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El Dorado, The Golden Man

El Dorado, or The Gilded Man, of the Chibchas

An old man, most likely under torture, told the European conquerors of Colombia's Chibcha people the story of the Golden Man. It was enough to direct the oppressors eastward, but it also led to centuries of searching for a mythical land.

Hundreds of tribesmen had come from afar to gather on the shores of a deep, dark lake set in the crater of an extinct volcano some 9,000 feet above sea level. A hush fell over the assembled multitude as the solemn ceremony got under way. Attendants slowly undressed the ruler, rubbed clay over his naked body, and sprinkled him with gold dust until he became - as a Spanish chronicler wrote in 1636 - El Dorado, the Golden Man. They led him to a balsa-wood raft, where he was joined by four chieftains. Laden with offerings of gold and emeralds, the raft was pushed out into the lake.

Chants and instrumental music reverberated from the surrounding mountains as the ritual neared its climax. Then, silence. The chieftains threw the offerings into the water; the ruler plunged in afterward, emerging from the depths with his body cleansed of its golden sheath. The music resumed to reach a new crescendo.

The Spaniard who so vividly described the scene, Juan Rodriguez Freyle, had not actually witnessed the ceremony. Indeed, at the time he wrote, the ritual of El Dorado - if indeed it had ever been held - was a thing of the past. Nearly a century earlier, Spanish conquistadores had converged on the highland area of what is now Colombia in search of its fabled treasure and had succeeded only in destroying the native culture of the Chibcha people.

The relative ease with which Hernan Cortes had toppled the Aztec empire of Mexico in 1521 and Francisco Pizarro that of the Incas in Peru 12 years later whetted the appetites of others for conquest and plunder. In April 1536 some 900 Europeans and an unspecified number of native porters set out from the settlement at Santa Marta on the northwest coast of Colombia. Their plan was to follow the Magdalena River to its source, find a new route across the Andes Mountains to Peru, and, perhaps, discover another native empire ripe for the plucking. In command was the austere, pious deputy governor of the province, a 36-year-old attorney from Granada named Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada.

For 11 months Jimenez de Quesada's men endured incredible difficulties, having to cut their way with machetes through the seemingly impenetrable vegetation and wade through swamps up to their waists. They were in constant peril of snakes, alligators, and jaguars. Unseen natives showered them with poisoned arrows. Many of the would-be conquistadores succumbed to hunger and fever, and the survivors subsisted on a diet of lizards and frogs. With fewer than 200 able-bodied men left under his command, Jimenez de Quesada was about to turn back when his tattered expedition stumbled onto the Cundinamarca Plateau. Before the astonished interlopers stretched carefully tended corn and potato fields, dotted with neat, obviously prosperous villages. Thin sheets of gold hung outside each doorway; twisting and tinkling in the wind, they created what the Europeans described as the "sweetest melody" they had ever heard. They had reached the homeland of the Chibchas.

Startled by the arrival of the strangers and awed by their horses, many of the natives abandoned their villages and withdrew from the dreaded encounter. Others greeted their visitors as gods descended from the heavens, offering them food, women, and the gold the Europeans seemed so intent on amassing. To the Chibchas gold was easily obtainable from other tribes by bartering the emeralds and salt they had in plentiful supply. For them it had little intrinsic value - though they prized it for the luster and malleability it offered their craftsmen who fashioned delicate ornaments for wearing and for decorating homes and shrines. But nothing seemed to satisfy the Europeans, who were soon taking by force what they were not offered in friendship. The Chibchas' clubs and javelins were no match for the Europeans' firearms. Within months Jimenez de Quesada had subdued the entire region with the loss of but a single man.

What the rapacious Europeans did not discover, however, was the source of the Chibcha gold supply. Then one day they learned from an old man, perhaps under torture, the secret of El Dorado, the Golden Man. Limitless treasure, he revealed, was to be found to the east, in the mountain fastness in which nestled Lake Guatavita. There, he told the credulous Europeans, a chieftain annually offered a portion of his vast wealth to the gods by throwing gold and emeralds into the lake waters. After having his naked body coated with gold dust, the chieftain dived in so that his gold could be added to the treasure. Whether a fact, a legend, or a ruse to direct the oppressors away from his country, the old man's story was eagerly accepted by the Europeans. El Dorado entered the annals of the conquest of the New World, being transformed in time from the story of a ruler's bizarrre ritual to a goal of countless treasure seekers: Eldorado, the land of unbelievable riches that was always just beyond the next mountain or across the next river.

