Holding History: The 1589 Printing of The Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation

Wait, wait! I haven’t finished writing the book’s title yet: The Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation Made By Sea or Land to the Farthest, Distant Quarters of the Earth at Any Time Within The Compass of these 1600 Years.


You get all that?

It is by Richard Hakluyt, an English writer, preacher and “sometime student of Christ-Church in Oxford.” (It actually states that in another version of the book.)

Once again, I was able to hold this piece of travel and publishing history thanks to my membership at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, an independent member-supported library in operation since 1814. It is my favorite writing spot in the city, which I want everyone and yet no one to know about.


Like that font? It’s called Migrain. My eyes hurt after only a few lines. But what this book lacked in legibility, it gained in the sheer fact that it was written during the era of Queen Victoria I (the Uno) and I was able to hold it.

The chapters are quite literally all over the place. Bits of a voyage to Guinea, trips to Norway detailed so slowly and somehow still with so few details that I didn’t care if they made it or not, and a description of a woman, Helena, who seems to have been quite a catch back in the day. If I can sum up the 800-page tome in one line, and British exploration at that time too, it would be: “We heard they had stuff. We wanted it. Here’s how we got it.”

To pull from the book:

“Experience proveth that naturally all Princes be delirious to extend and enlarge their dominions and kingdoms.”

Another line stated that rulers who do not try to conquer others will be seen as weak by their people, and not respected. So, they sought distant lands and riches. Terrible things happened to the native inhabitants. The spoils went to the English ruling class.

Notice the change in font and style half way through “Richard Eden” in the title? That’s a 16th Century moveable type “whoops!”

Notice the change in font and style half way through “Richard Eden” in the title? That’s a 16th Century moveable type “whoops!”

As for the prose, I can only shrug. “…the regions are extremely hot and the people very black,” one story says of Africa. AFRICA!

Can’t you just feel the wind in your hair as you walk the Great Rift Valley with the Maasai, learning the mysteries of the land gleaned from millennia of oral history? Nailed it.

Several paragraphs ended with:

“And to have said this much of these voyages, it may suffice.”

Or “And to have said this much on elephants and ivory, it may suffice.”

Which is the British origin of Forest Gump’s, “And that’s all I have to say about that.”



What REALLY made this book a treasure to hold, beyond its age, is that it was gifted to the Athenaeum by Mathew Carey (1760-1839), an Irish-born American publisher and economist who lived and worked in Philadelphia. And like any good Philadelphia story, his involves Ben Franklin, railing against the establishment, and cross dressing.

Carey started his career in Ireland as a bookseller and printer but got into trouble with the British House of Commons after publishing works that criticized the Irish Penal Code, Parliament, and dueling—not a fan. Carey fled to France where he wound up meeting and befriending Benjamin Franklin. (Because who DIDN’T know Ben Franklin back then?)

After working for Franklin for a year at his printing press in Paris, he emigrated to the newly formed United States in 1784. Upon his arrival, he was given $400 by Franklin’s buddy, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (American Revolution, French Revolution, Napoleon. That Lafayette.) to set up his own publishing business and book shop. He became one of the biggest publishers in the country.

Oh, and since he had ticked off the British so badly, when he went from France, back to Ireland and then to America, he had to dress as a woman and sneak on the ship to avoid imprisonment. Because freedom.

To hold the book of the man who once shook Ben Franklin’s hand, Lafayette’s hand, and became a publishing tycoon in the early days of this country was a pretty mind blowing experience.

And to have said this much of Mathew Carey and his copy of The Principal Navigations, it may suffice.