Wednesday 17 August 2011


All that is Gold doth not glitter

He came to find gold and saw oil: historical ironies of Sir Walter Raleigh

In the 16th century, England expanded into the West Indies. The reasons were purely economical: she had to find a new market for her goods, outside of Europe where there was money. To break Spain’s hegemony in the New World, Englishmen began to wage attacks upon the closely guarded Spanish ships. During this period, ‘might was right’ in the Caribbean, as the courageous privateers and pirates attempted to break the Spanish monopoly in the West.

When Queen Elisabeth decided to take up the cause of the United Provinces of Holland against Philip II of Spain, she knew that the West Indies were the most vulnerable part of his empire. Therefore, in the 1590s, many transatlantic expeditions were ordered by the Queen, and her captains sacked and burnt many fledgling Spanish-American towns: Caracas, Santa María, Río Hacha, Puerto Bello etc.

In 1595, it was San José de Oruna’s (St. Joseph) turn. No other than Sir Walter Raleigh navigated up the river Caroni and destroyed the little capital of Trinidad. Sir Walter, however, was not only Her Majesty’s faithful mariner, but also one of those conquistadors who dreamt of ‘el dorado’, the golden man, the riches of the unknown golden city somewhere in South America, where precious stones and nuggets as big as fists were lying in the streets.

The stories of El Dorado were not the only ones: there were also tales of man-eaters, and of Caribs who ate other Indians and who seized and killed white men in the most cruel ways possible. Stories of anthropohagi, men whose heads grew between their shoulders, of jaguars, of swamps, mosquitoes, the silence and ‘hardships so dire and grave when they are known, appear fables in the telling’ made the rounds. But there was always the lure of gold, and Raleigh was hoping that the Orinoco would turn out to be the waterway to El Dorado.

Raleigh weighed anchor in England on 6th February 1595 and arrived at Icacos in Trinidad on 22nd March. Just several weeks before, another English conquistador, the young Sir Robert Dudley, had visited our shores, and who, after consulting with the Aruacs (who reaffirmed the Orinoco as the right way to El Dorado, possibly to get rid of Dudley as quickly as possible) sailed on towards Tobago. Raleigh, however, was to see the real gold of Trinidad, but since it did not glitter but was a dull black, he did not recognise it. He spent five days surveying the island and discovered the magnificent pitch lake, never knowing that this was the real wealth of the future. He did, however, use the pitch to caulk his ships after the long voyage across the Atlantic, and remarked that it was finer than that of Norway. Sailing from the Gulf of Paria, he beheld the Marcasite cliffs. Taking their glitter for gold he sent a boat ashore. But alas - it turned out to be ‘fool’s gold’ as they called it. “All that glitters is not gold!” sighed the conquistador, coining the phrase for centuries after.

Trinidad’s Governor Don Antonio de Berrio was suspicious of his visitor. He sent soldiers to check Raleigh out, and the Englishman greeted them with the utmost courtesy on board his ship. Then, on 7th April, Raleigh gave the signal to murder the nine Spanish soldiers on his flagship. The following day he and 100 English soldiers sailed up the Caroni and took the town of San José. After taking the governor and his administration as prisoners, the English plundered and burnt down the little town, which consisted of tapia and thatch.

Some three weeks later, Sir Walter led his expedition up the Orinoco river. De Berrio - himself a conquistador who was dreaming of ‘el dorado’ - had tried to dissuade him from his venture, but Raleigh persisted. He still thought the riches of South America were to be found in El Dorado, and knew nothing of the vast deposits of oil and gas in these latitudes. And even if he had known, it would more likely than not have been of no particular interest to him. The invention of the fuel-driven engine was still in the far future days.

In Trinidad, the pitch lake quietly bubbled away for many years, while Sir Raleigh had to return to England without recognizing what ‘El Dorado’ really looked like. He never found his City of Gold, and was finally executed due to the fact that he had spent too much of the British Crown’s money on his voyages.

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