Before leading his men in search of the Golden Man, Jimenez de Quesada decided that he must return to Santa Marta to confirm his governorship of the highland territory he had subdued and renamed New Granada. His departure was cut short, however, when news reached him in February 1539 that another expedition of Europeans was approaching his newly established capital, Santa Fe de Bogota, from the northeast.

The newcomers proved to be a band of some 160 men led by a German named Nikolaus Federmann, acting on behalf of the commercial firm of Welser in Augsburg. In return for Welser's financial support of his election as Holy Roman Emperor, King Charles I of Spain had granted the German company the province of Venezuela. Also seeking another native empire to conquer, Federmann had left the coastal settlement at Coro several months after Jimenez de Quesada had departed from Santa Marta. For more than two years he had been seeking a way through the mountains to the Cundinamarca Plateau. Somewhat warily welcoming the exhausted, half-starved, and nearly naked strangers, Jimenez de Quesada offered them food and clothing and pondered how they might be used for his assault on the land of Eldorado. He did not have long to think, for Jimenez de Quesada soon learned that a third expedition was approaching Santa Fe de Bogota - this one from the southwest. It was led by Sebastian de Belalcazar, a deputy of Pizarro's in the conquest of Peru.

Having pursued the remnants of the Inca army north to Ecuador, where he founded Quito, Belalcazar had also learned of fabled riches to be seized in the interior. About the time Jimenez de Quesada left Santa Marta, Belalcazar set out from Quito for the long march north. He arrived at Santa Fe de Bogota with a sturdy band of wellclad and well-armed Europeans, many mounted on fine horses. He also had a large force of native retainers, a silver dinner service, and 300 pigs - a welcome addition to their diet for the meatstarved Europeans who had reached the plateau earlier. By the most curious of coincidences, each of the three expeditions numbered exactly 166 men at the time they linked forces.

Disagreeing as to who had priority in the search for a new native empire to conquer, the three leaders simultaneously departed for Spain to present their rival claims at court. His employers having lost Venezuela to a Spanish adventurer, Federmann was out of contention and died in obscurity. Belalcazar was given command of one of the cities he had founded en route to Sante Fe de Bogota, but he seems to have ended his career in disgrace. Denied the governorship, Jimenez de Quesada had to content himself with the honorary military title marshal of New Grenada. Although he lived to the age of 80 and never gave up on his dream of finding the land of the Golden Man, his days of glory were behind him.

Even as the three rival claimants were arguing their cases before the king in Spain, the search for Eldorado was under way. Hernan Perez de Quesada, a brother of the conqueror of New Grenada, was the first to try to recover the treasure thought to lie at the bottom of Lake Guatavita. During the dry season of 1540 he set his men to bailing out the lake's waters with gourds. After three months of patient work, they actually succeeded in lowering the water level by about 10 feet. Between 3,000 and 4,000 tiny gold pieces were retrieved near the receding shoreline, but they never got to the center of the lake where, presumably, the real hoard was to be found.

Four decades later an even more sensational attempt was made to drain the lake. A wealthy merchant from Bogota employed thousands of natives to dig a trench through one of the surrounding hills. When it was completed, the waters poured out of the lake, this time lowering the level by more than 60 feet. An emerald the size of an egg and numerous gold trinkets were found, but the rewards were scarcely worth the effort. Another treasure hunter had a tunnel dug to carry away the waters, but he had to abandon his plan when it collapsed, killing most of his workers.

The story of El Dorado would not die and even caught the fancy of the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who visited Colombia during the course of a scientific expedition early in the 19th century. Although his interest in the treasure was merely theoretical, he calculated that gold worth $300 million might lie beneath Lake Guatavita's waters. He reached this figure by speculating that 1,000 pilgrims, each sacrificing five gold objects, would have participated in the annual ritual during the course of a century.

