Triste Trinidad

The Loss of El Dorado

by V.S. Naipaul
Knopf, 334 pp., $7.50

I swear that this tobacco
It’s perfect Trinidado
By the very Mass
Never was
Better gear
Than is here….

The words floated down from the minstrels’ gallery during a feast at a Cambridge University college last December. They come from the Airs or Fantastic Spirits to Three Voices of Thomas Weelkes, and date from 1608. At the time of their composition, both tobacco and “Trinidado” had only quite recently impinged on the collective consciousness of Englishmen, many of whom may well have instinctively associated them with the name of the last of the great heroes of Elizabethan England, Sir Walter Raleigh. It was he who had helped to popularize the new craze for smoking; and he, too, who had introduced them to Trinidad in his best seller of 1596, The Discoverie of the Large and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana: “This iland of Trinidado hath the form of a sheep-hook and is but narrow; the north part is very mounteynous, the soile is very excellent…”

Tobacco, Trinidado…the association was automatic. But so, too, thanks to Raleigh, was another—Trinidado, El Dorado. For what else was Trinidad but the gateway to that fabulous realm, now believed to be located somewhere in the large and beautiful empire of Guiana, the realm of El Dorado? The legend was an old one—far older than Sir Walter Raleigh, who gave it an enhanced European currency and a new lease of life. Some time in the past, well before the first Spaniard has set foot on the mainland of South America, the Indians in the uplands of Bogotá had been accustomed to cover the body of one of their number with powdered gold and throw him into a sacred lake. The Spaniards first heard the story in the 1530s, and the search for El Dorado, the gilded one, was on.

From the first, it was a curiously unsatisfying search, for no one was quite sure what he sought or where it was to be found. The adventurers—Germans as well as Spaniards—who toiled over the hot plains of the vast stretch of land between the coasts of Venezuela and the banks of the Amazon struggled on in faith and hope, but were very short on charity. As was to be expected, frightened Indians told them what they wanted to hear—how, somewhere to the east (it was always to the east), there was not only a golden man, but even a golden city. It lay, they said, on the shores of a lake, ringed by high mountains. Its exact location was never quite clear, but eventually it acquired a name—the city of Manoa.

It was an elderly Spanish captain, Antonio de Berrio, a veteran of the European wars of Charles V and Philip II, who switched the direction of the quest from the central plains to the uplands of Guiana. Marching from Tunja he at last glimpsed a great cordillera, which must surely be the mountain range that hid the golden city.…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.