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Treasure hunters

THE CREATURE IN THE MAP. By Charles Nicholl. Jonathan Cape Pounds 18.99. - 0 224 03333 6. LIFE AMONG THE PIRATES. By David Cordingly. Little, Brown Pounds 18.99. - 0 316 91148 8.

Adam Lively joins Ralegh up the Orinoco and goes in search of pirates.

The Creature in the Map is a reconstruction of Sir Walter Ralegh's search for El Dorado.

It is also a story of that city, as seen - or, more often than not, not seen - by its seekers. More importantly than both, perhaps, it is the story of a myth sustained by the cultural needs of the individuals who sought it: from Aguirre, Wrath of God, who hijacked Pedro de Ursua's 1561 entrada (a "penetration" of the interior), and over the next year murdered or marooned 150 of his own people; through Domingo de Vera, who in 1593 approached the city closely enough to smell its smoke, only to turn fearfully away; to the ace jungle pilot and doradista Jimmy Angel, who in May 1921 panned 75 pounds of gold in three days from a river he was thereafter unable to find.

El Dorado is always a story of need. In 1595, Ralegh's needs were clear. He was 40 years old. He was a fading star. By marrying Bess Throckmorton, he had fallen from grace with the Virgin Queen. To restore himself he needed more than money, he needed glamour. He needed a project.

Ralegh's interest in the Eastern Main had begun in the 1580s. He knew of Aguirre, and had read "garbled stories" by Pedro de Cieza Leon, Franscisco Lopez de Gomara and Andre Thevet. But the key to his vision was a Spaniard called Don Antonio de Berrio. In 1579, de Berrio had inherited the governorship of Pauto y Papamene, a "huge, notional province" which he believed to contain El Dorado. Over the following decade he had cut his way entrada by entrada to "certain knowledge" of the city.

Ralegh sailed from Plymouth in February 1595. If his goal was already fictionalised, his navigation skills were the most scientific of his day. His main backers were Lord Effingham and Sir Robert Cecil: but "everyone from the Queen to the ship's cat had some kind of stake in the voyage." Though the expedition budget was Pounds 60,000 (about Pounds 25,000,000 now), he seems to have shot his way across the South Atlantic, provisioning from the holds of vessels encountered on the way.

He arrived at Trinidad in late March. Early April saw him anchored off Port of Spain. After assuring the Spanish he was only passing through he sacked San Jose, where he captured Berrio and "persuaded" him to tell what he knew. By May, Ralegh was in the Orinoco Delta, with an Arawak pilot and 100 men. They travelled in five rowing boats. The entrada was on; although "penetration" suddenly seems the wrong word. Through April to June, Ralegh wandered the Delta. He was charmed by the natives. He ran out of food, lost a man to an alligator. He reached the Orinoco plains, had evidence of gold at Guiana Bend, arrived on the Guiana borders. His record dwells on the beauty of the landscape, the glory of the tropical birds. Then on June 14 1595, he records, "We therefore turned towards the east . . ." and withdraws. He has elegised the landscape as a virgin; he turns away and leaves her untaken. There is no need to go any further.

What had happened? from Topiawari, Lord of the Borders, Ralegh had learned that the whole of Guiana was occupied by a strange and powerful tribe: the Inca. He could veer off, like Domingo de Vera before him, without blame. His theory of El Dorado was "shielded from the inconvenience" of proof.

Into the story of Ralegh, Nicholl laces the story of his own entrada, accomplished in 1992 by Yamaha-powered fishing boat. His adventures make a louche counterpoint to Ralegh's. Ralegh encountered Indian women who "came among us without deceit, stark naked": Nicholl meets a whore called Sahara who models herself on Tina Turner. Ralegh enthused over the courts of the native princes: Nicholl describes a tobacco shaman looking "like a wino". Overflying the "New Dorado", where mining has scabbed the landscape, Nicholl concludes slyly: "I suppose just by coming here Ralegh is partly responsible for this devastation."

Crossing the Paria Gulf, the modern adventurer compares his chart with Ralegh's. He has a sense that he has entered "some space between the maps: a space which is navigated by metaphors rather than directions." This is one of the best definitions yet of Charles Nicholl's own explorations, here and elsewhere. The Creature in the Map seems more schematic, more argued, less written-up than, say, The Fruit Palace. Nevertheless his interest remains that enticingly human zone where the mythic and the real converge, unite and at last run seamlessly together.

David Cordingly is determined to keep them apart. "Reason tells us that pirates were no more than common criminals," he complains in Life Among the Pirates, "but we still see them as figures of romance." After Nicholl's complex acknowledgement of the fact that while no story is entirely true, no story is entirely untrue either, this seems overly simple.

As a sourcebook, Life Among the Pirates is excellent. We learn about the women pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who both joined "Calico Jack" Rackham's ship dressed as men, "profligate, cursing and swearing much, and very ready and willing to do anything". We learn that the original pirates flew a red flag; that the average age of a pirate in the early 18th century was 27; and that life on a pirate ship was actually less hard than on a merchantman - bigger crews made for less work.

As for doubloons, they were "slightly larger than the modern fifty pence piece." The whole myth jumps out of this literalism like a Calico Jack-in the-box: visual, bizarre, smelling of spices and salt and orange gold.

Cordingly's charm is that he is too decent a man for his own subject matter. "Pirates were not maritime versions of Robin Hood . . ." he reveals.

Their attacks were "frequently accompanied by extreme violence, torture and death." Then he quotes John Turner, captured by Chinese pirates in 1806: ". . . one man was nailed to the deck through his feet with large nails . . ." We wriggle with delighted horror. Accounts of incidents like these do not demythologise the "romance" of piracy. They are a large part of that romance, take it or leave it.

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