Sir Walter Raleigh - Frederick Ober

Sir Walter and El Dorado


Two years of peace and quietude succeeded to the stress and storm of the period we have just passed in review. Although released from custody, Raleigh was long after out of favor with the Queen, and, banished from her presence, sought solace with the rightful queen of his affections

the Elizabeth whom he had made his wife. These two made their home at Sherborne, in Dorsetshire, an estate that had been presented Sir Walter by the Queen, and which was for years his favorite place of residence. Here he planted trees and laid out gardens, wrote poetry, and—" fell in love with his wife, "whom he discovered to be the very treasure for which he had been looking all his life. Without her, he realized, his life would thereafter be quite incomplete, for she entered into his every plan and scheme, sympathized with him in affliction, and rejoiced in his successes.

Their brief period of rest and domestic enjoyment at Sherborne was perhaps less irksome to her than to the man who had more than once managed the affairs of a kingdom in an advisory capacity—or, at least, had held the hand that was supposed to guide the helm of the nation. Tranquillity was soothing to Sir Walter; but it also palled upon him, after the wounds received in his affrays had healed. He was not content with planting, with beautifying his estate, with the adoration of one who loved him truly and would have made any sacrifice to retain him by her side; but the old restlessness came over him, and he soon began the planning of another voyage.

This time he was disposed to sail into the south and the west, to a far-distant country which hitherto had not tempted him with its treasures. Less than three months after his retirement, or in February, 1593, there are indications of this desire in a letter written by Lady Raleigh to Lord Robert Cecil, in which she betrays her anxiety lest her husband be drawn into some new venture that would take him far away from home and family. After the customary common-places, she says: ". . . I hope, for my sake, you will rather draw Water [Sir Walter] from the East than help him forward toward the sunset, if any respect to me or love to him be not forgotten. But every month hath his flower, and every season his contentment; and you great counsellors are so full of new counsels that you are steady in nothing. We poor souls, that have bought sorrow at a high price, desire and can be pleased with the same misfortunes we hold, fearing that alterations will but multiply our miseries, of which we have already felt sufficient. I know only your persuasions are of effect with him, and held as oracles tied together by love; therefore, I humbly beseech you, rather stay him than further him. By the which you shall bind me for ever."

Two years passed before the voyage which he had in contemplation was realized, but, having yielded that much to his wife's entreaties, Sir Walter felt constrained no longer to delay it. He loved his wife, but he craved the favor of his Queen, which had been so long denied him, and to regain it he conceived an enterprise that was calculated to win her admiration. It was nothing less than a voyage to the mouth of the Orinoco, and an expedition up that river in search of a mysterious kingdom known as El Dorado  (The Golden). Not alone the Queen's favor would he win thereby, he reasoned, but at the same time gratify his desire to despoil their common enemy, the Spaniards; for the mouths of the Orinoco were blockaded by the Spaniards, who held control of Trinidad, lying to the north of them, and who were supposed to have planted settlements on the great river. Nearly one hundred years had elapsed since Columbus discovered Trinidad and the waters adjacent, and though the Spaniards had been tardy in forming settlements, they had long since worked out the pearl fisheries of Cubagua and Margarita, off Paria, and had begun to exploit the gold-mines of the main.

Just when the idea took possession of Sir Walter, or how he became acquainted with the legends upon which he based his hypothesis of a golden kingdom in South America, is not known; but the first was firmly fixed in his mind, and the second was certainly existent in traditions which had been conveyed by Indians to the Spaniards. From the time of their first visits to the north coast of South America, the conquistadors were informed of regions full of gold lying adjacent to that coast or near the rivers running down to it from the interior. Balboa was told that gold was so abundant there that it could be gathered in nets stretched across the streams. Ojeda was lured to his ruin by stories of a golden city in the wilderness of Venezuela, back of the peninsula of Coro and Lake Maracaibo. And the famed "Dorado,"  be it golden city or gold-covered king, of South American aborigines was eagerly sought for during the greater part of the sixteenth century.

It matters not to us of the present era that the golden city of Manoa, with its walls and roofs covered with the precious metal, and the "gilded king," who was powdered with gold-dust and bathed in a wonderful lake, are considered as myths. They seemed real to the Spanish conquerors, and for many, many years they searched for both, sacrificing lives by the hundred and treasure incalculable in their pursuit of the delusion. Not alone Spaniards, but adventurers of another nationality, the German, poured out their blood like water spilled on the ground and broke their hearts in vain endeavor to locate Manoa and its gilded king.

The first intimation of El Dorado  came from an Indian of Bogota, who, sent by his cacique on an embassage to the Inca of Peru, and finding the land in possession of strangers the Spaniards under Pizarro—told them of the tradition prevalent in his country. This was that in a mountain region not far distant from the coast lived a mighty cacique who, on certain festival days, repaired to a lake kept sacred for the purpose, where he performed an ablution. He was stripped of his clothing, then smeared with perfumed balsam, and dusted from head to foot with powdered gold. He was then, according to the Indian legend, the great and glorious "Gilded King," or, as rendered in Spanish, El Dorado. This is the origin of the Spanish word, now adopted into our own language as descriptive of a golden region, or land, rather than an individual.

Having been converted into a golden image for the adoration of his people, the cacique embarked in his canoe, and, after reverential ceremonies had been performed, plunged into the sacred waters, where he left the gold with which he had been covered, in token that the offences of his people had been washed away.