A final attempt to drain the lake was made in 1912, when British treasure seekers used giant pumps to do the job. Although they removed most of the water, the soft mud beneath quickly mired those who ventured out into it. By the next day the mud had dried to a consistency as impenetrable as concrete. For their expenditure of $160,000, the British recovered $10,000 worth of gold objects. An end was put to all such futile efforts to reach the bottom of Lake Guatavita when the Colombian government declared the lake a national historic site in 1965.

In 1541, five years after Belalcazar marched out of Quito for Colombia, Gonzalo Pizarro - a brother of the conqueror of Peru - left the city in search of Eldorado, whose treasure he had heard included not only gold but the valuable spice cinnamon. He was shortly joined by a soldier of fortune named Francisco de Orellana. After their expedition crossed the Andes Mountains and descended into the tropical forests to the east, the two parted company. Pizarro eventually returned to Quito, but Orellana followed a wide, sluggish river all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. En route, he came across a tribe whose women proved to be better archers than its men. Linking them to the Greek legend of warrior women, he called his river the Amazon.

Other Spanish adventurers followed in the wake of Pizarro and Orellana, extending their quest for the Golden Man down both the Amazon and the Orinoco rivers. Among the most persistent of these seekers was Antonio de Berrio, governor of a vast tract of land between the two rivers. Like those who had gone before him, Berrio was convinced that the Golden Man could be found in a mountaintop lake. But it was not Lake Guatavita but rather one in the mountains of Guiana to which - he claimed - the defeated Incas had fled and where they had founded a fabulous new city, Manoa, whose very streets were said to be paved with gold.

Between 1584 and 1595, Berrio led three expeditions to Guiana. On the third he proceeded to the island of Trinidad, where he encountered Sir Walter Raleigh, who was attempting to restore his somewhat tarnished reputation as a colonizer. During a drinking bout the Englishman pried the secret of El Dorado from Berrio, temporarily imprisoned his confidant, and returned home to write rapturously of Manoa and Eldorado, as he called the Golden Man's kingdom. Believing, in Raleigh's case, did not require seeing. Eldorado's wealth, he insisted, was greater than Peru's. Indeed, he wrote, "for the greatnes, for the riches, and for the excellent seate, it [Manoa] farre exceedeth any of the world ..." Raleigh's book about Guiana did little to rouse interest in the area, and his own attempts to find Eldorado, not surprisingly, ended in failure.

For nearly four centuries the tale of the Golden Man - probably wrenched from a desperate native who only wanted the European conquerors to move on - has teased and tantalized treasure seekers. None of these adventurers, of course, ever found a lake whose bottom was lined with gold or a city whose streets were paved with it. The gold they did find was often in the shape of curiously wrought objects for personal adornment and interior decoration. Because these trinkets did not meet European standards of artistic merit, they were mostly melted down and sent home as gold bullion. Those relatively few objects that survived are today prized museum pieces.

In their frantic crisscrossing of South America's mountains, jungles, and savannas, European adventurers never satisfied their appetite for easily gained riches. But almost accidentally they explored and mapped an entire continent. They were driven by a greed for gold, an intoxicant that enabled them to endure the incredible hardships imposed by an unfamiliar terrain, a harsh climate, and hostile natives.

As for the natives, it was their tragedy to possess a metal that was so highly valued by Europeans. To the peoples of the pre-Columbian New World, gold was a thing of beauty to adorn person, home, and shrine. When the strangers from across the seas came, the natives simply could not understand why the metal was so desirable. It could not keep out the cold as did a blanket; it could not fill the stomach as did corn; it could not bring pleasure as did tobacco or strong drink. Yet gold is what the Europeans wanted above all else. And that is why the unwanted visitors so readily believed in El Dorado, the Golden Man, who - if he ever existed - had disappeared long before they went looking for him.

Reader's Digest editors. The Quest for Eldorado. Great Mysteries Of The Past - Experts Unravel Fact And Fallacy Behind The Headlines Of History . July 1994.

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