In Search of El Dorado – The fascinating life of Sir Walter Raleigh

Born to a Protestant family in Devon, England in 1552, Sir Walter Raleigh was not only a prolific writer, poet and courtier of the Virgin Queen, but also a commendable explorer. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth I in the year 1585 and recognized nation-wide for his numerous talents, Raleigh is now mockingly remembered as the man who laid his cloak across a muddy pool so that Her Majesty could cross it without getting her feet dirty! Prapti Panda explains all.

In Search of El Dorado - The fascinating life of Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh and his son Walter. 1602.

Raleigh had to face extreme difficulties right from his childhood. When he was a boy, his family suffered greatly, trying to outrun the Roman Catholic Church that flourished under the rule of Mary I of England. In 1569, he joined troops in subduing civil uprisings in France but eventually returned to pursue his education as an undergraduate in the well-known Oriel College, Oxford. Many such events, such as his successful abortion of the Irish rebellion, followed that showed his ambition and skills that ultimately culminated in him gaining favor with the Virgin Queen.


Sailing with his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert to America in 1578 turned out to be the first of many expeditions he would undertake. Therein, after two attempts, he managed to set up a British colony on Roanoke Island under the governance of John White. But after he sailed back to England and got delayed in returning, the colonists disappeared, and today their settlement is known popularly as the ‘Lost City of Roanoke Island’, but the people of America honored him by naming the state capital of North Carolina as Raleigh. Moreover, Raleigh County, West Virginia and Mount Raleigh in British Columbia are also named after him.

But all of this hard work and gallantness of his was thrown to the wind when Queen Elizabeth found out that he had secretly married one of her ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton, and imprisoned them both in the Tower of London. He regained his reputation by capturing the incredible treasure-laden ship Madre de Deus and presenting it to the Queen. Some historians believe that that was when his obsession with gold started.


In the year 1594, the first hint of the existence of a ‘City of Gold’ reached him. He read the accounts of several people including Gonzalo Pizarro, Francisco Lopez and Francisco de Orellana that described the exploration of the Amazon basin and the Lower Orinoco.  By the time he decided to embark on a voyage to Guiana, he had become sure of the existence of El Dorado, the city that contained immeasurable wealth and which he dubbed Manoa. In his book, Discovery of Guiana, Raleigh recounts that it was the account of a Spaniard by the name of Juan Martinez, who was serving at the time as master of munitions to Diego Ordas, a Knight of the Order of Santiago, which provided the final proof that he needed.

Martinez, Raleigh believed, was the first European to ‘find’ El Dorado. The story was that Martinez, fearing execution due to mismanagement of some armaments that he was supposed to be in charge of, set out in a canoe down the Orinoco and was rescued by natives who took him to Manoa, the seat of their emperor. After several months of living there, Martinez was sent back to his land, laden heavily with gifts of gold which were eventually robbed off of him.

But Raleigh was not too dogmatic in his beliefs either. He reached out to various people connected with the story and was told with solid proof that left absolutely no room for doubts – in his mind at least. Then, he set sail to the New World in 1595 in search of Manoa. In reality, he had another, more significant objective – he wanted to weaken Spanish colonization of South America and build British influence there. If there was one thing that Raleigh had no qualms about stating, it was his contempt towards the Spanish. In the Discovery of Guiana, he never forgets to insert a jab or a wry comparison to his Spanish ‘friends’.

Although he gave exaggerated reports of the gold he found in Guiana when he went back to England, he was not successful in finding Manoa. Yet, silently, his belief in its existence was not shaken. In 1600, he was appointed governor of the Channel Island in Jersey and focused on improving defenses and administration.

Once again, Raleigh was struck by a bout of bad luck when Queen Elizabeth died in 1603. Her successor, King James I, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, was not quite ready to be favorably disposed towards him. In fact, King James was of a platonic nature, eager to amend relations with the Spanish. His first step was accusing Raleigh of treason and throwing him once more into the Tower of London – his only concession being that he was spared his life. During his imprisonment, Raleigh penned the popular Historie of the World.

A ray of hope appeared for Raleigh in 1616, when King James allowed him to travel a second time to Guiana in search of El Dorado in exchange for a massive fortune and strict orders to not attack the Spanish. But as ill luck would have it, one of his long-time friends and confidante Lawrence Keymis’ troops attacked a Spanish outpost on the banks of the Orinoco River, defying Raleigh’s orders and resulting in the untimely death of his son Walter.

On his return to England, again empty-handed, the Spanish Ambassador was angry, wanting King James to punish Raleigh for breaking the peace treaty. With no other way out, King James ordered Raleigh’s execution. So it was that on October 29, 1618, the world saw the last of a valiant man who traversed dangerous waters and explored uncharted lands, a man who was not afraid of going after what he believed in. Now he lies in a grave in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, London, known mainly as a name that history students remember.