Sir Walter Raleigh and His First Journey to El Dorado

Illustration of Sir Walter Raleigh


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El Dorado, the legendary lost city of gold rumored to be somewhere in the unexplored interior of South America, claimed many victims as thousands of Europeans braved flooded rivers, frosty highlands, endless plains and steamy jungles in the vain search for gold. The most well-known of the obsessed men who searched for it, however, must be Sir Walter Raleigh, the legendary Elizabethan courtier who made two trips to South America to search for it.

The Myth of El Dorado

There is a grain of truth in the El Dorado myth. The Muisca culture of Colombia had a tradition where their king would cover himself in gold dust and dive into Lake Guatavitá: Spanish conquistadors heard the story and began searching for the Kingdom of El Dorado, “the Gilded One.” Lake Guatavita was dredged and some gold was found, but not very much, so the legend persisted. The supposed location of the lost city changed frequently as dozens of expeditions failed to find it. By 1580 or so the lost city of gold was thought to be in the mountains of present-day Guyana, a harsh and inaccessible place. The city of gold was referred to as El Dorado or Manoa, after a city told of by a Spaniard who had been captive of natives for ten years.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh was a famous member of the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England, whose favor he enjoyed. He was a true Renaissance man: he wrote history and poems, was a decorated sailor and dedicated explorer and settler. He fell out of favor with the Queen when he secretly married one of her maids in 1592: he was even imprisoned in the Tower of London for a time. He talked his way out of the Tower, however, and convinced the Queen to allow him to mount an expedition to the New World to conquer El Dorado before the Spanish found it. Never one to miss the chance to out-do the Spanish, the Queen agreed to send Raleigh on his quest.

The Capture of Trinidad

Raleigh and his brother Sir John Gilbert rounded up investors, soldiers, ships, and supplies: on February 6, 1595, they set out from England with five small ships. His expedition was an act of open hostility to Spain, which jealously guarded its New World possessions. They reached the Island of Trinidad, where they cautiously checked out the Spanish forces. The Englishmen attacked and captured the town of San Jose. They took an important prisoner on the raid: Antonio de Berrio, a high-ranking Spaniard who had spent years searching for El Dorado himself. Berrio told Raliegh what he knew about Manoa and El Dorado, trying to discourage the Englishman from continuing on his quest, but his warnings were in vain.

The Search for Manoa

Raleigh left his ships anchored at Trinidad and took only 100 men to the mainland to begin his search. His plan was to go up the Orinoco River to the Caroni River and then follow it until he reached a legendary lake where he would find the city of Manoa. Raleigh had caught wind of a massive Spanish expedition to the area, so he was in a hurry to get underway. He and his men headed up the Orinoco on a collection of rafts, ship’s boats and even a modified galley. Although they were aided by natives who knew the river, the going was very tough as they had to fight the current of the mighty Orinoco River. The men, a collection of desperate sailors and cut-throats from England, were unruly and difficult to manage.


Laboriously, Raleigh and his men made their way upriver. They found a friendly village, ruled by an aged chieftain named Topiawari. As he had been doing since arriving on the continent, Raleigh made friends by announcing that he was an enemy of the Spanish, who were widely detested by the natives. Topiawari told Raleigh of a rich culture living in the mountains. Raliegh easily convinced himself that the culture was an offshoot of the rich Inca culture of Peru and that it must be the fabled city of Manoa. The Spanish set out up the Caroni River, sending out scouts to look for gold and mines, all the while making friends with any natives they encountered. His scouts brought back rocks, hoping that further analysis would reveal gold ore.

Return to the Coast

Although Raleigh thought he was close, he decided to turn around. The rains were increasing, making the rivers even more treacherous, and he also feared being caught by the rumored Spanish expedition. He felt he had enough “evidence” with his rock samples to drum up much enthusiasm back in England for a return venture. He made an alliance with Topiawari, promising mutual aid when he returned. The English would help fight the Spanish, and the natives would help Raleigh find and conquer Manoa. As part of the deal, Raleigh left two men behind and took Topiawari’s son back go England. The return journey was much easier, as they were traveling downstream: the Englishmen were joyful at seeing their ships still anchored off of Trinidad.

Return to England

Raleigh paused on his way back to England for a bit of privateering, attacking the Island of Margarita and then the port of Cumaná, where he dropped off Berrio, who had remained a prisoner on board Raleigh’s ships while he looked for Manoa. He returned to England in August of 1595 and was disappointed to learn that news of his expedition had preceded him and that it was already considered a failure. Queen Elizabeth had little interest in the rocks he had brought back. His enemies seized upon his journey as an opportunity to slander him, claiming that the rocks were either fake or worthless. Raleigh defended himself ably but was surprised to find very little enthusiasm for a return trip in his home country.

The Legacy of Raleigh’s First Search for El Dorado

Raleigh would get his return trip to Guyana, but not until 1617 — more than twenty years later. This second journey was a complete failure and directly led to Raleigh's execution back in England.

In between, Raleigh financed and supported other English expeditions to Guyana, which brought him more "proof," but the search for El Dorado was becoming a hard sell.

Raleigh's greatest accomplishment may have been in creating good relations between the English and the natives of South America: although Topiawari passed away not long after Raleigh's first voyage, the goodwill remained and future English explorers benefitted from it.

Today, Sir Walter Raleigh is remembered for many things, including his writings and his participation in the 1596 attack on the Spanish port of Cadiz, but he will forever be associated with the vain quest for El Dorado.


Silverberg, Robert. The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado. Athens: the Ohio University Press, 1985.

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Minster, Christopher. "Sir Walter Raleigh and His First Journey to El Dorado." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, Minster, Christopher. (2021, September 9). Sir Walter Raleigh and His First Journey to El Dorado. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Sir Walter Raleigh and His First Journey to El Dorado." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).