Sir Walter Raleigh - Frederick Ober

The Fateful Voyage


Raleigh was free at last, after twelve full years behind stone walls; but his freedom had been purchased, and was not the spontaneous act of his Majesty King James. Two relatives of Villiers Duke of Buckingham, had been bribed for fifteen hundred pounds, and for this sum secured that which Raleigh had pleaded in vain for many years. The new favorite, Buckingham, was disposed to be friendly, and the successor to Cecil, Sir Ralph Winwood, was an ardent admirer of Sir Walter, so that for the voyage he had in contemplation there seemed to be nothing ahead but smooth seas and "plain sailing."

Whatever were Raleigh's thoughts as, a bowed and broken man of more than sixty, he emerged from his prison and looked about him, his spirits were still youthful, his ardor for exploration and discovery unquenched. During all that long term within the walls he had kept ever in mind the golden vision of Guiana not as the land appeared to him in reality, but as the yet undiscovered El Dorado of the Indian myths. He had failed to find the mines, owing to the interposition of the Spaniards, but he never seems to have reasoned upon the fact that if there were a rich mine they would certainly have discovered and appropriated it long before. Spain was then at peace with England, and the English King would cravenly submit to any terms of accommodation with the erstwhile and deadly enemy of his kingdom rather than jeopardize the scheme he then entertained of royal intermarriage.

But Sir Walter Raleigh had too long nurtured his own scheme of colonization in Virginia and Guiana to abandon it easily, and the first activities of his liberty were devoted to its furtherance. Acting, as he thought, with the King's full acquiescence, he proceeded to lay the keel of a ship, which, with perhaps prevision of his fateful voyage, he named the Destiny.

James I


His Majesty was privy to his plans, and Sir Ralph Winwood was eager to promote them, but upon Raleigh fell the greater portion of the expense. Ten thousand pounds in all he succeeded in raising by raking and scraping together every available asset, and various adventurers, lured by his description of El Dorado in the Discovery of Guiana, contributed three times that amount, or forty thousand pounds in total, which would amount to much more than two hundred thousand dollars in money of the present day. King James contributed nothing substantial, but his intentions toward Sir Walter are shown in a warning note issued by his privy council, as follows:

"His Majesty, out of his gracious inclinations towards you, being pleased to release you out of your imprisonment in the Tower, to go abroad with a keeper, to make your provisions for your intended voyage, we think it good to admonish you . . . that you should not presume to resort either to his Majesty's Court, the Queen's, or Prince's; nor go into any public assemblies whatsoever, without especial license obtained from his Majesty for your warrant. But only that you use the benefit of his Majesty's grace to follow the business which you are to undertake, and for which, upon your humble request, his Majesty hath been graciously pleased to grant you that freedom."

Thus Raleigh was reminded that he was no longer a free agent, that he was released for a single purpose only, which was to perform that long-projected voyage to Guiana. The King was not only aware of his intention, but more greatly promoted it than any other living being, by granting him his liberty, without which, of course, the voyage could not have been performed. Why, then, did the King, after the voyage was accomplished, turn upon Raleigh and deliver him into the hands of his enemies? For the real secret it would be necessary to look into the King's despicable heart, to inquire searchingly of his evasive, shuffling nature the reason for his acting the part of a knave and an assassin; for knave he was, in urging Raleigh forward in an enterprise that he knew foredoomed to failure; assassin he was, because he encouraged him in a course which he also knew would bring him to the block!

Now, Sir Walter Raleigh knew James for a fool, but he had not mistrusted that he was also a knave; hence he was enmeshed in a net contrived by the malice of his enemies, from which there was no escape save by flight to some other country than that in which he was born. Once afloat, with ships of his own in command, he might do this, perhaps he thought, so he went on with his preparations for the voyage. These preparations took much time, and it was not until nearly two years after his release that he found himself finally in absolute freedom, once more sailing the seas from which he had so long a time been debarred. Once more, as admiral, he strode the quarter-deck; once more, in anticipation of a free and adventurous life before him, he looked forward to a renewal of his youth. He had said farewell to Lady Raleigh, leaving with her Carew, their youngest son, but had taken with him their eldest, gallant and dashing young Walter, who was in nominal command of the Destiny  as their flag-ship.

