Steven Thomas

English Department

Pennsylvania State University


Panel 17: Discoveries and Inventions

May 19, 2002



What Ralegh Discovered about Guiana


            I will argue that Sir Walter Ralegh’s Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana with a relation of the great and Golden Citie of Manoa is a discovery not so much of an already existing empire, but a discovery of the imperial potential of England in the Orinoco and Amazon regions of South America. In other words, I might play with the title of this panel and say that Ralegh discovers the potential for the English state to invent an empire there.

            However, before I focus on the theme for this panel, I will briefly introduce Sir Walter Ralegh and some of the scholarship on him. First, who is Ralegh? He is the archetype of the Elizabethan courtier. He began his life landless, and through his wit and capability, secured the favor of Queen Elizabeth and many titles. One of those titles was the patent on exploration formerly held by his half brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert. He administered the Roanoke colony expeditions in the mid-1580’s, working with his friends Thomas Harriot, Richard Haklyut, and others to promote colonial projects. However, it was not until 1595, at age 40, that he ever led a colonial expedition himself.

            Why did he decide to do this in 1595? At that time, he had fallen from Queen Elizabeth’s favor and was even temporarily imprisoned because he had secretly married one of her maids of honor. Both his expedition and his representation of it was an attempt to regain her favor.

            Ralegh’s account begins with himself, 150 men, and five boats sailing to the island of Trinidad at the mouth of the Orinoco River, where they sack the Spanish fort there. The Spanish governor, Antonio de Berreo, had been search for El Dorado, also known as Manoa, also known as the golden metropole of the empire of Guiana, for years with no success. They learn as much as he can from Berreo, and then Ralegh quotes several Spanish sources in Spanish with his own translations following. They then travel up the Oronoco with an Indian guide looking for Guiana and gold. Most of his text describes his meetings with different Indians and his forming alliances with them against the cruel Spanish. Needless to say, Ralegh never finds El Dorado or much gold. On his return to England, Ralegh was criticized for failing his mission, and so he writes the Discoverie to vindicate himself.

            What is inventive about Ralegh’s Discoverie? Ralegh encourages Elizabeth to establish a colony in this still virgin territory by allying with the Indians against the Spanish. Because of Ralegh’s famous line, “To conclude, Guiana is a country that hath yet her maidenhead,” most literary critics such as Greenblatt, Montrose, Fuller, and Knapp have – I think correctly to a certain extent – read the Discoverie as a gendered invention and as a performance that negotiates between a romantic masculinity and a Christian loyalty and submissiveness to the Queen.

            However, anthropologist Neil Whitehead’s recent edition with its lengthy introduction presents a new challenge to literary critics by pointing out the accuracy of Ralegh’s geography and even of his ethnography of the many different Indian communities. He is in many ways more observant of the particularities of Indians, their similarities to and differences from each other, the English, and the Spanish than Columbus and Vespucci. Ralegh’s text is a discovery that reveals the existing social conditions and geopolitical complexities that Ralegh wants to exploit.

            The question I would like to raise is this: how is Ralegh’s text an invention and how is it a discovery? And what is Ralegh really discovering? The Elizabethan court may have been wondering the same thing. An anonymous public satire says of Ralegh’s Discoverie, “All is alarm and confusion at this discovery of the discoverer, and not indeed of a new continent, but of a new incontinent” (Fuller, 74).

            I would like to engage these questions by quoting another book by Ralegh written twenty years later, The History of the World. There he asserts, “The end and scope of all history is to teach by example of times past such wisdom as may guide desires and actions” (Lacey, 330). This statement is also true of Peter Martyr’s Decades which begins not with cosmographic or epistemological questions about the new world, but rather with ethical and political questions. As we know from the works of Thomas More, Erasmus, and Philip Sydney, the purpose of rhetoric in the sixteenth century is to inspire or argue for future action, and one “invents” arguments to do this.

            Certainly one can, as most have, read Ralegh’s Discoverie as an advertisement – an invention that argues for investment in the colonial enterprise. Ralegh originally sent the manuscript to Robert Cecil, one of the Queen’s advisors, to get more funding, and once this failed, he published it for the public. And it worked slightly; between 1595 and 1614, subsequent expeditions to Guiana were taken by Laurence Kermis, Charles Leigh, Robert Harcourt, and Thomas Roe, until Roe’s exploration finally exposed the untruth of Ralegh’s claims about gold. Ralegh’s discovery needs to seem true for the invention to work. However, I think Ralegh’s book is more than an advertisement. It is also a plan for the political and ethical future of the English state. My presentation here today raises the question of the tension between and relatedness of exhortation and description, invention and discovery, in accounts of exploration.

            There are two sub-issues to this question in Ralegh’s Discoverie. First, as Mary Fuller snidely points out, because Ralegh never finds what he is looking for, “Ralegh writes a book called the Discoverie of Guiana about not discovering Guiana” (Fuller, 71).  Its discovery is always deferred.

