Little is known of Richard Hakluyt's early life. He was born in 1552, most likely in London, to a large family. His father, also named Richard, and his mother Margery both died when he was very young. It was left to his cousin (confusingly also named Richard Hakluyt) to raise him. Cousin Richard was a lawyer in London, and instilled in young Richard Hakluyt a love for learning, especially about geography.
The 16th century was an interesting time for geographers, as so much of the world had recently been "discovered" by the Europeans. The Portuguese were sailing to East Africa and the Spice Islands, while the Spanish had conquered much of the vast American continents; both were making themselves rich off their discoveries. And although the English had sponsored a handful of voyages to the New World (notably John Cabot in 1497), they had nothing to show for it.
Richard Hakluyt attended Oxford University, and graduated with a master's degree in 1577. He quickly joined the Church of England, and while best remembered as a historian and geographer, would remain a clergyman (in fact, to distinguish him from his cousin Richard, he was often referred to in his day as Richard Hakluyt the Preacher) for the rest of his career. His interest in geography and exploration led him to several friendships with England's best-known mariners; he counted Francis Drake (the second man to lead an expedition to circumnavigate the globe) and Martin Frobisher (who led England's search for the fabled Northwest Passage through America to the Orient) among his friends.
In 1582, Humphrey Gilbert (half brother of noted English colonization promoter Walter Raleigh) was attempting to drum up support for an English effort to colonize a part of North America. Gilbert had a plan, and a license from England's Queen Elizabeth authorizing him to set up a colony anywhere not already claimed by the Spanish, but more importantly, he had no funds. He needed investors to make the scheme work, so he turned to his friend Richard Hakluyt the Preacher. Hakluyt was just a poor clergyman, but he had a flair for writing and was on good terms with many influential—and wealthy—Englishmen.
That year he published his first work on the New World, Divers Voyages Touching on the Discovery of America, at the behest of Gilbert. The work was pure propaganda, designed to lay claim to the eastern seaboard of North America by the English. Divers Voyages was a collection of letters and reports investigating the exploration of the continent by Europeans, from present day Virginia to the French attempt to colonize Florida. Readers were given a chance to explore the New World without leaving the relative safety of Europe, all in one book. Hakluyt the Preacher was now a successful writer, melding his two loves: history and geography.
A year later, in 1583, Hakluyt was appointed to be the chaplain for the English embassy in France. This position was apparently not too taxing for the young churchman, as he found plenty of time to interact with other European nationals in Paris. The going opinion on the continent was that the English were not particularly adventurous; they had nothing going for them in the New World other than a handful of pirates (as most saw men like Francis Drake and John Hawkins). These sorts of discussions stirred Hakluyt's feelings of patriotism. He became determined to write a book showing that the English were not content to merely sit on the sidelines while the rest of Europe (most Spain and Portugal) made a killing in the world of exploration.
The product of this thinking turned out to be the greatest undertaking of Hakluyt's career. He wanted to bring together all the data on England's travels and adventures, not just in the Americas, but also over the entire globe; he realized it would take several volumes. It was an impressive amount of material for one man to tackle, and it eventually consumed nearly fifteen years of Hakluyt's life. In 1589, the first part of Hakluyt's The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation, Made by Sea or Over Land, in the Most Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at Any Time within the Compasse of these 1500 Yeeres was published. The work may have had an unwieldy title, but it was an historian's dream; first-hand accounts of voyages to America, India, Russia and any other place to which an Englishman had dared to sail. Several updates of The Principall Navigations were issued through 1600.
Meanwhile, Hakluyt was not content to just research. His services, and seeming photographic memory for explorations and geography, were in great demand from English merchants, naval personnel and overseas investors. Traders on their way to the East Indies asked for his learned opinions on the topic of sailing to the Orient. Members of the Royal Navy enjoyed hearing of how scrappy seadog Francis Drake bested the Spanish Armada in 1588. Hakluyt married in 1590, but his wife died seven years later and he remarried in 1604. He only had one son, Edmond, who became a lecturer at Cambridge University. Hakluyt died in November 1616, and was buried at Westminster Abbey.
Richard Hakluyt the Preacher's fame lives on because of the unpolished text of his epic work The Principall Navigations. Letters and official reports from explorers, merchants and trading company investors were reprinted word-for-word, with little or no tinkering by Hakluyt. This gives historians a largely unbiased source for first-person writings on the New World voyages of Englishmen in the 16th century. Since Hakluyt did not editorialize about the expeditions, readers were entertained and educated without the normal amount of exploitative hype that often accompanied works on exploration from that period.