The Hakluyt Society (which still flourishes, and publishes) was founded in 1846, at a meeting in the London Library of several historians, geographers, scientists and military men who felt that research on and republication of the accounts of early travellers would provide a useful resource for contemporary explorers. The impetus for the Society’s establishment came from the belief of William Desborough Cooley that the sponsors of expeditions – for example, the Royal Geographic Society – were making less use than they should of the records of their predecessors – whether famous, like Columbus, Da Gama and Magellan, or obscure, like Herberstein, Linschoten and Benzoni. An early suggestion that it be called The Columbus Society having been abandoned (perhaps for patriotic reasons?), the Society named itself after Richard Hakluyt (usually pronounced ‘hack-litt’), the Elizabethan enthusiast for English settlement in North America, and author of Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America and the Ilands Adjacent unto the Same, Made First of all by our Englishmen and Afterwards by the Frenchmen and Britons. The Society’s first volume, The Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins, Knt., in his Voyage into the South Sea in the Year 1593, edited by C.R. Drinkwater Bethune (a naval officer) was published in 1847, and subsequent volumes (approximately following a wishlist compiled at an early stage) were issued at the rate of two or three a year: the final volume of the ‘First Series’ came out in 1899. Hakluyt’s own Divers Voyages was number 7, of 1849.
The editors and translators of the volumes took different approaches to their task: some used an English translation contemporary with the original book, and provided explanatory annotations (e.g. Veer); others translated into modern English (sometimes for the first time), e.g. Ravenstein on Vasco da Gama. Some editors amalgamated several short documents into a more-or-less consecutive narrative, e.g. Rundall on voyages to the North-West. In some instances, one volume (or more than one) contains a single narrative (e.g. Cocks, in 2 volumes); other books are compilations of several short accounts, e.g. Bent on early travels on the Levant.
Many of the accounts are of sea voyages, from Columbus onwards, but several are of treks overland to Africa and the East (India in the Fifteenth Century, Marco Polo) before the age of great sea discoveries. Not all the volumes were written by willing explorers: several are accounts of men captured in war and conveyed thousands of miles as prisoners, but who escaped and survived to tell the tale (Schiltberger). Leo Africanus was an Arab diplomat captured by Spanish corsairs who ended up in Rome in 1518, and under the patronage of Pope Leo X wrote a three-volume History and Description of Africa in Italian.
The list of members of the Council of the Hakluyt Society, printed at the front of each volume, contains the names of some of the most distinguished men of the nineteenth century: Sir Harry Yule, soldier and geographer who compiled Hobson-Jobson; Sir Roderick Murchison, soldier and geologist, the man who mapped the Silurian system; Sir Clements Markham, sailor, Arctic explorer and the man responsible for transplanting Peruvian cinchona shrubs to India, thus ensuring a supply of quinine to counter and reduce the scourge of malaria. Markham took part in one of the attempts to find traces of Sir John Franklin’s vanished expedition of 1845; many of the Society’s volumes deal with voyages seeking the North-West or North-East Passages – hypothetical routes to Asia which would avoid the long and hazardous journeys round either Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. The very recent discoveries of wrecked ships, now visible in summer when (thanks to global warming) the Arctic seas are increasingly clear of ice, make it likely that there may soon be a final account of the mystery which haunted mid-Victorian Britain and clearly stimulated the work of the Hakluyt Society.