by Ken Puddicombe
A search for El Dorado results in 283,000 hits in Google!
Including El Dorado Rum (famous in Guyana and North America); El Dorado Park; El Dorado hotels and numerous resorts; Movies set against the backdrop of a search for El Dorado. There is an El Dorado park in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. Even El Dorado Cannabis seeds now in the 21st Century!
The search for wealth and riches goes on, as it has from the very inception of the legend in the early 1500’s when Spanish conquistadores heard tales of an Amazonian king who often coated his body with gold dust and was showered with gold and jewels by his subjects. El Dorado—Spanish for Giilded One is the appropriate name the Spaniards came up with. As legends often do, this one swiftly developed from its embryonic stage to one where the entire country in the legend was paved with gold. Over the centuries that followed it attained a life of its own and has been used generically for any place that promises vast riches, abundance of wealth, or opportunity. It is also the name of actual cities in the Americas, like Kansas and Arkansas—Marketers love to use the myth!
England’s famous Sir Walter Raleigh is often the name most associated with the legendary city of gold. His objective of finding the city of El Dorado, which he suspected was an actual city named Manoa on Lake Parima in the highlands of the Guianas, led him on his first expedition in 1595. He didn’t succeed in his quest for gold and in the following year 1596 he sent his lieutenant Lawrence Kemys back to the Guianas in the area of the Orinoco River to explore further for the lake and mythical city. Again, Kemys didn’t find gold but his voyage resulted in a valuable mapping of the area with geological and botanical reports of the country, along with a sort of enumeration of the Amerindian tribes. This would prove invaluable for future British colonial aspirations.
Raleigh’s trip was followed by a number of other explorers, determined to find this mythical city of gold, most notably the Harcourt brothers, Robert and Michael who sailed for Guiana in 1609 and took possession of the area between the rivers Amazon and Essequibo (the Cinderella County western-most in what is now Guyana and bordering Venezuela which has laid claim to most of Essequibo) in the name of the English King, James VI. This would establish British claims to the area and prove invaluable in later conflicting counterclaims by Spain and its colony Venezuela. These claims exist to current times. Sir Thomas Roe made a similar trip in 1611 in search of lake Parima—sailed up the Amazon for approximately 320 kilometres but found no city lined with gold.
Raleigh was determined though, convinced that the city existed, and he mounted another expedition in 1617, with his son Watt Raleigh and his lieutenant Kemys. But time was against Raleigh—he was 65—fairly old for that era and he remained in camp on the island of Trinidad while Kemys and the younger Raleigh went on. In this expedition, Watt was killed by Spaniards while Kemys committed suicide later. The older Raleigh didn’t fare better on his return to England as he was beheaded in 1618 by King James for acting contrary to orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.
But the search for mythical city of El Dorado predates Raleigh by almost a century. At the heart of it is a rite-of-passage ceremony by the Muisca peoples of Central Columbia, as written by different Spanish chroniclers who arrived there in the early 16th century. They wrote about this ceremony of El Dorado where, when the selected new leader, typically the nephew of the previous chief, would go through a long initiation process ending with him heading out on a raft on the sacred water like Lake Guatavita in Central Columbia. In this ceremony, the heir stripped naked and covered with mud and powdered gold, would make offerings of gold objects and precious stones by throwing them into the lake. Around the lake, richly adorned spectators played music and committed to allegiance to the new leader, shouting approval from the lakeshore.
In the century following Raleigh’s execution, Europeans continued to probe the existence of the famed city of gold. The English crown was not left behind in these endeavours. 1627 saw two Englishmen, North and Harcourt obtaining letters patent from Charles I and forming a company to create the Plantation of Guiana and the start of trade between the new colony and mother England. In the following decade, two monks, Acana and Fritz journeyed to what is now Roraima in the Guianas but found no evidence of El Dorado for their efforts. The Dutch refused to be left behind and they commissioned Nicholas Horstman, a German surgeon with Dutch assistants to travel up the Essequibo River where he discovered Lake Amucu in the North Rupununi. Spanish governors sent Nicholas Rodriguez and Antonio Santos between 1775-1780 up the Caroni River where they reached the Pakaraima Mountains. By the end of the century famed explorer Alexander von Humboldt did his own surveys of the Guyana river basins and lakes and concluded that the seasonally flooded confluence of rivers was probably what had inspired the mythical Lake Parima and the golden city of El Dorado on its shore. And none of these explorers found any gold.
The legend continues…
POSTSCRIPT: The price of gold today: $2,560 (CAD) ounce. A premium bottle of El Dorado 750ml 50-year old rum cost over $6,000 (CAD). At 25 ounces this works out to $240 an ounce. Gold still holds its lustre!
SOURCES: Wikipedia; British Museum