Sir Walter Raleigh

(Walter Ralegh)

Walter Raleigh was born at Hayes Barton in Devon, England, into an affluent and landed family. In 1569, he took part in military campaigns in France on behalf of the Huguenots. During the early 1570s, he attended Oxford University, but he did not receive a degree. In 1578, Raleigh joined his half brother SIR HUMPHREY GILBERT in a voyage to the Americas, during which he took part in raids on Spanish shipping. Two years later, Raleigh won the favor of Queen Elizabeth I after leading English forces in suppressing a rebellion in Ireland. He was rewarded with commercial licenses and trade monopolies, and, in 1584, he was knighted. That same year, he received a royal patent to explore and colonize the region of the eastern seaboard of North America, north of the Spanish settlements in Florida.

In April 1584, Raleigh sent out two ships from Plymouth, England, commanded by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe. They reached the coast of present-day North Carolina and explored the region around Pamlico Sound, naming it “Virginia” in honor of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. In 1585, Raleigh commissioned SIR RICHARD GRENVILLE to found a colony on the North Carolina coast. A fleet of seven ships carried 600 men, among them the scientist THOMAS HARRIOT and cartographer and painter JOHN WHITE. Yet, the next year, because of trouble with Roanoke Indians, the colonists returned to England with SIR FRANCIS DRAKE after a stopover by him.

In May 1587, Raleigh sent JOHN WHITE to reestablish the Roanoke Colony, this time with 150 men, women, and children. White returned to England for supplies that August, but he was delayed in his return to the settlement by the outbreak of hostilities with Spain in 1588. White finally arrived in 1590 but found no trace of the colony or the settlers. Raleigh’s men found the inscription “CROATOAN” on a tree, indicating that the colonists may have moved to a nearby island of that name, but a search turnedup no trace.

In 1595, Raleigh won royal authorization for an expedition to search for the fabled kingdom of EL DORADO and its golden city of Manoa, then believed to be somewhere in northern South America. Reports by Spanish explorers DIEGO DE ORDAZ and others led Raleigh to believe that El Dorado would rival the Inca and Aztec civilizations in riches. Raleigh’s five ships sailed from Plymouth, England, for South America in February 1595. A stormy Atlantic Ocean crossing scattered the fleet, however. Raleigh arrived in Trinidad, where he soon led an attack on Spanish settlements. From the captured Spanish official ANTONIO DE BERRÍO, he obtained additional reports of El Dorado. While in Trinidad, he visited Pitch Lake, a natural asphalt seepage, which he described in his later published account. Raleigh’s ships regrouped at Port of Spain, Trinidad, from where they embarked on an exploration of the ORINOCO RIVER in the Guiana region. Using small boats, Raleigh led a party of 100 men up the branches of the Orinoco to its confluence with the Caroni. Along the way, they explored Lake Parime and other affluents of the Orinoco in what is now Venezuela. Tropical fever and shortages of supplies soon led Raleigh to abandon the search for El Dorado, and he headed back to the Caribbean coast by way of the Cano Macareo River. His ships then embarked for England, making stops on the Venezuelan coast and in Cuba.

In 1596, Raleigh published an account of his first South American expedition, The Discoverie of the Beautiful Empire of Guiana, with a Relation of the Great and Golden City of Manoa . . . in the year 1595. By the late 1590s, Raleigh had fallen out of favor with Queen Elizabeth. Shortly after King James I came to the English throne in 1603, Raleigh was implicated in a plot against the new monarch and was imprisoned in the Tower of London under sentence of death.

Raleigh remained a prisoner until 1616, when he succeeded in convincing King James to allow him to undertake another expedition to South America in search of El Dorado. In 1617, his ships sailed to Trinidad, where Raleigh was stricken with fever. His son Walter and English courtier Lawrence Kemys went ahead to the Orinoco, in search of a gold mine. They entered Spanish-held territory and attempted to take the settlement of São Tomé, but were defeated. Raleigh’s son was killed in the conflict, and Kemys committed suicide soon afterward. Raleigh then returned to England. He had defied the king’s orders not to undertake any attacks against the Spanish and had failed to find the fabled El Dorado. For these reasons, the death sentence was reinstated, and, in 1618, Raleigh was beheaded.

Sir Walter Raleigh never visited his short-lived settlement on the coast of what is now North Carolina. The fate of Roanoke, later known as the LOST COLONY, became one of the great mysteries of early colonial American history. Although he failed in his own efforts to found an English colony in North America, Raleigh did indirectly influence the success of the subsequent colony at Jamestown in Virginia, established in 1607. In the 1580s and 1590s, Raleigh was a prominent figure at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and, as a trend-setter of his day, he popularized tobacco smoking in England. As a result, demand for tobacco soared in England, and after 1612, tobacco became Jamestown’s principal export product and the basis for the colony’s prosperity and survival as the first permanent English colony in what is now the United States. Raleigh’s 1617 Orinoco expedition was the last organized attempt by a European power to find the legendary El Dorado.

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