histories, surveys and political commentaries: english travel literature in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries – part III


As with the descriptions of the world, so we find histories, surveys and political commentaries based on travel during this period, some of which were written by diplomats and envoys sent by the English crown to foreign lands.

The 1597 publication of A Report of the Kingdom of Congo was a result of the writings, maps and firsthand accounts of the Portuguese Odoardo Lopez, who began his journey in 1578. It was then translated into English from Italian by Abraham Hartwell. Hartwell’s intentions are clear:

… this treatise doeth comprehend not onely the nature and disposition of the Moci-Conghi, which are the naturall inhabitantes and people of Congo … [but also] the religion which they professed, and by what meanes it pleased God to draw them from the Paganisme to Christianity. I thought it good thus to make it knowen to my countreymen of England, to the end it might be a precedent for such valiant English, as do earnestly thirst and desire to atchieve the conquest of rude and barbarous Nations, that they do not attempt those actions for commodity of gold and siluer, and for other transitoire or worldly respectes, but that they woulde first seeke the Kingdom of God, & the salvation of many thousand soules….

Hartwell indicates further reasons for translating this work. After reading a translation of a book about wars between the Turks and the Persians, he was personally inspired and encouraged by his friends to translate something that might “help our English Nation,” something that would be “utterly concealed from this poor Island.” Apparently M. R. Hakluyt introduced Hartwell to Lopez, whom he taught to speak English. It was in English that Lopez related his stories to Hartwell. Hartwell explains away any half-truths or inconsistencies ahead of time, insisting that “in any of these poyntes, if his [Lopez] mouth shall happen to runne over (as I hope, much it doth not), you must needes beare with him, for he will challenge the privilege of the English porverbe, A Traueller may lye by authoritie, and the old Greek Agminatin, Euery Pilgrime is not a Soothsayer.”

This image of the lying traveler is one that, as we will see later, was extremely common in this period and was used as ammunition by those who fervently opposed the idea of traveling abroad; those who believed it had no merit whatsoever.

A “chiefe Motive” Hartwell gives for his translation of this work is to disprove the ancient philosophers, who denied that “the two Zones, Torrida and Frigida, are both habitable and inhabited.” He writes that he is simply confirming the conclusions of the de Natura Novi Orbis, a work written in 1584 and printed “this last yeare” [1596?] by Josephus a-Costa. He will also dispute another assertion of the philosophers, his position being “that the heate of the Sunne is not the cause of the Whitenesse or blacknesse in the skinnes of men” preferring instead to answer it as “some secret of nature, which hitherto hath been knowne to God alone, and never as yet reuealed to man.” Lastly he will prove that the “Riuer Nilus springeth not out of the mountains of the Moone, as hath been heretofore beleeued …” As was found in Heylyn’s work, the idea of science as something useful, and something that the aspiring traveler could use is prevalent in this work.

Some men, like Robert Dallington [1561-1637] turned their travels into local or regional histories and surveys. In his The Survey of the Great Dukes State of Tuscany in the year of our Lord 1696 [1605], Dallington takes a twofold approach to his survey by clearly dividing his work into two sections: country and government. Cosmography, climate, topography and the like can be found in the country section, while facts about the Prince and the law can be found in the government section. In this way, Dallington can provide an explanation of two facets of Tuscan life, while relating how the two are codependent; for example, in describing the climatic and topographical reasons that Tuscan cities were founded where they were, and how topography and climate affected the establishment of governments in the region. Again science is not far removed from this work. Dallington moves on and speaks of the Tuscan customs of dress, name and language, and then of the Tuscan temperament.

He describes their dress as “civill… black… and comely because fitted to the body” and their names as being Roman but “altered with an Italian pronunciation.” On language, he writes “their language, it is the best of Italy. As for those ungratefull Tuscans, [they] in no ease will acknowledge to be beholden to the Latines.”

