The Golden Man: Sir Walter Ralegh and the Search for El Dorado
In sunshine and shadow, from darkness till noon. Over mountains that reach from the sky to the moon. A man with a dream that will never let go. Keeps searching to find El Dorado.First verse of the title music to the film El Dorado, 1966 – Gabriel and Riddle
Looking for El Dorado? These days there are a multitude of choices. One of the easiest is via US Route 50, west from Carson City. Once you pass the south-east shore
of Lake Tahoe, at the same time crossing the Nevada/California state line, you have arrived at El Dorado county, home to Sutter’s Mill of California Gold Rush fame.
Alaska has the Eldorado River and the New Eldorado Creek, both reminders of the Nome Gold Rush (Alchemist 98), and there’s an Eldorado Creek in Canada’s Klondike.
Latin America is stacked with villages, towns, cities, mountains, rivers and even one airport (Venezuela) called El Dorado or Eldorado. It’s easier to list the countries that are not so favoured. There’s only one El Dorado in South America, in Suriname, which is strange, because in the days when men “with a dream” searched for El Dorado, the Guiana Plains – today in the territories of Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname – was one of the places to go. And Sir Walter Ralegh (as he spelt his name in later years) was one of the earliest who went.
A MAN OR A KING, A CITY OR A LAKE
The original legends had nothing to do with Guiana, but were focused 1,000 miles west, in the Colombian Andes. Moreover, El Dorado (‘The Golden One’) as the Conquistadors called him, was not a place but a man – the king of the indigenous Muisca people, who were the founders of Bogotá.
Arguably, the first encounter between the Muisca and the Spanish took place in 1537, when Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada came across Lake Guatavita in the Andes and the ceremonies associated with the investiture of a new zipa or Muiscan chief, which involved the man in question being coated in gold dust and jumping into the water accompanied by offerings of gold artefacts and emeralds.
Quesada and his followers may not have witnessed such a coronation, but what is certain is that they found treasure around the water’s edge. They became convinced, since the Muiscas were so casual with gold and precious stones, that the lake itself was the source of immeasurable wealth, so much so that several later and unsuccessful attempts were made to drain it.
Myths and legends spread and become exagerrated, and over the almost 60 years from Quesada’s discovery to Sir Walter Ralegh’s first expedition, the concept of El Dorado had changed location and structure. Hence, the title of his book: “The Discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana; with a Relation of the great and golden City of Manoa, which the Spaniards call El Dorado….Performed in the year 1595 by Sir Walter Ralegh, Knight.”
THEY BECAME CONVINCED SINCE THE MUISCAS WERE SO CASUAL WITH GOLD AND PRECIOUS STONES THAT THE LAKE ITSELF WAS THE SOURCE OF IMMEASURABLE WEALTHLake Guatavita, Colombia
DOINGS AT COURT
Walter Ralegh was in many ways a sixteenth century incarnation of Errol Flynn. Dashingly good looking and always well dressed, he was an experienced sailor, an enthusiastic explorer, keen on a fight (usually against the Spanish) and a man with an eye for the ladies. It is arguable that this latter characteristic, an eye for one particular lady, led directly to his search for El Dorado.
Ralegh first came to the attention of the Royal Court as a result of his military actions during a campaign to suppress Ireland. By December 1581, he had become not only a courtier, but also a confidante, and some imply an intimate, of the Queen herself. Although if true, his later naming of the territory of Virginia for Elizabeth was hardly appropriate!
Walter was knighted in 1585 and during the late 1580s, backed by royal charter, organised two expeditions to colonise and exploit North America, although personally he never set foot there.
However, his popularity crashed in 1592 when the Queen came to learn of his affair and subsequent secret marriage to Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Throckmorton. In some paintings, Bess looks like a younger version of Queen Elizabeth (who was twice her age) and this may have been part of the problem.
Bess Throckmorton was one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting and was thus not allowed to marry without receiving formal royal permission. Such permission was never sought, possibly because Walter and Bess feared it would not be granted, which prompts a question about whether Elizabeth saw Bess as a rival for her knight’s affections.
