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The Elizabethans And America
“To push back the consciousness of American beginnings, beyond Jamestown, beyond the Pilgrims, to the highwater mark of the Elizabethan Age” -- Part One of a New Series.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
The young Walter Raleigh got his military apprenticeship serving under Huguenot command for several years in France; to the end of his life he retained French associations. Similarly Hawkins and Drake had close French ties, naturally enough from Plymouth, which had its Protestant opposite number in La Rochelle, with which it was closely connected. When Drake, quite young, returned to the West Indies to recoup himself and Hawkins for their losses at San Juan de Ulúa by robbing the treasure train outside Nombre de Dios, he did so in association with a French captain and crew.
But with the struggle becoming more intense, and France counted out for the rest of the century by civil war—maintained, of course, by Philip and necessitating England’s intervention for her own safety—in the hazards of that dangerous age not unlike our own, with a world riven in two by the struggle between Reformation and Counter Reformation, the chances in North America fell to the English. But it was certain these would have to be fought for.
Elizabeth I had been educated along with her brother by Cambridge tutors—men of the second generation of the Renaissance impulse in England, Protestant Reformers—whereas her sister Mary had been brought up by Oxford tutors, of the first generation of humanists, Catholic Reformers. Elizabeth’s mind was not enclosed within a dream of medieval faith; hers was an extrovert intelligence in touch with everything of interest happening in the real world of events and affairs.
And not least in the New World. She was interested in everything that concerned America—its newness and strangeness, its occupants and products, its vast potential riches (she had a very Tudor nose for that aspect of things: not for nothing was she a granddaughter of that canny Welshman, Henry VII). She was interested, in several senses of the word, in the voyages and the voyagers; in the geography of America and the geographers; in the capital question of English colonization; above all, in the political struggle with Spain for a place in that New World.
But—I hope I may be pardoned for saying—no one has yet disentangled her share in these activities, made out precisely what her contribution was to making North America English. It was a major one. The Queen always gave her support, sometimes instigation—as in the crucial instance of Drake’s voyage round the world, against the wishes of her minister William Cecil, Lord Burghley, by then a sated power gone rather conservative. Let us look, first, at her contacts with the new cosmographers, so much involved in these enterprises, and with the seamen.
An idiosyncratic figure in this circle was John Dee, mathematician, cosmographer, astrologer. A Fellow of St. John’s, Cambridge, he became one of the original Fellows of Trinity, whence he went over to Louvain and made the acquaintance of the foremost Flemish geographers of the day, Gemma Frisius, Mercator, Ortclius. He went on to Paris, where his lectures on Euclid, he said, made a striking impression. Dee was a Welshman; no one ever possessed more recognizably Celtic characteristics: the touchiness and suspicion, the acuteness and imagination, the originality along with a certain haphazardness, the tendency to go over the borderline.
All his life Dee was concerned with—among many other things—mathematics, the problems of navigation, spirits good and evil, and with the overriding problem of a route to the riches of the East. Could the English discover a route of their own, free of the Spaniards and Portuguese, by northeast or northwest? Over a period of thirty years he was connected with every voyage out from England searching for a northeast passage—a by-product of which was the very profitable trade with Russia. But he was equally interested in the Northwest Passage, its problems and outlets, and that brought him up against the American continent.
He was, perhaps, the first to write about these problems, in a series of what he called “Atlantical Discourses,” which remained, like a lot of his work, unfinished and unpublished. He thought that the term in general use then for America, “West Indies,” was misleading; if he could have had his way, America would have become known as Atlantis.
John Dee inhabited an exciting, and sometimes tortured, world of fact and dream, as so many earlier and later scientists have done—we have only to think of Newton himself. Dee dreamed of something unheard of before, a British Empire based on the sea: he was the originator of the phrase—a Welshman, the word with him is always Britain, not England; Thalassokratia Britaniké —his writings are full of such megalomaniac phrases. He planned a work in several volumes on this British Empire, of which only the first was published, the Pety Navy Royall , dedicated to Sir Christopher Hatton, the frontispiece proudly displaying the Queen seated in state in the ship of empire. Strange to say—and everything about Dee is strange—the megalomaniac proved prophetically right: perhaps he was not an astrologer for nothing.