Looking back on Hakluyt@400

The two-day international conference held to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Richard Hakluyt has been an appropriate highlight in a packed Hakluyt Quatercentenary programme  with events in Oxford and Wetheringsett. Thanks are due to the excellent organisation by Claire Jowitt, Daniel Carey and Anthony Payne, as well as to our generous hosts, the Bodleian Library, the Museum for the History of Science, and Christ Church, Oxford. In this blog, Dr Lauren Working, research associate on TIDE (Travel, Transculturality, and Identity in England, 1550-1700), an ERC-funded project led by Hakluyt Society Council member Prof Nandini Das, looks back on  #Hakluyt400.

The geographer and clergyman Richard Hakluyt died in good company: 1616 also marked the death of two internationally-renowned writers, William Shakespeare and the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter and Cervantes’s re-working of chivalric romance have continued to grace school curricula and playhouses around the globe; by comparison, Hakluyt’s impact is less immediately apparent.

The Hakluyt Society, in conjunction with the Bodleian Library Museum for the History of Science and Museum for the History of Science in Oxford, held a two-day conference in November 2016 to examine Hakluyt’s legacy at the four-hundredth anniversary of his death. His two editions of The Principal Navigations, Traffiques, and Voiages of the English Nation (1589, enlarged 1598-1600), have long been considered some of the most important collections of English travel writing ever published, and the conference assembled an international cohort of speakers who presented current research on their work for the forthcoming 14-volume critical edition of The Principal Navigations.


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A number of scholars discussed the particularities of English interactions with indigenous peoples, from Africans in Guinea to the Algonquians in Virginia. Mary Fuller examined the casualties of Anglo-Inuit exchange in the English search for the Northwest Passage, and complicated the “us” vs. “them” mentality of English voyages by highlighting the heterogeneity and factions among ship crews.

Other papers engaged with the continuity between state policy and trade in the late middle ages and early modern period through Hakluyt’s inclusion of a fourteenth-century poem; the importance of naval history and the experience of seamen in effecting expansion; the mercantilist emphasis of Hakluyt’s second edition; and the English desire to exploit global markets, such as Indian cotton. Joyce Chaplin delivered a keynote lecture that argued that English attitudes towards natural resources and climate-based notions of human physiognomy set the groundwork for the enslavement of non-European peoples, to disastrous consequences.

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Prof Nandini Das presenting on the place of India in Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations. Hakluyt and the Renaissance Discovery of the World conference, Oxford.

 

The discussions that emerged from the papers centred around several key aspects of early modern global historiography, suggesting future avenues for research. One is the continuing development of environmental studies and ecocriticism as important approaches in the history of expansion, which was, after all, fundamentally about land and the exploitation of its resources. As Joyce Chaplin put it, pro-imperial authorities and their agents saw a relationship between economies and ecosystems. The Greek oikos and the Latin oeco were terms that denoted households, but also the management of the estates themselves.

Secondly, papers highlighted the need to reconstruct the experience of non-European peoples, especially their capacity to dictate the terms of Anglo-indigenous exchange. Surekha Davies pointed out that instances of the passive voice in Hakluyt might offer hints as to moments when indigenous peoples dominated colonial encounters, at times when Europeans struggled to successfully dictate the terms of the exchange.

Related to attempts to recalibrate approaches to intercultural encounters, other papers emphasised the value of using non-English-language sources to enhance and complicate global historiography. Persian accounts of English diplomatic missions, such as Anthony Jenkinson’s in the 1560s, both offer correctives to the source manipulation of Safavid chronicles while offering new perspectives on English writings about diplomatic encounters in the east.

Finally, presenters stressed the ongoing importance of tracing the intimate networks between patrons, merchants, gentlemen, and travel writers who produced knowledge about, and effected, empire, which was nothing if not a collaborative effort.

The conference concluded with a public lecture by the historian and BBC broadcaster Michael Wood, who used early modern travel narratives from Asia and South America to question the very idea of discovery: who, he asked, really “discovered” whom in any given exchange?

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Michael Wood delivering the public lecture ‘Voyages, Traffiques, Discoveries’

Scholars today are wary of celebrating Hakluyt’s use of geography, given his imperial aims, but Principal Navigations remains a rich source for accessing the lives of individual agents, and for understanding large-scale historical change. To Hakluyt, the English would not thrive from insularity, and could only find themselves by engaging with the rest of the world.


