The Freelance History is pleased to welcome back Tony Riches with a guest post about Sir Walter Raleigh
Even today, the words ‘El Dorado’ seem full of mystery and promise. It’s easy to see how an ambitious explorer like Raleigh would be fascinated by the stories of a city of gold, but I needed to understand the history behind the myths before I could write about his adventures in Guiana.
The origins of El Dorado seem to come from stories brought back by Spanish explorers about ‘El Rey Dorado’, The golden King of the Muisca people, of Colombia, who covered himself with gold dust as part of his initiation, before being cleansed in a sacred lake. At some point in the 16th century the story shifted from the legends of the king to an entire city of gold.
The earliest reference to an El Dorado-like kingdom occurred in 1531, when Spanish explorer Diego de Ordaz met a Spaniard who had been captive of natives for ten years. He spoke of a city of gold, El Dorado or Manoa, said to exist beyond a mountain on the bank of the Orinoco River. Ordaz led an expedition but found the passage impossible, and died on the return journey.
Raleigh employed a talented mathematician and ethnographer, Thomas Harriot, who had been studying Portuguese nautical charts, and papers obtained from Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, the Spanish Governor of Patagonia. These included an account of Juan Martinez de Albujar’s of visiting a golden city in the wilderness.
Raleigh had turned forty and was out of favour with the queen after he married Bess Throckmorton, one of her ladies in waiting, in 1592 without permission. He’d been imprisoned in the Tower of London, but persuaded the queen to allow him to lead an expedition to discover El Dorado before the Spanish. Despite his great reputation as an explorer, Raleigh was a poor sailor and was frequently seasick. Before leaving Plymouth for the five-thousand-mile voyage to Guiana on the 6th of February, 1595, Raleigh wrote, “I am not so much in love with these long voyages.’
Like those before him, Raleigh found no gold, and faced extreme hardships as he made his way up the shallow and inhospitable river. With inadequate provisions and unsuitable rowing boats, his hundred men suffered in the jungle heat and tropical rains. Although Raleigh warned his men not to go ashore for fear of the ‘serpents and worms’ which lay hidden in the mangroves, morale suffered after one crewman was eaten by a crocodile, and they became lost in the tributaries of the river.
In his report ‘The Discovery of Guiana’, presented to the queen on his return, Raleigh offers some insight into the hardship of his Orinoco expedition:
The further we went on, our victual decreasing and the air breeding great faintness, we grew weaker and weaker, when we had most need of strength and ability. For hourly the river ran more violently than other against us, and the barge, wherries, and ship’s boat of Captain Gifford and Captain Caulfield had spent all their provisions; so as we were brought into despair and discomfort, had we not persuaded all the company that it was but only one day’s work more to attain the land where we should be relieved of all we wanted, and if we returned, that we were sure to starve by the way, and that the world would also laugh us to scorn. On the banks of these rivers were divers sorts of fruits good to eat, flowers and trees of such variety as were sufficient to make ten volumes of Herbals; we relieved ourselves many times with the fruits of the country, and sometimes with fowl and fish. We saw birds of all colours, some carnation, some crimson, orange-tawny, purple, watchet (pale blue), and of all other sorts, both simple and mixed, and it was unto us a great good-passing of the time to behold them, besides the relief we found by killing some store of them with our fowling-pieces; without which, having little or no bread, and less drink, but only the thick and troubled water of the river, we had been in a very hard case.
Raleigh’s own account presents historians with the usual challenge of separating fact from fiction. He needed to present his failure as something of a success to impress the queen, and his investors, such as William Cecil. At the same time, the details are compelling, and provided an authentic basis for my retelling of this expedition in my new book, Raleigh – Tudor Adventurer, the third in my Elizabethan series.
Source: The Discovery of Guiana – Project Gutenberg
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