The History of England from the
Invasion of Julius Cæsar to the Revolution of 1688

David Hume

Chapter 48

Reign of James I.

Sir Walter Raleigh's Expedition.---His Execution.---Insurrections in Bohemia.---Loss of the Palatinate.---Negotiations with Spain.---A Parliament.---Parties.---Fall of Bacon.---Rupture between the King and the Commons.---Protestation of the Commons.

1618: At the time when Sir Walter Raleigh was first confined in the Tower, his violent and haughty temper had rendered him the most unpopular man in England; and his condemnation was chiefly owing to that public odium under which he labored. During the thirteen years' imprisonment which he suffered, the sentiments of the nation were much changed with regard to him. Men had leisure to reflect on the hardship, not to say injustice, of his sentence; they pitied his active and enterprising spirit, which languished in the rigors of confinement; they were struck with the extensive genius of the man, who, being educated amid naval and military enterprises, had surpassed, in the pursuits of literature, even those of the most recluse and sedentary lives; and they admired his unbroken magnanimity, which, at his age and under his circumstances, could engage him to undertake and execute so great a work as his History of the World. To increase these favorable dispositions, on which he built the hopes of recovering his liberty, he spread the report of a golden mine which he had discovered in Guiana, and which was sufficient, according to his representation, not only to enrich all the adventurers, but to afford immense treasures to the nation. The king gave little credit to these mighty promises, both because he believed that no such mine as the one described was anywhere in nature, and because he considered Raleigh as a man of desperate fortunes, whose business it was, by any means, to procure his freedom, and to reinstate himself in credit and authority. Thinking, however, that he had already undergone sufficient punishment, he released him from the Tower; and when his vaunts of the golden mine had induced multitudes to engage with him, the king gave the permission to try the adventure, and, at their desire, he conferred on Raleigh authority over his fellow-adventurers. Though strongly solicited, he still refused to grant him a pardon, which seemed a natural consequence when he was intrusted with power and command. But James declared himself still diffident of Raleigh's intentions; and he meant, he said, to reserve the former sentence as a check upon his future behavior.

Raleigh well knew that it was far from the king's purpose to invade any of the Spanish settlements: he therefore firmly denied that Spain had planted any colonies on that part of the coast where his mine lay. When Gondomar, the ambassador of that nation, alarmed at his preparations, carried complaints to the king, Raleigh still protested the innocence of his intentions; and James assured Gondomar that he durst not form any hostile attempt, but should pay with his head for so audacious an enterprise. The minister, however, concluding that twelve armed vessels were not fitted out without some purpose of invasion, conveyed the intelligence to the court of Madrid, who immediately gave orders for arming and fortifying all their settlements, particularly those along the coast of Guiana.

When the courage and avarice of the Spaniards and Portuguese had discovered so many new worlds, they were resolved to show themselves superior to the barbarous heathens whom they invaded, not only in arts and arms, but also in the justice of the quarrel: they applied to Alexander VI., who then filled the papal chair, and he generously bestowed on the Spaniards the whole western, and on the Portuguese the whole eastern part of the globe. The more scrupulous Protestants, who acknowledged not the authority of the Roman pontiff, established the first discovery as the foundation of their title; and if a pirate or sea-adventurer of their nation had but erected a stick or a stone on the coast, as a memorial of his taking possession, they concluded the whole continent to belong to them, and thought themselves entitled to expel or exterminate, as usurpers, the ancient possessors and inhabitants. It was in this manner that Sir Walter Raleigh, about twenty-three years before, had acquired to the crown of England a claim to the continent of Guiana, a region as large as the half of Europe; and though he had immediately left the coast, yet he pretended that the English title to the whole remained certain and indefeasible. But it had happened in the meantime that the Spaniards, not knowing, or not acknowledging, this imaginary claim, had taken possession of a part of Guiana, had formed a settlement on the river Orinoco, had built a little town called St. Thomas, and were there working some mines of small value.

To this place Raleigh directly bent his course; and, remaining himself at the month of the river with five of the largest ships, he sent up the rest to St. Thomas under the command of his son and a Captain Keymis, a person entirely devoted to him. The Spaniards, who had expected this invasion, fired on the English at their landing, were repulsed, and pursued into the town. Young Raleigh, to encourage his men, called out that this was the true mine, and none but fools looked for any other; and, advancing upon the Spaniards, received a shot, of which he immediately expired. This dismayed not Keymis and the others. They carried on the attack, got possession of the town, which they afterwards reduced to ashes, and found not in it anything of value.

