “very good to make cables for ships, and so used” by the hardy dwellers on these coasts. A few years earlier Sighelmus, Bishop of Sheburne, as messenger of King “Alphred” (Ælfrid), bearing alms and gifts to the king of Rome, had penetrated into India, and returned to England with costly spices and divers strange and precious stones, many of which stones long after remained in the monuments of the church. Following Octher one Wolstan made a navigation into the sound of Denmark, of which brief account is given.

With these narrations of voyages for conquest and trade are interwoven tales of pilgrimages to the Holy Land, “for devotion’s sake,” and imagined relief from the penalties of sin, forerunners of the Crusades of succeeding centuries. Earliest of all chronicled is the legend of the “Travaile of Helena,” in the fourth century, before 337. She was Helena Flavia Augusta, afterward the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine “the Great,” emperor and king of Britain. She became a Christian when Constantine was converted. By reason of her “singular beauty, faith, religion, goodness, and godly majesty,” she was “famous in all the world.” She was “skilful in divinity,” and wrote and composed “divers books and certain Greek verses.” She made the perilous journey to Jerusalem toward the close of a long life, being “warned by some visions,” and piously visited “all the places that Christ had frequented.” She is said to have discovered “the holy sepulchre and the true cross.” Then follows a note on Constantine’s travels to Greece, Egypt, and Persia, in about 339. He “overthrew the false gods of the heathen, and by many laws, often revived, he abrogated the worshipping of images in all the countries of Greece, Egypt, Persia, Asia, and the whole Roman empire, commanding Christ only to be worshipped.”

In the tenth century English ships began to be found in far distant seas. Fragments are recorded concerning the beginnings and growth of the “classical and warlike” shipping of England in that period. We have the spectacle of the grand navy of the Saxon Eadgar, “the Peaceful,” who succeeded to the whole realm in 959, comprising “four thousand sail at the least.” With this fleet it was his annual pastime to make “summer progresses” round almost the whole of his then large monarchy, thus demonstrating “to the world” that “as he wisely knew the ancient bounds and limits of the British empire” so he “could and would royally, justly, and triumphantly enjoy the same spite the devil and maugre the force of any foreign potentate.” By the twelfth century London, as described in extracts from a foreign writer, had become a “noble Citie,” frequented with the “traffique of Marchants resorting thither out of all nations,” and having “outlandish wares ... conveighed” into it from the “famous river of the Thames.” At the same time, and by the same writer, the “famous Towne of Bristow” (Bristol) is represented “with an Haven belonging thereunto which is a commodious and safe receptacle for all ships directing their course for the same from Ireland, Norway, and other outlandish and foren [foreign] countreys.”

To this century, in 1170, is credited the “most ancient” discovery of the West Indies by Madoc, the Welshman, and his subsequent attempt at colonization on one of the islands. Hakluyt takes the tale “out of the history of Wales lately published by M[aster] David Powel, Doctor of Divinity.” Madoc was a son of Owen Guyneth, prince of North Wales. Upon Guyneth’s death his sons “fell at debate who should inherit after him.” The eldest, Edward, or Jorweth Drwydion, was counted “unmeet to govern because of the maim on his face,” and Howell took up the rule. But Howell was born out of matrimony. So the second legitimate son, David, rose against him, and “fighting with him slew him.” Thereafter David enjoyed quietly the whole land of North Wales till Edward’s son came of age. Meanwhile Madoc had left the land in contention betwixt his brothers, and had sought adventures by sea. At this point the story of discovery begins. Having prepared “certain ships with men and munitions” he sailed westward; and leaving the coast of Ireland far north he at length came “unto a land unknown, where he saw many strange things.” This land, the Welsh historian declared, “must needs be some part of that country of which the Spaniards affirm themselves to be the first finders since Hanno’s time; whereupon it is manifest that that country was by Britaines [Britons] discovered long before Columbus led any Spaniards thither.” The historian admitted that “there be many fables” regarding Madoc’s discovery, but, notwithstanding, the fact remained; “sure it is there he was.” Next follows the entertaining legend of Madoc’s attempted settlement:

