FROM the summit of the hill of St. Joseph is a very wide view of the sea, and of the far mountains of South America. Seen through the haze of a cloudless noon, these mountains are pearl grey, unsubstantial and mysterious. Many have, no doubt, been fascinated by the prospect, but there was one Englishman, long years ago, who was absolutely transfigured by the contemplation of the scene.
It would not be unreasonable to suppose that Raleigh obtained his first clear survey of these mountains from the hill of St. Joseph, He had come from very far to see them ; he had pictured them in his brain a thousand times as he brooded in his study at Sher-borne. These were the uplands of El Dorado. Somewhere beyond the heights was the city of unfathomed wealth. It was all to be his and his Queen’s.
He knew whereabouts the city lay, for he had studied many descriptions of it. He was learned in the fabulous geography of the land. He doubted nothing that he had read, and little that he had heard. He was as certain of the existence of the golden town as he was of the locality of Paris. He was as sure of its streets of gold as he was of the golden plain of buttercups in the meadows by Sherburne.
If the imaginative Raleigh could have seen into the future, as he gazed westwards, he would have beheld, in place of the spires of the wondrous city, a headsman’s block in the clouds, for this very vision was to lead him to his ruin. He was lured once again to this fateful coast, but with his second coming his earthly voyagings ended. His sailing days were over. He had hoped.
when he turned homewards, to have laid the wealth of the world at his sovereign’s feet, but his only welcome was from the crowd who waited in Old Palace Yard to see him die.
El Dorado was a daring fiction of the sixteenth century. The country was situated, so the fable said, in Guiana, between the rivers Amazon and Orinoco. It was rich in all kinds of precious metals, and ablaze with priceless gems. Its chief city was Manoa, a place of great size and magnificence, reared upon the banks of Lake Parima. This mythical inland sea was 200 leagues long. So engrafted was the figment of El Dorado upon the minds of men that the great lake Parima found a place on all sober maps up to the time of Humboldt. The houses in Manoa were covered with plates of gold. Temples and palaces were there of dazzling splendour, together with immense statues and thrones of solid gold. Indeed this metal seems to have been even too abundant in the city, for billets of gold were reported to be lying about in heaps in the byways, like faggots of wood stacked for the winter fire. There was also near the town a superb garden of pleasure, wherein was every imagined delight.
Numerous expeditions had been made to this surprising country before the time of Raleigh’s coming, but, lamentable to say, they had all failed with more or less hideous disaster. One enthusiast of the name of Philip von Hutten believed that he had caught a sight of the golden city. If he did it was only in the delirium of fever, yet the fancy led on further hordes of stumbling men, who pressed forward to the phantom city until they fell dead by the way of arrow wounds, starvation or disease.
The chief authority on El Dorado was a Spaniard known as Juan Martinez, who declared that in 1534 he had spent seven months in Manoa with considerable enjoyment. Martinez was quite a simple man, a mere ” master of the munition,” yet his name will live for ever as that of the most fertile liar the world has known. He was conducted, he said, from Manoa to the Spanish frontier, blindfolded, but laden with treasure of every kind. Of this wealth he was robbed before he reached the coast. He had, therefore, no souvenirs of Manoa to show to his friends and no precise knowledge to give them of the route to the city. On his way home he reached as far as San Juan in the island of Puerto Rico. Here in a hushed chamber he died, surrounded by all the comforts of religion.
It was when he was on his deathbed and “without hope of life ” that he gave to the holy men about him his account of Manoa. This wonderful story fell from his failing lips after he had received the sacrament. Possibly the monks added a little to the tale ; possibly it was wholly their invention ; possibly they misconstrued the mutterings of the dying man altogether, as he babbled of a city of pure gold, of ” a wall great and high ” that was built of jasper, of streets that had no need of the sun,” of the river of life clear as crystal. It may be that the last half-whispered words uttered, when the world had already faded from his tired eyes, were such as these” the fifth, sardonyx ; the sixth, sardius ; the seventh, chrysolyte ; the eighth—”
It matters little upon whom the mantle of Ananias may have fallen at Puerto Rico ; the story, as it came to Sir Walter Raleigh, was after this fashion. About the year 1534 an expedition of 63o men set out to discover El Dorado under the leadership of Diego Ordas. In this company was Martinez the wonder-teller. The enterprise ended in rueful failure ; Ordas was murdered and nothingnot even a nugget of goldwas discovered. During the unhappy journey Martinez incurred the wrath of his leader to such a degree that Ordas turned him adrift in a canoe to sink or, starve as he liked. Martinez, as he glided down stream in the empty boat, was captured by Indians in a manner approved of in every tale for boys. The natives took him to Manoa as a curious creature they had caught in the woods. He seems to have been exhibited as a freak, as if he had been a bearded woman or a two-headed ox. Whether he was shown in a booth sitting on those gold billets which were so common in the town, or whether he was invited to parties and bazaars to amuse the smart people of Manoa matters little. He saw all there was to be seen and treasured every astonishing item in his mind.
