The Emeralds of El Dorado
In the lands of Cundinamarca was an Indian king who anointed his body with turpentine and, covered with gold dust, went to bathe in the lakes, while the priests offered their gods golden idols and emeralds by the handful.
The Knight of El Dorado
The Muisca (Chibcha) Indians were agriculturalists with the technological know-how to cast gold, weave textiles, and make pottery. They also mined and traded emeralds throughout Central and South America well before the Spaniards arrived. In 1537 Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada invaded Muisca territory, which was located in the central highlands of present-day Colombia. The conquistadores soon learned that the source of the Muisca’s emeralds was a place called Somondoco, a word that meant “God of green stones.” Today Somondoco is better known as Chivor.
According to Keller (1990), Colombia’s famous emeralds are located in two large mining districts: the high-altitude Chivor district, which is about 75 kilometers northeast of Bogotá; and the 360 square kilometer Muzo district, which is centered about 100 kilometers north of Bogotá. The Spanish worked the Muzo and Chivor mines with Indian slave labor. The inhumane treatment of the Muisca Indians was well-known and tolerated at the time. Punishments for the slightest infraction included racking, being set upon by dogs, and burning of the soles of the feet with hot horseshoes.
Later in life Quesada regretted the harsh treatment of the indigenous Indians and called for better governance of New Granada. With regard to the emerald mines, he knew from experience that exploitation only served to reduce output. According to Arciniegas: “Quesada maintained that the Indians knew more about working the emerald mines than the Spaniards did. If traditional methods of hunting stones were abandoned, there would be an end of the mines; they would be left destroyed and forgotten, and men who had always lived by trafficking in these stones would abandon that region. The coming of new arrivals into this business had been slow and inept. In order to set aside the king’s fifth [the crown’s typical percentage of the spoils], the royal officers took one stone out of every five, and many times that one was worth more than the other four put together. The lawyer [Quesada] proposed that the stones be put up at auction, and that the fifth be taken in the form of that due proportion of what the sale produced.”
The legend of El Dorado began in the 1530s, when Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada’s men first encountered the Muisca. The story was based on a sunrise ceremony in which the Muisca king, or high priest, coated his body with gold dust and then bathed in a sacred lake. The ceremony took place at Lake Guatavita, which is located high in the Andes about 50 kilometers north of Bogotá. The Muisca purportedly cast emeralds and other offerings into the lake during the ritual (Kuntz, 1915):
“It was also related that at these semi-annual festivals the Caciques [kings or high priests] and the principal chiefs, bearing valuable gifts of gold-dust and emeralds, were paddled out in canoes (or on rafts) to the exact middle of the lake, this point being determined by the intersection of two ropes stretching from four temples erected at four equidistant points on its banks. [Once they] arrived at this spot, the offerings were cast into the lake, and the Cacique of Guatavita, whose naked body had been coated with an adhesive clay, over which gold-dust was sprinkled in profusion, sprang into the water, and after washing off the gold-dust, swam to the shore. At the moment the ‘Golden Cacique’ made his plunge into the lake, the assembled people scattered along its banks turned their backs toward the water, shouted loudly, and threw their propitiatory offerings over their shoulders into the lake.”
Over time, the legend of El Dorado became increasingly exaggerated. It changed from a story about a golden priest to a tale of a magnificent city with streets made of gold. The legend also expanded to incorporate new locations and even greater treasures. The Muisca themselves were guilty of embroidering the stories because it encouraged the Europeans to depart—in haste—for places that promised greater riches.
According to Arciniegas: “King Bogotá, in order to rid himself of Quesada, pointed out that the emerald mines lay to the north, and the soldiers Pedro Fernández commanded went prowling around Somondoco until they stumbled on the nest of precious stones. Then an Indian woman told about a city, which was Tunja where the hut doors were hung with ‘great pieces of gold which strike against one another, chiming and making a noise’…In Tunja they said there was another city, Sogamoso where the temple of the sun was lined with sheets of gold and the floor covered with mats made of golden thread so that it shown brilliantly within.”
The legend of El Dorado tantalized European explorers for more than a century. Many adventurers, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Thomas Roe, Nicholas Horstman and Don Manuel Centurion among others, lead expeditions to discover it. Quesada himself made a last unsuccessful attempt to find El Dorado in 1569 when he was sixty-three years old.
A series of treasure hunters have attempted to mine Lake Guatavita for its fabled riches. Although most of these schemes met with limited success, Kuntz (1915) mentioned a lucrative 19th-century venture: “One of the early attempts at least resulted in the recovery of so much treasure that the Government’s three percent share is said to have amounted to $170,000.” It is now illegal to search the sacred lake for treasure.
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