Despite the great and humiliating failure of his 1595 voyage of exploration and conquest to El Dorado, the legendary golden city at the head of the Orinoco River in what is now Venezuela, Ralegh never abandoned his faith in his vision. He may, perhaps, have privately doubted the existence of the golden city; he never seems to have doubted the gold. It represented everything he needed and wanted: renewed wealth and power, royal favour, a chance to bloody the nose of imperial Spain.
Indeed, just four months after Ralegh returned from Guiana, as that part of South America was then known, he sent his redoubtable, brilliant loyal lieutenant, Lawrence Keymis, back there. Keymis’ brief was to open a mine at a site called Caroni, where Ralegh had scrabbled with his men for gold in the dirt.
Keymis, however, brought back bad news. The Spanish had built a town named San Thomé upriver, blocking access to the headwaters. And even if men could be got past San Thomé, Keymis reported, the Spanish had stationed men at Caroni too.
Nevertheless, Ralegh continued to finance expeditions to the region. Indeed, he regarded it as territory which he had claimed for England – and in which it was the Spanish who were now interlopers. The Spanish, naturally, demurred from this position. Which would have mattered rather less if James I, on his accession in 1603, hadn’t shifted English foreign policy towards an accord with Spain.
If Ralegh had entertained hopes that his fortunes would revive their former glory under the new monarch, he was quickly, and brutally, disabused. By the end of 1603 he had been convicted of plotting James’ overthrow – ironically in collusion with the Spanish – and was lucky to escape execution. He spent the next 12 years in the Tower of London.
He was released on 19 March 1616, with James I’s approval, to lead an expedition to the region, known as Manoa, and locate the fabled gold. His conviction – and the attendant death penalty – still hung over his head, however. This was, to say the least, one last bold throw of the dice for Ralegh. More so, because the terms under which he sailed were impossible to comply with. James wanted Ralegh to avoid any conflict with the Spanish. Yet he was to sail with 1,000 men into territory which Spain had both claimed and garrisoned. The Spanish, not unreasonably, regarded this as something close to a declaration of war.
It doesn’t add up. And it didn’t add up at the time. The court was awash with rumour. Ralegh intended to turn pirate. He planned to build a kingdom of his own. He was in the pay of France. He would seize the Spanish treasure fleet sailing from the River Plate. Perhaps he considered all of these; Sir Francis Bacon claimed that Ralegh had floated the last idea to him in conversation. To Bacon’s response that it would be piracy, Ralegh allegedly laughed and said that no-one was a “pirate for millions”, meaning if he took enough money no-one would care how dirtily it was taken.
In any event, after a year of planning and interminable court politics, Ralegh sailed with 14 ships from Plymouth on 12 June 1617, his flagship was the Destiny. Financing the expedition had been tough; among the contributions was £2,500 from his wife, Bess, who sold her estate to do so.
Ralegh was in his sixties now, an old man. On the voyage across, the ships were ravaged with illness. He lost 42 men that way; not that Ralegh cared greatly. He thought many of the men were the “scum of the earth” and, imperious and proud as always, did little to hide his contempt.
But he himself was sick, too. He could eat nothing but stewed prunes, and those rarely; he was racked with fever, changing his sweat-soaked clothes several times a day. He drank day and night. He collapsed on deck, hitting his head. He was too weak to stand and had to be carried everywhere in a chair.
He was unfit, in fact, to lead the expedition up the Orinoco, and passed the responsibility to Keymis. Ralegh would stay down at the coast, fretful and expectant. Keymis set out up the river on 10th December with some 250 men, among them Ralegh’s beloved but impetuous 22-year-old son, Wat. They arrived within sight of St Thomé on 2nd January. Shortly before noon, they disembarked, and approached the wooden pallisades of the town.
