When arriving on the third floor of the IHR library, amidst a large and varied collection concerning travel literature, navigation and colonialism, the average reader might find themselves drawn towards a conspicuous wall of shelves lined in uniform blue bindings with gold-embossed titles. These impressive volumes make up the library’s holding of publications from the Hakluyt Society – a series dedicated to chronicling exploration and navigation of New Worlds.  

Founded in 1846, the Hakluyt Society was named in commemoration of Richard Hakluyt, an influential Tudor geographer and chronicler of navigation and exploration. Hakluyt recorded and published volumes of primary source accounts charting the exploration of North America by English colonists. These works were produced with the intention of provoking greater discussion of travel and navigation in England, as well as promoting colonial endeavours in the New World. This was made plain in the dedication of the second volume of The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation where he strongly urges his patron, Robert Cecil, as to the expediency of colonising Virginia. In his role as collector and publisher of these works, Hakluyt was an influential propagandist for overseas travel and believed that the surest way to raise the wealth of England was through overseas travel, trade and settlement.

Like it’s namesake, the society has endeavoured – for the better part of two centuries – to find, translate, transcribe and publish scholarly editions of primary records charting significant historic voyages and travels. From its inception, the Society was responsible for publishing such important sources as the Select Letters of Christopher Columbus (1848) and Sir Francis Drake his Voyage (1849), as well as attracting illustrious members including naval officers, librarians and even the likes of Charles Darwin. It has since cemented its reputation as a foremost body for encouraging the scholarly pursuit of the history of navigation, exploration and discovery and continues to produce a great quantity of historical material.

The Hakluyt Society publishes twice annually, as well as producing an online journal. The collective publishing output of the society has accumulated into an incredible trove of travel material. Through these volumes, the Society aims to continue the work of Richard Hakluyt in promoting the study of voyages undertaken across some of the most remote parts of the world. However, whereas Hakluyt was largely concerned with charting English travel across the Atlantic, the Society have broadened their criteria for publication far beyond the old “new world”. They produce volumes from every continent, reproducing journals, diaries, captains logs and missionary reports, spanning numerous centuries. Their authors are of various provenance and occupation, writing from different time periods and in different languages. From missionaries, to poets, to scientists to whalers, the collection aggregates a wide range of first hand experiences. The last hundred years has seen the publication of everything from Byron’s travel journals (1764-66) to Raleigh’s Discovery of Guiana, the Jerusalem Pilgramige of 1099-1185 and the records of Japanese travellers in Sixteenth Century Europe. Yet despite the ever-expanding intellectual breadth of this collection, there are still ‘blind spots’ in the types of historical voices these primary texts represent.

Although the breadth of research by the Hakluyt Society has extended far beyond the limits of English Tudor voyages, there are still some stories that the blue books alone are unable to tell. The nature of these travel journals primarily document the lived experience of the discoverer, but these records consequently neglect the experience of those who were ‘discovered’. With the ever-growing expectation for libraries and archives to critically assess and actively decolonise collections, the Hakluyt Society collection presents an important challenge to librarians and researchers alike. How best should we approach these important primary sources in the 21st Century? 

It is crucial to remember that the aim of the Hakluyt Society publications, like that of Hakluyt himself, is not to create an interpretative history of exploration and navigation. Rather, it is to make accessible these important primary sources that give us eyewitness accounts of voyages from the last five hundred years. Hakluyt himself was not concerned to investigate, establish or explain, but only to record. Yet, the history of colonial exploration is far from neutral, and these sources need to be interpreted within a wider context. As librarians, we share that responsibility to ensure that these important resources are provided to researchers and readers in a way that is both accessible but also thoughtful.  At the Institute of Historical Research, our collections on general colonial and exploration material have been managed to reflect recent changes in the scholarly approach to colonialism and travel literature. This is why, if you look to the shelves opposing the Hakluyt collection, you will find a wide selection of methodological and primary texts concerning decolonisation, slavery, conflict, native voices and critical analysis of travel literature. These two shelves do not stand in opposition to one another, but rather they supplement each other. By surrounding the Hakluyt publications with these texts, we are able to contextualise the historic voyages that they document and encourage readers to consider these texts, and the voices they present, within a wider historical context.

You can find our collection of Hakluyt Society publications on the third floor reading room at the Institute for Historical Research. We also hold a large collection of further primary material on colonialism, exploration and slavery as well as colonial historiography and methodology. 

This blog post was written by IHR Graduate Library Assistant Trainee, Alex Kither, as part of History Day 2020.