Hakluyt and Me: Using the Hakluyt Society Publications for my Doctoral Thesis

We are happy to announce the first of our series of guest blogs, this time by Hector Roddan (Cardiff University). In this contribution Hector reviews the usefulness of the Hakluyt Society’s publications for academic study. In a follow up blog, Hector will present some of the findings of his PhD research.

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The publications of the Hakluyt Society are a fantastic resource. I was fortunate enough to make use of their editions of Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations as well as several other works published by the Society whilst researching my doctoral thesis on representations of early modern religion in travel narratives. In this post, I explore some of the opportunities and challenges presented by the Society’s vast archive of published travel works.

Editorial practices have evolved over the hundred-and-fifty years since the Society began publishing travel texts. Although recent volumes come complete with scholarly annotations and footnotes, this is not always the case for older publications. Whilst these earlier works must be treated somewhat differently to modern scholarly editions of primary sources, they also provide some insight into how English perspectives on intercultural encounters have changed.

Older volumes, such as the 1905 facsimile edition of Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations (Extra Series, 1-12), remain valuable. I found it particularly useful in locating travel works relating to Russia, a major English trading venture when Hakluyt was writing. Whilst it has been superseded to an extent by more recent digital editions, as a reference tool and an introduction to Hakluyt’s monumental work, it remains essential reading. (Editor’s note: A new 14-volume critical edition of Hakluyt’s “Principal Navigations” is currently being prepared. Find out more here)

Hakluyt himself was not above censoring accounts (like those of Jerome Horsey and Giles Fletcher) which cast doubt on the civility of Russian government. As such, Hakluyt’s own text is not the definitive version of these intercultural encounters. The omissions and elisions of stringent critiques of Muscovite life only come to light when considered in light of other contemporary editions of Horsey and Fletcher’s texts.

Within Anglophone travel texts, the Society’s collections are valuable for identifying dissenting voices that contradict both colonial and post-colonial assumptions about early modern English representations of other cultures. Hakluyt himself catalogued contemporary knowledge of other societies in order to promote an Elizabethan maritime empire. Yet this ‘empire nowhere’ (to borrow Jeffrey Knapp’s phrase) did not lead in a straight line to the formal empires and imperialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Even amongst missionary communities in the early nineteenth century, the nature and scope of European authority was still being worked out. John Davies’ religious ethnography (Second Series, 116) betrays some of the conflicts between metropolitan assumptions about Tahitian idolatry and his own experiences at the sharp-end of nearly-failed religious colonialism.

The Society’s publications (and my own research) has focused chiefly on European travel narratives. From the mid-twentieth century, the Society has begun publishing travel works from non-Western sources (i.e. 2nd series, 110, 117, 141, 146, 172; 3rd series 19, 25, 26-27 (see image)). These fresh perspectives on the experience of travel provide a valuable counter-perspective to dominant European narrative of colonial expansion.

Through the Society’s publications, I have been able to access a variety of rare and sometimes obscure travel works. These sources provide a variety of perspectives on cross-cultural encounters of various kinds. Furthermore, the Society’s volumes are presented in an accessible way that makes them appealing both to academics and casual readers alike.

Hector Roddan is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University, supervised by Dr. Garthine Walker. He has recently completed his AHRC-funded doctoral project entitled ‘Defining Differences: The Religious Dimension of Early Modern Travel Narratives, c. 1550-c. 1800’. His research interests include travel writing and religious identities in the long early modern period.

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