The negative image of the Italian so common in this period is evident here, as on the subject of domestic relations Dallington writes “the husband [for the most part] when he goeth abroad, locketh up his wife, [not because he is jealous (he protests) but because it is the custome] The tutor is abused by the [student] with an odius misdemeanour… I know not two worse estates in Italy, that of the faire wife and this of a teacher; the one is ever a prisoner, the other always a slave.” Dallington’s final take on the Italians is a sad one, as he writes that “this people lives much discontented, as appeareth by their daily and great (but private) complainings: having fresh in their minds their former libertie, and heavie on their backes their present yoake. That this State is like a body which hath lately taken Phisick, whose humours are not yet well settled, or as a stomack weakened so much from purging, as there is now nothing left but melancholy.” It will be seen later that this melancholy that Dallington talks about was feared contagious to English travellers to Italy.

In his A Relation of a Voyage to Guiana, begun in 1608, Robert Harcourt gives, in the same manner as Robert Dallington did in 1596, a description of the “climate, situation, fertility, provisions and commodities” of the country, together with the manners and customs of the native inhabitants. Harcourt was granted the patent for the plantation of Guiana by the Crown, yet not without, God’s guidance. “The Land which we walked thorow to search it, is a very good land. If the Lord loves us, he will bring us into this land, and will give it us.”

The aim of this work was not only to detail the discovery and planting of Guiana, but to entice others to go to Guiana and to invest time and money in this “noble enterprise,” for “the glory of God, the honour of their Prince, and profit of their Countrey.” He puts English minds fearful of attack by Spaniards living in areas close to Guiana at ease by stating that “the Spaniard … can no way offend us but by a preparation out of Spaine itselfe.” I am persuaded that the Spaniards will take great deliberation… before they give any attempt upon us: for we do not finde that they have yet attempted anything upon Virginia.”

Harcourt then counters these fears by presenting the advantages of colonizing Guiana, including large parcels of land. Harcourt’s ideas of the necessity of travel and the benefit that travelers could bring to their nation was clear. “The Traveler… by memorable discoveries of strange and unknown countries and Nations, may pen the way to increase and enlarge the Dominion of our Soveraigne.”

Additionally, it was England’s mission to Christianize and civilize the native populations. “Let us also note the wonderful workes of God in those Countries [the newly discovered lands of America], and his great mercy thereby showed to the Indians, who by their continuall consideration with Christians, are reduced from their abbominable life and cruell manners, to the knowledge of God.” This is noble work, God’s work, and Harcourt uses the examples of Cortez and Pizarro to back up his assertions. This Christianizing idea is certainly found in the literature of discovery more so than in the straight literature of travel, however there are instances, as in this case, where common ideas crossover into both types of literature.

Those works that do not mention the Christianizing motive of travel tend to concentrate on the political arena, commenting on the state of England in the world at the time. In 1626 was printed Sir Thomas Overbury’s Observations in His Travailes Upon the State of the XVII Provinces as They Stood Anno. Dom. 1609. Writing of the Low Countries and of their long struggle for freedom from Spain, Overbury weaves his travels into a politically motivated treatise on the state of the provinces in 1609. Like Mikrokosmos’ image of a Germany at war, this work sheds light on the long struggle for the independence of the Netherlands from Spain. Overbury’s comments reflect the dangerous position England was politically and strategically in terms of the necessity of seeing that the Low Countries did not fall into the wrong hands. His opinion, “no addition could make France so dangerous to us, as that of our Lowe-Countries.” Years earlier, in A Copie of a Letter sent from sea by a Gentleman [1589], we find a bit of propaganda, from a “Gentleman, who was employed in discoverie on the coast of Spaine by appintment of the Generals of our English Fleete.”

Consisting of only a few pages and written at the time of the Armada, it is a statement of the devastation wrought on the Spanish Armada by the English fleet under God, a sort of casualty update. Giles Fletcher [1546?-1611] was appointed an ambassador to the Russian government in 1588, and traveled there the next year. This resulted in a work that described the geography, institutions, customs, government, military and religious composition of this ‘strange’ nation. In fact, On The Russe Commonwealth [1591] has been described as “a pioneering study of what today is called totalitarianism” Fletcher himself calls Russia in the late sixteenth century “A true and strange face of a Tyrannical State … without true knowledge of GOD, without written Lawe [and] without criminal justice.” Yet even though Russia was a popular destination for English traders through the 1590’s, this popularity did not translate into the abundance of travel literature that can be found in regards to their regions. After 1600, travel logs to Russia are few and far between.

