Robert Harcourt (c.1574–1631) was an English merchant adventurer who traveled to Guyana in 1609 in search of gold and riches, hoping to succeed where Raleigh and Leigh had failed. He made landfall on May 17, 1609. His 1613 book related his adventure:
Harcourt was from Staffordshire, kin to some historic Harcourts and the Fitzherberts, all traditionally Catholic families. He eventually settled in Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire. Harcourt attended Oxford University and, in 1593, was admitted to the Middle Temple (law school), then dropped off the map for some years. Robert had an early marriage to an Elizabeth Fitzherbert, but they had no children and she died young.
Harcourt’s second wife is more interesting. She was Frances Vere, the daughter of Geoffrey de Vere, who was the fourth son of John de Vere, 15th Earl of Oxford (c. 1488–1539-40). Robert Harcourt and Frances Vere married sometime around 1600. This Frances, being the 15th Earl's grandaughter, was thus a close cousin to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who was also a grandson to the 15th Earl. Since the Harcourt-Vere marriage preceded the 17th Earl’s death by about four years it is reasonable to surmise that Harcourt met the poetic Earl, who was also interested in voyages of discovery to the New World. Robert and Frances Harcourt had three sons: Simon Harcourt, b. 1601, Francis, b. 1605, and Vere, b. 1606; and three daughters, Jane, Dorothy, and Margaret. By 1609 Harcourt was earning income from ironworks he developed at the manor of Chebsey, Staffordshire.
On 13 February 1609, via the patronage of his strongest supporter at court, young Prince Henry Stuart, Robert Harcourt along with ‘”freinds and Associats’” were granted a commission to pursue “many and sundrie longe journeys by Sea and Shippinge unto the South parte of America … knowne by the name of Guiana” [PRO, C66/1986]. Robert Harcourt set sail for Guyana in April 1609 with crew of 30 Englishmen and two Guyanese, (one who had been brought to England by Raleigh, another by Leigh). He kept a ship’s log/diary, which was published as a book in 1613. This is how we know the date of his arrival. Robert Harcourt made landfall at the mouth of the Wiapoco Rover on May 17, 1609.
His record relates:
“When wee came to the latitude of two degrees and a halfe, we anchored in a goodly bay, by certaine Islands, called Carripapoory I did at that time forbeare to make particular discovery of this coast, intending (if God spare me life) to make a perfect discovery of the famous river of Amazones, and of her seuerall branches, and countries bordering upon it, and of all this tract of land from the Amazones, unto the river of Wiapoco, which containeth many goodly Provinces, and Signiories, which are in this discourse, but briefely mentioned: For at this time I purpose onely to prosecute my first proiect, which hastened mee vnto another place. From hence I stood along the coast, and the seventeenth of May, I came to anchor in the Bay of Wiapoco: where the Indians came off unto vs in two or three Canoes, as well to learne of what Nation wee were, as also to trade with vs…”
Harcourt arrived in the rainy season and had to wait a few months before continuing inland. In July 1609 Harcourt and an inland chief ventured forth “in search of those Golden Mountaines, promised unto us before the beginning of our voyage.” However, no city of gold, or even goldmines were found. Facing potential mutiny among his men, Harcourt sent them all out to look for other commodities of value. Harcourt then decided, in August, to return to England. He left his brother, Michael, and a Captain Edward Harvey to command the 30 men left behind. After some mishaps, Harcourt arrived back in Bristol on December 17, 1609.
On August 28, 1613, King James granted Harcourt and descendants all the land between two key rivers in South America, nowadays comprising French Guiana, Suriname, and British Guiana: "betweene the Ryver of Amazones [Amazon] and the Ryver of Dessequebe [Essequibo]." The Harcourts were never able to make good on the grant, however!
Harcourt’s book is called: A relation of a voyage to Guiana: Describing the climat, scituation, fertilitie, prouisions and commodities of that country, containing seuen prouinces, and other signiories within that territory: together, with the manners, customes, behauiors, and dispositions of the people. Performed by Robert Harcourt, of Stanton Harcourt Esquire. The pattent for the plantation of which country, his Maiestie hath granted to the said Robert Harcourt vnder the Great Seale. At London : Printed by Iohn Beale, for W. Welby, and are to be sold at his shop in Pauls Churchyard at the signe of the Swan, 1613.
Harcourt’s final voyage was 20 years after the first, arriving in Guyana in February 1629. Searches for gold and jewels were again fruitless. Robert Harcourt died on May 20, 1631, and was buried there, along the river.
There is apparently a painting of Robert Harcourt by Marcus Gheerardts, who also painted the Earl of Oxford, Essex, and other Court notables. I have not yet been able to trace the location of the painting to its present location. There is also a line-drawing of Harcourt, based on the painting, that appeared in a later reprint of his book. I will try to get that.
An odd coincidence
There’s apparently only two places in the world named “Hackney” (there may be others but I haven’t found them yet). One is in the north of London, and was the final home of the 17th Earl of Oxford during the years 1593-1604. The other Hackney is in Guyana. I have not been able to discover how that Hackney, Guyana, got its name, but Harcourt’s presence in that country is the only credible explanation. In the map section below notice the names of towns to the north of Georgetown: Hackney, Marlborough, Bounty Hall. None of these names were present on Raleigh’s earlier map of the region. In the absence of further data, I think it is a reasonable hypothesis that Harcourt named Hackney, Guyana, in honor of his cousin in-law. The fact that he named one of his sons “Vere Harcourt” lends credibility to the postulate.
Original copies of Harcourt’s book are rare and valuable.
Here’s a copy that sold for $ $25,602!
Robert Sean Brazil c. 2009