treasure treason tower Raleigh

Paul Sellin ’52
Ashgate, 2011

Years ago while doing research in Stockholm, Sweden, Paul Sellin, a scholar who specializes in literature and history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, chanced upon some correspondence about Sir Walter Raleigh and gold that he may have found in South America.

Sellin, who studied history at WSU and then went on to the University of Chicago to complete a doctorate in English, is a professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. His expertise and language skills helped him recognize that documents previous scholars had passed over could change how history views one of the more interesting and colorful characters in Elizabethan England.

An explorer, Walter Raleigh was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. He was knighted by her in 1585, and appointed captain of her guard in 1587. He fell out of grace in 1591 when he secretly married one of her ladies in waiting. To regain the queen’s esteem, he set off for the new world to find new fortune for England. He wrote of his travels in The Discoverie of Guiana, in which he claimed to have found an abundance of gold while traveling up the Orinoco River.

But other than his own accounts, there was little evidence of his finding treasure. When Elizabeth died in 1603, her successor James I charged him with treason and locked him in the Tower of London.

Raleigh was released in 1616 to mount a second expedition up the Orinoco. It ended after his men attacked a Spanish outpost in what is now Venezuela and Raleigh’s own son Walter was killed. He returned to England where he was tried for treason on charges that the mine was a lie and that he was attempting to foment a war between England and Spain. In 1618 he was beheaded.

The correspondence Sellin found led him to further evidence that the King of Sweden and the Duke of Buckingham may have colluded to find the gold that Raleigh was accused of lying about. And that the charges against Raleigh had been trumped up.

So Sellin undertook his own expedition, using The Discoverie of Guiana as his guide. He found that Raleigh’s account of the journey “was remarkably accurate.” He even believes he found the site of Raleigh’s mine. “Hence my conclusion that he was a victim of a most unjust murder by royal attainder manipulated by the Duke of Buckingham,” he writes.

This book will certainly be of interest to scholars and history buffs. But it could also tempt someone who likes a good historical mystery with a heady dose of international intrigue.