Over millennia, man has always had an insatiable hunger for treasure. Be it for diamonds, pearls, rubies, silver, or bronze, man has gone to great lengths to acquire that which is precious. Perhaps, there is none among the vast treasures of the earth which man values more and has had a greater relationship with than gold.
The lust for gold spans all eras, races, and nationalities, and to possess any amount of gold seems to ignite an insatiable desire in man to obtain more. To different societies across all continents, gold was obtained through various means: war and conquest, trade, mining, etc. In Europe, however, the quest for the precious metal gave birth to a passion. Through the centuries, this passion gave rise to the enduring tale of a city of gold. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans were of the belief that somewhere in the New World (the Americas) existed a place of immense wealth. Their search for this treasure would see to the loss of countless lives, drove at least one man to suicide, and put another man under the executioner’s axe. This quest was born out of a desire to find the lost city of El Dorado.
El Dorado: Origin and the Gilded Man
El Dorado (Spanish for “The Gilded One’), or El Hombre Dorado (‘The Golden Man’) or El Rey Dorado (“The Golden King”), was a term used to refer to the legendary kings of the Muisca (or Chibcha); a people who populated the northern Andes (or the Altiplano Cundiboyacense) of modern-day Colombia from 600 CE to 1600 CE. The name is especially associated with their coronation ritual held at Lake Guatavita, north of modern-day Bogotá. The tribal chief (zipa), as an initiation rite, is said to have covered himself with gold dust before submerging in the lake.
According to legend, then, amongst the Muisca, when it was esental to crown a new monarch, the man who would be king prepared for his great day with a period of abstinence of some sort. Left alone in a cave, he was forbidden women, salt and chilli peppers, salt. On the day of the coronation proper, the future king travelled to Lake Guatavita―a remote lake formed in an extinct volcanic crater―in order to render offerings to the gods in return for blessing his reign. To do this, he went to the centre of the lake on a raft made from reeds and laden with treasures of gold and emeralds. On it were placed four large incense burners. The incense was moque and the braziers, joined by those set around the shores of the lake. These gave off clouds of thick smoke and must only have added to the mystique of the ceremony.
The most fantastic treasure of all, though, was the royal person himself. He had been stripped naked and covered entirely in a sticky layer of rosin on which was blown fine gold dust. The result was a sparkling man of gold; literally a ‘gilded man’. Also travelling on the raft were four attendants, also heavily adorned with gold jewellery. The great moment came when, accompanied by mass singing and trumpets from the shores, the raft arrived in the very centre of the lake. At that instant, silence fell on the crowd and the attendants threw the fabulous treasure of gold and jewels into the lake and the people on the shores also threw their golden offerings into the sacred waters. The climax of the ceremony came when the golden king himself jumped off into the lake and when he emerged, cleaned of gold, he had become the king of the Muisca.
Over time, El Dorado extended its meaning and legends to refer to a lost golden city, an entire region, a kingdom and an empire. When the Spanish Conquistadors heard the incredible tales of a city paved in gold they tried every means possible to find it. Ultimately though, the Spanish, and the explorers and treasure hunters who followed them, never did find. the fabulous treasures of El Dorado.
The Importance of Gold and Spanish Conquest
In the cultures of ancient Colombia—noted by Mark Cartwright in his El Dorado, gold had long been a popular material for metalworkers. Noting further, he opines that the metal actually had no particular value as currency other than as a raw material for exchange and, indeed, it seems that, unlike in other Americas cultures, gold was not limited to the nobility but also owned by lower strata of society. “Rather than its intrinsic value, then,” Cartwright writes, “gold was esteemed because of its lustre, incorruptibility, spiritual associations (especially concerning the sun), and workability in the hands of craftsmen. Skilled Muisca artisans produced stunning works of art using the full range of the goldsmith’s repertoire, especially the lost-wax technique.”
According to written sources (Jones 2012; Cooper 2014), gold and gold alloy artworks, emeralds and other precious objects were offered to the gods in huge quantities. These items were buried at sacred locations so that the balance of the cosmos was maintained and natural disasters averted. To a great deal, the offerings were figurines known as tunjos. These represented―in fine detail―people carrying objects such as weapons, shields, and musical instruments. The most famous of theseis reported to be a golden raft (or the Zipa) with cast figures wearing jewellery standing upon it. This raft was discovered in a clay vessel inside a cave and now rests in the Museo del Oro in Bogotá.