Lauren Working is a historian of sixteenth and seventeenth-century English politics and culture. Her research examines the convergence between expansion and state formation, drawing on textual and archaeological sources to reconstruct the impact of colonization on the social and discursive worlds of Jacobean London. Lauren is a research associate on TIDE (Travel, Transculturality, and Identity in England, 1550-1700),  a five-year, ERC-funded project that aims to investigate how mobility in the age of travel and discovery shaped English perceptions of human identity based on cultural identification and difference. The project is headed by Professor Nandini Das at the University of Liverpool.


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Essay Prize Series part 3: This Year’s Result and Last Year’s Winner

The Hakluyt Society is pleased to announce the award of its 2016 Essay Prize. From a range of impressive submissions, the committee selected European Conceptualisations of Southeast Asian Sexual Diversity, c. 1590–1640 by Nailya Shamgunova (University of Cambridge) as the prize-winning essay. The Prize will be awarded to Ms. Shamgunova at the Society’s Annual General Meeting on 22 June 2016. Last year, Owain Lawson (Columbia University) received the first ever Hakluyt Society Essay Prize for his essay Constructing a Green Museum: French Environmental Imaginaries of Syria and LebanonMr. Lawson reflects on the research leading to his prize-winning essay below.


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Owain Lawson (right) receiving the inaugural edition of the Hakluyt Society Essay Prize from the Society’s President, Michael Barritt. June 2015, London

In September 1922, Abbé Émile Wetterlé arrived at the port of Beirut as part of the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon’s agricultural commission. In his subsequent publications, he remarked on the astonishment he felt upon seeing for the first time the gentle rangeland of the Lebanese littoral. Steeped in biblical and orientalist representations of Lebanon, Wetterlé expected to see the dense Lebanese cedar forests described in the Bible. The absence of these forests implied to Wetterlé that Ottoman mismanagement and Arab indolence had devastated Lebanon’s natural splendour, and that France must rehabilitate the Lebanese environment.

My essay, which to my great surprise and deep gratitude won the Hakluyt Society’s essay prize, inquires into what forces shaped Wetterlé’s expectations. It investigates the diverse intellectual, scientific, and cultural sources of his belief in a degraded Arab environment and traces its trajectory through nineteenth-century scientific and travel writing to its influence in legitimating French Mandatory rule in Syria and Lebanon following World War I. I originally prepared this essay as part of my MA thesis at the American University in Cairo. It owes a great debt to the work of Richard Grove and Ussama Makdisi, but most importantly to Diana K. Davis and her concept of the “environmental imaginary.” This term is useful to capture the confluence of scientific, economic, religious, intellectual, emotional, and ideological forces at work in descriptions of nature.

Nineteenth-century visitors such as Ernest Renan, the Comte de Volney, and Alphonse de Lamartine, and later Mandatory officials such as Wetterlé and General Gouraud, had access to a great variety of textual and artistic representations of Greater Syria. These included classical and Arabic geographies, biblical accounts, and contemporary archaeological, climatological, and ethnographic science. They mobilized these sources to not only describe the Lebanese environment but to imagine its ancient natural state and prescribe methods to return Lebanon to that idealized condition. Biblical Lebanon’s dense cedar groves epitomized that ideal. Through a century of travel, writing, painting, and research, rehabilitating Mount Lebanon’s forests became part of France’s mission civilisatrice in the Levant and contributed to justifying their occupation and Mandatory rule. Syrian-Lebanese intellectuals did not passively receive this narrative, but rather contributed to its production and actively contested, negotiated, and reaffirmed it for their own purposes.

My interest in this subject emerged from my own work in reforestation, which provided a unique window into the relationship between efforts to extract natural resources and to preserve natural landscapes. Profound technological, economic, and scientific transformations over the last centuries have rearranged how most humans engage with the natural world. Indeed, many of us, myself included, can now only imagine nature as diminishing and fragile. In this light, environmental conservation efforts appear to be unambiguously positive practices. How then can we understand the discrepancy between these apparently noble intentions towards nature and the ease with which colonial officials translated them into a justification for colonial domination and violence? My intention with this essay was not to simply expose colonial conservation efforts as hypocritical, or debunk the nineteenth-century science that informed them, but to think about the longer trajectories of this relationship between nature and power.


Owain Lawson is a PhD student at Columbia University’s Department of History. His research focuses on the history of science, technology, and the environment in Lebanon and Greater Syria during the early twentieth century. He is in the early stages of developing a dissertation that explores the history of Lebanese hydroelectricity. Born in Ottawa, Canada, Owain received a B.A. from Concordia University in Montréal and an M.A. in Middle East Studies from the American University in Cairo.

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Tancrede R. Dumas, “Beirut Port”, Beirut, 1860-1870, Nawaf Salam Collection, Arab Image Foundation, Beirut.

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