chapter  8
18 Pages

Last Act? 1618 and the Shaping of Sir Walter Ralegh’s Reputation

ByMark Nicholls

The boy in Sir Walter Ralegh dies with his son. Through all the miseries and discomforts of his last voyage to Guiana, Ralegh’s diary shines with delight and youthful exaggeration, glittering when all around is dark. When he fell sick, his fever was far worse than any survived by another man. He delighted in the beauty of ‘Magelanns cloude … which riseth and setteth with the stares’ and wondered at the great number of sea-birds on an island off the coast of Guiana. He did his best to understand the Atlantic weather. ‘I observed this day’, he wrote in midOctober, ‘and so I did before, that the morning rainebow doth not give a faire day as in Ingland.’ Rainbows predicted storms so frequently that late in October he half-believed ‘the raine would never end’. Novelty piled on novelty. The rainbow he spotted off Trinidad made a ‘perfait cirkell’ in the sky, ‘which I never saw before’.2 There is a constant sense of challenge and competition, frustration with the shortcomings in others, never in himself. And then, in February 1618, news reached him that young Walter – Wat – had died in the botched and futile capture of San Thomé, a Spanish settlement on the Orinoco. His expedition, sent with great hopes upriver, had returned empty-handed. It had found no silver; it had cost him his eldest boy.