El DoradoEl Dorado (, ; Spanish for "the golden one"), originally El Hombre Dorado ("The Golden Man") or El Rey Dorado ("The Golden King"), was the term used by the Spanish Empire to describe a mythical tribal chief (zipa) of the Muisca people, an indigenous people of the Altiplano Cundiboyacense of Colombia, who, as an initiation rite, covered himself with gold dust and submerged in Lake Guatavita. The legends surrounding El Dorado changed over time, as it went from being a man, to a city, to a kingdom, and then finally to an empire.
A second location for El Dorado was inferred from rumors, which inspired several unsuccessful expeditions in the late 1500s in search of a city called Manõa on the shores of Lake Parime. Two of the most famous of these expeditions were led by Sir Walter Raleigh. In pursuit of the legend, Spanish conquistadors and numerous others searched what is today Colombia, Venezuela, and parts of Guyana and northern Brazil, for the city and its fabulous king. In the course of these explorations, much of northern South America, including the Amazon River, was mapped. By the beginning of the 19th century, most people dismissed the existence of the city as a myth.
Several literary works have used the name in their titles, sometimes as "El Dorado", and other times as "Eldorado".
MuiscaThe Muisca occupied the highlands of Cundinamarca and Boyacá departments of Colombia in two migrations from outlying lowland areas, one starting c. 1270 BCE, and a second between 800 BCE and 500 BCE. At those times, other more ancient civilizations also flourished in the highlands. The Muisca Confederation was as advanced as the Aztec, Maya and Inca civilizations.
In the mythology of the Muisca, Mnya the Gold or golden color, represents the energy contained in the trinity of Chiminigagua, which constitutes the creative power of everything that exists. Chiminigagua is related to Bachué, Cuza, Chibchacum, Bochica, and Nencatacoa.
The tribal ceremonyThe original narrative can be found in the rambling chronicle El Carnero of Juan Rodriguez Freyle. According to Freyle, the zipa of the Muisca, in a ritual at Lake Guatavita near present-day Bogotá, was said to be covered with gold dust, which he then washed off in the lake while his attendants threw objects made of gold, emeralds, and precious stones into the lake - such as tunjos.
In 1638, Freyle wrote this account of the ceremony, addressed to the cacique or governor of Guatavita:There is also an account, titled The Quest of El Dorado, by poet-priest and historian of the Conquest Juan de Castellanos, who had served under Jiménez de Quesada in his campaign against the Muisca, written in the mid-16th century but not published until 1850:According to Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478–1557):
He went about all covered with powdered gold, as casually as if it were powdered salt. For it seemed to him that to wear any other finery was less beautiful, and that to put on ornaments or arms made of gold worked by hammering, stamping, or by other means, was a vulgar and common thing.
In the Muisca territories, there were a number of natural locations considered sacred, including lakes, rivers, forests and large rocks. People gathered here to perform rituals and sacrifices mostly with gold and emeralds. Important lakes were Lake Guatavita, Lake Iguaque, Lake Fúquene, Lake Tota, the Siecha Lakes, Lake Teusacá and Lake Ubaque.
From ritual to myth and metaphorEl Dorado is applied to a legendary story in which precious stones were found in fabulous abundance along with gold coins. The concept of El Dorado underwent several transformations, and eventually accounts of the previous myth were also combined with those of a legendary lost city. The resulting El Dorado myth enticed European explorers for two centuries. Among the earliest stories was the one told on his deathbed by Juan Martinez, a captain of munitions for Spanish adventurer Diego de Ordaz, who claimed to have visited the city of Manoa. Martinez had allowed a store of gunpowder to catch fire and was condemned to death, however his friends let him escape downriver in a canoe. Martinez then met with some local people who took him to the city:The fable of Juan Martinez was founded on the adventures of Juan Martin de Albujar, well known to the Spanish historians of the Conquest; and who, in the expedition of Pedro de Silva (1570), fell into the hands of the Caribs of the Lower Orinoco. After the death of Ordaz while returning from his expedition, the Crown appointed a new Governor of Paria, Jerónimo de Ortal, who diligently explored the interior along the Meta River between 1532 and 1537. In 1535, he ordered captain Alonso de Herrera to move inland by the waters of the Uyapari River (today the town of Barrancas del Orinoco). Herrera, who had accompanied Ordaz three years before, explored the Meta River but was killed by the indigenous Achagua near its banks, while waiting out the winter rains in Casanare.