“And after he had returned home and declared the pleasant and fruitfull countreys that he had seene without inhabitants, and, upon the contrary part, for what barren & wild ground his brethren and nephewes did murther one another, he prepared a number of ships, and got him such men and women as were desirous to live in quietnesse: and taking leave of his friends, tooke his journey thitherward againe. Therefore it is to be supposed that he and his people inhabited part of those countreys: for it appeareth by Francis Lopez de Gomara, that in Acuzamil and other places the people honoured the crosse. Whereby it may be gathered that Christians had bene there before the comming of the Spanyards. But because this people were not many they followed the maners of the land which they came unto, & used the language they found there. This Madoc arriving in the Westerne country, unto the which he came in the yere 1170, left most of his people there, and returning backe for more of his owne nation, acquaintance & friends to inhabit that faire & large countrey, went thither againe with ten saile, as I find noted by Gutyn Owen.” Hakluyt rounds off this engaging chapter with this swelling verse “of Meredith sonne of Rhesus,” singing Madoc’s praises:

“Madoc I am the sonne of Owen Guynedd
With stature large, and comely grace adorned:
No lands at home nor store of wealth me please,
My minde was whole to search the Ocean seas.”

With the opening of the twelfth century the fiery Crusades from the Christian nations for the rescue of Jerusalem from the infidel were well under way. Preliminary to the pitiful and bloody record, this account of a peaceful voyage, in the year 1064, in which Englishmen had part, with an artless touch of autobiography by the narrator, Ingulphus, afterward abbot of Croiland, is reproduced:

"I, Ingulphus, an humble servant of reverend Guthlac and of his monastery of Croiland, borne in England, and of English parents, at the beautifull citie of London, was in my youth, for the attaining of good letters, placed first at Westminster, and afterward sent to the Universitie of Oxford. And having excelled divers of mine equals in learning of Aristotle, I inured my selfe somewhat unto the first & second Rhethorique of Tullie. And as I grew in age, disdayning my parents meane estate, and forsaking mine owne native soyle, I affected the Courts of kings and princes, and was desirous to be clad in silke, and to weare brave and costly attire. And loe, at the same time William our sovereigne king now, but then Erle of Normandie, with a great troup of followers and attendants, came unto London, to conferre with king Edward, the Confessour, his kinsman. Into whose company intruding my selfe, and proffering my service for the performance of any speedy or weightie affayres, in short time, after I had done many things with good successe, I was knowen and most entirely beloved by the victorious Erie himselfe, and with him I sayled into Normandie. And there being made his secretarie, I governed the Erles Court (albeit with the envie of some) as my selfe pleased, yea, whom I would I abased and preferred whom I thought good.

"When as therefor, being carried with a youthfull heat and lustie humour, I began to be wearie even of this place, wherein I was advanced so high above my parentage, and with an inconstant minde, and an affection too too ambitious, most vehemently aspired at all occasions to climbe higher: there went a report throughout all Normandie, that divers Archbishops of the Empire, and secular princes were desirous for their soules health, and for devotion sake, to goe on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Wherefore out of the family of our lorde the Earle, sundry of us, both gentlemen and clerkes (principall of whom was my selfe) with the licence and good will of our sayd lord the earle, sped us on that voiage, and travailing thirtie horses of us into high Germanie, we joyned our selves unto the Archbishop of Mentz. And being with the companies of the Bishops seven thousand persons sufficiently provided for such an expedition, we passed prosperously through many provinces, and at length attained unto Constantinople. Where doing reverence unto the Emperour Alexius, we sawe the Church of Sancta Sophia, and kissed divers sacred reliques.

"Departing thence through Lycia, we fell into the hands of the Arabian theeves: and after we had bene robbed of infinite summes of money, and had lost many of our people, hardly escaping with extreame danger of our lives, at length wee joyfully entered into the most wished citie of Jerusalem. Where we were received by the most reverend, aged, and holy patriarke Sophronius, with great melodie of cymbals and with torch-light, and were accompanied unto the most divine Church of our Saviour his sepulchre with a solemne procession aswell of Syrians as of Latines. Here, how many prayers we uttered, what abundance of teares we shed, what deepe sighs we breathed foorth, our Lord Jesus Christ onely knoweth. Wherefore being conducted from the most glorious sepulchre of Christ to visite other sacred monuments of the citie, we saw with weeping eyes a great number of holy Churches and oratories, which Achim the Souldan [sultan] of Egypt had lately destroyed. And so having bewailed with sadde teares, and most sorowful and bleeding affections, all the mines of that most holy city both within and without, and having bestowed money for the reedifying of some, we desired with most ardent devotion to go forth into the countrey, to wash our selves in the most sacred river of Jordan, and to kisse all the steppes of Christ. Howbeit the theevish Arabians lurking upon every way, would not suffer us to travell farre from the city by reason of their huge and furious multitudes.