In A True Relation of All the Remarkable Places and Passages observed in the Travels of the right honorable Thomas Lord Howard [1636], William Crowne provides the reader with a journal of Howard’s travels in Europe on a diplomatic mission as the English Ambassador to Ferdinand II [1619-37], the Habsburg Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This journey took place during the later years of the ThirtyYears’ War and as in Mikrokosmos, images of devastation are omnipresent. He often refers to passing by villages that are “shot downe” and of the disrepair of the roads.

The cruelty and tenor of the German states at the time is demonstrated by his candid accounts of executions, witnessed by Howard at the same time he had gained an audience with the Emperor. “Seven men [were] beheaded which were Rebels, for rising up in armes against the Emperor: the first to be executed… was upon the scaffold and his face covered, two men held him fast to the blocke, then came the Executioner with a red hot paire of pincers, and violently clapt hold of both his brests, that done, nailed his right hand to the blocke, and chopt it off, then presently whipt out his sword from his side, and cut off his head … and cryed at the eares of the head Jesus, Jesus.”

He comments on sight-seeing, lodging, and religion; “I entered in [the Jewes synagogue] to see the manner of their service, which is an undecent way, making a hideous noise.” Crowne relates Howard’s invitation to view a play at a Jesuits College, and includes a brief summary of the play, which Howard apparently liked very much.

Howard’s travels as related by Crowne seem to convey not only the spirit and hardship of travel, but also the harshness of the continent during the Thirty Years’ War. This is unlike much of the other travel writing of the period, and is for the most part due to Howard’s political association and position as an Ambassador.

Sir Thomas Herbert [1606-82] was descended from Sir William Herbert, an early-fifteenth century knight from Wales with an impressive ancient lineage. Born in 1606 in York, into the civic aristocracy, when his grandfather died in 1614 he left Thomas “land of considerable value in both city and country.” In his later life, Herbert took the side of Parliament in the Civil War was appointed the commissioner of the army, and was Charles’ attendant [groom of the bedchamber] from 1647 until the end of Charles’ life, and was actually “with him on the scaffold.”

He was also apparently an avid collector of manuscripts, as Penrse writes “in 1666 he gave a choice collection of twenty of them to the Bodlean Library, including a fine Wycliffe Bible.”

Herbert’s A Relation of some yeares Travaile, begvnne Anno 1626, Into Afrique and the greater Asia [1634], chronicles Herbert’s travels to Persia as the English ambassador, and the countries that he observed on the way there, and remains the work he is most known for.

This work was reprinted in English in 1634, 1665 and 1677, in Dutch in 1658 and in French in 1663. It is most important because of what it represents historically, that is the only detailed account available of the first English embassy to Persia. Herbert spent over a year in Persia alone, and in the process saw nearly every major city there. He goes to great lengths to accurately describe the peoples he encounters, including all native peoples of Persia, and includes wood cuts representing these native peoples in several places. He speaks of their customs, dress and diet, asserting when speaking of the “Troglodytes” of Africa that their food consists of “dead Whales, Seales, Grease, raw Puddings, or mans flesh, which rather than want they will digge Christians out of their graves.” He even provides a key in which words are given in three languages, English, Arabic and Persian.

As is seen in other writers, his attitude towards travelers comes through clearly. “My other trauailes into some parts of Europe, I could have troubled you withall, but I loue not repetitions, not to entertaine you with that from my selfe, l hate in others, besides, since all Trauellers are subject to imputations of vntruths, I had rather goe farre to fetch it, and send you farre off, to disproue it; then glue you libertie of condemning mee at home.”

