He was a middle-aged had-been, returning in a flurry from his entrada into the Spanish Main with a crop of tall stories and a bag of glittery sand, to the yawns of Queen and country. More favoured courtiers sneered that he’d never been to Guiana at all. This repudiation persists, leaving Walter Ralegh as little more today than the cloak-and-pipe fellow who was dropped for the Earl of Essex. His other colonial fiasco (the North Carolina settlement which vanished without trace in 1586) is only slightly more remembered. Britain was never seriously to colonise South America, and there never was an El Dorado in the form Ralegh sought.
But his reckless, unpopular, foreigner’s sort of quest for the City of Gold, over which he lost his head in every way, is itself a fine tale of desire and renunciation, idealism and self-deception, with – if we choose – the neat lineaments of myth. It has received a lot of attention lately, retold vindictively by V.S.Naipaul, operatically by Simon Schama. In this celebration of a possible Good Imperialist (good beyond the inherent virtues of failure), Charles Nicholl unearths more detail and offers more seductive speculation than any previous writer. With the vigorous Return of the Subject that besets many contemporary historians, he also can’t resist elbowing to the forefront with a Channel 4 expedition to audit Ralegh’s travel diary. Such presumption doesn’t spoil the book, though, as the search for present echoes moves into a gripping, elegiac journey among nugget junkies and visionaries washed up in Venezuela. Together with the Brazilian garimpeiros, they are the last romantic suckers to be possessed by a fairy tale that cost thousands of lives, while enriching practically nobody.
The dismal pattern of 16th-century gold-rush expeditions was laid down by Cortés’s captain Diego de Ordaz in 1530. Offered the perfectly good grant of present-day Paraguay, he chose instead to explore between the Amazon and the Orinoco in the belief that gold ‘grew’ better near the equator – thanks to its natural affinity with the sun, and as God’s thoughtful dowry to a region otherwise so horrible that no one would want it. Almost every man died on that excursion, and died a pauper. The specific mirage of El Dorado only appeared many cock-ups later, when the Spanish and German appetite for disaster was actually slackening. But the report from Quito in 1541 of an Indian ruler to the east (el dorado, the gilded one) who was daily powdered with gold after his bath encouraged hundreds to sign up for fresh marches of conquest. The ensuing adventures were narrated with devastating flatness by John Hemming in The Search for El Dorado. The gold-hunters got lost, ate grubs, grass and one another, were plagued by bugs and vampires, swelled or shrivelled or turned orange, devoured sweaty saddles in fits of salt-thirst, perished of heat, cold, hunger, poison and disease. Smarter Indians escaped the worst of the brutalities the white men inflicted by waving them amiably on over the next pass, where there would be an abundance of gold and labour. These Indians were always believed. The honest ones were assumed to be lying, with cruel consequences, their denials taken as proof of an El Dorado hidden just out of reach.
This is the context in which Ralegh’s first expedition can strike us almost as touching. It took place as late as 1595, when no Spaniard but the stubborn old Antonio de Berrio, whom Ralegh captured and grilled in Trinidad, still believed the myth. It unfolded with the minimum of violence, its imagery being Arcadian rather than demonic. Ralegh was inclined to Edenic notions of New World community, following Spenser and Dee, and for him the Golden City blurs into a Golden Age complete with sinless primitives – mirror images of the dark cannibals invented and repressed by the mass of Spanish desperadoes, as later by the English in North America. Today, however, the self-romanticising fringe of the indigenismo movement toes a line similar to Ralegh’s, strangely endorsing the sunny side of that Eurocentric fantasy.
So there was a range of motives for Ralegh’s Orinoco plan, from mysticism to the desire for fast bucks; from winning Elizabeth back by driving a wedge into Spanish territory, to adventurism and intellectual curiosity. Ralegh had been intrigued years earlier by a theory he had first encountered in conversations with a Spanish Inca scholar captured by his privateers, that El Dorado was an advanced empire of runaway Peruvians. Like other converts, he gradually padded out the hearsay with a few details and conflations of his own. In the evolution of the El Dorado legend, a chancy blend of text and talk, longing became rumour and rumour became conviction, finally shading into the claim of lived experience. Ralegh’s personal-propagandist account of his voyage, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empire of Guyana with a relation of the great and Golden Citie of Manoa, was the last gasp of this ambiguous literature, for times were changing and even the real marvels it contained were scoffed at. But Ralegh was also chemist, geographer and empiricist, and a philosophical spur for the journey was, as he wrote, to ‘make trial of all, whatsoever happened’.