“Wherefor about the spring there arrived at the port of Joppa a fleet of ships from Genoa. In which fleet (when the Christian merchants had exchanged all their wares at the coast townes, and had likewise visited the holy places) wee all of us embarked, committing our selfes to the seas: and being tossed with many stormes and tempests, at length wee arrived at Brundusium: and so with a prosperous journey travelling thorow Apulia towards Rome, we there visited the habitations of the holy apostles Peter and Paul, and did reverence unto divers monuments of holy martyrs in all places thorowout the citie. From thence the archbishops and other princes of the empire travelling towards the right hand for Alemain, and we declining towards the left hand for France, departed asunder, taking our leaves with unspeakable thankes and courtesies. And so at length, of thirty horsemen which went out of Normandie, fat, lustie, and frolique, we returned thither skarse twenty poore pilgrims of us, being all footmen, and consumed with leannesse to the bare bones.”

The story of the voyages of Englishmen in the twelfth-century Crusades, recorded in chronological order, opens with the chivalrous adventure of Edgar, grandson of Edmund, surnamed “Ironsides,” accompanied by “valiant Robert the son of Godwin,” in the year 1102, when, immediately upon their arrival out, signal aid was rendered by them to Baldwin, the second Latin king of Jerusalem, whom they found hard pressed by the Turks at Rama. The “valiant Robert” sprang to the forefront, and going before the king with his drawn sword, he cut a lane through the enemy’s camp, “slaying the Turks on his right hand and his left.” So Baldwin escaped. But the knight fared ill. “Upon this happy success, being more eager and fierce, as he went forward too hastily, his sword fell out of his hand. Which as he stooped to take up, being oppressed by the whole multitude, he was there taken and bound.” His fate was tragic. “From thence (as some say) being carried into Babylon, or Alcair, in Egypt, when he would not renounce Christ, he was tied unto a stake in the midst of the market-place, and being shot through with arrows, died a martyr.” Edgar having lost his beloved knight, retired from crusading, and returned to England honoured with “many rewards both by the Greekish and the German Emperor.”

Five years later, in 1107, a “very great warlike fleet of the Catholic nation of England to the number of about seven thousand,” together with “more men of war of the kingdom of Denmark, of Flanders, and of Antwerp,” set sail in ships then called “busses”—small vessels carrying two masts, and with two cabins, one at each end—for the Holy Land. This body of warring zealots reached Joppa after a prosperous voyage, and thence, under a strong guard provided them by King Baldwin, passed to Jerusalem safely from all assaults and ambushes of the Gentiles. When they had solemnly offered up their vows in the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre, they returned with great joy to Joppa, and were ready to fight for Baldwin in any venture he might propose against the enemy. Plans were formed to besiege a stronghold. But the move ended with an effective demonstration of the fleet in brave array, displaying “pendants and streams of purple and diverse other glorious colours, and flags of scarlet colour and silk.”

Near the end of this century, in 1190, came the “worthy voyage of Richard the first, king of England, into Asia for the recovery of Jerusalem out of the hands of the Saracens,” with which began the Third Crusade of the nine of history. This was that Richard, of restless zeal, surnamed “Ceur de Lion,” Henry the second’s son. After Henry’s death Richard, “remembering the rebellions that he had undutifully raised” against his father, “sought for absolution of his trespass.” And “in part of satisfaction for the same,” he agreed to make this crusade with Philip, the French king. Accordingly so soon as he was crowned he began his preparations. The first business was to raise a comfortable sum of money for the expedition. It was promptly accomplished by exacting “a tenth of the whole Realm, the Christians to make threescore and ten thousand pounds, and the Jews which then dwelt in the Realm threescore thousand.” At length his fleet was afloat, and he was off to join Philip of France. This Crusade occupied the first four years of Richard’s reign, and during it he made the conquest of Cyprus, won a great victory at Jaffa, marched on Jerusalem, concluded a truce with the sultan, Saladin, and slaughtered three thousand hostages when Saladin failed to come to time with an agreed-upon payment of two hundred thousand pieces of gold. The butchery of the hostages was performed on the summit of a hill that the tragedy might be in full view of Saladin’s camp. On his homeward journey he was shipwrecked, and he was long imprisoned in Germany. Hakluyt’s version of this Crusade is a detailed account “drawn out of the Book of Actes and Monuments of the Church of England written by M. John Foxe,” more popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Richard’s code of laws and ordinances for the government of his crusading fleet, well illustrates at once the rigour of the discipline 48and the character of the British sailor of that day. It also discloses the antiquity of the method of punishment by tar-and-feathering:

"1. That who so killed any person on shipboord should be tied with him that was slaine and throwen into the sea.

"2. And if he killed him on the land, he should in like maner be tied with the partie slaine, and be buried with him in the earth.

"3. He that shalbe convicted by lawfull witnes to draw out his knife or weapon to the intent to strike any man, or that hath striken any to the drawing of blood shall loose his hand.

"4. Also he that striketh any person with his hand without effusion of blood, shall be plunged three times in the sea.

"5. Item, who so speaketh any opprobrious or contumelious wordes in reviling or cursing one another, for so oftentimes as he hath reviled shall pay so many ounces of silver.

“6. Item, a thiefe or felon that hath stollen being lawfully convicted, shal have his head shorne and boyling pitch powred upon his head, and feathers or downe strawed upon the same, whereby he may be knowen, and so at the first landing place they shall come to, there to be cast up.”

In the Crusades of the thirteenth century we have notes on the expeditions of the “Knights of Jerusalem” against the Saracens: in brief recitals of the voyages of Ranulph, earl of Chester, sent out by Henry the third in 1218, with “Saer de Quincy, earl of Winchester, William de Albanie, earl of Arundel, besides divers barons,” and “a goodly company of soldiers and men at arms”; and of Richard, earl of Cornwall, Henry the third’s brother (and afterward king of the Romans), accompanied by William Longespee, earl of “Sarisburie” (Salisbury) and other nobles “for their valiancy greatly renowned,” and “a great number of Christian soldiers,” in 1240, beginning the Seventh Crusade. In 1248 Longespee—or Longsword, as his fellow-knights called him for his prowess—made a second voyage and lost his life in a battle with the Saracens. Finally, in 1270, Henry the third’s son, Prince Edward, and other young nobles, having “taken upon them the cross,” at the hand of the Pope’s legate then in England, “to the relief of the Holy Land and the subversion of the enemies of Christ,” sailed out with a gallant war fleet. They landed at Acre, and thence the prince, with an army of six or seven thousand soldiers, marched upon Nazareth. This he took, and “those that he found there he slew.” Other victories followed with much slaughter of Saracens. At length the triumphant prince fell ill at Acre, and during his sickness a plot was concocted by the emir of Joppa to remove him by assassination. This failed, the prince thwarting the scheme by himself killing the emir’s messenger just as the treacherous dagger was to be thrust into his bosom. Shortly after he concluded a peace for ten years and returned to England, to be crowned king upon his father’s death.

Edward’s was the last exploit of Englishmen in the Crusades, and it closed the last one. Attempts were made at subsequent periods to revive the flame, but these resulted only in flares of short duration. A shining one for a moment was kindled by King Henry the fourth in 1413. It flashed out with his sudden death at Westminster while the ships and galleys for the proposed voyage were building.


