Mirage de el Dorado – The Eternal Lust for Gold

Mirage de el Dorado

The Eternal Lust for Gold

By Robert Bruce Drynan

Sir Walter Ralegh


In 1594 a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh, an experienced soldier and adventurer, mounted an expedition to South America in pursuit of a legend of a city of gold, known as Manao. His expedition first landed on Trinidad where the Englishmen captured and destroyed a Spanish settlement and taking prisoner its governor Antonio de Berrio. With Berrio as his captive Raleigh set off through the delta of the Orinoco River into the hinterlands of what is today known as Venezuela.  Berrio had made earlier ascents of the river seeking the City of Gold. In the course of the expedition Raleigh’s party reached and followed the Río Negro encountering towering table mountains, known in Pemón, the local indigenous language, as tepuis. They may have been the first Europeans to view the world’s highest waterfall, its modern day sobriquet, Angel Falls. In any case Raleigh is credited by later scholars for having discovered the Roraima Tepui that today occupies the point where the borders of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana meet.

The Englishmen did not find Manao, but as he departed, Raleigh left two men behind with the mission to obtain more information about the city that promised fabulous riches for the English crown and a base to contest Spanish dominance of the South American continent. Raleigh, (who is best known to Americans for his 1585 expedition to North America and the disappearance of the Roanoke Island colony that he left behind) returned to England to obtain financing from the queen to mount a larger expedition that would establish a permanent Anglo presence. He dispatched a second expedition under his lieutenant Laurens Keymis in 1596 to retrieve his two spies. Keymis learned that one had been killed and eaten by a panther. The second had disappeared (the man became a Spanish prisoner). Nevertheless, Keymis obtained further evidence of the City of Gold. He described Manao and traders that venture from it in his journal:

“It lieth southerly in the land, and from the mouth of it unto the head they pass in twenty days; then taking their provisions, they carry it on their shoulders one day’s journey; afterwards they return to their canoes, and bear them likewise to the side of a lake, which the Jaos call Roponowini, the Charibes Parime, which is of such bigness that they know no difference between it and the main sea. There be infinite numbers of canoes in this lake, and I suppose it is no other than that where Manoa standeth.” 

Raleigh in the meantime found himself confronted with the problem that Elizabeth, despite her virulent enmity for Spain, could not be convinced to invest in a return expedition. The queen died in 1603 and James VII, the Roman Catholic king of Scotland, became James I of England. One of James’ first acts was to make peace with Spain. Accused of treason and conspiracy to assassinate the new king, Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London and remained so until 1617, when he somehow managed to convince King James to underwrite another expedition in search of the City of Gold. With royal backing, but under the caveat that he was to provoke no clashes with the Spanish, the English adventurer set sail with 14 ships and 500 men. Arriving off the Orinoco Delta the force under Raleigh’s ever-present lieutenant Keymis entered the river. The Englishmen encountered Governor Antonio Berrio, who having been freed by Raleigh on his previous venture, established Santo Thomé, a settlement designed to interdict any further English incursions into Spanish territory. In the ensuing confrontation the invaders captured and destroyed the settlement. In the battle, Raleigh’s son, Walter, was killed, provoking a falling out between Keymis and his patron. Nevertheless, the clash doomed the expedition; ending it after only twenty-six days. Raleigh returned empty-handed to England. King James again imprisoned Raleigh, and in 1618 following demands of co-religionist Spanish King Philip III and with the assistance of an executioner, Sir Walter Raleigh’s not-so-fruitful relationship with his head was severed.


March 2022 Issue

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