Europeans of the sixteenth century presumed that somewhere deep in South America was a vast city called El Dorado that contained unimaginable mineral riches. Several Spanish conquistadors made perilous, often deadly journeys to find it. Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618), the English raconteur, explorer, and visionary, claimed in a book he published in 1596 that he knew the whereabouts of El Dorado. But in spite of such valiant efforts, El Dorado seems to persist only as a symbol of the rapacious greed with which the English and Spanish beheld the New World.
Europeans first learned of El Dorado through word-of-mouth tales that circulated among South America's indigenous peoples. There was a small grain of truth to the story: high in the eastern range of the Andes, in what is now Colombia, lived the Chibcha people. Geographically isolated, they mined gold and emeralds freely, and built a highly stratified and developed society. When they anointed a new priest-chief, they covered the man in balsam gum, and then blew gold dust all over his body through cane straws until he resembled a statue of pure gold. The new priest-chief then ceremonially bathed in Lake Guatavita, a sacred place to the Chibcha. This practice ended around 1480 when they were subdued by another tribe. But the story of the "gilded one" became part of the oral folklore traditions in South America, and in its retellings, the tale took on added dimensions: the gilded one supposedly ruled over a vast kingdom where nearly everything was made from gold, silver, or precious stone.
Spanish colonization of Latin America began not long after the end of this practice. Francisco Pizzaro (c. 1475–1541), who conquered the powerful Inca civilization in the 1530s in what is today Peru, saw the technically advanced and lavishly prosperous city of Cuzco that the tightly organized indigenous culture created. He believed that the continent held enormous mineral wealth, and he took bags of gold and stacks of silver bars back to Spain from his plunder of the Inca. Not long after the conquest, a messenger from an unknown Indian tribe appeared in Peru with a message for the Inca emperor, unaware the empire had been defeated. Interrogated by the Spanish, he told them he came from the Zipa people in the Bogota region, but knew of another kingdom, high in the mountains to the east, a tribe so rich that they covered their chief in gold.
The Spanish, who had already heard about the Chibcha, became increasingly certain that El Dorado, their translation of "the gilded one," really existed. Adding to the mystery was a rumor that a renegade Inca faction had managed to escape the violent Spanish conquest and had fled to the mountains. Supposedly they had migrated into the Amazon River jungle. There, according to folklore, was an empire richer than that of the Inca. The Spanish assumed that the rebels took large amounts of mineral wealth with them, and that this fugitive empire was flourishing some-where in what is today Venezuela.
Between 1536 and 1541, the Spanish sent out five major expeditions in search of El Dorado. After the journeys proved fruitless, the Spanish became certain that El Dorado must lie in the northern part of the continent into which they had not yet ventured—the jungle basin between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers.
Meanwhile, another mysterious appearance of a man who spoke of a city of gold he called "Manoa" only fueled their desire. His name was Juan Martinez, and he had been a munitions master on board a Spanish ship exploring the Caroni River that branched off from the Orinoco at San Thome. His group headed deeper into the jungle, but the journey was aborted when its gunpowder stores exploded. Martinez was left behind in an open canoe as punishment for the accident.
He claimed to have met friendly Indians, who blindfolded him for days and led him to their kingdom, called Manoa, where everything in the royal palace was made of gold. Martinez said that riches had been given to him as a departing gift, but they had been stolen by Indians on his way back.
This story was told to Sir Walter Raleigh in England around 1586. Raleigh had established an ill-fated colony in North America on Roanoke Island and had fallen out of favor with Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603). Wishing to restore his reputation and status at court, he set sail for South America. After arriving in March of 1595, Raleigh and his party spent weeks sailing along the Orinoco River, but found nothing but a massive Spanish anchor, which had been lost when Martinez's ship had exploded.
Raleigh brought back to England exotic flora and fauna and some blue-tinged rocks that hinted at great ore deposits. But when Raleigh told his extraordinary tales of the jungle, his enemies ridiculed him, claiming that he had been hiding in Cornwall the entire time. In response, he wrote a book, The Discovery of the Large, Rich and Beautiful Empire of Guyana with a Relation to the Great and Golden City of Manoa.
The book was absorbing, but the English expedition had not ventured into any parts of the Orinoco that the Spanish had not already explored. Raleigh claimed that the city of Manoa was on Lake ParÌma, behind a mountain range. He provided a map so remarkably accurate that most atlases of South America showed the mythical lake for the next 150 years. Raleigh also wrote of a tribe of headless, club-wielding warriors with eyes and mouths on their torsos. That brought further discredit to his book, but it sold well, even in translation.
Raleigh's claims failed to interest Queen Elizabeth I or potential investors who might finance a further search for El Dorado. After the monarch died in 1603, Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London by her successor, King James I (1566–1625), on charges of treason. Convinced in the very least that vast gold mines existed close to the Orinoco River, Raleigh continually petitioned for release; only when dire financial straits fell on Great Britain did the king allow Raleigh a second chance. Raleigh's 1618 expedition battled the Spanish, and Raleigh's son died in battle. When Raleigh returned to England empty-handed, he was jailed again, tried in secret, and executed on the 1603 treason charge.
The term "El Dorado" became part of Renaissance-era English culture; John Milton (1608–1674) wrote of it in Paradise Lost, and William Shakespeare (1564–1616) mentioned the headless warriors in Othello. El Dorado has become synonymous with a place of fabulous wealth or inordinately great opportunity. Accepted theory holds that El Dorado existed only in the minds of the Europeans who were eager to discover the quickest path to riches.
Gordon, Stuart. The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends. London: Headline Books, 1993.
Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore. New York: Larousse, 1995.