The search for El Dorado
The earliest reference to an El Dorado-like kingdom occurred in 1531 during Ordaz's expedition when he was told of a kingdom called Meta that was said to exist beyond a mountain on the left bank of the Orinoco River. Meta was supposedly abundant in gold and ruled by a chief that only had one intact eye.
Between 1531 and 1538, the German conquistadors Nikolaus Federmann and Georg von Speyer searched the Venezuelan lowlands, Colombian plateaus, Orinoco Basin and Llanos Orientales for El Dorado. Subsequently, Philipp von Hutten accompanied Von Speyer on a journey (1536–38) in which they reached the headwaters of the Rio Japura, near the equator. In 1541 Hutten led an exploring party of about 150 men, mostly horsemen, from Coro on the coast of Venezuela in search of the Golden City. After several years of wandering, harassed by the natives and weakened by hunger and fever, he crossed the Rio Bermejo, and went on with a small group of around 40 men on horseback into Los Llanos, where they engaged in battle with a large number of Omaguas and Hutten was severely wounded. He led those of his followers who survived back to Coro in 1546. On Hutten's return, he and a traveling companion, Bartholomeus VI. Welser, were executed in El Tocuyo by the Spanish authorities.
In 1535, Sebastian de Benalcazar, a lieutenant of Francisco Pizarro, interrogated an Indian that had been captured at Quito. Luis Daza recorded that the Indian was a warrior while Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas wrote that the Indian was an ambassador who had come to request military assistance from the Inca, unaware that they had already been conquered. The Indian told Benalcazar that he was from a kingdom of riches known as Cundinamarca far to the north where a zipa, or chief, covered himself in gold dust during ceremonies. Benalcazar set out to find the chief the Spaniards came to know as El Dorado but failed to do so and eventually joined up with Federmann and Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada and returned to Spain. It has been speculated that the land of wealth spoken of by the Indian was Arma, a kingdom whose inhabitants wore gold ornaments, which was eventually conquered by Pedro Cieza de Leon.
In 1536 Gonzalo Díaz de Pineda had led an expedition to the lowlands to the east of Quito and had found cinnamon trees but no rich empire.
Quesada brothers' expeditionsIn 1536, stories of El Dorado drew the Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada and his army of 800 men away from their mission to find an overland route to Peru and up into the Andean homeland of the Muisca for the first time. The southern Muisca settlements and their treasures quickly fell to the conquistadors in 1537 and 1538. On the Bogotá savanna, Quesada received reports from captured natives about a kingdom called Metza whose inhabitants built a temple dedicated to the sun and "keep in it an infinite quantity of gold and jewels, and live in stone houses, go about dressed and booted, and fight with lances and maces". Quesada believed this might have been El Dorado and decided to postpone his return to Santa Marta and continue his expedition for another year. After his brother Gonzalo had left for Spain in May 1539, Spanish conquistador Hernán Pérez de Quesada set out a new expedition in September 1540, leaving with 270 Spanish soldiers and countless indigenous porters to explore the Llanos Orientales. One of his main captains on this journey was Baltasar Maldonado. Their expedition was unsuccessful and after reaching Quito, the troops returned to Santafe de Bogotá.
Conquistadores Lázaro Fonte and Hernán Perez de Quesada attempted (unsuccessfully) to drain the lake in 1545 using a "bucket chain" of labourers. After 3 months, the water level had been reduced by 3 metres, and only a small amount of gold was recovered, with a value of 3000–4000 pesos (approx. US$100,000 today; a peso or piece of eight of the 15th century weighs 0.88 oz of 93% pure silver).
A later more industrious attempt was made in 1580, by Bogotá business entrepreneur Antonio de Sepúlveda. A notch was cut deep into the rim of the lake, which managed to reduce the water level by 20 metres, before collapsing and killing many of the labourers. A share of the findings—consisting of various golden ornaments, jewellery and armour—was sent to King Philip II of Spain. Sepúlveda's discovery came to approximately 12,000 pesos. He died a poor man, and is buried at the church in the small town of Guatavita.
