Pirate, Writer, and Traitor- on Walter Raleigh

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Sir Walter Raleigh

The first time I got to know this interesting English notable was through a small paperback compiling vignettes of historical figures in the western civilizations I found from my father’s library. No man stood more gallantly and impressively than this daring figure in the Elizabethan England; it was no less a courtier, writer, and adventurer than Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618) himself. The vista of his gentlemanly manner of soaking his cloak for the queen to tread upon in the messy muddy road lingered in my mind. (He was the only man in the queen’s entourage who did not hesitate to do so.) This would generate a possible peal of jeering laughter from many contemporary men and women in the age of insouciant conventions and lax mores. But such gesture of civility, a sign of respect, orderliness, and thoughtfulness, tells a lot about one’s character in the absence of the proliferation of the civic virtue as a result of ignorance, lassitude, and degradation. And based upon this gentlemanly aspect of Raleigh, I have formulated and kept my favorable opinions on him.

With this as a background of my knowledge of and interest in Raleigh, to come upon the article written by Anna Beer, visiting fellow at University of Oxford, about Raleigh’s years in the Tower of London from the latest edition of BBC History was a kind of nostalgic pleasure, rekindling my first impression on this enigmatic man. In fact, Ms. Beer seems to have viewpoints on Raleigh similar to mine: an explorer (or more precisely, a privateer), a writer, a poet, a courtier, and a gentleman are nominal titles bestowing upon Raleigh. Besides, unlike many other political and historical figures of his time, Raleigh was a dashing, handsome man who would make a fitting character actor for romantic adventure movies or drams, if he were alive. And perhaps it was this physical attractiveness of Raleigh that contributed to his endearment to Queen Elizabeth I, who was offended upon learning that her favorite subject had married discreetly without letting her know in advance. But above all, Raleigh’s prodigious feats of intellect in a spirit of Odyssey were laurels for his distinguishing merits. At the behest of the queen, Raleigh ventured to South America in search of El dorado, directed a settlement of the lost colony of Roanoke in Virginia (even though he himself did not go), ruled the seas by confiscating valuable cargoes carried by Spanish ships (he was also a pirate), and engaged in international trades like a very successful modern businessman. He was in fact flying high under the aegis of Queen Elizabeth I.

However, after the death of the vestal guardian and benefactor, Raleigh fell out of favor with King James I, who seemed to be hell bent on removing him from the court because of his unyielding individuality, which only the queen knew how to harness to her advantage. So Raleigh was found guilty of treason and incarcerated in the Tower of London on the ground that he and his ilk conspired to dethrone the king. It was groundless, of course, but the king could not wait longer to get rid of him and did not even allow him to retain a lawyer to defend himself. But no such royal counter-intuitive animosity deterred him from expressing his ever unbridled spirit; during his imprisonment in the tower, Raleigh built up a personal library of 500 books, a personal conservatory for drawing on the knowledge of a universal history for his writings, one of which included The History of the World that criticized King James I and his abuse of autocratic power and institutionalized faith. It was a radical kind of thought in his time of England. The recalcitrant subject was surely anathema to the king. Raleigh was beheaded in public in 1618, but even during his execution, he was all man by adhering to his principles without an apology nor a customary reverence toward the king.

The legacy of this adventurous Elizabethan gentleman continues in his writings that strike the political, religious, and literary chords in our hearts as well as those of the revolutionaries subsequent to his death. For example, Oliver Cromwell was an ardent myrmidon of Raleigh’s writings and even recommended them to his son in earnest. Not only Cromewell championed Raleigh’s political stance but also he reconstructed Raleigh’s dismally pessimistic providentialism, aka Calvin Predestination, based on the futility of all human actions as a result of unavoidable death to an optimism about the potentials of human endeavor under the proper guidance of providence. In addition, Raleigh’s critiques of monarchy and his support of parliament ignited the fuse of insurgencies calling for radical political changes. Surely, Raleigh was not a perfect man with immaculate morality, but he was a man of intellect, courage, confidence, and civility laced with irrepressible individuality whom posterity can look up to, especially in this multifariously convoluted era when so many politicians are just grandstanding from the vantage points of popularity.

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