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Sir Walter Raleigh's Second Journey to El Dorado


Sir Walter Raleigh's Second Journey to El Dorado

Sir Walter Raleigh

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Sir Walter Raleigh's Second Journey to El Dorado:

In 1595, Sir Walter Raleigh mounted an expedition to the New World in search of El Dorado, the legendary lost city of gold. Although he failed to find anything, he became convinced that El Dorado was real and that he knew roughly where it was. He began planning a second expedition, but events conspired to keep him in England and he was unable to return until 1617. His second journey to El Dorado was a complete fiasco and contributed to his 1618 execution for treason.

The Legend of El Dorado:

In 1519, Hernan Cortés discovered, conquered and sacked the Aztec Empire in Mexico: in 1533, Francisco Pizarro likewise defeated the Incas in Peru. These men and all of the conquistadors who served with them became wealthy and were given vast lands and privileges. Word reached Europe of their success, and before long thousands of adventurers were flocking to the New World, each hoping to be part of the next expedition that looted a rich native empire. There were no more to be found, but no one knew that, and the vastness of South America convinced these men that there must be at least one last rich city to plunder. Thus was born the legend of El Dorado, the lost city of gold, and thousands would die searching for it in the mountains, jungles and plains of South America.

Sir Walter Raleigh:

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) was the greatest of the Elizabethan courtiers: a Renaissance man, he had a dazzling wit, was a talented poet, an able seaman, soldier and privateer and a visionary explorer who initiated England's colonization of North America. Like so many others, he became convinced of the existence of El Dorado, which was also called Manoa at the time. He believed it to be in the remote mountains of Guyana. He lost the favor of Queen Elizabeth I in 1592 after he married one of her maids of honor in secret, but he thought he could redeem himself if he found the legendary lost city.

Raleigh’s First Journey to El Dorado:

Raleigh set out in February of 1595 with five ships. After doing some privateering off the Spanish Main, he had the good fortune to capture Antonio de Berrio, a Spaniard who had been seeking El Dorado for years. Using information gleaned from Berrio, Raleigh and 100 of his men went on shore and laboriously traveled up the Orinoco and Caroni Rivers. Raleigh made friends with a local chieftain named Topiawari. After exploring for a couple of months, Raleigh decided to return home: he had collected many rock samples and he wished to avoid the rainy season. Topiawari sent his son home with Raleigh and Raleigh left two men behind. The expedition returned to the ships and sailed back to England.


Although he had hoped to return almost immediately, it would be over 20 years before Raleigh made it back. Upon his return to England, he found little enthusiasm for the rocks he had brought back: no one believed his tales of El Dorado. The war with Spain was heating up and Raleigh was needed: he participated in the 1596 sacking of Cádiz. Elizabeth died in 1603 and Raleigh found that his enemies had turned her successor, King James I, against him. Raleigh was convicted of treason and spent the next 12 years in the Tower of London. In that time, he still managed to fund and support three different missions back to Guyana: his lieutenants told him they had found the way to Manoa. Meanwhile, Raleigh told anyone who would listen that he knew how to find a lost city of gold.

The Second Journey:

Surprisingly, King James relented in 1616 and agreed to let Raleigh return to Guyana. James preferred peace with Spain, however, so Raleigh was under strict orders not to antagonize the Spanish. This, of course, would be impossible, as Raleigh would be exploring territory claimed and settled by Spain. Raleigh, then in his sixties, began organizing the expedition: he eventually collected 14 ships and a thousand or so men. The second expedition was a disaster almost from the start. Raleigh departed to great fanfare on June 12, 1617, but unfavorable winds drove them into port in Ireland until August. By then, they needed provisions, so they set sail for the Canary Islands, where the Spanish mistook them for pirates and killed 15 of Raleigh’s men. Raleigh, remembering his instructions, did not retaliate.


Raleigh’s expedition was plagued by dysentery as it crossed the Atlantic: Raleigh himself was gravely ill for a time. They reached Guyana in November and sailed to the mouth of the Orinoco. It was decided that Raleigh himself would stay with the ships. There were two reasons for this: first of all, he was still frail from his illness and second, a strong hand was needed to control the unruly sailors and thugs who had been recruited for the expedition. Without Raleigh there, these men would likely steal the ships and turn pirate. Raleigh reluctantly remained on board while an expedition was led by his lieutenant Laurence Keymis and his nephew George Raleigh.

Fighting the Spanish:

The Spanish town of Santo Thomé was along the route that Keymis planned to use: a confrontation was inevitable. In the first skirmish, Sir Walter’s son, also named Walter, was killed by the Spanish. The expedition managed to capture Santo Thomé and began searching for gold mines, but found nothing. For two months the English hunkered down in Santo Thomé, fighting off the Spanish (who had been waging guerrilla warfare since losing the town) and following wild rumors of gold mines in every direction. In March of 1618 they gave up and returned to Raleigh and the fleet.

Return to England:

The expedition was a failure. They set sail for England, but one by one, Sir Walter's ships deserted and sailed off to turn pirate. He was even forced to abandon plans to stop in Newfoundland because the crew of his flagship was getting restless. He returned to England on June 21, 1618, with only one ship remaining of his fleet and nothing to show for his journey. He was swiftly arrested and tried: he was in clear violation of his charter, which had demanded no hostilities against the Spanish. He was convicted and sentenced to death: he was executed on October 29, 1618. He was in high spirits on his final day, giving away his hat to a bald man on his way to the executioner, saying: "You need this, my friend, more than I do."

Legacy of Sir Walter Raleigh's Second Journey to El Dorado:

Sir Walter's search for El Dorado was doomed to failure: there were no more great undiscovered cities in South America. It didn't help that the aged courtier, who had just lost his beloved son, was unable to hold his expedition together after their failure in Guyana: the fact that most of his men went pirate only made things worse for Raleigh at his trial.

Back in Europe, Spain was enraged that Raleigh's expedition had been allowed to violate Spanish territory and King James was only able to appease them with Raleigh's head. Some historians speculate that James took a gamble which would pay off either way: if Raleigh had succeeded in finding El Dorado, England would have a profitable colony, and if he failed, he would have an excuse to execute the troublesome Raleigh and gain some favor with Spain for doing so.

Raleigh knew that failure meant execution, but he didn't really care. He truly believed he could find El Dorado, given his research and the information he had collected from the expeditions he funded. The terms of his charter made sure that only a stunning success would save his life: how could he intrude on Spanish territory and bypass hostile Spanish settlements without aggravating the Spanish, as his orders so clearly said? Irritating the Spanish was a given, but all would be forgiven for a galley with a hold full of gold. Also, he had been in the Tower of London for years on a trumped-up charge: he knew he would have died there, anyway. Why not take one last shot at glory? If Sir Walter had any regrets about his final journey, it was that his beloved son died on account of it.


Silverberg, Robert. The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado. Athens: the Ohio University Press, 1985.

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