The Search for El Dorado

Map of Guiana by Hessel Gerritsz, 1625. El Dorado is at the western end of Lake Parime

Not many people have the distinction of putting a non-existent place on the map, but Sir Walter Ralegh was one of them. That place was El Dorado, a legendary city of gold located in what is now Venezuela.

But even that word ‘city’ is too precise. El Dorado could at different times be a city, a kingdom, or an empire; later the search for it morphed into the search for a mine. At first, even, in the 1530s when the phrase first seems to have been coined by the Spanish conquistadors, it was a man covered head to foot in gold dust – el dorado, the golden one – a participant in a tribal ritual of the Chibcha in the Colombian Andes. Always, though, consciously or otherwise, it is a loose, seductive metaphor for the riches that might lie undiscovered in the vast northern hinterlands of south America.

The name may forever be associated with Ralegh. And, arguably, without Ralegh’s own fame, El Dorado might have sunk into obscurity with the other mythic golden cities such as Paititi, Cibola or Quivira, which the European believed thought existed in the Americas. But Ralegh was by no means the first person to fall under its spell. In fact, by the time it reached him in the 1580s, the Spanish had made several attempts already to find it.

It is Ralegh, though, who ignites the story.

The dream begins

Ralegh seems have first learned of El Dorado in the early autumn 1586, almost certainly from a Spanish conquistador named Don Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, who had been captured by Ralegh’s privateers in August of that year while returning home across the Atlantic. With thirty years of experience in the New World behind him, Sarmiento was about as old a hand as you could get.

Thinking of the two great Incan and Aztec empires that Spain had conquered some 70 years earlier, the existence of a third can hardly have seemed as absurd to Ralegh as it does to us now.

It may even have been from Sarmiento that Ralegh heard of Don Antonio de Berrio, another conquistador, who believed he had reached the border of El Dorado in the Guiana Highlands on the upper reaches of the Orinoco in an epic 18-month trek which had concluded in 1585.

Berrio was in some senses Ralegh’s principal rival: he would launch two more expeditions over the coming decade. And that rivalry embodies a key truth about El Dorado for Ralegh. It was, of course, always about the gold. But fighting over that gold with Spain sharpened its importance: if Ralegh found El Dorado he would be bringing England a fortune that would rival the flood of American treasure on which Spanish power gorged. Without that wealth, as Ralegh later pungently said, Spain’s monarchy would be merely “kings of figs and oranges”.

Race for the prize

Whether Ralegh would ever have gone in search of El Dorado if he had remained in Elizabeth I’s favour is a moot point. But in 1592 he secretly married Bess Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting, for which insolence Elizabeth sent both of them to the Tower. They would not stay there, but Bess was banished from court and Walter’s star seemed permanently tarnished. The conquest of El Dorado, then, would be a suitably grand – and vastly enriching – way to erase the mis-steps of the past.

In 1594, Ralegh sent one of his men, Jacob Whiddon, on a reconnaissance mission to the coast around Trinidad and the Orinoco delta, which covers some 16,000 square miles. The following year he raised the enormous sum of £60,000 to finance the expedition. (By way of comparison, Frobisher’s first voyage to find the North West Passage in 1577 had cost £875.) The fleet was originally intended to be eight-strong, but Ralegh was impatient to be away. He left from Plymouth with four ships and perhaps 250 men on 6 February 1595.

Ralegh’s ships were off the coast of South America – at Trinidad, to be precise – by 22 March. On 7 April, in the evening, Ralegh’s men attacked the Spanish garrison at the island’s colonial capital, San José. This was a strategic necessity: Ralegh could not safely go upriver and leave his ships at the mercy of the enemy. But there was another goal too: Ralegh had discovered that Berrio himself was in San José, and he wanted to talk. “I gathered from him as much of Guiana as he knew,” Ralegh wrote. This included, tantalisingly, the story of a master of munitions named Juan Martínez, who Berrio told him had lived in Manoa for seven months and, Berrio said, gave the city its Spanish name, El Dorado. How close to his prize Ralegh must have felt, hearing this.

