"God has made nobler heroes, but He never made a
finer gentleman than Walter Raleigh."
—R. L. Stevenson.
Raleigh had failed with his Virginian colony, but he still had dreams of an English colony elsewhere. The wealth that filled Spain from Mexico and Peru had filled England with envy. To gain a like rich kingdom for his queen, to extend her power and enrich her treasury,—this was Raleigh's dream. With these thoughts in his mind he turned his eyes to Guiana, a tract of country in South America of which dazzling tales had reached his ears.
Since the early days of Spanish discovery, natives had talked of a city of untold wealth—El Dorado they called it. It was richer than Peru, they said, and gold was so plentiful that the king was covered with turpentine and rolled in gold-dust till he shone with the glory of gold. Expedition after expedition had left Spain for this land of wealth, but all had failed to penetrate the country. No one had yet discovered the fabulous city of El Dorado, though all would journey thither if they could.
It was early in the year 1595 that Sir Walter Raleigh left England with five ships for this much desired land of Guiana. Forty-six days later he reached the island of Trinidad—the Port of Spain, as it was called—where he was kindly received by the Spaniards. The early summer found the explorers at the mouth of the river Orinoco, by which they intended to row into the interior of the country. Fortunately for them, they fell in with a canoe of Indians. Raleigh in his eight-oared boat gave chase and soon made friends with them, taking on board the faithful pilot Ferdinando to guide them up the fast-flowing river into the unknown.
"But for this," said Raleigh afterwards, "I think we had never found the way either to Guiana or back to the ships."
Up the Orinoco mile after mile they rowed, but they seemed to get no nearer to El Dorado. Twice they were nearly wrecked, and they were beginning to despair, when suddenly the scenery changed as if by magic. The high banks gave way to low-lying plains, soft green grass grew close to the water's edge, and deer came down to feed. Still the strong current continued. Each man had borne his full share of rowing, but the effort of pulling everlastingly against such violence was telling on the staunchest among them. They were now some 400 miles from their ships, when, to add to their troubles, a sudden and furious rising of the river took place.
"Whosoever," says Raleigh, "had seen or proved the fury of that river after it began to rise, would perchance have turned his back somewhat sooner than we did, if all the mountains had been gold or precious stones."
Having discovered a good deal about the country from natives, Raleigh turned for home. Wind and stream were with them now, bearing them down with almost alarming rapidity. One day they covered 100 miles. Raleigh had not found El Dorado, but he returned home enormously impressed with the new country.
"Guiana is a country that hath yet her maidenhood," he told the queen. "The face of the earth hath not been torn, the graves have not been opened for gold. It hath never been entered by any army of strength, never conquered by any Christian prince. Men shall find here more rich and beautiful cities, more temples adorned with gold, than either Cortes found in Mexico or Pizarro in Peru, and the shining glory of this conquest will eclipse all those of the Spanish nation."
But this enthusiasm failed to inspire others in England. The queen was growing old, and it was to be many a long year before Raleigh's work was to tell.
Twenty-two years passed by and Raleigh never forgot the glories of Guiana. Elizabeth was dead, and her successor, James, had thrown Raleigh into the Tower of London, where he wrote the beginning of his 'History of the World' and dreamed his hopeless dreams of colonisation.
At last he persuaded James to let him go once more to Guiana, where he suggested he could find a gold mine to enrich the English Treasury. The rest of the story is sad enough. Storms, desertion, disease, and death followed him from the very first, and ere the expedition had reached the mouth of the Orinoco Raleigh himself was stricken down and unable to go farther. He sent on his young son, Walter—the "little Wat" of happier days gone by—with a party of men to find the mine, but fighting took place. The wrath of the Spaniards had been roused, young Raleigh was killed, and the Englishmen never reached the gold mine. Sadly Raleigh sailed home to England in his little ship the Destiny. For rousing the Spaniards, with whom England was now at peace, he was seized and condemned to die.
With the same courtly grace which he had borne through life he bade farewell to the friends who stood round. With the "dignity of a philosopher, the courage of a soldier, the faith of a Christian," he met his death.
"We have not such another head to be cut off," said one who stood by.
Raleigh had failed at the end and died a broken-hearted adventurer; but his love and faith in the future of England, as the mother of distant empires and the mistress of the seas, have won for him an undying name amid the annals of the world.