While no secret had been made of his intentions, which were to find the gold-mines of El Dorado, and establish, if possible, a colony in the wilds of Guiana, Raleigh was not aware of the extent to which the Spaniards, who claimed control of that territory, ha3 been advised of his plans by the perfidious King. From the very first, James had furnished the Spanish ambassador, Gondomar, with the minutest details of the scheme, all of which had been forwarded to Spain, so that Raleigh's well-laid plans were already frustrated before he sailed. A Spanish expedition had been sent to Trinidad long in advance of Raleigh's arrival there, and when he arrived, after a toilsome and disastrous voyage, it was only to find his intentions anticipated by the Spaniards. His eleven ships were of no great avail, because he could not attack the Spaniards; his war-like equipment and his soldiers were useless, save for defence against an enemy with whom his sovereign was at peace; though he might be provoked to extremities, he could merely stand on the defensive. The advantages were every way with the Spaniards, as King James and Gondomar had intended them to be; for if Raleigh sought to advance through Spanish territory, or if he retreated without having accomplished anything, he must do so in the face of certain death. Though he had welcomed the prospect of a voyage, even with the hard conditions named by the King, because it would afford him freedom for a time, he now realized that he had been sent forth "with a halter round his neck."

He left England in August, 1617, and after touching at Lancerota, in the Canaries, where he had a tiff with the Spaniards but committed no depredations, he stretched across the Atlantic to the northeast coast of South America. Anchoring off one of the numerous mouths of the great Orinoco—as on his former visit, twenty-two years before—he organized a flotilla of small boats to ascend the river. He had lost forty-five men by sickness on the voyage; he was himself suffering from a fever, which had been upon him for three weeks; but, with all the energy of former days, he labored to get off the flotilla, which contained four hundred men, most of them worthless "scum of the earth," but under excellent leadership. The command of the land forces was bestowed upon his cousin, George Raleigh, under whom, nominally as captain, served young Walter, who was in the best of spirits and anxious to be off. The command of the whole was given to Captain Lawrence Kemys, who was his lieutenant in the expedition of 1595, a devoted retainer as well as efficient officer. Furnished with a month's provisions, amply armed, and imbued with their commander's enthusiasm, the explorers set off up the unknown affluent of the Orinoco.

Sir Walter could not go himself, but he furnished Kemys with the most explicit instructions to run no great risks, and to avoid provoking an encounter with the Spaniards.

"If you find," he said to him, and also repeated in written orders, "that the Mine be not so rich as may warrant the holding of it, then you may bring but a basket of the ore, in order to satisfy his Majesty that my design was not imaginary but true, though not answering perhaps to his expectations. Of the quantity, I never gave assurance, nor could . . . . On the other hand, if you should find that any great number of soldiers have been sent into the Orinoco—as the cacique of Caliana assured us there had—and that the passage be reinforced so that without manifest peril of my son, of yourself, and the other captains, you cannot pass to the Mine, then be well advised [that is, use great caution] how you land. For I know, with a few gentlemen excepted, what a scum of men you have. And I would not for all the world receive a blow from the Spaniards to the dishonor of our nation!  I myself, for weakness, cannot go with you, for the galleons of Spain are daily expected. . . . Let me hear from you as soon as you can. You shall find me at Puncto Gallo [southwestern point of Trinidad]; and if you find not my ships there you shall find their ashes. For I will fire upon the galleons if it come to extremity, but run will I never!"

The flotilla departed up the river, and Raleigh set sail for the Bay of Paria, where, evading an encounter with the Governor of Trinidad, he anchored his fleet in a spacious harbor near the point called Terra de Brea. It was not far from the celebrated "Pitch Lake" of Trinidad, which he had visited on the former voyage, and from which he extracted material for "pitching "the seams of his vessels, he said, as good as any that ever came out of Norway. The heat in this roadstead was extreme; but the Bay of Paria is vast and breezy, and soon the sick men recovered their health, and the well ones, under the leadership of Sir Walter, passed their time pleasantly exploring by sea and on shore.

