Monday, October 29, 2018

In search of El Dorado

Walter Raleigh, one of the most colourful characters in British history and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, died 400 years ago today - executed, reluctantly, for treason under the orders of King James I. He twice led expeditions to South America in search of the legendary El Dorado. Immediately on returning from the first, he published a book about his adventures; but a diary he kept during the second had to wait more than 250 years to be published.

Raleigh was born around the year 1554, the youngest of five sons, near Budleigh Salterton in Devon, to parents who had both been married previously. The family was strongly Protestant, and was sometimes in trouble during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary. Not much is known about his early life, though he left for France in 1569 to serve with the Huguenots in the so-called French Wars of Religion against the Catholics; and subsequently he studied briefly at Oriel College, Oxford, before finishing his education at the Inns of Court. In 1575, he was registered at the Middle Temple, though he later wrote that he had never studied law. By 1578, Raleigh was sailing to America, later sponsoring two expeditions to set up a colony there, though both failed.

Between 1579 and 1583, Raleigh served with the English army in Ireland fighting against Catholic rebels. His outspoken criticism of the way English policy was being implemented in Ireland brought him to the attention of Queen Elizabeth, and by 1582 he had become one her favourites. She rewarded him with vast lands in the province of Munster, including the coastal walled towns of Youghal and Lismore. Over the next two decades or so, he set up home in the area, managing the estates but with limited success in persuading English tenants to settle. Elizabeth also helped him to a tenancy in London, as well as commercial privileges (ranging from licenses for wine and the export of broadcloth to being warden of Cornish tin mines). He was knighted in 1585; and, in 1587, he was appointed captain of the Queen’s Guard.

In 1592, the queen discovered that Raleigh had secretly married one of her maids-of-honour, Elizabeth Throckmorton. Out of spite, she imprisoned the couple in the Tower of London, though they only spent a few months there. They resided mostly on Raleigh’s estate in Sherborne, and in time had two children (an earlier child had died in infancy). It was not long before Elizabeth consented to Raleigh leading an expedition to South America, beyond the mouth of the Orinoco river in Guiana (now Venezuela), in search of a fabled land rich in gold, El Dorado. Until Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Raleigh continued to serve a key role in her forces, battling the Spanish, and as a member of parliament for Dorset, then Cornwall. He was governor of the Channel Island of Jersey for three years. In 1602, he sold his lands in Ireland to Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork (see also Robert Boyle’s workdiaries).

Within months of the Catholic James I taking the throne, Raleigh was charged with treason and sentenced to death, though James commuted the sentence to imprisonment, again, in the Tower. This time he remained there until 1616, writing many treatises as well as the first volume of his Historie of the World. The following year, James granted him permission for a second expedition to Venezuela in search of El Dorado. However, some of the men under his command violated the terms of a peace treaty with Spain, so that, on his return, King James was left with no option but to reinstate Raleigh’s death sentence. He was beheaded on 29 October 1618. Further biographical information is available at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica or Spartacus.

On his return from the first voyage in search of El Dorado, Raleigh published The Discoverie of the large, rich and bewtiful Empyre of Guiana (1596), which somewhat embellished the extent of his findings, and thus contributed to the growing El Dorado legend. The work has been much reprinted over the years: for example by the Hakluyt Society in 1848 and by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1996 (an edition transcribed and annoyed by Neil L. Whitehead). Clearly, Raleigh was in no position to author another book after his second voyage to Guiana. However, he did keep a journal during the expedition (possibly with the intention of enlarging it for publication later) - just seven sheets of paper, starting on 19 August 1616 and finishing on 13 February 1617. This was archived, along with other papers, and, for a long time, remained only in manuscript form (today it is archived with the Cotton Manuscripts at the British Library).

The diary manuscript was mentioned in the first volume (of eight) of The Works of Sir Walter Raleigh (1829, Oxford, at the University Press). The volume contains two biographies of Raleigh. One of these is by William Oldys, who, in considering Raleigh’s writings on Guiana, advises that the diary is ‘unfinished and full of chasms, seeming to contain only notes and observations for his own memory’. It was eventually published, along with Raleigh’s account of his first voyage, in 1887 by Cassel & Company, as The Discovery of Guiana and The Journal of the Second Voyage thereto. This can be read freely at Internet Archive (the source of the following extracts).

17-31 December 1616
‘The 17th we came to anchor at Puncto Gallo, where we stayed, taking water, fish, and some Armadillos, refreshing our men with palmetto, Guiavas, piniorellas, and other fruit of the country, till the last of December. In sailing by the south coast of Trinidad I saw in one day, to wit, the 16th of December, 15 rainbows and 2 wind gales, and one of the rainbows brought both ends together at the stern of the ship, making a perfect circle, which I never saw before, nor any man in my ship had seen the like.’

31 December 1616
‘The last of December we weighed anchor and turned up north-east towards Conquerabo, otherwise called the port of Spain, being New Year’s eve, and we came to anchor at Terra de Bri, short of the Spanish port some 10 leagues. This Terra de Bri is a piece of land of some 2 leagues long and a league broad, all of stone pitch or bitumen, which riseth out of the ground in little springs or fountains, and so running a little way, it hardeneth in the air and covereth all the plain; there are also many springs of water, and in and among them fresh-water fish. Here rode at anchor, and trimmed our boats; we had here some fish, and many of the country pheasants somewhat bigger than ours, and many of the hens exceeding fat and delicate meat.’

19 January 1617
‘The 19th of January we sent up Sir J. Feme’s ship to the Spanish port, to try if they would trade for tobacco and other things; but when her boat was near the shore, while they on the land were in parley with Captain Giles, who had charge of the boat, the Spaniards gave them a volley of some 20 muskets at 40 paces distant, and yet hurt never a man. As our boat put off, they called our men thieves and traitors, with all manner of opprobrious speeches.’

No comments: