Thursday 20 December 2007

The Legend of “El Dorado”

By Sue-Ann Gomes, published in “Book of Trinidad”, Paria Publishing 1989

The legend of El Dorado begins with gold, the precious metal eagerly sought after by man for centuries. Civilizations the world over have fought and conquered each other in the pursuit of gold. In the new world men will give their lives to behold the ever illusive city of El Dorado, the city of gold. Whole native civilization have been wiped out in the feverish search for the precious commodity. The arrival of Christopher Columbus into the new world opened the flood gate for the host of treasure seekers who descended into the new world to fulfill their burning desire for gold.

The exploitation and ravaging of the Indies for treasure lasted for centuries, the Conquistadores, and pirates alike relentlessly searching for the fabled cities built entirely of gold, and the golden men said to exist in the steaming, seething jungles of South and Central America. The Conquistadores dauntless iron clad men, heroically battled against nature itself to win the golden civilization for the Spanish Crown. They were told by the Amerindians of the vast riches to be found up the Orinoco; they were told of "El Dorado". These tales fuelled the raging fire that burned deep into the souls of the early Conquistadores. The fear of the savage jungles filled with mammoth dangers flickered dim against the unquenchable vision of the golden city of "El Dorado".

The Europeans came to the West, led only by dreams, ignorant and unprepared, having neither sufficient supplies nor men. They came with horses and they came in armor. However they were soon to learn of the perils of the jungle, the vast flatlands filled with miles of grass, the scorching heat, the rivers that appeared like oceans, the snakes that were mistaken for logs, the jaguars, the swamp, the twenty-foot long crocodiles that lay in wait and moved with lightning speed. Many soldiers died, quickly succumbing to strange jungle fevers. They were bitten by bats and tiny insects laid eggs in their flesh. They met the horrors of hell head on, wholly unprepared for the relentless wrathful form it displayed itself in. They journeyed up the Orinoco, they went into the Andes, it grew very cold, they died of pneumonia.

Apart from the elements, many Indian tribes waged war with these tall, fair men dressed in iron. The few Amerindian tribes who welcomed the Europeans were interrogated about the golden ornaments they wore, and the cups of pure gold from which they drank. The strangers were told of the men of gold of the sacred golden lakes that were to be found higher up river. And the Europeans never considered the possibility of ritual, or the distortion of the Indian's stories, they listened to only what they wanted to hear - gold and El Dorado.

So it was that the Spaniards were convinced of the existence of untold wealth waiting to be tapped just higher up the Orinoco. This idea was even further concretised with Pizarro's and Cortes' discovery of Mexico and Peru and the enormous treasures found in those lands. The Spaniards wished to secure the newly found and untapped wealth of the Indies. Trinidad therefore became a very strategic position, it became the port of the Spaniards, the starting point for the journey up the Orinoco river. It would be these Spaniards who would lay the foundation for the development of Trinidad and Tobago for they brought their laws and government in the form of Trinidad's Illustrious Cabilldo, however this would not happen for another several hundred years. Trinidad would be used merely as a stepping stone for the many heroic men who would die filled with the passion of conquering the splendid treasures of the golden city - El Dorado.

Ever since the first discoveries of the Indies, there has been talk of the provinces called El Dorado and it has been said that they are peopled by great numbers of Indians and contain vast riches and are very prosperous.

In the year 1531, Don Diego de Ordas, Knight of the Order of Santiago, attempted to make an entry into these lands in the hope of discovering them and having the Faith extended there. But nothing came of it and no better success attended the efforts of others who continued this enterprise until Captain Antonio de Berrio undertook it by virtue of the agreement made with him as to the discovery of the lands lying between the two rivers, Pauto and Papamene, at the exit of the New Kingdom of Granada.

He began to enter and to discover, so they say, the said lands called El Dorado. He travelled as far as the Island of Margarita and founded a settlement in the Island of Trinidad whence he intended to form an expedition and enter the said El Dorado by way of the Orinoco to Guayana.