Coming from one of the most famous traveling families in this period, Sir Anthony Sherley’s [1565-1635?] Relation of his Travels into Persia [1613] is one of the most celebrated works of its time. Along with his brothers Robert [1581?-1628] and Thomas [1564-1630?], he would capture the imagination of the English reading public with his travels. This excitement comes through in the dedication to the reader;

Many haue been desirus to vnderstand on what hopes, helpes and grounds Sir Anthony Sherly, with his brother Sir Robert Sherley, and many other friends and followers, of our Nation, could not onely be introduced to vndertake to trauell into a Kingdome so farre remote, and to liue amongst a people so farre different in Religion, Language, and Manners, as that of Persia is from ours: but also be supplied of all necessaries of life, in a plenteous and magnificent manner; and so highly endeare his service and industry to that King and State, as to bee esteemed and called a Mizra, or Prince of Persia, and to bee employed, within a few monthes after his coming thither, as Embassador from so great a Potentate, in a manner of such maine consequence and trust, to many of the greatest Princes and States of Christendome.

Anthony Sherley made diverse journeys including those to the West Indies [1596], Persia [1598-99], from Moscow to Rome [1601] and to Morocco [1605]. His brother Robert was held prisoner for three years by the Turks [1603-1606], did not leave Persia until 1608, traveled to Spain in 1610, and returned to England in 1611. However, there is little extant specifically regarding his travels. A True Report of Sir Anthony Sherley’s Journey appeared in London in 1600, apparently written by two men in his entourage. Yet this work was “confiscated and cancelled,” the printers fined for “printing without license.”

This version, of which three copies are extant, contains an account of “the free privileges obtained by Anthony from the Great Sophi for all Christians to trade and traffic in Persia.” In the later Relation of his Travels into Persia, Sherley’s diplomatic experience prompted him to add his advice to his brother Robert regarding how to deal with foreign princes. He warns that “Princes eares and eyes were in euery place, courts being full of spies, and nothing hidden from emulation,” that passions can overcome wisdom if one is not careful, and that time and circumstances may change friendships, but that the bond of blood is unchangeable.

Next installment in the series: Merchant-tourists and voyage journals.


Crowne, William. A Trve Relation of all The Remarkable Places and Passages Observed in the Travels of the right honorable Thomas Lord Howard. London, 1637. Reprint, The English Experience No 357, New York: Da CapoPress/Theatrvm Orbis Terrarvm, Ltd., 1971.

Dallington, Robert. A Survey of the Great Dukes State of Tuscany. In the year of Our Lord 1596. London, 1605. New York Public Library, New York. STC 6201. Microfilm.

Fletcher, Giles. Of the Russe Commonwealth. Introduction by Richard Pipes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Harcourt, Robert. A Relation of A Voyage to Gviana. London, 1613. Reprint, The English Experience No. 600, New York: Da CapoPress/Theatrvm Orbis Terrarvm, Ltd., 1973.

Herbert, Thomas. A Relation of some yeares Travaile, begvnne Anno 1626, Into Afrique and the greater Asia. London, 1634. Reprint, The English Experience No. 349, New York: Da CapoPress/Theatrvm Orbis Terrarvm, Ltd., 1969.

Herbert, Thomas. Travels in Persia 1627-29. Ed. by Sir William Foster. New York: Robert. M. McBride & Company, 1929.

Lopez, Odoardo. A Report of the Kingdome of Congo, a Region of Africa. London, 1597. Reprint, The English Experience No. 260, New York: Da CapoPress/Theatrvm Orbis Terrarvm, Ltd., 1970.

Overbury, Sir Thomas. His Travailes Upon the State of the XVII Provinces as They Stood Anno. Dom. 1609. 1626. Reprint, The English Experience No. 260, New York: Da CapoPress/Theatrvm Orbis Terrarvm, Ltd., 1969.

Penrose, Boise. Urbane Travellers 1591-1635. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1942.

Ross, Sir E. Denison. Sir Anthony Sherley and His Persian Adventure. London: George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1933.

Sherley, Sir Anthony. Relation of his Travels into Persia. London, 1613. Reprint, The English Experience No. 695, Norwood, N.J.: Walter J. Johnson, lnc./Theatrvm Orbis Terrarvrn, Ltd., 1974.