Sir Walter Raleigh - Frederick Ober

The Expedition to Guiana


With five ships and their complements of sailors, in addition to "a handful of men, being in all about a hundred gentlemen, soldiers, rowers, boat-keepers, boys, and of all sorts," Sir Walter Raleigh set out on his first known expedition to America He left the port of Plymouth on February 6, 1595, and first sailed for the Canary Isles, where he took a Spanish ship laden with firearms, and also a Flemish vessel with a cargo of wine. Proceeding on his voyage, he arrived at Trinidad, the island which he had so long kept in view as a nest of Spanish intriguers and traitors, without mishap occurring to his fleet, and there made preparations for ascending the Orinoco River.

First, however, he "paid his respects" to Governor Berreo, whom he found intrenched at the newly settled town of St. Joseph. By a skilfully planned attack on the place by night he made the governor prisoner, and after having burned the beginnings of a town, took him on board his flag-ship. There he was treated with every courtesy, and, becoming communicative, related all he knew of the Golden City and the way thither. It was not much, in truth, for, like all the numerous companies who had preceded him, Berreo had discovered nothing of value, although he had heard much. In the year preceding, he said, he had invaded Guiana from New Granada with seven hundred horsemen, and after waging a desultory war with the natives, had secured several images of fine gold different from anything else he had ever seen. These he had sent to Spain by his camp-master, Domingo de Vera, whose accounts of the rich and wonderful region had stimulated the Spanish government to send out an expedition, which was, he believed, even then on the way to Trinidad.

Berreo also showed to Raleigh an official copy of the records of San Juan de Puerto Rico, by which it appeared that one Juan Martinez, having been stranded there in poverty many years before, had made a deposition, when at the point of death, relating to the city of Manoa, which he claimed to have visited. He was, he said, with the renowned Diego de Ordaz when he explored the Orinoco, in 1531, as master of ordnance. When they had penetrated about three hundred miles inland their powder took fire and exploded. As Martinez was in charge, he was held responsible and condemned to death, but the sentence was mitigated to the extent of placing him alone in a canoe and setting him adrift on the waters of the Orinoco. After drifting about for many days he was rescued by some Indians, who took him a long journey overland to Manoa, where the Inca, he deposed, received him graciously and entertained him in his palace. He lived there seven months, but was not allowed to wander outside the city without being blindfolded. In this manner he had been brought there, he said, and led by the hand during a journey from the river of fourteen days. "He avowed at his death that he entered the city at noon, when they uncovered his face; that he travelled all that day, till night, throughout the city, and the next day from sunrise to sunsetting, ere he came to the palace of the Inca."

Here was information which, having come from a man who believed himself about to die, Raleigh received as credible indeed. All the stories he had previously heard were confirmed in the main, excepting that relating to the gilded king, for Martinez affirmed that he had called Manoa "the golden" merely because of "the abundance of golden images, plates, and armor which he beheld there." When he left Manoa for the coast the Inca presented him with as much gold as his guides could carry to the river; but hostile natives beyond the border robbed him of his treasure, except two calabashes filled with gold beads, which he gave to the monks of Porto Rico, at whose monastery he died, to pay for masses for his soul.

The deposition of the master of ordnance had been taken to Spain by De Vera, who, at the very time that Raleigh was listening to its recital by Berreo, was on the ocean with a fleet provided by his sovereign and the city of Seville, as the result of the enthusiasm it had awakened. The fleet consisted of five ships, filled with a host of volunteers, comprising veteran soldiers as well as monks and priests. This force would soon be at his orders, Governor Berreo assured his captor, and, as it greatly exceeded that at Raleigh's disposal, he advised the English to retreat while they might with good grace.

When Sir Walter assured him that Guiana was the objective of his long voyage and journey also, Berreo showed great distress, and did everything in his power to turn him back. In addition, he said, to the probability of the Spanish fleet arriving while he was absent, and cutting off his retreat, were the difficulties of navigation, the Orinoco at that season being particularly dangerous, owing to the swelling of its current by the innumerable streams that ran into it from the mountains.

But Sir Walter was inflexible, for he had dreamed of making this expedition many years; he had at last arrived at the mouths of the Orinoco, and a few hundred miles more of travel might take him to the goal of his ambition. He was not easily turned from his purpose, once having made up his mind, and not all Berreo's warnings could move him an iota. When the latter was finally assured that he was determined to make the effort, Sir Walter says, "he received it with a great melancholy and sadness, and used all the arguments he could to dissuade me, also assuring the gentlemen of my company that it would be labor lost, and that they would suffer many miseries if they proceeded."

