Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

Sir Walter Raleigh and the Quest for El Dorado

Gold was the beacon that lured the Spaniards to America, and dazzling stories were told by them of the riches of the countries they explored, stories illustrated by the marvellous wealth of Peru. It was well known that Cortez had not obtained all the treasures of Montezuma, or Pizarro all those of Atahualpa, and many believed that these treasures had been carried far away by the servants of those unhappy monarchs. Guiana, the northeastern section of South America, was looked upon by the Spanish adventurers as the hiding-place of this fabulous wealth. Others fancied that Guiana was the true El Dorado in itself, a land marvellously rich in gold, silver, and precious stones. Gonzalo Pizarro, in his expedition in 1540, had heard much from the Indians of this land of wealth, and Orellana brought back from his famous descent of the Amazon marvellous stories of the riches in gold, silver, and precious stones of the land of the north.

These stories, once set afloat, grew in wonder and magnitude through pure love of the marvellous or wild expansion of the fanciful tales of the Indians. Far inland, built on a lofty hill, so the fable ran, was a mighty city, whose very street watering-troughs were made of solid gold and silver, while "billets of gold lay about in heaps, as if they were logs of wood marked out to burn."

In this imperial city dwelt in marvellous magnificence a mighty king. The legend went that it was a habit of his to cover his body with turpentine and then roll in gold-dust till he gleamed like a veritable golden image. Then, entering his barge of state, with a retinue of nobles whose dresses glittered with gems, they would sail around a beautiful lake, ending their tour by a bath in the cooling waters.

Where was this city? Who had seen its gold-emblazoned king? Certainly none of those who went in search of it or its monarch. Of the Spanish adventurers who sought for that land of treasure, the most persistent was a bold explorer named Berreo, who landed in New Granada, and set out thence with a large body of followers—seven hundred horsemen, the story goes. His route lay along the river Negro, and then down the broad Orinoco. Boats were built for the descent of this great stream. But the route was difficult and exhausting and the natives usually hostile, and as they went on many of the men and horses died or were slain.

For more than a year these sturdy explorers pushed on, reaching a point from which, if they could believe the natives, the city they sought was not far away, and Guiana and its riches were near at hand. As evidence, the Indians had treasure of their own to show, and gave Berreo "ten images of fine gold, which were so curiously wrought, as he had not seen the like in Italy, Spain, or the Low Countries." But as they went on the gallant seven hundred became reduced to a weary fraction, and these so eager to return home that their leader was forced to give up the quest. He sought the island of Trinidad, near the coast of South America, and there, as governor, he dwelt for years, keeping alive in his soul the dream of some day going again in search of El Dorado.

While Berreo was thus engaged, there dwelt in England a man of romantic and adventurous nature named Walter Raleigh. He became afterwards famous as Sir Walter Raleigh, and for many years devoted himself to the attempt to plant an English colony on the coast of North America. On this project ho spent much time and money, but ill-fortune haunted him and all his colonies failed. Then he concluded to cross the ocean himself and restore his wasted wealth by preying on the Spanish treasure-ships, after the fashion of the bold Sir Francis Drake. But Queen Elizabeth put an end to this project by clapping him in prison, on a matter of royal jealousy. While one of the queen's lovers, he had dared to marry another woman.

While Raleigh lay in prison, some of the ships of the fleet he had fitted out came back with a Spanish galleon they had taken, so richly laden with costly goods that the whole court was filled with delight. Part of the spoils went to the queen and another part to Raleigh, and when at length he was released from his prison-cell his mind was set on winning more of the American gold. The stories of El Dorado and its marvellous city were then in great vogue, for Berreo had but lately returned from his expedition—with no gold, indeed, but with new tales of marvel he had gathered from the Indians.

It was now the year 1594. Raleigh was but forty-two years of age, in the prime of life and full of activity and energy. His romantic turn of mind led him to a full belief in the stories that floated about, and he grew eager to attempt the brilliant and alluring adventure which Berreo had failed to accomplish. Though the Spaniard had failed, he had opened up what might prove the track to success. Raleigh had sent various expeditions to the New World, but had never crossed the ocean himself. He now decided to seek Guiana and its fairyland of gold.

A small vessel was sent in advance, under command of Raleigh's friend, Jacob Whiddon, to feel the way and explore the mouth of the Orinoco, which was deemed to be the gateway to the golden realm. Whiddon stopped at Trinidad, and found Berreo, then its governor, very kindly and cordial. But, on one pretext or another, the treacherous Spaniard had the English sailors arrested and put in prison, until Whiddon found his crew so small that he was obliged to go back to England without seeing the Orinoco.

Whiddon's report made Raleigh more eager than ever He believed that Berreo was getting ready to go back to Guiana himself, and was seeking to rid himself of rivals. He hastened his preparations accordingly, and in February, 1595, set sail from Plymouth with a fleet of five well-supplied vessels, taking with him about one hundred gentlemen adventurers in addition to the crews. A number of small and light boats were also taken for use on the rivers of Guiana. Many of their friends came to see the voyagers off, flags floated on all the vessels in the harbor, and Raleigh and his companions, dressed in their best array, stood on the decks, as, with set sails and flying pennons, the stout ships moved slowly away on their voyage of chance and hope.

Raleigh followed the example of the sea-rovers of his day, committing what would now be called piracy on the high seas. Not long had the fleet left the Canary Islands before a Spanish ship was seen and captured. It was quickly emptied of its cargo,—a welcome one, as it consisted of fire-arms. Very soon after a second ship was captured. This was a Flemish vessel, laden with wines. These were taken also, twenty hogsheads of them. About two months out from Plymouth the hills of Trinidad were sighted, and Raleigh's eyes rested for the first time on the shores of that New World in which he had so long taken a warm interest.

Governor Berreo tried to treat Raleigh as he had done his agent, forbidding any of the Indians to go on his ships on peril of death. But they went on board, for all that, and were delighted with the kind treatment they received. They told Raleigh that several of their chiefs had been seized and imprisoned in the town of St. Joseph, and begged hint to rescue them. No Englishman of that day hesitated when the chance came to deal the Spaniards a blow, and a vigorous attack was soon made on the town, it being captured, the chiefs set free, and the governor himself made a prisoner.

Raleigh, while holding the Spaniard as a captive on his flag-ship, treated him with every courtesy, and had him to eat at his own table. Here Berreo, who did not suspect the purpose of the English, talked freely about his former expedition and gave his captor a good deal of very useful information. One thing Raleigh learned was that his ships could not be taken up the Orinoco, on account of the sand-banks at its mouth and its dangerous channels. He therefore felt it necessary to leave the ships at Trinidad and cross to the mainland in the boats he had brought with him.

Tropical bungalow


One hundred men were chosen for the journey, the others being left to guard the fleet. An old galley, a barge, a ship's-boat, and two wherries carried them, and a young Indian pilot, who claimed to be familiar with the coast, was taken along. Trinidad lies at no great distance from the mainland, but stormy weather assailed the voyagers, and they were glad enough to enter one of the mouths of the river and escape the ocean billows. But here new troubles surrounded them, the nature of which Raleigh described later, in his account of the expedition. He wrote:

"If God had not sent us help, we might have wandered a whole year in that labyrinth of rivers, ere we had found any way. I know all the earth does not yield the like confluence of streams and branches, the one crossing the other so many times, and all so fair and large, and so like one another as no man can tell which to take. And if we went by the sun or compass, hoping thereby to go directly one way or the other, yet that way also we were carried in a circle among multitudes of islands. Every island was so bordered with big trees as no man could see any farther than the breadth of the river or length of the branch."

The Indian pilot proved to be useless in this medley of water-ways, and only chance extricated the voyagers from the labyrinth in which they were involved. This chance was the meeting and capturing a canoe with three natives, who became friendly when they found they had nothing to fear from the strange white men. One of them was an old man who knew the river thoroughly, and whom presents and kind words induced to guide them past their difficulties.

Resting that night on a little knoll on the wooded banks of the stream, they were off again early the next morning. The river was still swift and violent, broken here and there with rapids, where they had to land and pull the boats. There were shoals also, which they had much trouble in getting over. And the banks were so crowded with trees and high reeds that they could not land, and were almost stifled from the closeness of the air.

After four hard and weary days of this kind they reached a smoother channel and could proceed more easily. But their work was still far from easy, for the inflowing tidal waters had left them and they had the swift current of the river to breast, while the tropic heat grew more oppressive day by day. It was hard work for the gentlemen rovers in that tropical climate, where the dense forest growth cut off every breath of air and their diminishing bread forced them to be put on short allowance. They began to complain bitterly, and Raleigh had to use all his powers of persuasion to induce them to go on.

Yet the country was in many ways beautiful. Here and there the woods ceased and broad plains spread out, covered with luxuriant herbage, amid which rose at intervals groves of beautiful trees. Graceful deer would come down to the water's edge and gaze fearlessly on the travellers with their big, soft eyes. "On the banks of these rivers," says Raleigh, "were divers sorts of fruits good to eat; flowers, too, and trees of such variety as were sufficient to make two volumes of travels. We refreshed ourselves many times with the fruits of the country, and sometimes with fowls and fish. We saw birds of all colors: some carnation, some crimson, orange, tawny, purple, and so on; and it was unto us a great good passing time to behold them, besides the relief we found by killing some store of them with our fowling-pieces."

The adventurers at length reached an Indian village of which their old guide had told them, and here, after the natives had got over their fright and learned that the strangers meant them no harm, they were very hospitably entertained. Thence they went onward, day after day, seeing many canoes on the river and landing at various villages. One of the canoes contained three Spaniards, who escaped from the effort to capture them, and Raleigh soon learned that the Spaniards had told the natives that the English were robbers and cannibals. To overcome the effect of this story, the greatest care was taken to treat the Indians with kindness and gentleness, and to punish in their presence any of the men who maltreated them. This quickly had its effect, for the news spread that the new-comers were the friends of the red men, and they were rewarded by every attention the natives could bestow on them. Provisions were brought them in profusion,—fish, fowl, and fruit, great roasted haunches of venison, and other viands. Among these were sweet and delicious pineapples of enormous size, "the prince of fruits," as Raleigh called them.

Finally, after they had gone about one hundred and fifty miles up the Orinoco, they reached the point where another great river, the Caroni, empties into it. The country here was more beautiful than they had yet seen, and prosperous Indian villages were numerous on the bordering plains. The natives had heard of the amicable character of the new-comers, and greeted them with great friendliness, doing all they could to show how they trusted and admired them. With one old chief, named Topiawara, Raleigh held many interesting talks and learned from him much about the country and the people. In return he told him about his own country and its great queen, and one day showed him a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, before which the simple natives bowed themselves as if it were the figure of a goddess they saw.

Many days were spent with these people, in hunting, fishing, and exploring, but, ask as they would, they could learn nothing about the land of gold and the marvellous city they had come so far to seek. The old chief told him that Guiana had many fertile plains and valleys and had mines of silver and gold, but the gold-dust king he knew nothing about. Finally, Raleigh decided to go up the Caroni, three parties being sent to explore its vicinity, while he with a fourth rowed up the stream. He had been told of a mighty cataract which he was very anxious to see, and this was at length reached, after a long struggle with the strong current of the river.

The cataract proved to be a series of giant cascades, ten or twelve in number, in the words of Raleigh, "every one as high above 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 first for a smoke that had risen over some great town.

"I never saw a more beautiful country," he continues, "or more lively prospects; hills so raised, here and there, over the valleys; the river winding into divers branches; the plains adjoining all green grass without bush or stubble; the ground of hard sand, easy to march on, either for horses or foot; the birds, towards evening, singing on every tree with a thousand sweet tunes; cranes and herons of white, crimson, and carnation, perching on the river's side; the air fresh, with a gentle, easterly wind; and every stone we stooped to pick up promising either gold or silver by its complexion."

On the return to the junction of the rivers, the land parties had similar stories to tell, and had pieces of golden ore to show, of which they claimed to have found plentiful indications. This story filled the whole party with dazzling hopes. Here, in the rocks at least, were the riches of which they had heard so much. If El Dorado did not exist, here was the native wealth that might well bring it into existence.

The prospectors had done all that lay in their power, and now felt it necessary to return to their ships, taking with them, at his request, the son of the aged chief, who wished him to see England, and perhaps to return at some time to succeed him, with the aid of the valiant English.

We must briefly close the story of Raleigh and his quest. After various adventures, the party reached Plymouth again in August, 1595, and the narrative of their discoveries was read everywhere with the utmost interest.

But many years passed before the explorer could return again. He became engaged in the wars against Spain, and after the death of the queen was arrested for treason by order of James I. and imprisoned for thirteen years. In 1617, twenty-two years after his first expedition, he returned to the Orinoco, this time with a fleet of thirteen vessels.

His release from prison had been gained by bribery and the promise to open a rich mine of gold in Guiana, but the expedition proved a failure. There was a sharp fight with a party of Spaniards at St. Thomas, in which Raleigh's son was killed. As for the gold mine, it could not be found, and the expedition was forced to return with none of the hoped-for wealth to show.

And now Raleigh's misfortunes culminated. He had been sentenced to death for treason in 1603, but had been reprieved. The king had him arrested again on the old charge, and the king of Spain demanded that he should be punished for the attack on St. Thomas in times of peace. James I. did not like Raleigh, and wished to stand well with Spain, so the famous explorer fell a victim to the royal policy and dislike and was beheaded under the old sentence in October, 1618. Since then El Dorado has lain concealed in the mists of legend and romance, though mines of gold have been worked in the region which Raleigh explored.