He set off in this cloud of cultured fiction, alchemical reason and wild surmise with four ships and two hundred and fifty men led by a clutch of ‘spies, scholars, soldiers, sailors and well-born young blades’. After flattening the Trinidad settlement, where Berrio was preparing to re-enter Guiana, he rescued five local chieftains ‘almost dead from famine, and wasted with torments’ and broadcast to an admiring population the discourse which was to distinguish this imperialism: ‘I made them understand that I was the servant of a Queen, who was the great cacique of the north, and a virgin, and had more cacique under her than there were trees in their island; that she was an enemy of the Castellani in respect of their tyranny and oppression ... and that she had sent me to free them also.’ One hesitates to make too much of this civility, since an insidious form adopted by post-colonial guilt is to blame other nations for worse behaviour than one’s own. Warm sympathy for his subject does not blind Nicholl to this, and with some sharp deconstruction of the Discoverie he reveals a good many strands of posturing and manipulation. Yet the evidence of that text is broadly in Ralegh’s favour, full as it is of what he has no need to feign: anthropological interest, admiration verging on rapture and seemingly reciprocated bonds with high-born Indians. Nicholl’s reading can usually be one of close identification:
Then there comes another of those moments. ‘As I was creeping through the bushes, I saw an Indian basket hidden.’ It was a gold refiner’s kit, for ‘I found in it his quicksilver, salt-petre and divers things for the trial of metals’ ... It describes the event, simply and sharply. (One almost hears the intake of breath as he spots the basket; he has been breathing hard as he struggles through the tangled wood; he is out of condition, an ‘ill footman’.) But it also has the feel of a place of woodland magic: a ‘basket hidden’, a cache of fairy gold.
The expedition never gets much closer to the point than this. The ordeals of the few men Ralegh took in rowing boats across the Gulf of Sadness, into the maze of the Delta and up the Orinoco as far as the Caroní Falls, have been disparagingly (but persuasively) summed up by Schama as the series of stations beloved of ‘structuralist lit crit’: the barred highway, the treacherous byway, the respite at the gates of Arcadia, and the final thwarting by the waterfall-monster who guards the grail, preventing any confrontation with its non-existence. Ralegh’s own writing is anything but epic. Here’s a typical anxious evening, with a scared guide who might be stalling: ‘We were very desirous of finding this town, hoping of a feast, because we had made but a short breakfast aboard the galley in the morning, and it was not eight o’clock at night, and our stomachs began to gnaw apace, but whether it was best to return or go on we began to doubt.’ Ambush, mutiny, supper or El Dorado all lurk around the next bend as Ralegh pushes up towards his elusive heart of light, noting wonders, horrors and plain tiresomeness, transcribing local taxonomies and liberating Indians for England.
The high point of the journey is the meeting with Topiawari, estimated age 110, chief of the Orenoqueponi, who assures him that El Dorado is close at hand – but impregnable. Here ‘Ralegh strikes a highly-charged, poetic, utopian view of Indian people and culture. There is honour, beauty, peace and plenty. ’Ralegh’s effusiveness was mostly intended to attract followers and financiers for a new assault, but the lavish yet natural scene was undoubtedly felt as a kind of prelapsarian miracle.
The Discoverie is, however, silent on an ominous prelude to all this, which Nicholl has uncovered in the writings of Francis Sparry, the draughtsman who was left behind and captured by the Spanish. Relating the incident from prison, he says, in Nicholl’s translation: ‘There gathered a large number of Indians in canoes to prevent any further ascent of the river. The Indians, seeing what damage the muskets of the English might do to them, promptly turned their backs.’ After this unequal showdown, liking and respect certainly developed between the two leaders, and it seems Topiawari never stopped awaiting his friend’s return. But in admitting a near-skirmish, Nicholl has actually whitewashed the event, which I mention only because he makes so much of it: “The Indians saw what damage the muskets might do to them – the verb is quite clearly subjunctive (hacían).’ In fact the verb is quite clearly imperfect, and Sparry is saying that damage was done.
Ralegh will not turn back before a bit of tourism, a detour to view the great Caroní waterfall. His ecstatic report is glossed with characteristic-verve and scope:
I cannot resist calling this the climax of the journey, and seeing in its furious, foaming ‘showers’ a final release from the tensions and disappointments, and the much vaunted sexual abstinence, of the expedition. I note also that in the midst of this purely elemental, non-human landscape, Ralegh sees or imagines the shimmering spray to be ‘smoke’ rising ‘over some great town’, and so inserts into the wilderness that image of populousness and civility which is so much a feature of the El Dorado legend. Even the falls themselves seem like ‘church towers’.
At this point Nicholl pulls one of his most successful cuts to the present in a book that telescopes time to eerie and intimate effect. While we are still transported by Ralegh’s vision, the hallucinated golden city metamorphoses into ‘downtown Orinoco’, the same place today. ‘Wide new boulevards where the land-cruisers cruise; sleepy suburbs with TV satellite dishes, wrought-iron window grilles, padlocks, guard-dogs ... There are gold and diamond frames in the optician’s window, and ten-foot-tall teddy bears in “Kidtoys”.’ That old El Dorado was here all right, but its wealth has to be industriously (or industrially) panned for; most explorers came without their spades, picturing another Tenochtitlan or Cuzco stuffed with ready-made ingots and idols, to be plucked like fruit. Big mining companies are now ousting the lone prospectors, and the natural beauty that enchanted Ralegh is destroyed as a twisted consequence of his own desire. ‘The land is pitted from above with what looked like a psoriasis: white flaky scabs of exhausted terrain, often merging into a continuous lunar deadness.’ Nicholl travels on in the direction of Ralegh’s ‘last, wistful gaze upriver’ to see what’s left of the great tradition: a stubborn frontier society of outcasts and no-hopers, whose minuscule finds are ironically dubbed la medicina. Echoes of Cortés’s warning to Montezuma: ‘We suffer from a disease that only gold can cure.’