Miseries manifold, indeed, they suffered, for Governor Berreo had by no means exaggerated the difficulties and dangers of the water route up the Orinoco; still, if they were twice as many, and the alleged distance twice as great, Raleigh was determined to proceed. He caused an old galleon to be cut down till it drew not more than five feet of water, and in this nondescript craft, "fashioned like a galley," a large barge, a small boat from the Lion's Whelp, and two wherries, he embarked one hundred men and boys, with a month's provisions for the entire crew. His troubles began at the very outset of the voyage, for both wind and current were very strong in crossing Guanipa Bay, and of the several mouths through which the Orinoco emptied its turbulent waters the perplexed navigators knew not which one to choose. Sir Walter had obtained an Indian guide at Gallo, in the Gulf of Paria, where he had left his ships; but he became bewildered among the network of streams, and but for the accidental discovery of a canoe, in which were natives of the region, the party might have been lost.

"If God had not sent us help," declares the pious Raleigh, "we might have wandered a whole year in that labyrinth of rivers ere we had found any way, either out or in; for I know all the earth doth 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 to another, as no man can tell which to take."

Giving chase to the canoe in his barge, Sir Walter overtook the little craft and made captive its occupants, one of whom proved to be an expert pilot. "He was a natural of those rivers," says Raleigh, "and but for him I think we had never found the way either to Guiana or back to our shipps."

Raleigh's treatment of the Indians was consistently humane throughout, for he never allowed violence to be offered any, and at Trinidad had released from captivity five caciques whom Berreo had chained together by the neck and was about to put to the torture. According to one historian, in fact, he had already tortured them, for he says: "These unhappy creatures had been subjected to tortures so ingeniously cruel that they seemed rather the practices of a familiar of the 'Holy Inquisition,' than those of a valiant soldier, as Sir Walter tells us that Berreo really was."

If Sir Walter Raleigh had but known of this river's vast extent, of its numerous tributaries, its thirteen hundred miles of length, and the fierce currents that urged perpetual conflict with the sea, even his dauntless spirit might have shrunk from the undertaking to which he was then committed. But he pushed on and on, armed by his ignorance, against whatever he might encounter, and so scantily equipped that after the reputed gold-fields had been found he had no utensils with which to dig up the precious metal or extract it from the rocks. Having found his way through the labyrinthine delta (though by means of such tedious voyaging that he was tempted to hang the native pilot on the charge of leading him astray), he at last emerged into broad, grassy plains, dotted with forest clumps, that looked "as if they had been, by all the art and labor in the world, so made of purpose," and where the deer and other wild animals approached the river-banks to graze, "as if they had been used to the keeper's call."

Sir Walter extracted what of pleasure and of interest he might from the various scenes and events along the way; and that he was accurate and painstaking is shown by the book he published close upon his return to England, and which is entitled: The Discoverie of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana; with a relation of the Great and Golden City of Manoa, which the Spaniards called El Dorado, performed in the year 1595, by Sir Walter Raleigh, Knight.

This account of his adventures was denounced by his enemies as a fabrication, and the gold he found, it was declared, was obtained by him in Barbary and taken to Trinidad for the purpose of deceiving his countrymen! This was an untruth, for whatever Raleigh related was, so far as he could observe, an exact transcript from the book of nature and a report of actual occurrences. He had far higher aims than the mere acquisition of gold, for this founder_ of England's colonial empire in America thought to colonize Guiana as he had hoped to colonize Roanoke and Virginia. He was looking for gold as an incidental aid to colonization, and as a gift to the Queen, who thereby might be led to pardon him fully, and promote further schemes which he had conceived.

After four hundred miles or so had been traversed, and double the time consumed in doing it which they had reckoned, the company began to get discouraged. "The current came against us every day," says Sir Walter, "stronger than ever. But we evermore commanded our pilots to promise an end the next day, and used it so long that we were driven to assure them from four reaches of the river to three, and so to two, and so to the next reach; but so long we labored that many days were spent, also our provisions, and no drink at all; and our men and ourselves were so wearied and scorched, and doubtful withal whether we should ever perform it or no; the heat constantly increasing."

They were heartened at last by the capture of an Indian canoe laden with cassava bread, which stayed them awhile, and by the sight of a few pinches of gold-dust which the chief carried in a calabash. This chief, or cacique, agreed to pilot the weary adventurers to the confluence of another great river with the Orinoco, and on the fifteenth day they had the happiness of seeing the mountains of Guiana.

