The origins of El Dorado

In the last days of 1835 the explorer Robert Schomburgk stood on the shores of Lake Amucu in western central Guiana. In April, the surrounding savannah would be inundated by the rising tides of two nearby river systems creating the illusion of a great body of water; but now, in December, the waters were low. All Schomburgk could see were rushes broken by the occasional glimpse of clear water. The brook feeding the lake was some three yards wide. The sense of bathos is overwhelming; he uses the word ‘scarcely’ three times in as many sentences.

And yet Schomburgk was in no sense displeased. Reaching Lake Amucu had almost been a votive act. But he had come seeking disappointment. Schomburgk was there not because he thought it to be the site of Lake Parima, on whose glittering shores El Dorado was said by some to be located; Schomburgk was there because he knew that it wasn’t. He wanted to be the first man to stand where El Dorado might have been, were it not fantasy.

It’s a powerful myth that can draw a man halfway round the world to see for himself its refutation. But that’s El Dorado. By 1835, it was already three centuries old. Its beginnings are unclear – not so much shrouded in mystery as cloudy with hearsay and rumour, with false memories and Renaissance imaginations stunned into wonder by the strangeness and heat of the New World. It is indivisible from the Spanish conquest of central and south America. It is, in some respects, the quintessential expression of the dream of conquistador exploration: unimaginable wealth, there for the taking if one is sufficiently rapacious, sufficiently cruel, sufficiently resolute.

What follows then, insofar as it is knowable, is the story of its origins. And, like all good origin stories, there are more than one of them.

The best known version doesn’t enter the record until Juan de Castellanos, a conquistador-turned-priest, included it as part of his epic verse history of Spanish heroism in the Americas, Elegías de varones ilustres de Indias, likely written in the 1570s. The story relates to the chief of a Muisca tribe who inhabited a large plateau – the conquistadors knew it as Cundinamarca – high in the eastern range of the Andes in what is now Colombia. Once a year, the chief would cover himself from head to foot in turpentine and gold dust; hence el dorado, the golden one. He took a barge out into the middle of Lake Guatavita, a small almost circular crater lake sunk in the mountain. The chief’s people would look on, voices raised in song, as he made an offering of treasure, of gold and emeralds, to the lake. Then he would dive in – the signal for a festival to begin.

There is a catch, though. There is no record of anyone having seen this ritual. It was said to have been discontinued some forty of fifty years before the Spanish arrived, suppressed when the tribe in question was subjugated to the nearby Muisca of Bacatá – now Bogota, the Colombian capital – by its zipa, or ruler, Nemequene. So even as recounted here it was already a memorial practice when the Spanish first encountered it, something receding from living memory into the haze of a once-told remembered story, something powerful and ancient.

But there is a second version of this origin story. It dates to 1541, some 20 years after Hernán Cortés had conquered the Aztecs and just eight years after the Incan emperor Atahualpa had been murdered by Francisco Pizarro and the first Incan gold had reached Spain. Which is to say, from a period in which the Spanish knew little of the continent beyond a few small toeholds at its edges, when everything was fluid and unknowable and anything seemed possible. Surely there were more empires than two in the vast expanses of which the Spanish understood nothing? And besides, weren’t there persistent rumours, fuelled by a queasy mixture of greed and hope, that the Spanish had never found the better part of the Incan treasure, that in the chaos of conquest it had been spirited away to some unknown redoubt?

Arguably, in fact, the 1541 iteration of the El Dorado myth is the first. And yet, in the way that so many things to do with El Dorado seem paradoxical, it looks to be an elaboration of the story that Castellanos told thirty years later. It is found in the writings of a conquistador named Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo and it takes place in Quito in northern Ecuador, territory then newly conquered as part of the Spanish destruction of the Incas. As Oviedo heard it, El Dorado was a “great lord or monarch [who] constantly goes about covered with gold… as fine as ground salt; for it is his opinion that to wear any other adornment is less beautifying… but to powder one’s self with gold is an extraordinary thing, unusual and new and more costly.”

So even as early 1541 there is no clarity about what El Dorado is or was. One conquistador put together a small force of men and left Quito in February 1541 in search of the land of this king. He is Gonzales Pizarro, brother of Francisco. But Pizarro, writing about his entrada, as the Spanish called their explorations, describes El Dorado as a lake, not a man. Had he heard a different iteration of the myth to Oviedo? A third contemporary source, the chronicler Pedro de Cieza de León, describing the very same expedition, writes of El Dorado as a valley.

Already then, right from the beginning, El Dorado isn’t a single idea, it’s a confluence of ideas. El Dorado is a man, a lake, a valley. It is a place that is always beyond wherever you are – further up river, further up in the highlands, deeper into the interior – in the same way that the gold it contains is greater in abundance than any yet found, great beyond comprehension. To make El Dorado manageable, it’s given a name, a direction, a geography, an identity. But really, it is the unimaginability of it that’s the lure. Further. Greater. Richer. More.

Pizarro plunged east from Quito with several hundred conquistadors (sources vary between 220 and 340) and 4,000 native servants – although slaves might be the better word: they had been kept in chains and shackles – together with horses, llamas, some 2,000 hogs and a similar number of hunting dogs. Pizarro expected shortly to find civilisation: open land, tilled fields, villages and towns. Instead, marching for weeks and months through the darkness of the rain forest in the rainy season, across mountains, marshes and rivers, he found nothing but – in the words of Cieza de León – hardship, famine and misery. Along the way, Indians were captured and interrogated. When they didn’t come up with the answers Pizarro wanted, they were tortured on racks. Some were then burnt alive. Others were fed to the dogs. As the year’s end approached, things became desperate. All the hogs were dead. There were no slaves left; some had escaped, most had died. Perhaps half the Spanish were left standing.

