Established in 1846, the society is named after Richard Hakluyt (c.1552–1616), an English author, collector, editor and translator of narratives of voyages and travels and other documents relating to English interests overseas.
The main activity of the Society is the publication of scholarly editions of primary sources on the voyages and travels undertaken by individuals from many parts of the globe. These include early accounts dealing with the geography, ethnology and natural history of the regions visited. The Society has to date published over 200 editions in some 350 volumes. All editions are published in English.
Past Hakluyt Society editions have dealt with the following explorers: Ibn Battuta, Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, Pedro Cieza de León, John Cabot, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Cosmas Indicopleustes, James Cook, Vasco da Gama, Semyon Dezhnev, Francis Drake, Humphrey Gilbert, La Pérouse, Ludwig Leichhardt, Ma Huan, Olaus Magnus, Arthur J. M. Jephson, Jens Munk, and George Vancouver.
For an annual subscription fee, members receive volumes issued by the Society during the period of membership. Currently, two or three volumes are published each year.
A sister organization, The American Friends of the Hakluyt Society, was founded in 1996 at the John Carter Brown Library located on the campus of Brown University. The American Friends was founded in conjunction with the 150th anniversary celebration of the Hakluyt Society. The Rhode Island merchant John Carter Brown (1797-1874), was the first American to join the Society as a charter member in 1846.
The American Friends of the Hakluyt Society exists as a non-profit corporation with objectives similar to those of the Hakluyt Society in London, but with a focus on the history of the Americas. The group promotes and helps provide financial support from the United States for the publication of scholarly editions of records of voyages, travels and other geographical material of the past.