From Trinidad he sent his Maestro de Campo, Domingo de Ibargoyen y Vera, to give an account of the whole matter to the King, Our Lord, that he might achieve this glory and to obtain men, arms and ammunition. In the year 1596 orders were given for a thousand settlers consisting of 600 bachelors and 400 married men with their wives and children to be supplied to the said Maestro de Campo. His Majesty also thought well to make a loan to the said Antonio de Berrio from his Royal Treasury with which to buy and fit out a number of fly boats to convey the said men and supplies and other things for which he had asked.

With all this the said Domingo de Vera set out from these Kingdoms for the Island of Trinidad. When he arrived there with these people, his lack of foresight and his bad government were such that the greater part were wasted and perished without having achieved any of the objects for which they were sent and without having gained any positive knowledge of what these lands contained, for their opinions differed.

The said Antonio de Berrio having died in the year 1597, his son Fernando who succeeded him, remained there, having with him the said Domingo de Vera and the remanants of the people who escaped. They are still insisting on continuing the exploration of these lands and for that purpose have asked the Governor of Venezuela to help them with cattle and other supplies. He writes to report that he is sending them and approves of this venture.

During the time when the said Domingo de Vera was in these Kingdoms and Antonio de Berrio was waiting in the Island of Trinidad, some English arrived there and landed and entered by the Orinoco River. They left an Englishman in the country whom our men afterwards captured there and who was sent to Seville and on to this Court. He had remained there as a hostage for certain Indians whom the English had taken away intending to bring them back and return and settle in these lands.

Ever since this, the Council has taken great pains to find out whether the enemy had found an entrance to these lands by way of the Orinoco and they regard this as of great importance still.

According to the letters of Alvaro Mendez de Castro, an honourable man known to the Council, written from Lisbon and enclosed herewith with a Castilian translation of a report which he also sent, the English have discovered a land between Brazil and Peru which they call Guiana. This is a land rich in gold into which, according to the said Alvaro Mendez de Castro, the English have entered by the River Maranon and are taking away much gold. Certain things in the Flemish reports seem to corroborate the accounts of the discovery of Guayana, or El Dorado, brought by the Maestro de Campo. If the enemy should settle and people it this would be very dangerous and much expense would be required to drive them out.

The Council having taken these matters into consideration together with the inferences which are to be drawn from the papers sent by the said Alvaro Mendez de Castro, it has seemed fitting that endeavour should be made to find out the exact truth of the matter which can be determined by writing to all the Governors of the districts and provinces contained in the said reports, and in the discoveries of Antonio de Berrio, requiring them to use their utmost endeavours to ascertain what truth there is in these claims, for the Indians of their districts are in communication with all the others.

The Council is also of the opinion that the Governor of Brazil should be required to enquire and advise us of any information which exists there about these provinces and those bordering them and whether any English, French or Flemish have made any entrance through those parts and if so, in what place and whether any have remained, in what numbers and with what defenses. Likewise it appears that it would be well to send two intelligent persons by sea and land who should go in a vessel for the special purpose to ascertain the truth of this matter as well by sea as by land. They should bring a very particular account of every detail whereby better deliberation may be made as to what should be provided in a matter of this urgent importance. In any case it would be necessary to put into some measure of defense, that part of Trinidad where the enemies usually come and are accustomed to use as a port in order to pass to the River Orinoco which is the principal entrance for El Dorado which has been so far discovered.

News has now come that 12 ships from England are going there which may result in great trouble unless in the meantime all possible measures for defense have been resolved and executed. It would be very helpful to all if the decision which was reached many days ago, to send the Armadilla to the Islands of Barlovento, was put into effect. May it please Your Majesty to consider this report and provide what is necessary.

Madrid, 30th January, 1599. ENDORSED.

On things concerning El Dorado. Let every effort be made promptly to secure a thorough investigation into the whole matter contained in this report recommending it to the attention of intelligent and trustworthy persons. As regards the fortification of the Island of Trinidad, it would be well for the Council to say how, when and how much is necessary and to whom this can be entrusted. As to the Armadulla, when the ships which are now being fitted out for patrol work during the coming summer have sheltered for the winter, the most convenient method may be considered and orders given accordingly.

A Report by the Council of the Indies to the King, Madrid, January 30th, 1599.

