Front Matter A Little Old World Early Mariners Is the World Flat Herodotus the Traveller Alexander Explores India Pytheas Finds British Isles Julius Caesar as Explorer Strabo's Geography The Roman Empire and Pliny Ptolemy's Maps Pilgrim Travellers Irish Explorers After Mohammed Vikings Sail Northern Seas Arab Wayfarers Travellers to the East Marco Polo Mediaeval Exploration Ends Mediaeval Maps Prince Henry of Portugal Bartholomew Diaz Christopher Columbus A Great New World Vasco da Gama Reaches India Discovery of Spice Islands Balboa Sees Pacific Ocean Magellan Sails Round World Cortes Conquers Mexico Explorers in South America Cabot Sails to Newfoundland Cartier Explores Canada Search for a Northwest Passage Frobisher Searches for Passage Drake's Famous Voyage Davis Straight Barents Sails to Spitzbergen Hudson Finds His Bay Baffin Finds His Bay Raleigh Searches for El Dorado Champlain and Lake Ontario Discoverers of Australia Tasman Finds Tasmania Dampier Discovers a Straight Behring Finds his Straight Cook Discovers New Zealand Cook's Third Voyage Bruce in Abyssinia Mungo Park and the Niger Vancouver and his Island Mackenzie and his River Parry and Lancaster Sound The Frozen North Franklin's Land Voyage Parry's Polar Voyage The Search for Timbuktu Landers Discover the Niger Ross Discovers North Pole Flinders Names Australia Sturt's Discoveries in Australia Ross in the Antarctic Seas Franklin Discovers Passage David Livingstone Burton and Speke in Africa Livingston Traces Nyassa Expedition to Victoria Nyanza Baker Finds Albert Nyanza Livingstone's Last Journey Through the Dark Continent Nordenskiold's NE Passage The Exploration of Tibet Nansen Reaches Farthest North Peary Reaches the North Pole The Quest for the South Pole Dates of Chief Events

Book of Discovery - M. B. Synge

Sir Walter Raleigh Searches for El Dorado

It is pleasant to turn from the icy regions of North America to the sunny South, and to follow the fortunes of that fine Elizabethan gentleman, Sir Walter Raleigh, to "the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana and the Great and Golden City of Manoa (which the Spaniards call El Dorado)." Ever since the conquest of Peru, sixty years before, there had floated about rumours of a great kingdom abounding in gold. The King of this Golden Land was sprinkled daily with gold dust, till he shone as the sun, while Manoa was full of golden houses and golden temples with golden furniture. The kingdom was wealthier than Peru; it was richer than Mexico. Expedition after expedition had left Spain in search of this El Dorado, but the region was still plunged in romantic mists. Raleigh had just failed to establish an English colony in Virginia. To gain a rich kingdom for his Queen, to extend her power and enrich her treasury was now his greatest object in life. What about El Dorado?

"Oh, unwearied feet, travelling ye know not whither! Soon, soon, it seems to you, you must come forth on some conspicuous hilltop, and but a little way further, against the setting sun, descry the spires of El Dorado."

February 1595 found him ready and leaving England with five ships and, after a good passage of forty-six days, landing on the island of Trinidad, and thence making his way to the mouth of the Orinoco. Here Raleigh soon found that it was impossible to enter the Orinoco with his English ships, but, nothing daunted, he took a hundred men and provisions for a month in three little open boats, and started forward to navigate this most difficult labyrinth of channels, out of which they were guided by an old Indian pilot named Ferdinando. They had much to observe. The natives, living along the river-banks, dwelt in houses all the summer, but in the winter months they constructed small huts to which they ascended by means of ladders.

These folk were cannibals, but cannibals of a refined sort, who "beat the bones of their lords into powder" and mixed the powder with their drinks. The stream was very strong and rapid, and the men rowed against it in great discomfort, "the weather being extreme hot, the river bordered with very high trees that kept away the air, and the current against us every day stronger than the other," until they became, as Raleigh tells us, "wearied and scorched and doubtful."

The heat increased as they advanced, and the crews grew weaker as the river "ran more violently against them." But Raleigh refused to return yet, lest "the world would laugh us to scorn."

Fortunately delicious fruits hung over the banks of the Orinoco, and, having no bread and for water only the thick and troubled water of the river, they refreshed themselves gladly. So they rowed on up the great river, through province after province of the Indians, but no El Dorado appeared. Suddenly the scene changed as if by magic, the high banks giving way to low-lying plains; green grass grew close to the water's edge, and deer came down to feed.

"I never saw a more beautiful country," says Raleigh, "nor more lively prospects, hills raised here and there over the valleys, the river winding into different branches, plains without bush or stubble, all fair green grass, deer crossing our path, the birds towards evening singing on every tree with a thousand several tunes, herons of white, crimson, and carnation perching on the riverside, the air fresh with a gentle wind, and every stone we stooped to pick up promised either gold or silver." His account of the great cataract at the junction of the tributary Caroni is very graphic. They had already heard the roar, so they ran to the tops of some neighbouring hills, discovering the wonderful "breach of waters" which ran down Caroli, and from that "mountain see the river how it ran in three parts, about twenty miles off, and there appeared some ten or twelve overfalls in sight, every one as high over the other as a church tower, which fell with that fury that the rebound of waters made it seem as if it had been all covered over with a great shower of rain; and in some places we took it at the first for a smoke that had risen over some great town."

Sir Walter Raleigh


The country was the province of Guiana, but it was not El Dorado, the object of their quest. And though it was very beautiful, it was inhabited by cannibals; moreover, winter was advancing, and they were already some four hundred miles from their ships in little open boats and in the heart of a strange country.

Suddenly, too, the river began to rise, to "rage and overflow very fearfully," rain came down in torrents accompanied by great gusts of wind, and the crews with no change of clothes got wet through, sometimes ten times a day. "Whosoever had seen the fury of that river after it began to rise would perchance have turned his back somewhat sooner than we did if all the mountains had been gold or precious stones," remarked Raleigh, who indeed was no coward. So they turned the boats for home, and at a tremendous rate they spun down the stream, sometimes doing as much as one hundred miles a day, till after sundry adventures they safely reached their ships at anchor off Trinidad. Raleigh had not reached the golden city of Manoa, but he gave a very glowing account of this country to his Queen.

"Guiana," he tells her, "is a country that hath yet her maidenhood. The face of the earth hath not been torn, the graves have not been opened for gold. It hath never been entered by any army of strength, and never conquered by any Christian prince. Men shall find here more rich and beautiful cities, more temples adorned with gold, than either Cortes found in Mexico or Pizarro in Peru, and the shining glory of this conquest will eclipse all those of the Spanish nation."

But Raleigh had brought back no gold, and his schemes for a conquest of Guiana were received coldly by the Queen. She could not share his enthusiasm for the land—

"Where Orinoco, in his pride,

Rolls to the main no tribute tide,

But 'gainst broad Ocean wages far

A rival sea of roaring war;

While in ten thousand eddies driven

The billows Ring their foam to heaven;

And the pale pilot seeks in vain

Where rolls the river, where the main."

But, besides the Orinoco in South America, there was the St. Lawrence in North America, still very imperfectly known. Since Jacques Cartier had penetrated the hitherto undisturbed regions lying about the "river of Canada," little had been explored farther west, till Samuel Champlain, one of the most remarkable men of his day, comes upon the scene, and was still discovering land to the west when Raleigh was making his second expedition to Guiana in the year 1617.

[Illustration] from Book of Discovery by M. B. Synge