Behind the Waterfall

Lorna Scott Fox

  • The Creature in the Map: A Journey to El Dorado by Charles Nicholl
    Cape, 396 pp, £18.99, May 1995, ISBN 0 224 03333 6

He was a middle-aged had-been, returning in a flurry from his entrada into the Spanish Main with a crop of tall stories and a bag of glittery sand, to the yawns of Queen and country. More favoured courtiers sneered that he’d never been to Guiana at all. This repudiation persists, leaving Walter Ralegh as little more today than the cloak-and-pipe fellow who was dropped for the Earl of Essex. His other colonial fiasco (the North Carolina settlement which vanished without trace in 1586) is only slightly more remembered. Britain was never seriously to colonise South America, and there never was an El Dorado in the form Ralegh sought.

But his reckless, unpopular, foreigner’s sort of quest for the City of Gold, over which he lost his head in every way, is itself a fine tale of desire and renunciation, idealism and self-deception, with – if we choose – the neat lineaments of myth. It has received a lot of attention lately, retold vindictively by V.S.Naipaul, operatically by Simon Schama. In this celebration of a possible Good Imperialist (good beyond the inherent virtues of failure), Charles Nicholl unearths more detail and offers more seductive speculation than any previous writer. With the vigorous Return of the Subject that besets many contemporary historians, he also can’t resist elbowing to the forefront with a Channel 4 expedition to audit Ralegh’s travel diary. Such presumption doesn’t spoil the book, though, as the search for present echoes moves into a gripping, elegiac journey among nugget junkies and visionaries washed up in Venezuela. Together with the Brazilian garimpeiros, they are the last romantic suckers to be possessed by a fairy tale that cost thousands of lives, while enriching practically nobody.

The dismal pattern of 16th-century gold-rush expeditions was laid down by Cortés’s captain Diego de Ordaz in 1530. Offered the perfectly good grant of present-day Paraguay, he chose instead to explore between the Amazon and the Orinoco in the belief that gold ‘grew’ better near the equator – thanks to its natural affinity with the sun, and as God’s thoughtful dowry to a region otherwise so horrible that no one would want it. Almost every man died on that excursion, and died a pauper. The specific mirage of El Dorado only appeared many cock-ups later, when the Spanish and German appetite for disaster was actually slackening. But the report from Quito in 1541 of an Indian ruler to the east (el dorado, the gilded one) who was daily powdered with gold after his bath encouraged hundreds to sign up for fresh marches of conquest. The ensuing adventures were narrated with devastating flatness by John Hemming in The Search for El Dorado. The gold-hunters got lost, ate grubs, grass and one another, were plagued by bugs and vampires, swelled or shrivelled or turned orange, devoured sweaty saddles in fits of salt-thirst, perished of heat, cold, hunger, poison and disease. Smarter Indians escaped the worst of the brutalities the white men inflicted by waving them amiably on over the next pass, where there would be an abundance of gold and labour. These Indians were always believed. The honest ones were assumed to be lying, with cruel consequences, their denials taken as proof of an El Dorado hidden just out of reach.

This is the context in which Ralegh’s first expedition can strike us almost as touching. It took place as late as 1595, when no Spaniard but the stubborn old Antonio de Berrio, whom Ralegh captured and grilled in Trinidad, still believed the myth. It unfolded with the minimum of violence, its imagery being Arcadian rather than demonic. Ralegh was inclined to Edenic notions of New World community, following Spenser and Dee, and for him the Golden City blurs into a Golden Age complete with sinless primitives – mirror images of the dark cannibals invented and repressed by the mass of Spanish desperadoes, as later by the English in North America. Today, however, the self-romanticising fringe of the indigenismo movement toes a line similar to Ralegh’s, strangely endorsing the sunny side of that Eurocentric fantasy.

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