            Second, Ralegh’s title is blatantly anachronistic, since the Spanish had already discovered it, and Ralegh includes the documentation of their discoveries within his. I will talk just a little bit more about these two sub-issues – the deferral of discovery and its anachronism – in terms of the problematic of invention and discovery.

            First, the deferral. As has been noted by many critics, the book is an endless deferral. Ralegh is always right at the edge of Guiana, always at the border of its Empire, but never in it. Ralegh writes, “I deferred the search of the countrie on the Guiana side of the river till my returne down the river” (Ralegh, 60).  Except that when he returns, he does not search the country on the Guiana side at all. After talking with some Indians, he decides he needs a larger, more secure force to do this. Ralegh praises himself for not selfishly pursuing gold and properly retraining himself for the common good of England.

            However, at other moments, he is already there, in Guiana, collecting samples of White Spar, the kind of rock that can be mined for gold. How can he be both there and not there yet at the same time? What is Guiana? The very word lacks stability as a signifier. Sometimes Guiana is an empire whose metropole is El Dorado; at other times, it is simply the source of gold, without any definite location; and at other times, Ralegh’s phrasing suggests that Guiana is gold itself. For example of the multiple senses of Guiana, observe this sentence of Ralegh's: “No man could deliver so much of Guiana as the Indian king Morequito could, and that his dwelling was not but five days journey from... the first civil towne of Guiana” (Ralegh, 30)

            Anthropologist Neil Whitehead has discovered that the word Guiana derives from the Indian word that means literally gold (Whitehead, 88). It probably derives from Indian stories about the island of Guianin, which is the mythical origin of metals. Or as Ralegh puts it, “Guiana is the magazine of all rich metals” (Ralegh, 3). What did Ralegh know? What happens to our reading of Ralegh’s text if we assume that the word Guiana is a synonym for gold, rather than its location or rather than a metaphor or a metonym, and that Ralegh is poetically playing with its meaning?

            The idea that Ralegh is playing with is not only the idea of a golden empire of Guiana, but the possibility of a golden English empire. Or rather, Ralegh re-invents the imperial potential for the English rather than for the Spanish.

            Which brings me to issue number two: Spain. How can Ralegh discover a place that the Spanish discovered already? Ralegh himself explains that he is carrying on the “discoveries” of earlier doradistas, and he is quite explicit that El Dorado is not his own invention. He constantly cites Spanish sources which he further attempts to verify through interviews with various Indians.

            Moreover, as Roland Greene has noted in Unrequited Conquests, even the very form of Ralegh’s unrequited desire for the mother-load, El Madre del oro, anachronistically repeats the pattern of deferral and self restraint that we see in earlier Spanish texts like Columbus’, Coronado’s, and Castenada’s.

            But unlike the Spanish texts, which pit conquistadores against natives, the English triangulate between the Spanish and the native. The main argument of Ralegh is not for the English to take the Indian territory, but for the English to form alliances with the Indian nations against the Spanish. Ralegh, therefore, needs to differentiate between friendly and unfriendly Indians. In the Relation of the Second Voyage to Guiana, written by Ralegh’s captain, Laurence Keymis, a chart of the Indian communities, their location, and their potential as allies is presented.

            Ralegh also makes great use of the then popular Black Legends of Spanish cruelty, the rape and murder of Indians, to differentiate the English from the Spanish, who were there first and whose records Ralegh relies on. As if that were not enough, Ralegh claims further that the Spanish access to American gold is the root of all problems in Europe, in that it subverts the will of other nations. Ralegh’s only solution is for England to get her some of that gold too.

            The depiction of the tyrannical Spanish is an invention that cloaks the English intentions in a guise of virtue. God would naturally be on the side of the English who are better equipped morally with their virgin Queen to make a true discovery and penetration of Guiana’s maidenhead than the Spanish. I think Keymis’s Second Voyage and George Chapman’s poem celebrating Ralegh’s voyage are even more explicit about this and about the possible alliance with the Indians.

            In conclusion, the tension that I see between the terms invention and discovery lies in the peculiar purpose of the colonial text – to convince its readers that further exploration is necessary by describing what one has already explored; in other words, the vehicle for Ralegh’s prescription is the apparent or possible truth of his description. I suggest that what Ralegh has discovered is not an empire that already exists in time and space, but the possibility of a golden English Empire. Such an empire exists not just for the Queen, but for every man. As he says in his opening letter, “Guiana is the way to answer every man’s longing.” And I think that is the inventiveness or perhaps the revelation of Ralegh’s text.


Steven Thomas

Pennsylvania State University

Panel 17: Discoveries and Inventions

May 19, 2002



Sir Walter Ralegh’s Discovery of Guiana

Selected Bibliography




Brief Publication History


1595. Ralegh explores Guiana. Manuscript circulated in Queen Elizabeth’s court.


1596. Publication of The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana with a

             relation of the great and Golden Citie of Manoa.