Report of the Discovery of ElDorado by Domingo de Vera, 1595 Madrid.

For 70 years in those parts many Captains with many people, horses and cattle have sought on many occasions to find the entrance to these New Provinces because of the reports by neighbouring Indians of their great size, fertility and riches, but without avail because of the surrounding mountains which are very high and steep and of the large rivers which surround it and which may more properly be described as fresh water seas. At last our Commander in the year 1593 conceded this venture to me, the Maestro de Campo, as general of this expedition. With 35 soldiers I found the way very easily and without difficulty and got through into the lands which in these parts are called Guayana, a matter of 35 leagues, in which I saw many large settlements of Indians of good disposition and well built who, both men and women, went naked, only covered in the parts which one does not honestly mention. The country is healthy, temperate and pleasant. It is fertile for the products of the Indies and above all is well favoured and covered with eternal forest. There is much game and fish and in all parts that I have seen, it is well suited for recreation and pleasure. It is very rich in gold and the Indians are ready to show me the place whence they get it but I said that my journey was not to seek gold (so as not to appear avaricious nor to let them know) but only to make friends with the people of these lands. I only took 17 pieces of worked gold which I sent to His Majesty and three battle axes of stone which alone they showed me. Though these people are barbarians they do not lack ability to give that up if good priests were sent to them. They told me that 7 days further on there is endless quantity of gold;

that in these mines no one may take it but the Caciques and their women and that it is collected with great superstition, first fasting for 3 days. In the rivers they find much gold being able to take it anywhere only giving as tribute to the Cacique such nuggets as are as large as the grain of maize or larger. The people are amicable, courteous and liberal. They treated and supplied us well. As I had but few people, I returned to the Island of Trinidad whence I had gone at the order of our Captain General and Governor, Antonio de Berrio. This province bounds on the one side with Tierra Firma opposite to the Island of Trinidad, on another with the Government of Cumana, Margarita and Venezuela and also with the New Kingdom of Grenada and with the Government of Popayan and Quito. It is one of the nearest lands which have been discovered in the Indies so that one can go there from Spain in less than 30 days. Report on what may be expected by those who go on this expedition. It should be known that we go to settle and and occupy these provinces which are of the character described above and that we shall pacify and conquer. Our General and Governor is Antonio de Berrio, by facu lty and authority granted by His Majesty. He will divide the lands between us as was done in Peru anc Nw Spain which were settled in this way. If we pacify a province of 100 pueblos with 1,000, 2,000 or 10,000 Indians more or less, these pueblos will be granted to each according to his labour, merit and efficiency. These pueblos will be granted for three lives which are those of the conquistador, that of his son and his nephew.

These supply the rents which His Majesty and Ministers have decided and published and are in conformity with the riches, abundance or sterility of the lands.

The Indians fur their labour will gain instruction in the matters of Our Holy Faith and shelter and protection, as though our children, so that they may recognise and appreciate the great work which our Commander does in bringing them to the obedience and protection of His Majesty. From this, those who wish to go will learn that we intend to populate these lands and not to depopulate them; to develop them and not to exploit them; to control them and not destroy them. Those who do not accept this are warned that they will suffer the anger of God who has clearly shown that those who rob and maltreat the Indians, perish in the land they try to desolate and their riches, acquired by deceit and tyranny, are lost in the sea and their families perish and are forgotten. Of this at the present moment in the Indies, are obvious examples.

1577 Don José de Oruña founded what he called the City of San José (St. Joseph), 6 miles from Port-of-Spain.
1584 Don Antonio de Berrio was appointed Governor of Trinidad.
1595 Sir Robert Dudley in a vessel called the Bear, of 200 tons, together with 2 Caravels which he had captured off the island of Palma, entered the Gulf of Paria and landed at Trinidad were he remained 40 days.
1595 Sir Walter entered the Gulf by the Serpent's Mouth with two sails; they anchored off Punta de Gab; he afterwards caused his vessels to move further up the Gulf, and they anchored off Point La Brea where he caused his vessels to be newly paved with the pitch of the Lake.
1596 Captain Lawrence Keymis touched at Trinidad.

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