At this time the competition for trade advantages in the east and northeast were becoming of larger import to England. A half-century earlier, in 1360, in Edward the third’s reign, a Franciscan friar, mathematician, and astronomer, Nicholas de Linna, of Oxford, had made a voyage into the north parts, “all the regions situated under the North-pole,” had taken valuable observations, and had reported his discoveries to Edward with a description of the northern islands. In 1390 Henry, earl of Derby, afterward King Henry the fourth, made a voyage into Prussia; and the next year the duke of Gloucester, Edward the third’s youngest son, also penetrated Prussia. As early as 1344 the island of Madeira had been discovered by an Englishman, and sometime occupied. The latter, however, was not a commercial discovery, but a romantic one, and England at the time, and for long after, was not aware of it. Hakluyt takes the story from a Portuguese history. It was regarded by most later historians as apocryphal, but its genuineness has been finally demonstrated through the historical researches of the English geographer, R. H. Major. It runs in this wise. The discoverer was one Robert Macham, when fleeing from England to France with his stolen bride, Anna d’Arfet. His ship was tempest-tossed out of its course and cast toward this island. He anchored in a haven (which years afterward was named Macham in memory of him) and landed on the island with his lady and the ship’s company. Soon with a fair wind the ship and part of the company “made sail away.” After a while the young woman died “from thought,” perhaps homesickness; and Macham built a tomb for her upon which he inscribed their names, and “the occasion of their arrival there.” Then he ordered a boat made of a single great tree, and when it was done, he put to sea with his few companions that were left. At length they came upon the coast of Afrike (Africa) without sail or oar. “And the Moors which saw it took it to be a marvellous thing and presented him unto the king of that country for a wonder, and that king also sent him and his companions for a miracle unto the king of Spain.”

With the opening of the fifteenth century, Portugal was pressing forward for a share with the maritime states of Italy, Genoa, and Venice in the rich eastern traffic. In 1410 Prince Henry, “the Navigator,” had begun his systematic explorations. A younger son of the Portuguese king John the first, and a grandson of Edward the third of England, born at the close of the fourteenth century (in 1394), after gaining renown as a soldier, he turned to loftier aims and became one of the first astronomers, mathematicians, cartographers, and directors of maritime discoveries in his time. He was the first to conceive the idea of cutting a way out through the unexplored ocean. His superb genius gave the inspiration to marvellous results in the discovery of more than half the globe within the cycle of a century. At the age of twenty-four the hope was born in him of reaching India by the south point of Africa, and thereafter to this end his speculations and studies were ardently directed. The earliest expeditions sent out by him failed of results, and his theories were ridiculed by his fellow-nobles. At length, however, in 1419 and 1420, the Madeira Islands, Porto Santo and Madeira, were rediscovered by his navigators. A little more than a decade later, in 1433, they had rounded Cape Bojador. In 1435 the prince’s cup-bearer had passed beyond that cape. In 1443 another of his navigators had sailed beyond Cape Blanco. The next year Pope Martin the fifth, by a Papal Bull, declared Portugal in possession of all the lands her mariners had visited as far as the Indies. In 1445 the mouth of the Senegal and afterward Cape Verde were reached. Prince Henry died in 1460, but the work he had begun continued, after a temporary check, to be carried forward. In 1469 Portuguese trade was opened with the Gold Coast. In 1484 the mouth of the Congo was discovered. In 1486 Bartholomew Dias doubled the Cape of Good Hope.

Meanwhile these wondrous advances of Portugal were stimulating other maritime nations to the quest for new passages to India.


Portugal now had practically a monopoly of the traffic with the Orient, and the finding of new paths to India by her maritime rivals was essential in the struggle for commercial supremacy. A passage by way of “Cathay” had the most powerful attractions.

“Great Cathay,” the marvellous empire of the remote East, whence travellers had brought wonderful tales in the latter Middle Ages, had become the ultimate goal of adventurous voyages. The hazy region was the “extremity of the habitable world” of the ancients. Early Christian fancy had identified within it the Earthly Paradise, the seat of the old “Garden of Eden,” beyond the Ocean stream, “raised so high on a triple terrace of mountain that the deluge did not touch it.” Under the name of Cathay the strange empire had been opened to the speculation of mediæval Europe in the thirteenth century, with the vast conquest of the Mongol Genghis Khan, reckoned in history one of the greatest conquerors the world has ever seen.

