(The Times) He is one of Britain’s best-known historical figures, famed for his exploration of the New World, controversial romantic liaisons and the chivalrous act of placing his jacket over a puddle so that Queen Elizabeth I’s feet would not get wet.
Much less known is Sir Walter Raleigh’s kinship with a young boy from Guiana, whom he brought back with him from the Americas and who became ensconced in the explorer’s household, according to newly discovered records.
Centuries after his death, an intriguing new chapter in his life has emerged following the chance discovery of a baptism register in the London Metropolitan Archives.
The boy may have been one of the earliest – and certainly one of the youngest – “natives” brought to Britain to be marvelled at in the royal court.
The find prompted speculation among historians that the Guianese may have been adopted by Raleigh, raising the tantalising prospect of undiscovered ancestry in South America.
The register, uncovered by archive staff and The Times, records the baptism of a young Guianese boy in the Parish of Saint Luke, in Chelsea, on February 13, 1597. It reveals that the boy, named Charles and estimated to be aged between 10 and 12 years old, was brought to the church by “Sir Walter Rawlie” – a common spelling of the explorer’s name at the time.
Raleigh’s voyages of discovery to the Americas and other aspects of his life – including his imprisonment in the Tower of London – have been well documented. There has, however, been scant evidence of the extent of his involvement with American natives until now.
Historians and researchers said they had been unaware of the boy’s existence and that the find was significant.
Robert Lacey, the British historian who wrote a definitive Raleigh biography, said that he had not uncovered evidence of Charles previously. He said that it was not surprising that Raleigh brought a child back to England as he was a great promoter of American exploration.
“I have never heard of this before, not of this particular boy. Well done The Times.”
Mr Lacey said that it was a significant move to have a “heathen” baptised in the late 1500s and would have been a great coup for Raleigh. “It would have been greeted with lots of approval and head-nodding, because the missionary impulse was part of the colonial rationale in those days.”
Historians had previously been aware that Sir Walter had brought back older native Americans to England. Two men, named Manteo and Wanchese, from an island off the Carolina coast, arrived in England in 1584. His documented kindness towards them prompted speculation that he may have adopted Charles, despite having a biological son of his own.
Mr Lacey said that there was no way of knowing but “it was not uncommon to adopt”.
“It would have been perfectly possible for him to adopt a boy like this without it endangering his own son’s right to his inheritance. My guess would be that he would certainly have been destined to something grander than being a slave. He may have been a personal servant of some sort.”
He speculated that Sir Walter may have used the christening to publicise plans for a new voyage. “He was always short of funds. It could have been part of his marketing ploy. It was also the normal thing to bring back natives from the New World, to dress them up in European clothes. They were a curiosity and talking point at the royal court.”
Mark Nicholls, a Fellow and librarian of St John’s College, Cambridge, said that Raleigh was known to have brought native Americans back from Guiana. “The intent was that they would go back home eventually, be civil and spread the world that the natives should obey the English Crown. “[The document discovery] gives more insight into Raleigh. It was all part and parcel of his inquiring mind.”