In 1801, Alexander von Humboldt made a visit to Guatavita, and on his return to Paris, calculated from the findings of Sepúlveda's efforts that Guatavita could offer up as much as $300 million worth of gold. The company filed for bankruptcy and ceased activities in 1929.
In 1965, the Colombian government designated the lake as a protected area. Private salvage operations, including attempts to drain the lake, are now illegal.
Antonio de Berrio's expeditionsThe Spanish Governor of Trinidad, Antonio de Berrio (nephew of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada), made three failed expeditions to look for El Dorado. Between 1583 and 1589 he carried out his first two expeditions, going through the wild regions of the Colombian plains and the Upper Orinoco. In 1590 he began his third expedition, ascending the Orinoco to reach the Caroní River with his own expeditionaries and another 470 men under command of Domingo de Vera. In March 1591, while he was waiting for supplies on Margarita Island, his entire force was taken captive by Walter Raleigh, who proceeded up the Orinoco in search of El Dorado, with Berrio as a guide. Berrio took them to the territories he had previously explored by himself years before. After several months Raleigh's expedition returned to Trinidad, and he released Berrio at the end of June 1595 on the coast of Cumaná in exchange for some English prisoners. His son Fernando de Berrío y Oruña (1577–1622) also made numerous expeditions in search of El Dorado.
Walter RaleighWalter Raleigh's 1595 journey with Antonio de Berrio had aimed to reach Lake Parime in the highlands of Guyana (the supposed location of El Dorado at the time). He was encouraged by the account of Juan Martinez, believed to be Juan Martin de Albujar, who had taken part in Pedro de Silva's expedition of the area in 1570, only to fall into the hands of the Caribs of the Lower Orinoco. Martinez claimed that he was taken to the golden city in blindfold, was entertained by the natives, and then left the city and couldn't remember how to return. Raleigh had set many goals for his expedition, and believed he had a genuine chance at finding the so-called city of gold. First, he wanted to find the mythical city of El Dorado, which he suspected to be an actual Indian city named Manõa. Second, he hoped to establish an English presence in the Southern Hemisphere that could compete with that of the Spanish. His third goal was to create an English settlement in the land called Guyana, and to try to reduce commerce between the natives and Spaniards.
In 1596 Raleigh sent his lieutenant, Lawrence Kemys, back to Guyana in the area of the Orinoco River, to gather more information about the lake and the golden city. During his exploration of the coast between the Amazon and the Orinoco, Kemys mapped the location of Amerindian tribes and prepared geographical, geological and botanical reports of the country. Kemys described the coast of Guiana in detail in his Relation of the Second Voyage to Guiana (1596) and wrote that indigenous people of Guiana traveled inland by canoe and land passages towards a large body of water on the shores of which he supposed was located Manoa, Golden City of El Dorado.
Though Raleigh never found El Dorado, he was convinced that there was some fantastic city whose riches could be discovered. Finding gold on the riverbanks and in villages only strengthened his resolve. In 1617, he returned to the New World on a second expedition, this time with Kemys and his son, Watt Raleigh, to continue his quest for El Dorado. However, Raleigh, by now an old man, stayed behind in a camp on the island of Trinidad. Watt Raleigh was killed in a battle with Spaniards and Kemys subsequently committed suicide. He was executed in 1618.
Post-Elizabethan expeditionsOn 23 March 1609, Robert Harcourt accompanied by his brother Michael and a company of adventurers, sailed for Guiana. On 11 May he arrived at the Oyapock River. Local people came on board, and were disappointed at the absence of Sir Walter Raleigh after he had famously visited during his exploration of the area in 1595. Harcourt gave them aqua vitae. He took possession in the king's name of a tract of land lying between the River Amazon and River Essequibo on 14 August, left his brother and most of his company to colonise it, and four days later embarked for England.
In early 1611 Sir Thomas Roe, on a mission to the West Indies for Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, sailed his 200-ton ship, the Lion's Claw, some 320 km up the Amazon, then took a party of canoes up the Waipoco (probably the Oyapock River) in search of Lake Parime, negotiating thirty-two rapids and traveling about 100 mi before they ran out of food and had to turn back.
In 1627 North and Harcourt, obtained letters patent under the great seal from Charles I, authorising them to form a company for "the Plantation of Guiana", North being named as deputy governor of the settlement. Short of funds, this expedition was fitted out, a plantation established in 1627, and trade opened by North's endeavours.
