Ralegh Arrives in Guiana

Ralegh’s attempt to discover the fabled gold-rich land of El Dorado fueled Britain’s imperial ambitions for conquest and colonial expansion. His enormously popular geographical and topographical survey, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana (1596), functioned as an advertisement for the spread of English imperialism and increased colonization in South America.

Summary of Event

Although his attempt to discover the fabled land of El Dorado El Dorado (The Golden Land) failed dismally, Sir Walter Ralegh, the world-famous poet, adventurer, and explorer, nevertheless greatly fueled Britain’s imperial ambitions for conquest and colonial expansion. Guiana
Exploration and colonization;England of South America
Ralegh, Sir Walter
Elizabeth I
James I
Elizabeth I (queen of England)
Throckmorton, Elizabeth
James I (king of England)
Ralegh, Sir Walter

Ralegh took up the project of finding the legendary land of El Dorado, which he was certain was abundant in gold, in an attempt to regain his favored position in the court of English queen Elizabeth I. The ambitious courtier, who earlier gained the queen’s attention by covering a muddy puddle with his colorful cloak for her to pass, had fallen out of favor by secretly marrying maid of honor Elizabeth Throckmorton in 1592. The queen, who forbade her courtiers from marrying to keep their attention focused on her, learned of the marriage and imprisoned Ralegh and his wife in the Tower of London.

Before his fall from grace, the dashing, brilliant, and powerful Ralegh’s adventures had made him one of the queen’s favorites. He had sailed the seas as an explorer and adventurer, gone to the West Indies on a mission to attack Spanish ships laden with gold, and diplayed significant talent as a poet, elevating this contradictory and complex Elizabethan figure greatly in the queen’s eyes. Moreover, as a fervent Protestant, Ralegh saw Catholic Spain as England’s greatest enemy. His ship, the Ark Royal, was the flagship of the English fleet during the enormously successful campaign against the Spanish Armada (1588) Armada, Spanish (1588) and made him one of the best-known men in England. His exploratory attempts to find and mine gold in North America resulted in the discovery of Virginia, which Ralegh named for Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen.

Upon his release from the Tower of London, Ralegh planned his expedition to find the legendary golden city. Since the discovery of Virginia had gained him such recognition, Ralegh felt sure a similar conquest, this time the attainment of South American El Dorado and all of its fabled riches, would place him firmly once again in the queen’s favor and diminish the popularity of the queen’s new favorite, the earl of Essex. Thus, in 1595, Ralegh led an expedition of one hundred men under royal commission into the Amazon basin in the company of adventurer Laurence Kemys to find El Dorado.

According to legend, the city was situated on a 200-league (600-mile or 966-kilometer) saltwater lake near the mouth of the Orinoco River in Guiana, in what is today called Venezuela. Spanish documents and stories told by South American Indians told of the city’s existence, claiming that it was composed of gold. The legend originated with the Chibcha people of Colombia, who claimed that the area was so rich in gold that every year they covered a man in gold (the city’s name literally translates as “the gilded man”). Earlier, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and many other explorers, including Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, had attempted to find this land of legends whose supposed location kept shifting as, one after another, the explorers failed to find it.

In 1596, Ralegh’s expedition penetrated 300 miles (483 kilometers) up the Orinoco River into the heart of Spain’s colonial empire, eventually arriving at the port of Morequito, Guiana. There Ralegh met the king of Arromaia, who was supposedly 110 years old. With patriotic fervor, Ralegh later described the British Empire’s role as one of rescuer of the native people from the oppressive Spanish and wrote of his attempts to persuade the native Casiqui to worship and serve Queen Elizabeth. However, although Ralegh’s expedition claimed to find “El Madre del oro” (the mother of gold) and did locate some gold-flecked pieces of quartz, they failed to discover gold in any significant quantities.

After he returned to England, dejected but with a head full of adventure tales, Ralegh wrote the enormously popular geographical and topographical survey, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana
Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana, The (Ralegh) (1596). In this book, Ralegh paints the lands of the Amazon and its people in a highly colorful, dramatic light and suggests that amazing riches lie there just for the taking. The book was quickly translated into German, Dutch, and Latin, an amazing accomplishment in the Renaissance. Thus, although Ralegh failed to discover gold in South America, he succeeded brilliantly as a writer describing his adventures in the New World. Also, through his dreamy, eloquent prose, Ralegh indirectly urged imperial expansion by advocating the colonization of Guiana and other colonies. The account of his expedition acted as a form of alluring advertising, which implanted the grow-rich-quick fantasy of El Dorado in English minds and made them even more eager to colonize the Americas.


Ralegh’s hopes to regain favor at court were shattered upon the death of Elizabeth and the accession of James I in 1603. He was sentenced to death for plotting against the new king, who commuted his sentence to life in prison in the Tower of London, where he remained imprisoned this time for twelve years. In the tower, he wrote his famous The History of the World
History of the World, The (Ralegh) (1614).

In 1616, Ralegh convinced James I that Guiana’s native chiefs had ceded their country to England, and he gained the king’s permission for a second expedition in search of gold. Ralegh failed disastrously. The king, who wanted peace, had ordered him not to attack Spain in any capacity on pain of his life. However, his officer Laurence Kemys, while searching for El Dorado, attacked the Spanish settlement of St. Thomas and burned it to the ground. Spain demanded that Ralegh suffer severe punishment, and his attempt to escape to France failed. King James accordingly reinstated Ralegh’s original death sentence, and the adventurer was beheaded on October 29, 1618.

Sir Walter Ralegh’s attempt to discover the fabled gold-rich land of El Dorado fueled England’s imperial ambitions for further conquest and increased colonial expansion. Although the 1596 exploratory expedition failed, Ralegh’s subsequent enormously popular geographical and topographical survey fired the imaginations of his readers, leading to increased colonization of South America and other colonies.

Further Reading

  • Aronson, Marc. Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Details Ralegh’s life during the tumultuous Elizabethan era, providing a cultural context for the poet, soldier, and explorer in his quest for El Dorado. Provides maps and prints.
  • Hyland, Paul. Ralegh’s Last Journey: A Tale of Madness, Vanity, and Treachery. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Concentrates on the last five months of Sir Walter Ralegh’s eventful life: his final voyage to Guinea, return home, attempted escape to France in a false beard, and ultimate beheading.
  • Lacey, Robert. Phoenix: Sir Walter Ralegh. London: Phoenix Press, 2001. In seven sections that cover 50 chapters, Lacey charts Ralegh’s multifaceted life and nature from poet to solider, adventurer, scientist, statesman, lover, and family man. Pays particular attention to how Ralegh paved the way for expanded colonization in the Americas.
  • Naipaul, V. S. The Loss of El Dorado: A Colonial History. New York: Vintage, 2003. A 2001 Nobel Prize winner who brought Walter Ralegh severely to task in his prize acceptance speech, Naipaul illustrates the drastic results of English colonialism brought about by such men as Ralegh in the Orinoco region, which includes Naipaul’s own home, Trinidad.
  • Ralegh, Sir Walter. The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana. 1596. Reprint. Edited by Neil L. Whitehead. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. Ralegh’s transcribed original 1596 text of his expedition to Guiana. Provides a 100-page critical introduction highlighting the historical, geographical, and political aspects of Ralegh’s adventure.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

Feb. 23, 1540-Oct., 1542: Coronado’s Southwest Expedition

1545-1548: Silver Is Discovered in Spanish America

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

Apr., 1587-c. 1600: Anglo-Spanish War

July 31-Aug. 8, 1588: Defeat of the Spanish Armada