Britannia Biographies: Sir Walter Raleigh Part 12

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Biography of Sir Walter Raleigh by Christopher Smith

S I R      W A L T E R
 R A L E I G H
Part 12: The Search for El Dorado

A Native American WomanAway from courtly life, Raleigh turned his thoughts to the lethal glittering El Dorado. When, in 1594, the reconnaissance mission to Guyana had seized Sarmiento de Gamboa, this Spanish aristocrat told Raleigh of the legend of El Dorado: the fantastic golden kingdom said to be hidden in remote South America. The Caribbean waters were swarming with English privateers like Drake who had sacked San Domingo and Cartagena; but Sir Walter wanted to take a broader approach and establish a real English foothold on the American continent from which to make an effective challenge to Spanish power in the area. The fabled El Dorado would be an ideal base for such a grand design. His fleet sailed in 1595: four ships manned by three hundred soldiers and adventurers, including Lawrence Keymis, an Oxford mathematician who had abandoned a Balliol fellowship to join him.

Raleigh appeared off Trinidad and wiped out the harbour grand at Port of Spain. He burnt the town of San Joseph and captured Don Antonio de Berrio, the seventy-four year old Spanish Governor. This veteran soldier had led a number of expeditions up the Orinoco to look for El Dorado and Sir Walter hoped this experience would help in his own search. Accompanied by some additional vessels and a crew of one hundred, Raleigh spent a month gathering provisions and then set off up the Orinoco. They found the Native American guides to be of little use, but still struggled on inland against the current. During a meal stop on the riverbank, Raleigh found a basket hidden in the bushes which he believed to be a toolkit dropped by a local metal refiner. They travelled on for fifteen days until they found a group of friendly locals: the women were attractive, but the men were drunkards. The English sailors were well behaved compared to the visiting Spaniards who had been cruel and lusty. Far off mountains encouraged them to press on. A further six days travelling brought them to the junction of the Orinoco and Caroni Rivers. The chief of a native village here had been executed by Berrio, and the place was now ruled by Topiawari, a man of great age. He is said to have been one hundred and ten years old. Raleigh and the new chief became firm friends and the explorer was able to send out further reconnaissance parties. They reported that the expedition was on the edge of a Promised Land: "every stone they picked up promised either gold or silver". But the accounts were false and the stones were found to be worthless. Rainstorms were now becoming frequent and Sir Walter was forced to return to Trinidad. He took Topiawari's son with him but left two men behind. One, Francis Sparrow, was later captured and imprisoned in Spain. The other, Hugh Godwin, Raleigh's cabin boy, was absorbed by the tribe and almost forgot his native tongue. Sadly, the expedition itself had achieved little: a bag of tools, some worthless rocks and a good deal of misinformation.

Sir Walter now sailed for Cumana and the Venezuelan Coast in order to raid the Spanish settlements there. He lost four men in a skirmish, but some twenty-seven of his men also died of disease on board ship. He finally exchanged Berrio for a wounded Englishman and returned, disillusioned, to England to write one of the supreme works of Elizabethan travel literature, "The Discovery of the Large, Rich and Beautiful Empire of Guyana," the present day Venezuela.

Part 13: The Attack on Cadiz    Copyright ©1999, LLC