In 1637-38, two monks, Acana and Fritz, undertook several journeys to the lands of the Manoas, indigenous peoples living in western Guyana and what is now Roraima in northeastern Brazil. Although they found no evidence of El Dorado, their published accounts were intended to inspire further exploration.
In November 1739, Nicholas Horstman, a German surgeon commissioned by the Dutch Governor of Guiana, traveled up the Essequibo River accompanied by two Dutch soldiers and four Indian guides. In April 1741 one of the Indian guides returned reporting that in 1740 Horstman had crossed over to the Rio Branco and descended it to its confluence with the Rio Negro. Horstman discovered Lake Amucu on the North Rupununi but found neither gold nor any evidence of a city.
In 1740, Don Manuel Centurion, Governor of Santo Tomé de Guayana de Angostura del Orinoco in Venezuela, hearing a report from an Indian about Lake Parima, embarked on a journey up the Caura River and the Paragua River, causing the deaths of several hundred persons. His survey of the local geography, however, provided the basis for other expeditions starting in 1775.
Between 1799 and 1804, Alexander von Humboldt conducted an extensive and scientific survey of the Guyana river basins and lakes, concluding that a seasonally-flooded confluence of rivers may be what inspired the notion of a mythical Lake Parime, and of the supposed golden city on the shore, nothing was found. and Robert Schomburgk (1840) confirmed Humboldt's findings.
Gold strikes and the extractive wealth of the rainforestBy the mid-1570s, the Spanish silver strike at Potosí in Upper Peru (modern Bolivia) was producing unprecedented real wealth.
In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I of England died, bringing to an end the era of Elizabethan adventurism. A bit later, in 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh, the great inspirer, was beheaded for insubordination and treason.
In 1695, bandeirantes in the south struck gold along a tributary of the São Francisco River in the highlands of State of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The prospect of real gold overshadowed the illusory promise of "gold men" and "lost cities" in the vast interior of the north.
The gold mine at El Callao (Venezuela), started in 1871, a few miles at south of Orinoco River, was for a time one of the richest in the world, and the goldfields as a whole saw over a million ounces exported between 1860 and 1883. The gold mining was dominated by immigrants from the British Isles and the British West Indies, giving an appearance of almost creating an English colony on Venezuelan territory.
The Orinoco Mining Arc (OMA), officially created on February 24, 2016 as the Arco Mining Orinoco National Strategic Development Zone, is an area rich in mineral resources that the Republic of Venezuela has been operating since 2017; occupies mostly the north of the Bolivar state and to a lesser extent the northeast of the Amazonas state and part of the Delta Amacuro state. It has 7,000 tons of reserves of gold, copper, diamond, coltan, iron, bauxite and other minerals.
It appears today that the Muisca obtained their gold in trade, and while they possessed large quantities of it over time, no great store of the metal was ever accumulated.
In 1987–1988, an expedition led by John Hemming of the Royal Geographical Society of London failed to uncover any evidence of the ancient city of Manoa on the island of Maracá in north-central Roraima. Members of the expedition were accused of looting historic artifacts but an official report of the expedition described it as "an ecological survey."
Evidence for the existence of Lake Parime
Although it was dismissed in the 19th century as a myth, some evidence for the existence of a lake in northern Brazil has been uncovered. In 1977 Brazilian geologists Gert Woeltje and Frederico Guimarães Cruz along with Roland Stevenson, found that on all the surrounding hillsides a horizontal line appears at a uniform level approximately 120 m above sea level. This line registers the water level of an extinct lake which existed until relatively recent times. Researchers who studied it found that the lake's previous diameter measured 400 km and its area was about 80000 km2. About 700 years ago this giant lake began to drain due to tectonic movement. In June 1690, a massive earthquake opened a bedrock fault, forming a rift or a graben that permitted the water to flow into the Rio Branco. By the early 19th century it had dried up completely.
Roraima's well-known Pedra Pintada is the site of numerous pictographs dating to the pre-Columbian era. Designs on the sheer exterior face of the rock were most likely painted by people standing in canoes on the surface of the now-vanished lake. Gold, which was reported to be washed up on the shores of the lake, was most likely carried by streams and rivers out of the mountains where it can be found today.