Anyone who set off across the sea in the 15th or 16th century, whether to the west or east, had a good chance of not returning alive. Scurvy, disease and hunger raged among the passengers and crews of the ships and those who made it to their destination still had little chance of surviving for long. Those who arrived in Batavia, Indonesia, died within three years, according to statistics. Columbus’ first settlement in the New World, La Isabella on Hispaniola, was abandoned just three years later as the settlers starved to death and died of scurvy.
Who made such travels took this upon himself under the promise of an enormous profit. And as far as the Spaniards were concerned, this hoped-for profit was primarily called precious metals. They found gold and they also found silver in the legendary Potosi Mountain. The cargoes of such shipwrecks, as the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which was plundered near Portugal in 2007, and the San José in Columbia, which still today calls treasure hunters on the plan, illustrate impressively the extent of Spanish profits.
In their quest for wealth, the European conquerors also found legends that made them penetrate ever further into the interior of the American continent. One of these legends was that of El Dorado, ‘the Golden one’. While various cartoons and films today portray El Dorado as a mythical city, it was more likely a human being.
‘El Dorado’ denoted initially the tribal leader (zipa) of the Muisca people, who were at the time of the early days of colonization, just as highly developed as the Incas. The Muisca lived on the Altiplano Cundiboyacense in Colombia. In the mythology of the Muisca, Mnya, the golden color represented the Trinity of Chiminigagua, which personified the creative power of all that exists.
In a initiation rite new rulers were therefore covered with gold dust. The first narrative of the ritual can be found in the overflowing chronicle of El Carnero by Juan Rodriguez Freyle. According to Freyle, the Zipa of the Muisca was covered with gold dust at Guatavita Lake near today’s Bogotá, which he then washed off in the lake while his companions threw items of gold, emeralds and gems into the lake. Since similar water sacrifices were made in several Latin American waters and are also known from Europe, this narrative is completely credible.
In 1638, Freyle wrote the following account of the ritual known since the first Spanish conquests in the 16th century, based on accounts of Don Juan, the nephew of the last ruler of the Guatavita region:
“The Ceremony took place on appointment of a new ruler. Before his inauguration he retreated for some time into a cave, without women, without eating salt and without being allowed to go out in daylight. The first journey he made was to go to the great lagoon of Guatavita in order to meet the demon, whom they worshipped as their God and Lord, to offer sacrifices and offerings. During the ceremony, which took place on the lagoon, they made a raft of rushes, and decorated it with the most marvellous possessions they had. They laid four lit braziers on top of them, in which they placed much moque, that is the incense of these locals, as well as resin and many other scents. The lagoon was large and deep, so that a ship with high sidewalls, loaded with an infinity of the
Men and women dressed in fine feathers, golden plaques and crowns could travel on it. As soon as the people on the raft began to burn incense, they also lit braziers on the shore, so that the smoke hid the daylight.
Now they stripped the heir to the throne stark naked and anointed him with a sticky earth on which they laid gold dust so that he was completely covered with this metal. They laid him on the raft…. and at his feet they laid a large amount of gold and emeralds that he could offer to their god. In the raft with him went four chieftains adorned with feathers, crowns, bracelets, pendants and gold earrings. They too were naked, and each of them wore offering…. When the raft reached the center of the lagoon, they hoisted a banner as a signal that silence had to reign.
The gold-plated Indian …. then threw the whole pile of gold out into the middle of the lake, and the chieftains who had accompanied him did the same in their own way. … Then they lowered the flag, which had been maintained throughout the sacrifice, and as the raft moved to the shore, screaming began, with pipes, flutes and large groups of singers and dancers. With this ceremony the new ruler was received and recognized as lord and king.
This is the ceremony that became the famous Eldorado that cost so many lives and fortunes.”
The Guatavita Lagoon is well known. It is located two hours by car from Bogota at about 3050 m above sea level. It has similar characteristics to Lake Titicaca, Lake Laguna del Nevado de Toluca or Lake Atilan in Guatemala, all of which contain important underwater heritage sites. It is a crater-like lake in which archaeological objects are still found today. Recently, amber has been discovered in it, which stands out because this type of amber is otherwise not available in Latin America.
The legends around El Dorado changed over time, when it was reinterpreted from man to city, to kingdom and finally to empire.
Rumours therefore soon led to several unsuccessful expeditions in search of a town called Manõa on the shores of Lake Parime. Two of the most famous of these expeditions were led by Sir Walter Raleigh. In search of the legend, Spanish conquerors and numerous others searched Colombia, Venezuela, parts of Guyana and northern Brazil for the city and its fabulous king. In the course of these explorations, a large part of the of North America, including the Amazon was mapped. Only Alexander von Humboldt finally proved that the town of El Dorado on Parime Lake did not exist.
So the holy lake Guatavita remained. While the Spaniards may have known its existence as early as 1531, its location was not discovered until 1537 by the conqueror Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada on an expedition to the highlands of the eastern mountain ranges of the Andes.
The conquistadors Lázaro Fonte and Hernán Perez de Quesada tried in 1545 (unsuccessfully) to drain the lake with a “bucket chain” of workers. After 3 months the water level had been lowered by 3 meters and only a relatively small amount of gold worth about 100,000 USD was recovered.
A later, more eager attempt was made in 1580 by the Bogotá entrepreneur Antonio de Sepúlveda. A deep indentation was dug into the edge of the lake, which made it possible to lower the water level by 20 metres before it collapsed, killing many of the workers. A part of the finds made despite these efforts – consisting of various gold ornaments, jewelry and armor – was sent to King Philip II of Spain. In 1801 Alexander von Humboldt visited Guatavita and calculated from Sepúlveda’s results that Guatavita could contain up to 300 million dollars of gold. An assumption that interested even more treasure hunters for the Indian cultural heritage…
In 1898 a company for the use of the Guatavita lagoon was founded and taken over by Contractors Ltd. in London. The lake was drained through a tunnel and drained to a depth of approximately 1.80 metres. However, the mud on the bottom made it impossible to explore the lake further. Worse still, when it was dried in the sun, it became as hard as stone. Findings worth only about £500 were recovered and auctioned at Sotheby’s in London. Some of them were donated to the British Museum.
In 1965 the Colombian Government declared the lake a protected area in accordance with the Colombian Constitution, which prohibits the exploitation of cultural heritage for commercial purposes. Private salvage operations, including attempts to drain the lake, are therefore illegal today, although a relatively new law has reopened the door to the exploitation of underwater cultural heritage by treasure hunters. Let us hope, that one day the lake will be object of scientific research however. Just as we hope the same for the San José shipwreck near Cartagena, which treasure hunters still greedily eye.