British Empire Books

The Creature in the Map

AuthorCharles Nicholl

The Creature in the Map is quite an interesting account of Sir Walter Raleigh's expedition to find El Dorado in Guinea in 1595. However, It is not a typical History book in any form. Rather, the author gives a great deal of historical background to a journey to Guinea to film a Channel 4 documentary on Raleigh's expedition. It is therefore part travelogue, part history. This is not to say that the history is lacking in any form. Many travelogues can give a brief background story but the focus is on the journey itself. That is not the case here. The history is the primary focus of the book and the journey is a secondary part that provides some of the narrative drive of the book. It doesn't always work well, but for the most part it is perfectly fine. The author obviously did copious research on the subject and brings a great deal of research and insight to the book. It helps that he is a very fluid writer who keeps your interest by the style of his writing.

The book itself is organised into four sections; the reasons behind the voyage, Raleigh's search for El Dorado, the journey by the author and his party and a section on Raleigh's return and the consequences. On the journey through this book, you learn a lot about the legend of El Dorado and the explorers and adventurers who have tried in vain to find it. In many ways this is a book about obsession. The obsession of a misunderstood legend that appealed directly to Elizabethan adventurers but also to subsequent generations of get rich quick ne'er-do-wells. I was interested to learn that the original story of El Dorado was not about a lost city or place, it was actually about a 'Golden Man' who was a chief anointed with gold dust and immersed in a lake as part of an elaborate ritual. The ritual undoubtedly took place, but long before any Europeans set foot on the New World. However, the story itself excited Spanish explorers who themselves were infected by the obsession to find the place that it occurred. Discovering lost cities in the Amazon and Andes only seemed to confirm to them that a focal place for the story might exist. They, and Raleigh, put their emphasis on looking for the lake that this event occurred. Maps of the era included the lake within the Amazon rainforest with a suitably golden city attached to it. The river Orinoco seemed to offer the most viable entrance way for a sea-farer like Raleigh. It is interesting that he stopped off at Trinidad to effectively kidnap Spaniards who had already done some of the exploring already so that he could use their knowledge and experience to help his expedition. Of course, it has hard to discover something that doesn't exist. I liked the author's inclusion of a Nineteenth Century Venezuelan song that included the lines:

Those who go up the Orinoco
Wind up dead or come back loco!

The author also tells us about other expeditions that had similarly traumatic experiences and how gold miners and sifters still operate in the area to the modern day. I was interested to read about the aerial explorations of Jimmy Angel who was something of an inter-war Indiana Jones of the Amazon. I had never realised that the Angel falls were named after Jimmy Angel rather than for any other heavenly inspired reasons. It shows just how vast the region was that the world's tallest waterfall was not discovered, by Westerners at least, until 1933. Although there were hints that one of Raleigh's Spanish prisoners, Fernando de Berrio, may have set eyes upon them as he searched for his El Dorado. The book is full of little anecdotes and diversions along these lines. It tells you much more than about the barely six week long voyage of Sir Walter Raleigh. The author explains the role of alchemy and the state of medicine at the time. I was introduced to a group of people I had never hear of before; Rosicrucians! You will be introduced into ideas about the Noble Savage, Amazons and whether they had discovered the Garden of Eden rather than El Dorado. You end up with a feel for an Elizabethan maritime expedition, the area as it was then and now, and how the area changed its borders and economy over the intervening years. the area. In short, it provides a fascinating multi-layered insight into one of the world's more remote areas.

The book was written in the early 1990s and the modern day region may well have changed somewhat since the time of writing, although I somehow doubt it. I would, however, love to see the Channel 4 documentary that was produced about this subject. That would be interesting to see and would make a fine accompaniment to this book.

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