This is classic travelogue with none of the insidious catastrophism of, say, a Redmond O’Hanlon, beautifully observed (a prospector holds his breath over a speck of ore with ‘the obsessive delicacy of a user handling cocaine’, and graced by characters like golden-mouthed Javicl: ‘He flew into Miami once and they asked if he had anything to declare, “so I very kindly smiled for them.’ ” But the best story, which re-creates some of the mystery-meets-matter tensions of Ralegh’s own, begins in the Twenties. Checking out what may actually lie at the spot where Ralegh’s chart places the wriggling ‘creature’ of the title (the mythic lake of Manoa on which El Dorado was supposed to stand), Nicholl found Angel Falls – named for Jimmy Angel, the bush-pilot who should, from his photograph, have been played by Edward G. Robinson. There he is, hard-bitten and broke as usual, cooling his heels in a Panama hotel lobby, when one J.R. McCracken sidles up with news of a river of gold in Venezuela he wants to be flown to. They get there and pan out a quick 75 lbs. McCracken then disappears and Angel flies about for 14 years trying to find the place again. In 1935 he discovered, instead, the highest waterfall in the world. ‘Thus Ralegh’s and Angel’s expeditions seem like different versions of a single, continuous South American folktale. It begins with the search for a lost river or lake filled with gold; it ends with the breathtaking vision of a waterfall. It sounds like a neat little fable, but one has to remember that these are actual journeys.’ Another example Nicholl might enjoy is that of Alvaro Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. After a lifetime’s hunting for Cíbola, the El Dorado of the north, he fell to his knees before the falls at Rio lguazú, and declared himself satisfied and ready for death.
Ralegh sent others back to Venezuela in the late 1590s, but never again set foot there himself. In 1618 he persuaded King James to let him out of the Tower, where he’d spent 13 years concocting his Guinea Balsam and writing the History of the World under a suspended death sentence. He was allowed a final attempt to find El Dorado, on the outcome of which hung pardon or execution. Sick and quavery, he sat at anchor in the Gulf while his old companion Lawrence Keymis ran into a foolish shoot-out at San Thomé, in which Ralegh’s son Wat was killed. Weeks later Keymis turned up empty-handed and clumsily killed himself, having broken the two, incompatible conditions for the journey: that it should cause no trouble with the Spaniards, who were now England’s best friends, and that it should find and return with some gold. One has to go to sources other than The Creature in the Map for the undignified episodes that followed, as Ralegh, out of his mind with grief and shame, aborted an escape to Newfoundland, threw himself cravenly on the King’s mercy, and then in desperation, not knowing he was betrayed, tried for France wearing a false beard. Only on the scaffold did he regain his bravado and style.
Nicholl’s writing is almost febrile in its switchbacks between history, technology, philosophy, reportage and inspired intuition. Some of the most stimulating discussions come down, perhaps debatably, on Ralegh’s side.The chapter about the famous fornicator’s colonial abstinence, for instance, is extremely rich. At a time when conquest was typically a form of rape (and imaged as such by Donne among others) Ralegh imposed physical and sexual restraint, winning an instant moral victory over the Spanish; Nicholl connects this chastity with the glowering image of the Virgin Queen, the supreme interlocutor. After decoding the Amazon myth from a feminist viewpoint, he looks at Ralegh’s account of the local warrior women, a version deriving from Columbus, Orellana and alleged Indian reports, mixed up with classical parallels. Ralegh’s interpretation is novel for its courtliness, seeing the ‘Amazonian coupling as a chivalric, masque-like meeting of Kings and Queens ... Dramatically modifying a theme of sexual aggression ... they seem a counterpart to these idealistic notions of the “chaste” coloniser.’ On to Ralegh’s final ‘poignant apostrophe’ to Guiana, ‘a country that hath yet her maidenhead, never sacked, turned or wrought’. Nicholl starts by conceding that ‘Guiana’s continued virginity is Ralegh’s failure: an impotence. ‘Then he ventures the kinder possibility that ‘Ralegh’s words appeal to a poetic vision of Guiana as against the pragmatic colonial vision,’ revealing an ‘awestruck perception of its integrity as it is’. Though desperately wanting to possess the country and its women ‘in all the bad old ways’, Ralegh must settle for ‘the poignancy of impossible desire’. This is delightful revisionism, and clearly Ralegh deserves credit for his enthusiams and respect; yet more plausible in my view is to understand the maidenhead passage as an incentive to future colonisers (it’s all there for you, boys!), tinged only with the regret that any educated advocate of progress momentarily feels.