He seems, as a man of taste, to have had a curious conception of what constitutes ” the height of luxury.” This realisation of supreme bliss was to be witnessed whenever Manoa was honoured by a state banquet. On such occasion, says the soldier of fortune, ” all those that pledge the Emperor are first stripped naked and their bodies anointed all over with a kind of white balsam. When they were anointed all over, certain servants of the Emperor, having prepared gold made into fine powder, blow it through hollow canes upon their naked bodies, until they be all shining from the foot to the head ; and in this sort they sit drinking by twenties and hundreds, and continue in drunkenness sometimes six or seven days together.”
There are still people who regard the prospect of being drunk for a week as the consummation of happiness, the Nirvana of their ambition, but they are people of the baser sort. These gilded youths and men of Manoa who rolled about the palace for a week, giggling and hiccoughing, and leaving greasy dabs of gold on the marble as they lurched from court to court, were generals and governors, privy councillors and ministers of state. It is a quaint idea of an earthly paradisethe nakedness of the Garden of Eden, gold dust and grease as at once a concession to modesty and a token of magnificence, the unlimited drink, the presence of the king. The only reasonable feature in the picture is the severe simplicity of the court dress.
Raleigh left England with five ships in February 1595 to discover this pleasant country of Juan Martinez. The year before he had dispatched a respectable pirate, one Captain Whiddon, “a man most honest and valiant,” to Trinidad to collect information. Raleigh, on his arrival, after examining the shores of the green islet and visiting the Pitch Lake, anchored off San Jose de Oruna. He determined to take that town and to capture Berreo, the governor of the island. His excuses for the assault were the following : In the first place Berreo had treacherously captured eight of Whiddon’s men ; secondly, he had treated the natives with vile cruelty, had loaded certain princes with chains, and then tortured them by dropping boiling fat upon their bare shoulders. The third reason, however, was the real one. Berreo had already led an expedition into Guiana, and would no doubt be full of useful knowledge.
Sir Walter therefore went ashore one dark night, crept up the Caroni river, and took San Jose at the break of day, just as the humming-birds were busying themselves in the governor’s garden. He found five melancholy princes chained together in a row and nearly dead from famine, while on their royal backs were the remains of the last application of hot fat. He set fire to the little town, and went down the hill happy and chuckling to himself, for he had Berreo with him, alive and communicative.
Raleigh left his ships at Trinidad and crossing to the mainland in small boats proceeded to ascend the mighty Orinoco. There was never a more romantic river voyage ; never a more rapturous wild-goose chase. Raleigh was infinitely gullible. He believed every word the romance-loving Spaniards told him, as if he had been a gaping schoolboy. He trusted Juan Martinez as a modern traveller trusts Baedeker. He gathered inspiration and assurance from any dull-witted Indian who nodded ” yes ” to the unintelligible questions of his interpreter.
Every sign was a happy omen. He toiled up the fetid, pestilential river radiant with delight. His men died of starvation and fatigue, but Manoa was ever just beyond the next bend of the stream. Ten more strokes and the first golden water-gate would be in view. His boats were rotting, yet he could hear every night the bells ringing in the spires of the gorgeous city. Whatever he came upon was delightful. ” I never saw,” he writes, ” a more beautiful country . . . every stone that we stooped to take up promised either gold or silver.” The birds that flew over the dismal stream were the most lovely he had ever known : ” birds of all colours, some carnation, orange tawny,’ purple, green, watchet, and of all other sorts both simple and mixed.” He met with no kind of encouragement, and yet the smile of delight never left his face. Once they came upon a kindly chief who entertained them in his village ; upon which happy occasion ” some of our captains garoused of his wine till they were reasonable pleasant.” This was the best time they had experience of.
At last even Raleigh could go no further. His men were listless with the heat, parched with fever, and so utterly weary that even the prospect of lying drunk for a week in a tavern of gold failed to stir their jaded muscles. They could not pull another stroke in this lukewarm river. They could scarcely sit upright on the scorching thwarts, and would have given the whole land of El Dorado for one hour of a keen north-east wind blowing over the downs of Dorset.
Raleigh owned to no failure. When he reached home he spoke of Manoa as if he had seen it. He writes that the country would yield to the Queen ” so many hundred thousand pounds yearly as should both defend all enemies abroad and defray all expenses at home.” He implores his ” Lady of Ladies ” to put forth her hand and grasp this land of untold riches. He even ventured to assert, with the precision of an auctioneer, that one of the famous statues in Manoa could not be worth less than 100,000l. When he turned back on the river it was with no sense of lack of success. Writing cheerily, and in his same pretty manner, he merely says, ” It is time to leave Guiana to the sun and steer away towards the north.”
Poor self-befooled Raleigh, he left more gold in this miserable country than he ever brought away from it, for he gave to any loquacious chief who would listen to his babblings an honest English sovereigna piece of ” the new money of twenty shillings with hex Majesty’s picture.” It would have indeed been well for the gallant dreamer if he had left Guiana for ever to the sun.