Imagining Empire

Richard Hakluyt's The Principal Navigations (1598-1600) and the Idea of a British Empire

in Volume 3 (2002): Issue 2 (Dec 2002)
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As James VI of Scotland and I of England (1566–1625) found on his accession to the English throne in 1603, turning nations into empires was far from straight-forward. His desire to turn England and Scotland into the legal entity of the ‘Empire of Great Britain’ foundered on English parliamentary resistance, which forced him to implement the concept by royal proclamation (Bindoff 1945), and promote it through propagandists.2 However, James was not the first occupant of the English throne to lay claim to an empire. Henry VIII (1491–1547) had done so in an assertion of independence from the Papacy, and Elizabeth I (1533–1603) was frequently addressed as ‘Empress’ by her admirers. So, in the late Tudor and early Stuart period the idea of empire was ambiguous. Not only was the term polyvalent, but there was often a decidedly unrealistic element to the territorial claims that were made when it was used. In this article I want to examine Richard Hakluyt’s notion of empire as it emerges from his largest work, The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (1598–1600). I will argue that its relationship with his concept of nationhood has not received the attention it deserves, and that the submergence of the English nation into the ‘Empire of Great Britain’ proposed by James I, was the antithesis of Hakluyt’s conception of that relationship. In short, I will argue that the usual relationship between empire and nation needs to be stood on its head if we are to understand Hakluyt’s concept of empire.