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Raleigh's tall tales

By Kim Johnson
July 4, 1999

DESPITE the six-cent commemorative stamps issued in 1935, 1938 and 1953 by the colony of Trinidad and Tobago, Sir Walter Raleigh never claimed to have discovered the Pitch Lake.

He knew that the aboriginal inhabitants of Trinidad were long familiar with the pitch lake-pitch is an Amerindian word.

Even other Englishmen, such as the navigator Abraham Kendall, had visited the pitch lake before Ralegh, whose half-dozen ways of spelling his name didn't include "Raleigh", as on the stamps and the bicycles.

Besides, as he wrote in his book The Discovery of the large and beautiful empire of Guyana, the Spaniards knew the place, having already named it "Tierra de Brea".

Alas, many of the things he described in that book were thought back home to be lies.

No one believed, for instance, that in Trinidad oysters grew on trees. They were also sceptical about the Amerindian chiefs who had pledged allegiance to England, although that was also true.

Yet his most outrageous tales were swallowed, such as that of the Ewaipanoma tribe, who "have their eyes in their shoulders, and mouths in the middle of their breasts, and that a long train of hair groweth backward between their shoulders".

Maps made around that period of the region portray those headless people, each with eyes in his or her chest, and mouth around the solar plexus. And Shakespeare, in Othello, referred to "men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders".

He wrote of the Amerindian women, "very young and excellently favoured... without deceit, stark naked... as well favoured and as well shaped as ever I saw in England." One in particular was "of good stature, with black eyes, fat of body, of an excellent countenance, her hair almost as long as herself, tied up again in pretty knots."

Raleigh's book was intended to inveigle adventurers to settle the area, hence the talk about beautiful naked women just there for the plucking. But it was also to make up with a sulking Queen Elizabeth. She'd had him jailed for flirting with her while secretly seducing her maid-in-waiting. So Raleigh quickly added, "I protest before the Majesty of the living God I neither know nor believe that any of our company, one or other, did offer insult to any of their women." Hm.

But of course Raleigh's tallest tale, in pursuit of which he made two voyages up the Orinoco, was that of the Epuremei tribe who possessed the finest images of men, beasts, birds and fishes, all made of solid gold. After his second failed expedition, Raleigh returned to an angry King James who tried him for stirring up trouble with the Spanish, and had him executed.

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