February 2015

The broken promise of El Dorado

By Correy Baldwin

Don_Gonzalo_Jiménez_de_Quesada Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada led two expeditions in the 1500s to find the legendary kingdom of El Dorado | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada entered the territory of the Muisca people, he found himself surrounded by the thing he had been searching for: gold. He saw gold jewellery, gold chimes hanging from doorways, and gold objects in the temples. Quesada was leading an expedition to find the legendary El Dorado, a land of untold golden riches hidden somewhere in the New World. Could he have finally arrived?

Tales had been growing among the Spanish since 1531 of an indigenous ruler who, as part of a religious ceremony, would cover himself in gold dust and dive into a sacred lake, washing it off. The ruler was known among the Spanish as El Rey Dorado, or the golden king. To the Spanish it seemed an extravagant display of wealth, and locating his kingdom of gold – which the Spanish dubbed El Dorado – quickly became a national obsession.

Quesada joined the Spanish conquest of the Americas in 1535 as chief magistrate of the colony of Santa Marta, on the north coast of present-day Colombia. The following year he was ordered by the governor of Santa Marta to lead a massive expedition into the interior of the continent in search of El Dorado.

Quesada’s expedition got off to a rocky start. He led 200 soldiers plus a number of native porters and black slaves by foot, with another 600 troops travelling up the ­Magdalena River on a fleet of supply ships. The land party was rocked by disease and attacks by wild animals and hostile locals. When the exhausted troops made it to the rendezvous point on the river, the ships were nowhere to be found, having been delayed by storms. While they waited, the men survived by eating what they could, including reptiles and boiled leather. When the ships finally arrived, Quesada set out to brave the jungle again. They reached the lands of the Muisca Confederation at the foothills of the Andes the following January, down to just 166 men.

Unbeknownst to Quesada, he had found the source of the legend of El Dorado. The ceremonies held by a Muisca ruler in nearby Lake Guatavita had inspired the myth, though the actual kingdom no longer matched the larger-than-life tales. Still, Quesada was impressed with their apparent wealth. At the time, the Muisca were divided by internal rivalries. Quesada took advantage of this and, despite the diminished state of his troops, attacked and conquered them. He declared a new Spanish colony, eventually known by the local name, Bogotá.

Quesada immediately tried to locate the source of the Muisca gold. To him, the locals seemed ignorant of its value, but to the Muisca, gold was simply a beautiful metal that had spiritual significance and little else. They were a prosperous people, though their wealth lay in their fertile valleys and in their salt mining and emeralds, which they traded for gold. There were no Muisca gold mines, much to Quesada’s chagrin.

By 1539, two other expeditions had reached Bogotá: a conquistador from Ecuador and a German conqueror from Venezuela. Although Quesada had already de­clared the land for Spain, he had not yet officially sent word to the Spanish king, and the two other men wanted to claim the land. Rather than fight for it, Quesada convinced the men to travel to Spain to let the king settle the matter. The three left together, but none of them were granted the land in the end; the king instead gave it to the son of the governor of Santa Marta.

The dejected Quesada remained in Spain for a number of years before returning to the Spanish colonies in 1550, this time as marshal of Bogotá. In 1569 he took another stab at El Dorado, organizing a massive expedition from Bogotá to the south and east. It was a near-repeat of his first attempt and another monumental failure. This time he left with 500 men and returned after three years with only 28. The loss had been horrifically expensive, and Quesada retired deeply in debt.

While Quesada’s expeditions were only two of the many launched to find the kingdom of gold, it was perhaps the extravagance of Quesada’s failures that made his exploits most memorable. He is thought to have inspired Miguel de Cervante’s Don Quixote, published 26 years after his death. Ironically, Quesada’s expeditions into Muisca territory may have brought him closer to El Dorado than those of anyone else.

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