El Dorado, 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“.
The 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.
From ritual to myth and metaphor
El 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 canoa was carried down the stream, and certain of the Guianians met it the same evening; and, having not at any time seen any Christian nor any man of that color, they carried Martinez into the land to be wondered at, and so from town to town, until he came to the great city of Manoa, the seat and residence of Inga the emperor. The emperor, after he had beheld him, knew him to be a Christian, and caused him to be lodged in his palace, and well entertained. He was brought thither all the way blindfold, led by the Indians, until he came to the entrance of Manoa itself, and was fourteen or fifteen days in the passage. He avowed at his death that he entered the city at noon, and then they uncovered his face; and that he traveled all that day till night through the city, and the next day from the sun rising to sun setting, ere he came to the palace of Inga. After that Martinez had lived seven months in Manoa, and began to understand the language of the country, Inga asked him whether he desired to return into his own country, or would willingly abide with him. But Martinez, not desirous to stay, obtained the favor of Inga to depart.
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.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans, still fascinated by the New World, believed that a hidden city of immense wealth existed. Numerous expeditions were mounted to search for this treasure, all of which ended in failure. The illustration of El Dorado’s location on maps only made matters worse, as it made some people think that the city of El Dorado’s existence had been confirmed.
The mythical city of El Dorado on Lake Parime was marked on numerous maps until its existence was disproved by Alexander von Humboldt during his Latin America expedition (1799–1804).
Meanwhile, the name of El Dorado came to be used metaphorically of any place where wealth could be rapidly acquired. It was given to El Dorado County, California, and to towns and cities in various states. It has also been anglicized to the single word Eldorado and is sometimes used in product titles to suggest great wealth and fortune, such as the Cadillac Eldorado line of luxury automobiles.
El Dorado is also sometimes used as a metaphor to represent an ultimate prize or “Holy Grail” that one might spend one’s life seeking. It could represent true love, heaven, happiness, or success.
It is used sometimes as a figure of speech to represent something much sought after that may not even exist, or, at least, may not ever be found. Such use is evident in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “El Dorado.” In this context, El Dorado bears similarity to other myths such as the Fountain of Youth and Shangri-la.
The other side of the ideal quest metaphor may be represented by Helldorado, a satirical nickname given to Tombstone, Arizona (United States) in the 1880s by a disgruntled miner who complained that many of his profession had traveled far to find El Dorado, only to wind up washing dishes in restaurants.
The South African city Johannesburg is commonly interpreted as a modern-day El Dorado, due to the extremely large gold deposit found along the Witwatersrand on which it is situated.
Gold and conquest
Spanish conquistadores had noticed the native people’s fine artifacts of gold and silver long before any legend of “golden men” or “lost cities” had appeared. The prevalence of such valuable artifacts, 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 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.
During the Klein-Venedig period in Venezuela (1528–1546), agents of the German Welser banking family (which had received a concession from Charles I of Spain) launched repeated expeditions into the interior of the country in search of gold, starting with Ambrosius Ehinger’s first expedition in July 1529.
Spanish explorer Diego de Ordaz, then governor of the eastern part of Venezuela known as Paria (named after Paria Peninsula), was the first European to explore the Orinoco river in 1531–32 in search of gold.
A veteran of Hernán Cortés’s campaign in Mexico, Ordaz followed the Orinoco beyond the mouth of the Meta River but was blocked by the rapids at Atures. After his return, he died, possibly poisoned, on a voyage back to Spain.
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 the 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 was 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 Zaque, 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.
Gold strikes and the extractive wealth of the rainforest
By the mid-1570s, the Spanish silver strike at Potosi 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 Sao 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.
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.