According to claims, Spanish conquistadores had noticed the native people’s fine artefacts of gold and silver long before any legend of “golden men” or “lost cities” had appeared. The prevalence of such valuable artefacts, and the natives’ apparent ignorance of their value, inspired speculation as to a plentiful source for them. Prior to the time of the Spanish conquest of the Muisca and discovery of Lake Guatavita, a handful of expeditions―sponsored in part or whole by the Spanish government—had set out to explore the lowlands to the east of the Andes in search of gold, cinnamon, precious stones, and anything else of value. So driven were they by their thirst for riches, the official Spanish government’s objective of exploration in northern South America was, in fact, to find gold, melt it down and ship large quantities as possible back to Europe. As noted by Cartwright, the association between ancient Colombia and the precious metal is further reflected in the Spanish King’s choice of name for his new territory: Castillo del Oro.
Sir Raleigh’s Quest and Later History
From around the 16th to the 20th century, various explorers around Europe embarked on costly expeditions to find El Dorado and its riches with little to no success. English courtier Sir Walter Raleigh, made two trips to Guiana in search for El Dorado. In 1617—in his second trip—he had his son Watt Raleigh sent with an expedition up the Orinoco River. Walter then an old man, stayed behind at a base camp on the island of Trinidad. The expedition was a disaster, and cost him the life of his son who was killed in a battle with Spaniards. Upon his return to England, King James ordered Raleigh beheaded for—among other things—disobeying orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.
Earlier than Raleigh’s expedition, in 1537, Spanish conquistador Jimenez de Quesada and his army of 800 men were lured away from their mission to find an overland route to Peru, up into the Andean homeland of the Muisca for the first time. Lured deep into unknown and inhospitable territories Quesada saw many of men lose their lives. However, what Quesada and his men found left them astounded, as the gold working of the Muisca was like nothing they had seen before. The finely crafted gold objects they found, used techniques beyond anything ever seen by European eyes.
It was not until in the 1580s that perhaps the most ambitious scheme to find El Dorado’s gold was set in motion when Antonio de Sepulveda and his men cut a slice out of Lake Guatavita’s crater edge in order to drain the lake and find the treasure which they presumed must have accumulated on the lake bed from centuries of coronation ceremonies. Despite successfully finding some gold artefacts around the edges of the lake, a landslide blocked the cut before the lake could drain completely, leaving the water level of the lake to begin to rise again. Ultimately, faced with a mutiny from the local population, Sepulveda and his Spanish crew were forced to give up their search.
In another ambitious expedition in 1909―involving the English company Contractor Limited―had the men seek to drain the lake using another method which proved more successful than that of the Spanish. This method involved digging a tunnel under the lake and draining it that way. When the lake was emptied, however, a problem arose in that the soft mud bottom of the crater was too deep to support any weight. Worse, the mud quickly baked in the sun, becoming cement hard. The men had returned to Bogotá for drilling equipment and must have been left discouraged when they got back to the lake only to learn that in their absence, the mud had also solidified in the drainage tunnel, leaving it blocked so that the lake filled back up again. Low on money to continue the project the company―like the Spanish and others before them―were forced to abandon the task with just a handful of small artefacts taken from the edge of the lake.
It is important to note that these expeditions have been hugely met with disappointing results. Despite the fact that some gold, stone beads and pottery have been found by explorers and looters over the centuries, nothing so far, to match the fabulous riches described in the legend of El Dorado has been found. As noted in his closing remark, Cartwright asserts that perhaps, though, this is fitting as, after all, the original owners of the gold and jewels had intended their offerings for the sun and for them to remain for all time where they were given, at the bottom of a lake in the remote mountains of Colombia.
On why the legend of El Dorado endures, Jose Oliver, a lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, says it is so because “you want it to be true.” He adds, “I don’t think we’ve ever stopped seeking El Dorado.” Answering the question “So where is this lost city of gold?”, writer Edgar Allan Poe in his 1849 poem “El Dorado,” provides an eerie and eloquent suggestion: “Over the Mountains of the Moon, down the Valley of the Shadow, ride, boldly ride … if you seek for El Dorado.”
(By Ejiofor Ekene Olaedo)
SOURCES OF AUTHOUR’S INFORMATION
Cartwright, M. (2014, April 1). El Dorado. Retrieved May 16, 2020 from Ancient History Encyclopedia: https://www.ancient.eu/El_Dorado/
Cooper, J. (2013, January 14) El Dorado: The truth behind the myth. Retrieved May 17, 2020 from BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20964114
Drye, W. (n.d.). El Dorado. Retrieved May 16, 2020 from National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/archaeology/el-dorado/
Jones, D. M. (2012). The Complete Illustrated History of the Inca Empire. Lorenz Books.