Raleigh did not pretend that he had himself seen the mine which he had engaged so many people to go in quest of; it was Keymis, be said, who had formerly discovered it, and had brought him that lump of ore which promised such immense treasures; yet Keymis, who owned that he was within two hours' march of the place, refused, on the most absurd pretences, to take any effectual step towards finding it; and he returned immediately to Raleigh with the melancholy news of his son's death and the ill-success of the enterprise. Sensible to reproach, and dreading punishment for his behavior, Keymis, in despair, retired into his cabin and put an end to his own life.

The other adventurers now concluded that they were deceived by Raleigh; that he never had known of any such mine as he pretended to go in search of; that his intention had ever been to plunder St. Thomas, and, having encouraged his company by the spoils of that place, to have thence proceeded to the invasion of the other Spanish settlements; that he expected to repair his ruined fortunes by such daring enterprises, and that he trusted to the money he should acquire for making his peace with England; or, if that view failed him, that he purposed to retire into some other country where his riches would secure his retreat.

The small acquisitions gained by the sack of St. Thomas discouraged Raleigh's companions from entering into these views, though there were many circumstances in the treaty and late transactions between the nations which might invite them to engage in such a piratical war against the Spaniards.

When England made peace with Spain, the example of Henry IV. was imitated, who, at the treaty of Vervins, finding a difficulty in adjusting all questions with regard to the Indian trade, had agreed to pass over that article in total silence. The Spaniards, having all along published severe edicts against the intercourse of any European nation with their colonies, interpreted this silence in their own favor, and considered it as a tacit acquiescence of England in the established laws of Spain. The English, on the contrary, pretended that, as they had never been excluded by any treaty from commerce with any part of the King of Spain's dominions, it was still as lawful for them to trade with his settlements in either Indies as with his European territories. In consequence of this ambiguity, many adventurers from England sailed to the Spanish Indies, and met with severe punishment when caught; as they, on the other hand, often stole, and, when superior in power, forced a trade with the inhabitants, and resisted---nay, sometimes plundered---the Spanish governors. Violences of this nature, which had been carried to a great height on both sides, it was agreed to bury in total oblivion, because of the difficulty which was found in remedying them upon any fixed principles. But as there appeared a great difference between private adventurers in single ships and a fleet acting under a royal commission, Raleigh's companions thought it safest to return immediately to England, and carry him along with them to answer for his conduct. It appears that he employed many artifices, first to engage them to attack the Spanish settlements, and, failing of that, to make his escape into France but all these proving unsuccessful, he was delivered into the king's hands and strictly examined, as well as his fellow adventurers, before the privy council. The council, upon inquiry, found no difficulty in pronouncing that the former suspicions with regard to Raleigh's intentions had been well grounded; that he had abused the king in the representations which he had made of his projected adventure; that, contrary to his instructions, he had acted in an offensive and hostile manner against his majesty's allies, and that he had wilfully burned and destroyed a town belonging to the King of Spain. He might have been tried either by common law for this act of violence and piracy or by martial law for breach of orders; but it was an established principle among lawyers that as he lay under an actual attainder for high treason, he could not be brought to a new trial for any other crime. To satisfy, therefore, the court of Spain, which raised the loudest complaints against him, the king made use of that power which he had purposely reserved in his own hands, and signed the warrant for his execution upon his former sentence.{Note}

Raleigh, finding his fate inevitable, collected all his courage; and though he had formerly made use of many mean artifices, such as feigning madness, sickness, and a variety of diseases in order to protract his examination and procure his escape, he now resolved to act his part with bravery and resolution. (October 29) ``Tis a sharp remedy'', he said, ``but a sure one for all ills'', when he felt the edge of the axe by which he was to be beheaded. {Ref} His harangue to the people was calm and eloquent, and he endeavored to revenge himself and to load his enemies with the public hatred by strong asseverations of facts which, to say the least, may be esteemed very doubtful. With the utmost indifference, he laid his head upon the block and received the fatal blow; and in his death there appeared the same great but ill-regulated mind which during his life had displayed itself in all his conduct and behavior.

No measure of James's reign was attended with more public dissatisfaction than the punishment of Sir Walter Raleigh. To execute a sentence which was originally so hard, which had been so long suspended, and which seemed to have been tacitly pardoned by conferring on him a new trust and commission, was deemed an instance of cruelty and injustice. To sacrifice to a concealed enemy of England the life of the only man in the nation who had a high reputation for valor and military experience was regarded as meanness and indiscretion, and the intimate connections which the king was now entering into with Spain, being universally distasteful, rendered this proof of his complaisance still more invidious and unpopular.

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