Two Franciscan friars—John de Plano Carpini and William of Rubruk (Rubruquis) in French Flanders, who reached the court in Mongolia, the former in 1245 or 1246, the latter in 1247 or 1253—appear to have been the first Europeans to approach its borders. They saw the Cathayans in the bazaars of their Great Khan’s camps, and brought back to Europe the first accounts of the people and of the wonderful things seen, presented in their journals of their adventures. Both of these “rare jewels,” as he appreciatively terms them, Hakluyt found at London in manuscripts while delving in Lord Lumley’s library, and he printed them in full in the second edition of the Principal Navigations. After the friars two Venetians penetrated the empire, the first European travellers to visit Cathay itself. These were the brothers Nicolo and Maffei Polo, members of a noble trading family of Venice. They were there for a short time in or about the year 1269. Soon afterward they made a second visit, when Marco, the son of Nicolo, then a youth of seventeen, quick-witted, open-eyed, and observant, accompanied them. This visit extended through more than twenty years, the three Venetians basking in the sunshine of the Great Khan’s favour. The elders helped the Khan with suggestions for the profitable application of the knowledge of the West which they opened to him, while Marco’s cleverness was variously employed in his service; sometimes as a commissioner attached to the Imperial council, at others on distant missions, and at one period a governor of a great city. Marco’s recollections, given to the world long after the final 55return of the Polos to Venice, first made the name of Cathay familiar to Europe. These recollections were taken down from his lips by one Rusticiano of Pisa, a clever literary hack, who was shut up in prison with him for a year (the two having been among the captives taken by the Genoese in a sea-fight with the Venetians in 1298), and formed the basis of the book of marvellous adventures, subsequently published in various languages and varying texts, which came to be famous as the Voyages and Travels of Marco Polo. From this Hakluyt also gives copious extracts.

Commercial intercourse of adventuresome European traders began with the region in the early fourteenth century, and continued fairly to flourish for about fifty years. Then, with changes in dynasties and tribal wars, the ways of approach were closed and it fell again into darkness. It was long supposed to be a separate country, distinct from the Indies, lying to the north of what we now know as China, and stretching to the Arctic sea. It was not until 1603 (after the publication of the final volume of the Principal Navigations) that it was found to be identical with the then vaguely known empire of China, of which similar marvels had for some time been recited. Its identity was the discovery by a lay Jesuit, Benedict Goës, sent out through Central Asia by his superiors in India for the specific object of determining whether Cathay and China were or were not separate empires. Goës died upon the completion of his mission, at Suhchow, the frontier city of China.

Cathay was the aim of Columbus. He was possessed by the conviction that the fabled riches of this wondrous region lay directly across the trackless Atlantic “over against” the coast of Spain. Believing the world to be a sphere, he conceived his design of reaching Asia by sailing west. This was the project that he carried for weary years from court to court, seeking the patronage of a favouring prince.

But for a mischance England, instead of Spain, would have had the glory and the advantage of his first discovery of 1492. Hakluyt recalls the circumstances in these two “testimonies”:


"The offer of the discovery of the West Indies by Christopher Columbus to king Henry the seventh in the yeere 1488 the 13 of February: with the kings acceptation of the offer, & the cause whereupon he was deprived of the same: recorded in the thirteenth chapter of the history of Don Fernand Columbus of the life and deeds of his father Christopher Columbus.

"Christopher Columbus fearing least if the king of Castile in like maner (as the king of Portugall had done) should not condescend unto his enterprise, he should be enforced to offer the same againe to some other prince, & so much time should be spent therein, sent into England a certaine brother of his which he had with him, whose name was Bartholomew Columbus, who albeit he had not the Latine tongue, yet neverthelesse was a man of experience and skilfull in Sea causes, and could very wel make sea cards & globes and other instruments belonging to that profession, as he was instructed by his brother. Wherefore after that Bartholomew Columbus was departed for England his lucke was to fall into the hands of pirats, which spoiled him with the rest of them which were in the ship which he went in. Upon which occasion, and by reason of his poverty and sicknesse which cruelly assaulted him in a countrey so farre distant from his friends, he deferred his ambassage for a long while, untill such time as he had gotten somewhat handsome about him with making of Sea cards. At length he began to deale with king Henry the seventh the father of Henry the eight which reigneth at this present: unto whom he presented a mappe of the world, wherein these verses were written, which I found among his papers: and I will here set them downe rather for their antiquity than for their goodnesse:

"‘Thou which desirest easily the coasts of lands to know,
This comely mappe right learnedly the same to thee will shew:
Which Strabo, Plinie, Ptolomew and Isodore maintaine:
Yet for all that they do not all in one accord remaine.
Here also to set downe the late discovered burning Zone
By Portingals unto the world which whilon was unknowen,
Whereof the knowledge now at length thorow all the world is blowen.’