In any event, when the Queen heard of these doings, Walter and Bess were locked up in the Tower of London for a few months, but by the end of the year, the couple were to be found in Ralegh’s estate in Sherborne, Dorset – out of direct contact with the Court and distinctly out of favour.
UP THE ORINOQUE
Much of Ralegh’s life from the 1590s until his execution in 1618 was focused on trying to regain the trust and favour of his sovereign, first Elizabeth then James I, and also as he says in his book, “...that thereby, if it were possible, I might recover but the moderation of excess, and the least taste of the greatest plenty formerly possessed”. On this first occasion, rather than begging for a Royal pardon, his thoughts turned to adventure, and thus with the help of a few friends, the Guiana expedition was launched in 1595. What was Ralegh really trying to achieve in Guiana? Certainly, wealth for the Queen (and for himself) was a key driver, but the Caribbean and South America were in the Spanish sphere. England was envious of Spain’s New World wealth and, moreover, only seven years before had had to deal with the invasion threat from the Spanish Armada.
Ralegh’s book tells us that “Many years since I had knowledge, by relation, of that mighty, rich, and beautiful empire of Guiana, and of that great and golden city, which the Spaniards call El Dorado, and the naturals Manoa...”. Perhaps, but it is more likely that the original intention was to capture Spanish treasure ships, take or destroy a few ports and establish “a better Indies for her Majesty than the king of Spain hath any; which if it shall please her Highness to undertake, I shall most willingly end the rest of my days in following the same”.
In any event, Ralegh’s fleet arrived, and he wrote that “After I had displanted Don Antonio de Berreo [a Spanish governor in Trinidad], who was upon the same enterprise, leaving my ships at Trinidad, at the port called Curiapan, I wandered 400 miles into the said country by land and river...”. It didn’t go well. Ralegh learned from Berreo, also an El Dorado seeker, that the only route was by river, but there were many choices, each too shallow for a sea-going ship.
WHEN THE QUEEN HEARD OF THESE DOINGS WALTER AND BESS WERE LOCKED UP IN THE TOWER OF LONDON
There were other discouragements, such as those encountered by one of his scouts, who sent to check out the river Amana, “found it as the rest, but stayed not to discover it thoroughly, because he was assured by an Indian, his guide, that the cannibals of Guanipa would assail them with many canoas, and that they shot poisoned arrows; so as if he hasted not back, they should all be lost”.
Eventually, the explorers set off up the ‘Orinoque’ (Orinoco) in shallow-drafted boats. However, “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... At the last we determined to hang the pilot; and if we had well known the way back again by night, he had surely gone.”
The destination that Ralegh and his men were seeking was Lake Parime and the city of Manoa, otherwise known as El Dorado itself. But neither lake nor city existed, so despite Ralegh’s long narrative harping on about silver mines, gold ore and precious stones, he was obliged “to conclude, Guiana is a country that hath yet her maidenhead, never sacked, turned, nor wrought...”.
by Edgar Allen Poe
Was the great Bostonian writer thinking of Ralegh?
But he grew old –
This knight so bold –
And o’er his heart a shadow –
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.
From the poem ‘El Dorado’, 1849.
El Dorado, 1966 American Western film produced and directed by Howard Hawks
On his return to England, Ralegh’s relations with Queen Elizabeth improved, but he never succeeded in gaining the approval of her successor James I. In the end, Guiana and the Spanish were his downfall. At the age of 65, following another stint in the Tower, he prevailed on the King to allow him a second attempt at El Dorado on the understanding that he would not prejudice England’s new Spanish peace treaties.
Unfortunately, one detachment of his men attacked a Spanish outpost, and back in England, Ralegh was executed at the behest of the Spanish Ambassador. He received a post-mortem pardon in 1628.
Simon Rostron has been Managing Director of Rostron Parry Ltd - media relations consultancy since 1991 and PR and media consultant to LBMA since 2014. In his earlier career he was a Stockjobber, London Stock Exchange and remains a legend in his own lunchtime.