At one place on the way they allayed the cravings of hunger with tortuga huevos  (turtle eggs), which they found by thousands on a sand-bar, and pronounced "very wholesome meat, and restoring." The Indians were Arawacas, or Arawaks, belonging to the great family which furnished the aboriginal inhabitants of the West Indies. Their chief, the "lord of that land," named Toparimaca, supplied the Englishmen with cassava bread, fish, turtle eggs, and palm wine, the beverage proving so agreeable that some of the captains became "reasonable pleasant withal," and were moved to forget their troubles in a carousal.

The cacique was treated by Raleigh to a dissertation upon the manifold virtues of Queen Elizabeth—or, at least, so he reported to his royal patroness, and told that she had commanded her servants to make the expedition for the purpose of delivering the Indians from Spanish oppression. "I dilated at large," he afterward boasted, "upon her Majesty's greatness, her justice, her charity to all oppressed nations, with as many of the rest of her beauties and virtues as either I could express or they conceive." Then he showed the venerable cacique a portrait of the Queen, at sight of which (the artful Sir Walter represented to her Majesty) he was so greatly overcome by her most ravishing charms that he nearly swooned away! And, moreover, though so susceptible to beauty, the cacique was so far advanced in years as to be thought a centenarian who, as he himself poetically expressed it, was "daily called for by death."

This old chieftain could give Sir Walter no positive information of Manoa, but he recalled a tradition of some invaders of the lowlands who had come from the country "where the sun slept," and in the war that followed many of his tribe had perished. They were called Epurimei, he said, and their great cacique, the Inca, wore the crimson burla  which distinguished the "Son of the Sun" from his subjects. He presented Raleigh with "great store "of provisions, and a "beast "called by him cachicamo, or armadillo, which was "barred over with small plates, somewhat like to a rhinoceros, and with a white horn growing in its hinder parts as big as a great hunting-horn, which they, the natives, use to wind [blow] instead of a trumpet."

Sir Walter's account of the armadillo was not quite accurate, but his descriptions generally may be relied on as coming near the truth, though quaintly expressed. After he had arrived home, many there were who could not bring themselves to believe his accounts of the salt-water oysters growing on trees; but they may be seen to-day, in the Gulf of Paria and on the shores of Trinidad, clinging to the roots of the mangroves. Here is his description, and it is in no whit exaggerated: "In the way between were divers little brooks of fresh water, and one of salt, that had store of oisters upon the branches of the trees, which were very salt and well tasted. All their oisters grow upon those boughs and spraies [of the mangroves] and not on the ground."

Only one man lost his life on this expedition, with all its hardships, the exposure of its members to the tropical heat and rains, the insufficient supply of food, and scarcity of potable water. This man was a negro, "a very proper young fellow," says Raleigh in his book, "that, leaping out of the galley to swim in the river, was, all in our sights, taken and devoured with one of those largatos" [alligators]; for "there were thousands of those uglie serpents" in the upper waters of the Orinoco, making its navigation exceedingly dangerous.

The dreary, uninteresting scenery of the lower Orinoco was enlivened by those strange people, the tree-dwelling Indians, whose frail aerial shelters were built aloft to avoid the rising floods.

"In the winter season," wrote Raleigh, "they dwell thus upon the trees, where they have very artificial towns and villages; for between May and September the river Orenoke riseth thirtie feet upright; and for this cause they are forced to live in this manner." The adventurers experienced the tremendous force of the Orinoco current on their downward trip, and its sudden rising apparently without cause or warning. "Our hearts were cold to behold the great rage and increase of Orenoko . . . For the same night in which we ankered in the mouth of the river Capuri, where it falleth into the sea, there rose a mighty storm, and the river's mouth was at least a league broad, so as we ran before night close under the land, with our small boats, and brought the galley as near as we could; but she had also to live as could be, and there wanted little of her sinking, and all those in her."

At last the explorers found their progress barred by the rapids and waterfalls of the river Caroni, and here halted. This was the turning-point of their journey, and yet it appeared to the enraptured Raleigh as if the wonders of the region were just beginning to be revealed.

