Harvard Classics

July 19 – Sir Walter Raleigh: Discovery of Guiana

She Wanted Heroes All to Herself
The famous gallant who spread his gorgeous cloak so the dainty slipper of his queen would be unspotted, soon lost the high favor this action won for him. In spite of his glorious voyages, Raleigh condemned himself when he fell in love with another woman.
(Sir WaIter Raleigh imprisoned July 19, 1603.)
Read from Raleigh‘s (more) DISCOVERY OF GUIANA Vol. 33, pp. 311320

After enjoying several years of high esteem from Queen Elizabeth I, which stemmed in part from his previous exploits at sea, Raleigh suffered a short imprisonment for secretly marrying one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. In an attempt to bring himself back into favor, Raleigh sailed to Guiana in 1595, hoping to find gold and other material to exchange or extort. One modern scholar remarks of this journey, “Although the expedition itself was hardly a success—Ralegh conquered no lands, found no stores of wealth, and discovered little not observed by earlier adventurers—he created a triumph for himself by publishing The Discovery.”

He returned to Guiana one more time, in 1617, this time after a twelve-year imprisonment at the hands of King James I. Unfortunately for Raleigh, this adventure did not yield more gold, nor did it yield a published account, likely since he was arrested soon after returning, and sentenced to death.

There are gold deposits in Venezuela, but Raleigh appears to have exaggerated how easy it was for him to find gold there. Raleigh having promised Queen Elizabeth a “gold-rich empire more lucrative than Peru.” King James was probably a little more willing to temporarily forgive Raleigh’s charge of treason to see if he could find the place he had claimed to have found, and make it profitable. But the scholar argues that this came from Raleigh’s prodigious literary skill, wherein he was able to make it sound like he had found much gold, but without ever saying or relating the precise finding of it, or bringing anything back.

On the second voyage, Raleigh’s men, under the command of Lawrence Keymis, attacked the Spanish on the river Orinoco on 1617–18. At Raleigh’s subsequent trial, he was not only tried for treason against the crown for disobeying King James I’s orders to avoid engaging in combat with the Spanish, but, argues one scholar, also for essentially lying about the abundance of gold to be had in Guiana.

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