This was the tradition that, descended from the aboriginal Indians to the Spaniards, reached Sir Walter Raleigh in England by some means unknown, fait probably through reports of the various expeditions sent out in search of El Dorado. The gold-roofed city of Manoa, built upon the shore of a great lake surrounded by glistening mountains, and the prince powdered from head to foot with gold, "so that he resembled a golden god, worked by the hands of a skilful artist," were to be found, the Indians said, not far distant from the coast, but beyond the mountains. They could be reached by a journey up the Orinoco, and when once discovered "billets of gold would be found lying about in heaps, as if they were logs of wood stacked up to burn."

The earliest attempt to enter the golden region was in 1530, by a German named Alfinger, who set out from Coro, on the coast of Venezuela, with two hundred Spaniards and twice as many Indians, the latter chained together in pairs and serving as carriers. Nearly all perished in the untrodden forest; but seven years later two other Germans led expeditions into the unknown wilds, and with a like result.

The Germans, soon after, abandoned the attempt upon El Dorado, but the Spaniards still persisted. That wonderful voyage made by Orellana down the Amazon, in 1540, revived the stories relating to the Golden City and king, and set in motion a series of explorations extending over a period of more than forty years. In the year 1560 Don Pedro de Ursua followed in Pizarro's and Orellana's tracks from Peru with an El Dorado  expedition which was fated to be the most sanguinary, as well as the most wonderful, of any that ever set forth on such a quest. After reaching the Orellana as the Amazon was then called Ursua was murdered, at the instigation of the second in command, one Lope de Aguirre, who thereby became the leader. Under him the soldiers and colonists, several hundred in number, proceeded down the great river, capturing inoffensive Indians and putting them to torture, in vain effort to extort from them information of El Dorado.

Finally, after more than seven months' wandering and drifting down various rivers, they emerged from one of the Orinoco's mouths, and thence made their way across the Bay of Paria to the island called Margarita, which they reached in July, 1561.

They had become inured to suffering, and though they had found but little gold, and received no tidings of the golden kingdom they were seeking, they still had faith in the tradition. Their spirits were not broken, nor was their thirst for blood yet quenched; for, learning that the island was rich in pearls (being one from which the Spaniards had taken vast quantities), Aguirre decoyed the governor to the shore, where his canoes were beached, and there massacred him and all his troops. He then plundered the public treasury of the so-termed "king's fifths "of gold and pearls, which had been accumulating for shipment to Spain, sacked all the dwellings in the settlement, and killed or put to inhuman torture many men and women.

Sailing across to Venezuela, Aguirre and his Maranones  (men of the Maranon)—a name since bestowed upon conspirators of their sort—coasted the main, and at last landed at the site of Puerto Cabello. Thence they proceeded inland to Valencia, where at length the people were aroused and began to assemble under arms. The people of Valencia having fled to an island in a lake, the Maranones destroyed their dwellings and gardens, then set out on the long journey to Santa Fe de Bogota, believing that on the way they would probably find the golden-roofed Manoa. But before they reached the frontier they were surrounded by the enraged Venezuelans in overwhelming numbers, and a fierce battle was fought at a place known as Barquisimento.

Aguirre fought with ferocious bravery, but finding the odds against him, and seeing escape impossible (having placed himself beyond the hope of pardon or mercy), he slew his daughter, who had accompanied him, and was shot to death by the Venezuelans.

Thus disastrously ended the last great expedition commanded by Spaniards in search of El Dorado, though a smaller one was made in 1582, thirteen years before the English, under Raleigh, took up the quest. The first of the kind was organized at Coro, in Venezuela, the soil of which, many years later, was drenched with the blood of the last victim to the delusion, at the behest of one who seemed to hold human life to be worth less than gold. It is believed that Sir Walter Raleigh must have seen the narrative of Aguirre's wanderings, and, barring his cruelties, found something to commend in the madman's career. One sentiment these two, the Englishman and the Spaniard, held in common: hatred and suspicion of that arch-fiend, Philip of Spain. The King's character was depicted in the blackest colors by Aguirre in a letter which he left behind at Margarita, for transmission to Spain, addressed to: "King Philip, a Spaniard, son of Charles the Invincible."

Aguirre's characterization of the Spaniards by one who knew them intimately, and in fact was one of them, must have fully confirmed Sir Walter in the opinion he had long since formed respecting the nation with which England was waging intermittent war. Aguirre, "the madman," had the wit and the effrontery to paint the Spaniards in their proper colors. He told the truth—of that Raleigh must have been convinced; and, having shown himself truthful in one instance, why should not his statements respecting El Dorado be true?

The historian Hume has denounced Sir Walter for placing credence in these fabulous stories, but he did not take into consideration that the Spaniards had believed in them to the extent of sending out great expeditions on the strength of them alone.

The last search previous to that conducted by Raleigh was by Antonio de Berreo, then acting governor of Trinidad, who, according to Captain Whiddon, had expended much treasure in that search. Captain Whiddon was sent out by Raleigh, in 1594, to make a preliminary survey of the Orinoco. He made the acquaintance of Berreo in Trinidad, where he was at first hospitably received. But when Berreo learned the nature of his visit that it was for the purpose of ascertaining the correct route up the Orinoco to the country of the Gilded King his attitude changed from friendly to hostile at once. Finding a party of Whiddon's men ashore, where they were hunting in the forest, he promptly placed them in prison, where they were kept so long that the English captain returned home without them. His report was unsatisfactory, for he had learned nothing of the way to Manoa, and he had aroused the suspicions of the Spaniards; nevertheless, Sir Walter concluded to make the voyage and see for himself the wonders of the Golden City.