1599. German and Dutch editions.


1600. Reprinted in Richard Haklyut’s Principal Navigations.



Editions Currently in Print


Amazon Press, 2001. Micro-soft download from


Beeching, Jack, ed. Hakluyt: Voyages and Discoveries. New York: Penguin, 1972.


Whitehead, Neil L., ed. and introd. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.



Selected Out of Print Modern Editions


Facsimile of the 1596 edition. New York: De Capo Press, 1968.


Facsimile of the 1596 edition with The Last Fight of the Revenge. Leeds: Scolar Press Limited,



Haklyut, Richard. The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the

             English Nation, in volume 10 of 12. Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1903-5.


Harlow, V. T., ed. London: Argonaut Press, 1928.

Selections of Related Primary Texts


Keymis, L. A Relation of the Second Voyage to Guiana. London: Thomas Dawson, 1596;  repr.

            New York: Da Capo, 1968.


Latham, Agnes, and Joyce Youings, ed. The Letters of Sir Walter Ralegh. Exeter: University of

            Exeter Press, 1999.


Quinn, David Beers, ed. The Roanoke Voyages: Documents to Illustrate the English Voyages to

            North America under the Patent Granted to Walter Raleigh in 1584, 2 vols. London:

            Hakluyt Society, 1955).


Ramos-Perez, Demetrio. El Mito del Dorado: Su Genesis y Proceso:con el Discovery de Walter

            Raleigh. Caracas: Academia Nacional de la Historia, 1973.



Biographies and Bibliographies


Lacey, Robert. Sir Walter Ralegh. New York: Atheneum, 1974.


Mills, Jerry Leath. Sir Walter Ralegh: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.


Quinn, D. B. Raleigh and the British Empire. London: Macmillan, 1947.


Sinclair, Andrew. Sir Walter Raleigh and the Age of Discovery. Harmondsworth: Penguin

            Books, 1984.


Winton, John. Sir Walter Ralegh. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geohegan, 1975.



Selected Critical and Historiographic Literature


Adams, Percy C. Travel Literature and the Evolution of the Novel. Lexington: University Press

            of Kentucky, 1983.


Barker, Francis; Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen. Cannibalism and the Colonial World.

            Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


Beer, Anna R. Sir Walter Ralegh and His Readers in the Seventeenth Century. New York: St.

            Martin’s Press, Inc., 1997.


Campbell, Mary B. The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-

            1600. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.


Dolle, Raymond. “Captain John Smith’s Satire of Sir Walter Ralegh.” In Early American

            Literature and Culture. Edited by Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola. Newark:

            University of Delaware Press, 1992.


Edwards, Philip. “Tragic Form and the Voyagers.” In Travel and Drama in Shakespeare’s Time.

            Edited by Jean-Pierre Maquerlot and Michele Willems. Cambridge: Cambridge

            University Press, 1996.


Fuller, Mary C. Voyages in Print: English Travel to America, 1576-1624. Cambridge:          Cambridge University Press, 1995.


Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions: the Wonder of the New World. Oxford: Clarendon

            Press, 1991.


---. Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and His Roles. New Haven: Yale University Press,



Hadfield, Andrew. Literature, Travel, and Colonial Writing in the English Renaissance, 1545-        1625. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.


Helgerson, Richard. “The Voyages of a Nation.” In Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan

            Writing of England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.


Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797. London:

            Methuen, 1986.


Knapp, Jeffrey. An Empire Nowhere: England, America, and Literature from Utopia to The           Tempest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.


Lim, Walter S. H. The Arts of Empire: The Poetics of Colonialism from Ralegh to Milton.

            Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.


Montrose, Louis. “The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery.” Representations 33

            (1991): 1-41; repr. in New World Encounters. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Berkeley:

            University of California Press, 1993.


Read, David. “Ralegh’s Discoverie of Guiana and the Elizabethan Model of Empire.” In The   Work of Dissimilitude: Essays from the Sixth Citadel Conference on Medieval and

            Renaissance Literature. Edited by David G. Allen and Robert A. White. Newark:

            University of Delaware Press, 1992.


Tennenhouse, Leonard. “Sir Walter Ralegh and the Literature of Clientage.” In Patronage in the          Renaissance. Edited by Guy Fitch  Lytle and Stephen Orgel. Princton: Princeton

            University Press, 1981.



Literary Engagements, both fictional and non-fictional


Naipaul, V. S. The Loss of El Dorado: A History. London: Andre Deutsch, 1969.


---. A Way in the World. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1994.


Nicholl, Charles. The Creature in the Map: A Journey to Eldorado. New York: Jonathan Cape,



Nye, Robert. The Voyage of the Destiny. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1982.