"When we ran to the tops of the first hills of the plains adjoining to the river," he wrote in his journal, "we beheld that wonderful breach of waters which ran down Caroli [the Caroni]; . . . 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 re-bound of waters made it seem as 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 . . . I never saw a more beautiful country, nor more lively prospects: hills so raised here and there over the valleys; the river winding into divers branches; the plains adjoining all fair green grass, without bush or stubble; the ground of hard sand, easy to march on, either for horse or foot; the deer crossing on every path; the birds, towards evening, singing on every tree with a thousand several tunes; cranes and herons of white, crimson, and carnation, perched on the river's side; the air fresh, with a gentle easterly wind; and every stone that we stooped to take up promising either gold or silver by his complexion!"

That the explorers had at last reached an earthly paradise was evident to their senses; that it abounded with gold also seemed evident; but, alas! though there were vast ledges of what the Spaniards termed madre de oro  (mother of gold), the witless investigators had brought no mining tools of any sort whatever! "We had no means but with our daggers and our fingers to tear them out here and there [the specimens of ore which they took back to England]; and the veins lie a fathom or two deep in the rocks." Discovering a very great ledge of the "gold-mother "near one of the rivers, Raleigh continues: "I found a cleft in the same, from whence, with daggers and the head of an axe, we got out some small quantity thereof. Of which kind of white stone, wherein gold is engendered, we saw divers hills and rocks, in every part of Guiana wherein we travelled."

This "ore of gold" was assayed in London by three different assay masters, as well as by the comptroller of the mint, and "held after the rate of a hundred and twenty to two hundred and sixty-nine pounds a ton." The worthy assayers must have possessed a "Midas' touch," the skeptics said, to evoke from those small fragments such a quantity of gold in prospective, for the riches of that region, though vast in the aggregate, have not verified Raleigh's discoveries. His detractors classed his alleged finding of gold with his stories relating to the mysterious "Ewaiponoma," or headless people, whose mouths were said to be in the middle of their breasts and their eyes between their shoulders; and with the Amazons, those warlike women who have ever remained as myths, though mentioned by the first explorers of South America. Sir Walter does not say that he saw them, or implicitly believed all that was told him respecting them, concluding: "For mine own part, I saw them not, but am resolved that so many people did not all combine, or forethink, to make the report . . .Whether it be true or not, the matter is not great."

Raleigh and his party repeated the blunders committed by the Cabots, by Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Grenville, and Lane—in fact, all the English explorers before them: they did not remain long enough to ascertain anything of great value; they did not verify reports received from the natives; they did not seek to establish a colony. The expedition may be said to have been made for naught, since no great result followed all this expense, labor, and privation.

Imagine a man of sane mind seeking El Dorado—a city or country of gold—with no appliances for mining, even for excavating the soil or testing metals! Imagine him arriving within the confines of the golden country as he conjectured and then immediately turning about for home! We cannot but agree with him perfectly when he says, in excuse for not attempting to proceed farther: "Considering that to enter Guiana by small boats, to depart four or five hundred miles from my shipps, and to leave [behind] a [Spanish] garrison interested in the same enterprise, who also daily expected supplies out of Spaine, I should have savoured very much of the Asse!" The whole expedition had that "savour," in truth, and we must confess that the asinine simile was not far-fetched.

The return journey was performed with great rapidity, for the current was swift, though the winds were generally ahead. Reports of the humane treatment Raleigh had accorded the natives preceded him, and he was everywhere met along the river-banks by Indians, who brought him presents of "all such kinds of victual as the places yielded."

"At one town on the bank of a tributary stream," Raleigh says in his book, "we found them all drunk as beggars, and the pots walking from one to another without rest. We that were weary and hot with marching were very glad of the plentie, though of their drink a small quantitie satisfied us, it being very strong and heady. . . . After we had fed we drew ourselves back to our boats, upon the river, and there came to us all the lords of the country, bearing their delicate wine of pings [pineapple], abundance of hens, and other provisions. . . . We understood by these chieftains that their lord, Carapana, was departed from Emeria, which was now in sight, and that he was fled to Cairamo, . . . and we thought it bootless to row 40 far, or to seek any further for this old fox."

In the end he says: "The longer we tarried the worse it was [at the mouth of the river], and therefore I took Captain Gifford, Captain Caulfield, and my cousin Grenville into my barge, and after it cleared up we put ourselves to God's keeping, and thrust out into the sea. . . . And so, being all very sober and melancholy, one faintly cheering another to show courage, it pleased God that the next day, about nine of the clock, we descried the island of Trinedado, and, steering for the nearest part of it, we kept the shore till we came to Curiapan, where we found our shipps at anchor; than which there was never to us a more joyful sight."