Britannia Biographies: Sir Walter Raleigh Part 17

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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 17: A Last Chance

Raleigh prepares for his Voyage

Raleigh and Leymis believed that gold could be found at the junction of the Rivers Orinoco and Caroni; but their friend, Topiawari, was no longer alive to help them and Berrio had built a small fort at San Thome to bar their way. Cecil desptached Sir Thomas Roe to reconoiter the situation. He returned with extensive knowledge of the Guyana region but also with a strong conviction that El Dorado was a myth. Despite this, he did believe that San Thome could easily be captured and suggested that a renegade Spaniard might be persuaded to offer knowledge of hidden gold to the English. Cecil gave this careful consideration but died, in 1612, before he was able to act. The vehemently anti-Spanish Sir Ralph Winwood no took up Raleigh's cause, along with Villiers and on, 19th March 1616, Sir Walter was released from the Tower.

Preparation for the voyage took over a year, during which time Raleigh had to raise some 30,000. The 8,000 compensation for his loss of Sherborne, the sale of his wife's Mitcham estates and all his personal wealth was poured into the project, while Bess pressed her noble relative for even more. Their son, Wat, now aged twenty-two, was to play an important role at his father's side. He had grown into an energetic, reckless young man and, though he was a great a help in finding recruits in Deptford, he could also be something of a liability. Once, at dinner, he exclaimed that he had recently visited a local whore, only to find that his father had lain with her but an hour before. Raleigh boxed his ears.

On 26 August 1613, Sir Walter received his commission: an interesting document which contained the phrase 'under print of the law' scribbled over the more usual 'trusted and well beloved'. He was still a traitor who was officially dead. Relations with Spain were strained and, if Raleigh injured any Spanish subject during the expedition, his life would be forfeit. He had to pass through Spanish territory, sink a mine close to one of their forts, work it and transport its treasures without a fight. It seemed an impossible task, but Sir Walter hoped to get around such an awkward position by enlisting the help of the French Huguenots. They would be able to act where Raleigh could not, as well as offering him a safe harbour while James decided between an Iberian peace or a full treasury. It was a totally unrealistic plan, but Sir Walter's only chance.

A friend of Raleigh's named Anthony Belle was sent, with a certain Captain Faige, across the Channel to collect the Huguenot ships which were to join the expedition. However, they instead decided to join a trading junket to the Mediterranean where they were captured by pirates. Faige languished in a Genoese gaol; while Belle found himself in Rome and, later, Madrid, where he gave up the plans and maps for the English campaign in the Americas. They were immediately forwarded to the Spanish in Guyana. Meantime, in England, Ambassador Gondomar continued to protest to the King about Raleigh's proposed sailing and eventually, though public opinion prevented its abortion, James forwarded Sir Walter's complete itinerary to the King of Spain!

Thus stabbed in the back, Raleigh, in a mood of ironic finality, renamed his ship The Destiny whilst he placed his son, Wat, in command. The crew were wild-eyed scum, the only men prepared to follow him halfway round the World on a fool's errand. His officers, unfortunately, were little better and, though Raleigh required strict discipline on the expedition ships, this was often disregarded. There were quarrels and several fights broke out. Sir Walter also found himself obliged to bail three of his captains out of trouble when they found they had no money to pay for shipboard provisions. The sale of his few remaining pieces of plate covered the cost. The vessels eventually sailed first from Gravesend to Plymouth and here the mayor and corporation organised a banquet in Raleigh's honour. A drummer even beat out a tattoo as the ageing West Country hero walked up the gangplank.

Part 18: The Return to America    Copyright ©1999, LLC