But the lengthy preparations and politicking back in England had exacted their price. Whatever the Spanish thought of Ralegh’s actual motives, his intentions in the short term had been abundantly clear for months. The men at St Thomé were accordingly well prepared. They ambushed Keymis’ men and there was a running battle. The English stormed the town. Wat Ralegh, wild as he was, leapt ahead of his soldiers, scenting glory, roaring above the clamour, “Come on my hearts!”
He was silenced, shot in the throat, one of four English deaths. It was a wasteful and needless loss, some thought, among them Keymis and one of his captains, who later wrote, with a soldier’s disdain for gentleman amateurs, that Wat had “lost himself with his unadvised daringness”. As for Ralegh, with the loss of his son, he said, “to say the truth, all respect of the world hath taken end in me”. The town fell around 1.00 am the following day.
News of the battle reached Ralegh on 13 February; Keymis himself, having abandoned the attempt to hold St Thomé, led his men back on 2 March having, it would seem searched for an open Spanish mine rather than the new mine he and Ralegh believed to exist. His men openly despised him; a judgement he seems to have shared: “at last we found his delays mere illusions and himself a mere Machiavel,” one of his captains would write. “For he was false to all men and odious to himself.”
Keymis must have known the reception that would await him back on board the ill-named Destiny. He had served Ralegh with unfailing loyalty for decades. But with no gold and Spanish blood on his hands, he had brought his master to ruin. And then there was Ralegh’s best loved boy, dead in the ground at St Thomé.
Ralegh would not hear Keymis’ out. Keymis begged him to accept his apology – and his defence for not proceeding on to Caroli as planned. Ralegh replied that, “seeing my son was lost, I cared not if he had lost a hundred more in opening the mine, so my credit had been saved”. He added, coldly, that that Keymis “had undone me by his obstinacy, and that I would not favour or colour in any sort his former folly”.
Keymis, too, suddenly cold: “I know then, sir, what course to take.”
Ralegh, wrapped in his own personal hell, read nothing into that, probably barely heard it.
Keymis went back to his chamber. Ralegh immediately heard a shot and sent a cabin boy to investigate. Keymis was propped up on the bed, unharmed. He had discharged a pistol out of the window, he said, to clear it. Nothing more was said. A short while later, though, Keymis was found dead, lain as he had been minutes before, but now with “much blood by him”. The boy, turning him over, “found a long knife in his body, all but the handle”. The gun was still by his side; he had shoot himself, but the bullet had shattered a rib and gone no further. The knife was through his heart.
Ralegh, meanwhile, knew that the only thing that could redeem him now was gold. And Keymis had at least brought some gold ingots out of St Thomé, and documents referring to nearby mines. He made immediate plans to return up the Orinoco. “I would have left my body at St Thomé’s by my son’s,” he wrote, “or have brought with me out of that or other mines so much gold ore as should have satisfied the king that I had propounded no vain thing.”
Everything is unravelling now, has unravelled for him, old and ill, desperate, broken with grief and love for his son, fearing for himself, his wife, her future. And the crew can sense it. He – and his expedition – is tainted with ruin now, that was so glorious before, and they want no part of his plans. In fact, with the Spanish fleet approaching, they refuse even to stay where they are.
By 12 March, Ralegh’s ships are at Nevis on Leeward Isles. But his fleet is melting away, ships slipping away among the islands, after nightfall, and there is nothing he can do. Events are pulling hard against him, falling from his grasp.
As his options narrow, new plans emerge, spinning out wildly from his exhausted mind. He will sail to Newfoundland and take on supplies, then return to Guiana. He has a commission from France. He will take the Spanish treasure fleet, after all…
In the midst of this chaos, on 22 March, he wrote, for the first time, to his wife Bess, laying bare the loss of their son. Perhaps he had put off writing, hoping for better news to balance the bad.
None would come.
NOTE: This post is adapted from my chapter on Ralegh’s final voyage to El Dorado in my book Impossible Journeys. If you are interested in my other posts on Ralegh, they are here, here, here, here, here and here.