- Treasure, Treason and the Tower: El Dorado and the Murder of Sir Walter Raleigh
The current trend in popular fiction for decoding paintings and hidden letters that rewrite history became an academic reality for Paul R. Sellin. Whilst undertaking research on the ‘diplomatic correspondence of Sieur Michel Le Bon’ in Sweden, Sellin stumbled upon evidence that George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, possessed a document revealing the secret location of Sir Walter Raleigh’s gold mine. The implication, as Sellin acknowledges in Chapter 1, is that Raleigh could have been wrongfully beheaded in 1618 ‘on [End Page 252] charges that the mine was a lie’ (p. 2). By consulting the Latin version of a French contract between the King of Sweden and the Duke of Buckingham, Sellin decodes its ambiguity to reveal the ‘exact location’ of Raleigh’s mine (p. 14). The mine’s apparent existence leads Sellin to question other claims that Raleigh never travelled to Guyana but stayed in Cornwall. Through a combination of close-reading Raleigh’s Discoverie of Guiana (1596) and actually recreating the journey described in the narrative, Sellin aims to clear Raleigh’s name.
In Chapter 2, Sellin clarifies that the dates in Raleigh’s text are based on the Old Style Julian calendar. They are mainly accurate as Raleigh did set sail on a Thursday; a seemingly minor detail, but it has a profound effect on the veracity of Raleigh’s travelogue. By mirroring Raleigh’s voyage, Sellin is also able to confirm that Raleigh followed the best coastal journey towards the Orinoco Delta. Chapter 3 begins with Sellin reflecting on the conditions Raleigh and his crew endured on their journey. He surmises that they had only twelve hours of daylight in which to accomplish tasks such as anchoring and ship repairs. Furthermore, sailing at night was hazardous along the Orinoco with its ‘venomous insects’, serpents, and beasts (p. 64). These points register Sellin’s admiration for Raleigh’s determination to make the voyage a success. In another uncanny moment, following the directions in Discoverie of Guiana, Sellin is able to verify the existence of Guyana’s mountains exactly where Raleigh had said they appeared on the river.
Sellin begins Chapter 4 by detecting in Le Bon’s Latin letter to Axel Oxenstierna a misreading. After decoding the implications, he is able to locate Raleigh’s gold mine in a peninsula called Isla Guarguapo. He also discovers, in Chapter 5, that Lawrence Keymis’s moveable city, derided by King James I, actually existed. In 1595, the Spanish governor Don Antonio de Berrío founded Santo Tomé de Guyana. Unbelievably, the city was repeatedly moved up and down the Orinoco’s southern bank until the 1760s.
Chapter 6 focuses on Raleigh’s meeting with the Cacique King, Toparimaca, and not as popularly thought Topiawari. In order to strike a deal with Raleigh to be rid of their Spanish oppressors, Toparimaca shows Raleigh visible deposits of gold beneath a layer of turf: the gold mine Raleigh returned for unsuccessfully in 1618. Raleigh then headed a patrol in search of a gold city. Sellin notes the Admiral nearly reached ‘El Callao and the famous Caratal gold field, modern Venezuela’s true El Dorado’ (p. 185). Chapter 7 sees Sellin verifying another improbable fact from Raleigh’s Discoverie of Guiana. He tracks down the Salto El Mono, the great waterfall referred to by the natives. Satisfied that Raleigh is innocent of the charges made against him in 1618, Sellin decides to reopen the Admiral’s case. [End Page 253]
Chapter 8 has Sellin reassessing the minor errors in Raleigh’s text. He concludes they are deliberately misleading so as to prevent the easy discovery of the mine to outsiders. In the final chapter, Sellin describes how Raleigh’s good character was defiled and how his trial was farcical. By quoting Raleigh’s poetry, Sellin shows the Admiral’s realization that the Duke of Buckingham was not coming...