Meanwhile, the men of the flotilla were forcing their way up the Orinoco, slowly but persistently, against the terrible current, and through swamps that reduced their spirits to the lowest ebb, so vast and dreary were they. Twenty-three days it took them to reach the region in which the mine was supposed to be situated, near the confluence of the Caroni with the Orinoco. Their month's supply of provisions was nearly exhausted, and they were almost famished, as well as worn out with rowing for weeks beneath the blaze of a tropical sun. In this forlorn condition they made a landing just below the mouth of the Caroni, with the intention of marching thence through the forest to the mine, which, though since thought to have been mythical, was supposed to be situated quite near. Kemys knew that the Spaniards had made a settlement near the confluence of the rivers, which they named St. Thomas; but he did not know that they had also raised a fort lower down, which was then occupied by soldiers from Trinidad. Thanks to information furnished by King James to Gondomar, and by him transmitted to the Governor of Trinidad, the Spaniards were enabled to plant an ambush at or near the very spot selected by Kemys as a starting-point for the expedition in search of the mine.

A camp was made, supper was prepared and eaten, and at nightfall the weary men were about to sleep when suddenly a fire of musketry was opened on them from the dense thickets on the river-bank. Taken so by surprise, the undisciplined soldiers were thrown into confusion; but the gallant Kemys rallied them before they had gained the boats, and the more courageous followed him in a desperate charge. The energy were dislodged and driven back upon the town, which was found unexpectedly near—a mere collection of palm-thatched huts in a straggling line between the river and the forest.

Several Englishmen had been killed and wounded in the fire from ambush, which so exasperated the survivors that, despite Sir Walter's instructions to the contrary, Kemys could not prevent them from attacking the Spaniards in their town, which was carried by the musketeers and pikemen. The Spaniards were driven to take shelter in the forest, but they had not given up the fight without inflicting severe losses upon the English. Foremost in the charge was young Walter Raleigh, gallantly leading his pikemen against the defensive outworks of the town when a musket-ball from the enemy brought him to the ground. His wound bled profusely, but, quickly springing to his feet, he waved his sword and shouted to his men to press forward. A burly Spaniard blocked his way, who, when he aimed a stroke at him with his sword, defended himself so well with a clubbed musket that a second time young Raleigh fell to the ground, but now with a wound that ended his life. As his men gathered about him, he faintly breathed: "Go on, my hearts, go an! Here is the mine we seek. They that look for any other are fools! May God have mercy upon me!" These were his last words, for then he died. After the town was taken, at sunset of the day in which the Spaniards were defeated, he was buried in the church of St. Thomas, near the high altar, with Captain Cosmer, a comrade, by his side, who had also fallen in that fight.

Captain Kemys had won a doubtful victory at an irreparable loss, the effects of which were to be felt for centuries. He had no heart to continue the exploration, and the Spaniards, by inciting the Indians to attack and repeatedly attempting to burn St. Thomas to the ground, did all they could to discourage him. Still, Kemys made one desperate attempt to reach the mine, and sent an expedition farther up the Orinoco, under George Raleigh, who was greatly impressed with the country's advantages for colonization. If but his uncle had seconded his attempts, an English colony might have been started then and there; but the news from the seat of war turned Sir Walter's heart to water, and no effort was made.

When within a few hours of the mine, it is thought, after enduring losses by disease and nightly assaults by both Spaniards and Indians, the dispirited commander gave up, and turned his back upon El Dorado forever. Made reckless of consequences by his fearful losses, before Kemys finally evacuated St. Thomas he sacked the town and plundered the church—which acts, in the eyes of the Spaniards, constituted the culmination of his crimes. All the plunder together did not amount to more than forty thousand reales, and none of it was ore of gold, save a few ingots, thus showing conclusively that the mine, if it existed, could not have been worked by the Spaniards. Neither was there any bag of ore directly from the mine, nor even a single nugget, to prove to King James the integrity of Raleigh's intentions. All this negative evidence, taken together with the bloodshed and plundering, would surely turn the King against him if he were not already his inveterate enemy. The "writing on the wall" was plain enough to poor Captain Kemys when he dejectedly began his return journey down the Orinoco, and also to his commander when the letter arrived announcing the death of his son and encounters with the Spaniards.