"And a little under he added:

"‘For the Authour or the Drawer.
"‘He, whose deare native soile bright stately Genua,
Even he whose name is Bartholomew Colon de Terra Rubra
The year of Grace a thousand and four hundred and four-score
And eight, and on the thirteenth day of February more,

“And because some peradventure may observe that he calleth himselfe Columbus de Terra Rubra, I say, that in like maner I have seene some subscriptions of my father Christopher Columbus, before he had the degree of Admirall, wherein he signed his name thus, Columbus de Terra Rubra. But to returne to the king of England, I say, that after he had seen the map, and that which my father Christopher Columbus offered unto him, he accepted the offer with joyfull countenance, and sent to call him into England. But because God had reserved the sayd offer for Castile, Columbus was gone in the meane space, and also returned with the performance of his enterprise, as hereafter in order shall be rehearsed. Now will I leave off from making any farther mention of that which Bartholomew Colon had negotiated in England, and I will return unto the Admirall, &c.”


"Another testimony taken out of the 60 chapter of the aforesayd history of Ferdinando Columbus, concerning the offer that Bartholemew Columbus made to King Henry the seventh on the behalfe of his brother Christopher.

“Christopher Columbus the Admirall being returned from the discovery of Cuba and Jamayca, found in Hispaniola his brother Bartholomew Columbus, who before had beene sent to intreat of an agreement with the king of England for the discovery of the Indies, as we have sayd before. This Bartholomew therefore returning unto Castile, with the capitulations granted by the king of England to his brother, understood at Paris by Charles the king of France, that the Admirall his brother had already performed that discovery: whereupon the French king gave unto the sayd Bartholemew an hundred French crownes to beare his charges into Spaine. And albeit he made great haste upon this good newes to meet with the Admirall in Spaine, yet at his comming to Sevil his brother was already returned to the Indies with seventeene saile of shipps. Wherefore to fulfill that which he had left him in charge in the beginning of the yeere 1494 he repaired to the Catholike princes, taking with him Diego Colon my brother, and me also, which were to be preferred as Pages to the most excellent Prince Don John, who now is with God, according to the commandment of the Catholike Queene Lady Isabell, which was then in Validolid. As soone therefore as we came to the Court, the princes called for Don Bartholomew, and sent him to Hispaniola with three ships, &c.”

The news of Columbus’ achievement filled all Europe with wonder and admiration. To “sail by the West into the East where spices grow by a way that was never known before” was affirmed “a thing more divine than human.” Offering the promise of a direct route to Cathay, the feat was of tremendous import. There was especially “great-talk of it” in the English court with keen regret that England, through untoward happenings, had failed of the honour and profit of the momentous discovery, and Henry and his counsellors were eager to emulate Spain. Although the full significance of the discovery was not then realized—that the new-found islands were the barriers of a new continent—no underestimate of the value of the region was made by either nation. Ferdinand and Isabella gave it the name of the Indies, considering it, with the discoverer, to be a part of India, and no time was lost in clinching their rights. Nor were “their Catholic highnesses” idle. In May, 1493, Pope Alexander the sixth granted his bull fixing a “line of demarcation” between the Spanish and Portuguese possessions, which was nothing less than a division of the world between Spain and Portugal. This line was run from pole to pole and one hundred degrees west of the Azores, and all newly discovered and to be discovered lands on the east of the line were assigned to the absolute possession of the crown of Portugal, those on the west to the crown of Castile. In 1494 Columbus made his second voyage and discovered, among other islands, Porto Rico and Jamaica.

Meanwhile in the English maritime city of Bristol the Venetian merchant, John Cabot (or Zuan Caboto in the Venetian dialect), then resident there, had perfected his scheme of shortening the way to India by the Northwest Passage, and in 1496, before Columbus’s return from his second voyage, it had been proposed to King Henry, had met his hearty approbation, had been endorsed by his letters patent issued to Cabot and Cabot’s three sons, Lewis, Sebastian, and Santius, and preparations for the venture had begun.

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This book is part of the public domain. Richard Hakluyt (2018). The Boy's Hakluyt: English Voyages of Adventure and Discovery. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022

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