El Dorado: the lost city of gold

Many people believe in the popular legend of a hidden city in South America, full of treasures and uncountable quantities of gold. The lure of these vast riches sent many explorers looking for it. The journey was difficult and dangerous and even resulted in death for some.

The Europeans came to know about it in the 16th century and thus many Spanish explorers went looking for this ‘golden’ city. The Europeans heard the tale from the locals who were quite sure the stories about a city built with gold were actually true.

There is also a theory that states that the original legend came from the Chibcha people, which was an isolated tribe in modern day Columbia. These people are said to be a mining society that possessed gold and emeralds and lived in a well-built. These people had a custom in which they covered their chief in Balsam gum and blew gold dust on him with straws, which made him look like a golden statue. This was part of an initiation ceremony, in which, after being covered with this gold dust, he was then put on a raft with other riches and treasures like gold coins, precious stones, etc. The chief-to-be then dived into Lake Guatavita, which is located near Bogota, Columbia. This ritual was performed to please the goddess the people worshipped.

Then, at the end of the 1400s, these people were defeated by another race and this practice ended. But the stories of these strange people lived on.

When the Spanish took over the rule of the land, they heard about El Dorado, which means ‘the gilded one’, ruler of the city of gold. The Spanish conquerors really believed this local legend and also believed that some rebels who were Incas, had escaped their conquest and had their own empire, which had vast riches. Their assumption was that these people were hiding somewhere in a place that is now known as Venezuela. They searched far and wide for this lost city of gold and even sent five expeditions but did not find El Dorado.

In 1540, the governor of Quito in northern Ecuador, Gonzalo Pizzaro heard of this city of gold too from the natives and got together a group of 340 soldiers and approximately 4,000 Indians. The expedition ended in tragedy as soldiers and Indians died of hunger and disease, and attacks from natives in the jungles.

The legend was further endorsed by an explorer named Juan Martinez, who did his own bit of exploring by going further into this dangerous land and claimed he had seen a golden city by the name of ‘Manoa’.

According to him, while he and his men were on their journey in the deepest parts of the jungle, their storage of gunpowder exploded. His men blamed him for the accident and abandoned him in the strange place. Here, he said, he was found by friendly Indians who blindfolded him and took him to their kingdom of gold called ‘Manoa’. He alleged that the Indians gave him gifts but other natives stole these while he was coming back.

Martinezs story had a great effect on Sir Walter Raleigh in 1595, and he too set out on an expedition to South America. For months he looked for this legendary city of gold but never found it. What he did find was the anchor from Martinezs ship. This was proof that Martinezs story had some credence but that was all.

However, the Spanish did find a lot of gold among the natives around the coast and they really believed that there might have been such a place. Moreover, they found Lake Guatavita and almost drained it in 1545 where they found hundreds of pieces of gold around the edge of the lake. However, the magnificent treasure they had heard of was not found. Meanwhile, the legends about the ancient city of gold live on as the Incas did not place much value to gold, therefore temples have been found covered with a lot of gold, even gardens and statues of pure gold were found and taken over by the Spanish conquerors.

While sailing the Americas, Christopher Columbus had seen a lot of gold among the natives. In other words, gold was an easily available commodity in ancient South America and was used for decoration by the tribes. But El Dorado still remains lost, only to be likened to other difficult and unattainable tasks. Like the tale of a ‘gallant knight’ in a poem by Edger Allen Poe, in which the character spends his entire life searching for El Dorado.

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