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Travellers and Explorers, 1583-1763
HE English folk who became Americans during the early
years of the seventeenth century kept the language
of the relatives and friends whom they left, and with it their share in the literary heritage of the race. They owed much to the influences surrounding them in their new homes, but such skill in writing as they possessed came with them from the other side of the Atlantic. The names of an earlier group of adventurers are associated with the New World because they made a voyage along its coastline or resided for a little while at some seaside settlement. Sir Humphrey Gilbert on his homeward voyage from the New-found-land in 1583, sitting abaft with a book in his hand, while the Golden Hind was tossed by “terrible seas breaking short and high pyramidwise,” is the finest type of the seamen who made the English occupation of America possible. The narrative of Gilbert's fatal voyage, written by Edward Haie, found a place in the ample store-house of adventurous records which makes all who love good reading and virile English the debtors of Richard Hakluyt.
It is an accident of geography which gives American readers a valid claim upon Humphrey Gilbert and his precursors and successors who told their straightforward tales for Hakluyt or for the booksellers who issued the scores of thin pamphlets in which Londoners first read about the trans-Atlantic voyage. These were in their day only a few among the many pamphlets which entertained the frequenters of St. Paul's churchyard with experiences in odd corners of the Mediterranean or of the Indian Ocean, or along the Arctic route to Central Asia. They all shared in developing the British Empire and English literature. Martin Frobisher and North-West-Foxe beyond the polar circle, Thomas Hariot inside the Carolina sandspits, and Sir Richard Hawkins in the Gulf of Mexico are by this chance of geography given a place at the beginning of the annals of American literature, instead of sharing the scant notice allotted to their equally deserving contemporaries whom fate led elsewhere. The same fate sent Francis Drake to sojourn for a time on the California coast, and it likewise set in motion the economic and political forces which two centuries later transferred this region into the keeping of the English race, thereby adding the great circumnavigator to the American roll. Later came one whom Americans have adopted as a folk hero, Captain John Smith.' He risked his life with equal abandon in Flanders and Turkey and Potowatomy's land, but Virginia claims him as her own. He may have been, as it was once the fashion to proclaim, an inordinate liar, but whatever the historians say, the certain fact is that what he wrote was read in his own day and has ever since been read by thousands who have identified him with the first English colony.
“And this is as much as my memory can call to mind worthie of note; which I have purposely collected, to satisfie my friends of the true worth and qualitie of Virginia.” So John Smith wrote at the end of his “Description" of that colony published in 1612.
Yet some bad natures will not sticke to slander the Countrey, that will slovenly spit at all things, especially in company where they can find none to contradict them. Who though they were scarse ever 10 miles from James Town, or at the most but at the falles; yet holding it a great disgrace that amongst so much action, their actions were nothing, exclaime of all things, though they never adventured to knowe any thing; nor ever did any thing but devoure the fruits of other mens labours. Being for most part of such tender educations and small experience in martiall accidents, because they found not English cities, nor such faire houses, nor at their
See also Book I, Chap. II.
owne wishes any of their accustomed dainties, with feather beds and downe pillowes, Tavernes and alehouses in every breathing place, neither such plenty of gold and silver and dissolute liberty as they expected, [they had little or no care of any thing, but to pamper their bellies, to fly away with our Pinnaces, or procure their means to returne for England. For the Country was to them a miserie, a ruine, a death, a hell, and their reports here, and their owne actions there according.
Straightforwardness of narrative was characteristic of the period. This quality, and the absence of literary consciousness, distinguish the accounts written by these English seafarers from the productions of the rival French and Spanish voyagers. Each adapted his style to the public which he sought to influence. They were all alike trying to start or to accelerate the stream which was to transform the Western hemisphere into a part of the European world. Consequently the English tracts rarely possess qualities which separate them from the rest of the mass of seventeenth-century travel-books. Another result is that nearly all of them are more easily read, three centuries later, than the Continental output of the same period.
The corner of the New-found-land which retained this distinctive name exerted an especial attraction in the earlier days upon the adventurers who felt a longing to express themselves in literary form. Humphrey Gilbert was accompanied thither by the learned Stephen Parmenius of Buda, whose Latin verses "Ad Thamesin" are preserved on Hakluyt's pages. One of the first Englishmen to establish an American residence was William Vaughn, a Welshman and the composer of an amazing volume called The Golden Fleece ... Transported from Cambrioll Colchos, out of the Southermost Part of the Iland commonly called the Newfoundland, By Orpheus Junior, to London, where it was printed in 1626. This work has long been the butt of despairing historians, who have sought for the Ariadnean thread which should guide them through its 350 pages of puerile fancies, discursive theology, significant episodes, and rhymed prose. For the reader who skips casually from paragraph to paragraph, the volume yields an entertaining notion of what was talked about in the fishing shacks on the northern coast, and of how the leader of one band of adventurers amused himself. It contains a parody of the Litany which is said to have been sung by four of the “Fraternitie attired in long white Robes," and may have been part of an embryo pageant wherewith the days were whiled away.
Vaughn had a “deare Friende and Fellow-Planter, Master Robert Hayman, who with Pen and Person” prepared "more roome for Christians in the Newfound-World,” and who published in 1628 a volume of Quodlibets, lately come over from New Britaniola, All of them Composed and done at HarborGrace in Britaniola, anciently called Newfound-Land. The verses which fill its pages passed current with the similar output of his age. A number, and by no means the least rhythmical, were inspired by his associates on the western shores of the Atlantic. One of these is addressed "To the right Honourable, Sir George Calvert, Knight, Baron of Baltamore, and Lord of Avalon in Britaniola, who came over to see his Land there, 1627"; it compares Baltimore to the Queen of Sheba.
The repayment of the drafts made upon the literature of the motherland was not long delayed. It is more than probable that Shakespeare found in the reports of some New World voyagers one of his most momentous inspirations. Hugh Peters and the younger Harry Vane were only two of the temporary Americans who returned to take a lively part in the pamphleteering conflicts of the Protectorate. Roger Williams divided his controversial activities equally between the old and New England, and his Key into the Languages of America was cast into shape while he was on his way from one to the other.
Robert Sedgwick, one of the worthiest of those New Englanders who were recalled to serve the mother country, obtained a place for himself in literary annals by the reports which he addressed to Cromwell from the West Indies, where he was in charge of an expedition against the Spaniards. Carlyle, wearied of “the deadly inextricable jungle of tropical confusions" through which he struggled in “the Stygian quagmires of Thurloe's Collection of the State Papers from 1638 to 1661," found Sedgwick's letters “of all others the best worth reading on this subject.” Sedgwick was a prospering settler at Charlestown in Massachusetts, speculating in land