Further on and higher up

Most of what we know of what happened next comes from Ralegh’s own account written on his return to England, The Discoverie of Empire of Guiana, which was widely read: the early print runs sold out and it was quickly translated into Dutch, German and Latin. It is, in its own way, a fascinating document, at once evocative, evasive and utterly compelling.

But it is not a success story. Ralegh took his men upriver with enough food for a month. Conditions – and morale – were dreadful: a hundred men, five small, shallow open-topped boats, torrential rains, intense heat, no real direction. They were “driven to lie in the rain and weather in the open air – without shift, lying most sluttishly – in the burning sun, and upon the hard boards [of the boats, also used to] dress our meat…” Ralegh wrote. “Wherewith they were so pestered and unsavoury, that what with victuals being most fish, with the wet clothes of so many men thrust together, and the heat of the sun, I will undertake there was never any prison in England that could be found more unsavoury and loathsome.” If anything in his life demonstrated Ralegh’s leadership skills it was this; all the men made it back to the coast alive.

They travelled some 250 miles up the Orinoco to where it meets another great river, the Caroní – the site of Guayana City today. It was impossible to go any further. The river there was as broad as the Thames at Woolwich and in full spate; they couldn’t row further than a stone’s throw in an hour, he said. Besides, ahead lay the tumbling falls of the Salto la Llovizna which they had no means of navigating.

Here, at a native settlement named Morequito, Ralegh met an elderly tribal chief, or cacique, Topiawari. They seem to have become friends: later travelers reported his disappointment that Ralegh did not return. Ralegh for his part described Topiawari as the “proudest and wisest” of his people, a man of “gravity and judgement [and] good discourse”. Ralegh understood Topiawari to say that the border of El Dorado was four days away, but that he, Ralegh, needed to return with more men and arms. It was as close as Ralegh ever came to realising his dream.

It was the middle of June. Such was the force of the river that a journey that had taken them a month upriver took them a mere four days on the return. On the way back, they met another cacique named Putijma who told them he knew of a great gold-bearing hill that could be mined. But to all intents and purposes they returned empty handed, with nothing more than the promise of wealth to come.

The prison years

Ralegh remained convinced there were riches to be had in the region, his faith now fired in the crucible of experience. A mere four months after his return to London he sent one of his most loyal men, Lawrence Keymis, to scout out the gold mine of which Putijma had spoken, but the Spanish had already established a fort-town named San Thomé at Morequito. Within a year, Ralegh sent another ship to explore the region south of the Orinoco, following intelligence from Keymis that they had been searching too far north for Manoa.

The last years of Elizabeth’s reign were not good ones for Ralegh, and their sequel was worse. In the autumn of 1603 Ralegh was convicted of plotting the overthrow of James I, who had come to the throne earlier that year. His sentence was suspended, but he would spend the next 12 years imprisoned in the Tower of London. Perhaps that sharpened the obsession, but Ralegh wasn’t alone in sharing it. In March 1609, the young heir to the throne, Prince Henry, sponsored an expedition to the region under Robert Harcourt. At the end of the same year, Sir Thomas Roe led another expedition. Ralegh was one of its sponsors, alongside Roe himself and the Earl of Southampton. It would be some 18 months before Roe returned. He had concluded that Manoa – the golden city of El Dorado – did not exist.

This seems not to have deterred Ralegh in the slightest. His confidence in the existence of abundant gold in the region remained undiminished. In 1616, James released him from the Tower and authorised him to return to Guiana in search of a potential gold mine – a seam, in fact – that he had seen in the sandy rock close to what was now San Thomé. Ralegh had explicit instructions not to engage the Spanish militarily; James’ policy towards Spain was one of peace and rapprochement.

New gold dream

Ralegh sailed from Plymouth on 12 June 1617 with 14 ships under his command. With him were the redoubtable Laurence Keymis and Ralegh’s 22-year-old son, Wat. Illness on the voyage across accounted for the lives of 42 men, including Ralegh’s second in command, John Pigott. Ralegh himself collapsed on the deck, hitting his head. He couldn’t eat solid food for twenty days or more; he survived, he said, on the occasional stewed prune.

By 14 November, when the fleet arrived off the coast of South America, it was apparent Ralegh was too ill to lead the expedition upriver. Keymis would take charge in his stead. Under him were five captains – the fleet only had five ships with draughts shallow enough to penetrate the Orinoco delta – and five company commanders, among them Wat. There were some 400 men in total: 150 seamen, 250 soldiers – “a scum of men,” Ralegh described them to Keymis, somewhat discouragingly.

They started up the Orinoco on 10 December. Only three ships survived the powerful currents and shoals of the delta, and they reached San Thomé on 2 January 1618, towards the end of the morning. Ralegh’s preparations for the expedition had been both thorough and prolonged; they had also been quite public. The Spanish garrison was small – it comprised just 57 men, including a number of invalids – but it was as prepared as it could be.

Keymis’ men were surprised by an ambush as the sun fell. Later – after midnight it was said, and certainly after much debate – they stormed the town. Wat Ralegh, captaining the pikemen, lead the charge. “Come on my hearts!” he shouted. He was felled by a musket ball in the throat. Four other Englishmen died in the taking of the town. Keymis had them all buried in the church there, Wat by the high altar.

Back at the coast, Ralegh knew nothing of this for a month. Then, on 31 January he heard from a native source that two of the five captains had died in the fighting. Two weeks later he received a letter from Keymis. “I never knew what sorrow meant till now,” Ralegh later wrote to his wife with the news.

Suicide mission

Up in San Thomé, Keymis – who must have known that by attacking the Spanish town he had breached the principal condition of Ralegh’s deal with James I – was falling apart too. Only a few Spanish had died in the skirmish. Most had fled, and Keymis was fearful they would return upriver with reinforcements. Moreover, of course, he had no precise idea where the mine might be. Did he even believe there was one?

Keymis dithered and stalled, losing all respect from those who served him. “At last we found his delays mere illusions and himself a mere Machiavel,” one of his captains said. “For he was false to all men and odious to himself.” Eventually three small craft were sent upriver. Some reports said they went as far as 300 miles into the interior. They took enough food for four days but were gone three weeks, finding no information about the location of either a new mine or an existing one.

They returned to San Thomé and found it subject to increasingly successful guerilla raids. After 29 days of occupation the English left the town, and the Spanish burned it to the ground.

The remnants of Keymis’ party met with Ralegh on the coast on 2 March. Keymis begged Ralegh’s forgiveness. “Seeing my son was lost, I cared not,” Ralegh told him. “[He] had undone me by his obstinacy, and I would not favour or colour in any sort his former folly.”

Keymis returned to his cabin and drove a knife through his own heart. Ralegh was executed in November the same year. James I used the breach of his promise to keep peace with the Spanish as an excuse to revive the treason charge. Ralegh died for many reasons; the failure of his search for gold was only the last of them.

What then, are we to make of that search, which cost Ralegh so much? There seems little doubt that his initial faith in the existence of El Dorado was real enough. But what about after he decided to turn back in June 1585? That is the point, after all, when talk of a mine first appeared as they raced downriver. Was he deluding himself as well as those around him? Was his inability to reach El Dorado – the vastness of that humiliation – simply too great to countenance?

We don’t know. Daniel Defoe called the expedition “the greatest enterprise undertaken by any private person in the world”. He was wrong, surely, but there is something elusively compelling about it. We are still, in a sense, in the grip of Ralegh’s imagination even now, absorbed in the epic scale of his failure after four hundred years, asking ourselves the same questions his contemporaries asked, about the intensity and Ralegh’s fever, the integrity of his dream.

This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of All About History.

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