While all these disasters were occurring to his soldiers in the wilderness, Sir Walter and his men remained off the coast of Trinidad, in the Gulf of Paria, recuperating from the fatigues of the voyage, and as soon as he himself had sufficiently recovered his strength he began an investigation of the wonders on shore. The tropical forests, the lake of asphalt, the coral-reefed bocas  all were objects of his attention. In this pursuit he found solace, and a delightful occupation for his mind, until rudely aroused by the terrible tidings from St. Thomas. Then he withdrew in despair into his cabin, and there, alone with his griefs, he awaited the return of the unlucky expedition.

On March 2nd, after an absence of nearly two months, the remains of the flotilla returned to the fleet. To the few who had seen him after he had learned of young Walter's death, Raleigh appeared calm, but sadly distraught; but when the unhappy Kemys arrived, it seemed he could no longer hold himself in restraint. Two broken-hearted men retired into the cabin of the Destiny, one of them, the unfortunate Kemys, to an interview which he had long foreseen and dreaded more than death. He faced his commander resolutely, however, though it was already a lost cause that he pleaded. He was overcome by grief and remorse, for he felt he knew the justice of Sir Walter's charges that by fatal neglect he had caused the death of his son; that through lack of energy he had failed to find the mine; that by disobedience of orders he had come into conflict with the enemy; and, finally, that by returning without any token whatever of El Dorado, for the satisfaction of the King, he had imperilled all their lives.

Sir Walter's grief had doubtless driven him to the verge of madness. "Oh, Oh, I would rather leave my body in that church of St. Thomas, by the side of my poor son," he declared, "than to return without him! Nor have you brought out from the mine so much ore as might have satisfied the King! I am undone! What shall become of me I know not! I am unpardoned in England, and my poor estate consumed, and whether any prince will give me bread or no, I know not. But what care I, now that my dear son is dead?"

Kemys was stupefied with sorrows over which he had long brooded, and could make no reply. Without a word, he placed before Sir Walter some papers which he had found in the governor's house at St. Thomas. They contained the correspondence between Gondomar and the Governor of Guiana, showing conclusively that the Englishmen were foredoomed before they sailed. Raleigh glanced over them listlessly, but suddenly started as though he had received an electric shock, for there he saw himself proclaimed a traitor to his King by the very acts which Kemys had committed. The trap had been contrived in London, with the connivance of King James; it was baited by the Spaniards on the Orinoco, and he had marched straight into it!

He looked up and met his captain's questioning glance. "It is not thy fault altogether, friend," he said, grasping his faithful retainer by the hand. "It is mine as well, and we must return to face these charges."

They knew their fate: they knew that their death-warrants were as good as signed already; but at least one of that unhappy pair was resolved to forestall the vengeance of King James and Gondomar. What followed is not exactly known, but as Kemys emerged from the cabin he was heard to say: "Is that, sir, your final determination?" Upon Raleigh's reply, in a harsh voice, "It is," he rejoined, "Then, sir, I know what course to take,"  and retired to his own cabin.

Hearing the report of a firearm issue from it shortly after, Raleigh sent a page to inquire the cause. The boy was told by Kemys, who was lying in his bunk, that he had discharged his pistol by accident, and withdrew; but soon after another boy entered the cabin in the course of his duties, and found his master stretched dead upon the floor, with a pistol wound in his body and a dagger thrust through his heart. These wounds had been self-inflicted by the unhappy Kemys, who was the third of Sir Walter's devoted followers to precede him to the grave on that ill-fated expedition. With him died the secret of the mine—if one there were; and after his death Raleigh no longer had an incentive to search for El Dorado. The golden country and the Gilded King faded into the mists from which they had arisen—the mists of Indian tradition and no one yet has rediscovered them.

The homeward track was soon after taken, and the discomfited Raleigh, with a mutinous crew tempting him to piracy, and compelled to promise an attack upon the Spanish treasure-fleet to insure their service, slowly made his way across the Atlantic. All his hopes and ambitions were buried with his son in that lonely grave at St. Thomas, by whose side he longed to lay his weary body for its final rest; but his wife and younger son still lived in England, so for its shores he shaped his course, though well aware that his enemies merely waited there to slay him.