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Biography of Sir Walter Raleigh by Christopher Smith

S I R      W A L T E R
 R A L E I G H
Part 18: The Return to America

The Ageing RaleighOn 12th June 1617, Raleigh sailed out of Plymouth Hoe with a compliment of seven ships and three pinnaces. Unfortunately, they were driven back three times by storms and a pinnace was lost off the Scillies. They were forced to shelter at Kinsale in Ireland for a time and here Sir Walter was generously entertained and his ships reprovisioned by Lord Boyle, to whom he had sold Lismore Castle some years before. They finally managed to leave the British Isles on 15th August, but the expedition continued to be dogged by ill-fortune. Raleigh knew that scrupulous behaviour was essential to the success of his mission, yet his captains were intent on lining their pockets through piracy. When Sir Walter refused to let a certain Captain Bailey keep four captured French vessels, a grudge began to fester and eventually the man turned his ship for Plymouth where he commenced to spread scurrilous stories about Raleigh's conduct. Fortunately the truth slowly emerged however and he was arrested on the orders of the Privy Council.

Raleigh reprovisioned on the Island of Gomera in the Canary Isles, helped by the half-English wife of the Governor. Three days after leaving, he decided to make for the Cape Verde Islands for more supplies of fresh meat because fifty of the crew of the Destiny were out of action through sickness. They entered the harbour during a disastrous hurricane which led to one of the pinnaces sinking after having been rammed by the bowsprit of the Destiny. Later, as they lay becalmed, deaths among the crew began to increase. They Raleigh's friend, John Talbot, who had served him for eleven years in the Tower. Sir Walter fell sick himself and became so ill that he was unable even to write his journal. It took the ships forty days to reach Trinidad. It should have taken twelve.

On 14th November, they dropped anchor and Raleigh rendezvoused with his old servant, Harry, a Native American who had been with him in the Tower. He had almost forgotten his English, but provided the campaigners with plentiful supplies for their journey. Sir Walter was too weak to lead the expedition up the Orinoco himself and, in any case, his captains wanted him to remain behind to guard their retreat and prevent the others from turning tail at the first sign of the Spaniards. Raleigh agreed and gave explicit instructions to Keymis to lead his men twenty miles downstream to San Thome, establish a protective barrier of armed men between the fort and the supposed site of the mine. Only if the Spaniards initiated an attack was Raleigh's brother, George, to order their troops to fight. Otherwise, they were to assess the mine's richness and work it to whatever state was safe. Sir Walter's fate was now in the hands of others.

After a fortnight of waiting for his kinsman's return, Raleigh heard, from a captured native, that the English were rumoured to have sacked San Thome, killed the Governor and lost two of their leaders. Soon afterward, one of the launches of the expedition returned and told him the terrible truth. Ignoring Sir Walter's orders, Keymis had landed off San Thome. Captain Cosmor and Raleigh's son, Wat, had led an attack with musketeers and pikemen. Young Wat, determined to save his father's honour, rushed forward and a bullet killed him instantly. A few weeks later, the Spanish Ambassador Gondomar burst into King James' presence shouting, "Pirates, Pirates, Pirates!" Walter Raleigh's death was sealed by a pathetic skirmish in a tiny jungle fort.

Keymis was wrecked by the experience and, for a week, could not bring himself to write to Raleigh about the death of his son. Still convinced that a gold mine lay nearby, he carried on his attempts to track it down. He threatened his prisoners, a priest and a native American woman, with torture and thrashed a Portuguese servant boy from San Thome; but the only response was an exclamation of "Would the town be so poor if it were near gold!?" George Raleigh decided to try his luck and took a handful of men three hundred miles up the Orinoco, but found nothing. When the party returned to Trinidad, they met up with Raleigh once more. Sir Walter was furious and tried to further bully the poor Portuguese boy but only lies were forthcoming. Shamed by his failure and having been torn off a strip by his superior officer, Keymis retired to his cabin. A single shot rang out. When a cabin boy was sent to investigate, Keymis was found to be alive and well, babbling to explain his botched suicide attempt as a careless pistol cleaning. When the boy had gone though, Keymis stuck a dagger through his own heart.

Raleigh wrote to Secretary Winwood, who unbeknown to him, was now dead. He naturally wished to try and cover his dramatic failure as best he could. He also wrote sorrowfully of his son's death to his wife, Bess, "God knows I never knew what sorrow meant till now. Comfort your heart dearest Bess, I shall sorrow for us both." He tried hard to rally his men, claiming he would capture Trinidad and the Plate Fleet and go to Virginia; but the crew were now completely disillusioned and Captains Whitney and Wallaston quickly cut their losses and deserted. Raleigh did manage to sail for Newfoundland and eventually persuaded his men to return to Plymouth, via Ireland, as he had always promised. Sir Walter was met, not only by Bess, but by his distant cousin, Vice Admiral Sir Lewis Stukeley, who promptly arrested him.

Part 19: Raleigh's Execution    Copyright 1999, LLC