They came to a great river, most likely the Coca, just south of the equator in what’s now northern Ecuador. There a local tribal chief named Delicola, having heard of the cruelties the Spanish had visited on those they questioned, told them what they wanted to hear. There were “very great populations further on” downriver, he told them, and “very rich regions full of powerful lords”. Pizarro ordered a boat to be built; it would carry men and supplies downstream while the remaining men and horses made their way along the shore. They proceeded this way for 43 days; they found little food and no people.

One of Pizarro’s men, Francisco de Orellana, volunteered to take the boat and some fifty men, to find food and return. He would “bring back provisions as soon as he could,” he told Pizarro. “There need be no doubt about that.” It was December 1541. Orellana did, ultimately, find food, but he did not return. Instead, he and his men found the Amazon – which they knew as the Marañón – and they rode its length for months, reaching the Atlantic on 26 August 1542. Orellana claimed he had no choice but to press on, driven both by mutinous men and the sheer force of the great river.

Pizarro called it treason. He turned his remaining men around and made their way slowly back to Quito. They ate their dogs and their horses; they boiled up their saddles and stirrup leathers and roasted them over ashes. They were, one source says, in a “fury of hunger”. Somehow they made it, staggering into Quito in June.

In some ways this is the archetypal El Dorado story. In part because it was, of course, unsuccessful, trailing death and deadly accusations in its wake. But also because it illustrates one surprising truth about the myth: it was one of the principal drivers for the European exploration of South America north of the equator.

Pizarro’s was the first explicit attempt to find El Dorado. But you can see how well El Dorado articulated the Spanish dream of the Americas by the fact that, once it was described, conquistadors started retrospectively claiming that their journeys of exploration into the interior had been in search of it. To put it another way, it took time before the Spanish learned to give the name El Dorado to the thing they had sought.

You can see this process at work most clearly in the story of Sebastian de Benalcázar, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada and Nicolaus Federmann. Setting out from, respectively, Quito, Santa Marta and Coro, entirely ignorant of each other’s ambitions, they all made their way to Cundinamarca in the highlands in eastern cordillera of the Andes, where they encountered the Muisca people and, early in 1539, each other. Both Quesada and Federmann had heard tell of a rich province called Meta, after the river of that name which is a major tributary of the Orinoco. Quesada was seeking it up the river Magdalena, Federmann by following the line of the mountains and searching for a pass. Each had set out in 1536. It’s not clear what information Benalcázar, coming from Quito through Popayan in 1538, was acting on, but there is another origin story to El Dorado that may explain it.

Benalcázar had conquered Quito on behalf of the Spanish, defeating the Incan general Rumiñavi in 1534. It was said that among those captured with Rumiñavi had been a native chief, whom the Spanish referred to as el indio dorado. He came from a rich land some twelve days north of Quito called Cundi rumarca. The Muisca highlands, on other words.

Was that what drove Benalcázar on? He made no mention of it at the time, but later, both he and Quesada would claim that when they sought the Muisca they had been looking for El Dorado all along. And perhaps Cundinamarca really was El Dorado, after all. Certainly, the fact that three separate expeditions could follow rumours from such far-flung locations and arrive in precisely the same place suggests that at least some of the information the conquistadors received was remarkably accurate. And there was gold there; Quesada accumulated some 621 kilos of it. The Muisca did not mine it, however; what gold they had they gathered through trade.

For most conquistadors, then, this high plateau in the Andes could not be El Dorado; it wasn’t rich enough. The search for it went on, the location simply changed. Countless expeditions followed, east of the Muisca, and north, seeking El Dorado among the Omagua people of the Amazon basin, at the headwaters of the Orinoco, and so on. Many of those journeys are forgotten. Some are remembered. The madness and terror of Lope de Aguirre’s trek down the Amazon in 1561, for example, was still recalled by the people of the region when Alexander von Humboldt came that way at the turn of the 19th century; on the Guianan savannah the local ignis fatuus was known as ‘the soul of the tyrant Aguirre’.

Where was El Dorado, then? It was where it had always been. Elsewhere. Its promise of gold – reachable, out of reach – persisting. Not quite illusion. Never quite real enough. A movable feast. But if El Dorado didn’t exist, it was inevitable that it would be invented. It was what the Americas were for. Perhaps it was necessary to invent it. It filled the blank spaces on the map. What do people see in such spaces, after all? It’s where they project their hopes and fears, their terrors and greeds. In the deep sea, monsters; deep in the interior, gold and other treasure. Something to be retrieved from the darkness and mystery of the unknown, to be melted down and reshaped into a thing of known value – as value was understood in Europe.

There is another way to view El Dorado, however. And that is to think of it, not as a metaphor for the Spanish colonial enterprise, for the drive to conquer and possess, but as a metaphor for the pre-Colombian Americas, for the part of it the Spanish and English couldn’t capture or erase, couldn’t itemise in the ledgers of empire and reason, couldn’t crush or despoil. It had already receded into memory by the time the Europeans arrived, so it remains a pristine thing: a gold-skinned man making his gifts to the old gods, his body slipping into the immaculate water of a mountain lake, a way of life remembered, something lost, something precious, there and gone in the arc of a dive, flashing in the fierce sunlight, dazzling in the mind’s eye, tenacious and unyielding.

This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of All About History.

Image © Pedro Szekely from Los Angeles, USA – Pedro Szekely, Gold Museum, Bogota, from flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74528973

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