The gold of the Americas
Dreams of El Dorado: searching for the gold of Cipangu (Japan) Columbus arrives in Hispaniola in 1492, shown here receiving imaginary gold gifts.
This story starts not in America, but in Asia. Dreams of gold born from legends and myths, from reading Marco Polo's description of foreign lands where “the King's palace is roofed with pure gold, and his floors are paved in gold two fingers thick” would lit the imagination and sent Columbus on a quest to Cipangu, that is Japan.
In return for the great dangers of crossing the sea, Columbus asked for a share of 10% of the riches of the new lands, “that of all and every kind of merchandise, whether pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices, and other objects and merchandise whatsoever, of whatever kind, name and sort, which may be bought, bartered, discovered, acquired and obtained within the limits of the said Admiralty, Your Highnesses grant from now henceforth to the said Don Cristóbal... the tenth part of the whole, after deducting all the expenses which may be incurred therein”.
Hernán Cortés and the gold of the Aztecs
For the first thirty years of the discovery of the New World, Columbus promises “to make as short story of the profits of this voyage, I promise, with such small helps as our invincible Majesties may afford me, to furnish them with all the gold they need” seemed to only be based on illusions.
Until Hernán Cortés, with 600 men and their 15 horses landed.
The envoys of Aztec Emperor Moctezuma told him they would supply anything he needed. Cortés inquired if Moctezuma had any gold, and was told, yes, indeed. Cortés asked “send me some of it, because I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart that can be cured only with gold”.
Having seized an Empire and proved the New World was a land of riches, the attention turned to Peru.
Francesco Pizarro and the gold of the Incas
Pizarro captured Emperor Atahualpa. In exchange for his life he offered that “he would fill with gold a room, and that he would twice fill another, with silver, as his ransom”. Faced with incredulity, Atahualpa added that “he would not merely cover the floor, but would fill the room with gold as high as he could reach”.
Back in Spain officials already described a “torrent of gold”, but there had to be more.
El Dorado was like a mirage, somewhere out on the horizon. The land of gold was over the next mountain, further through the jungle, or down the river. From coast to coast, North to South, treasure seekers died of disease, hunger and exhaustion in their hundreds.
Searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola explorers traveled in modern day Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Kansas, pursuing mirages in a barren and dry landscape. Neither gold or fabled cities were found, just a natural treasure, the Grand Canyon.
El Dorado - legend & truth
The expectations for gold cities was such that a critic said “I do not believe that any of those who took part in this expedition would have taken so much trouble to get into Paradise”.
Or in the words of an Aztec witness when Cortés' men received gold treasures “the Spaniards burst into smiles; their eyes shone with pleasure; they were delighted by them. They picked up the gold and fingered it like monkeys; they seemed to be transported by joy, as if their hearts were illuminated and made new. The truth is that they longed and lusted for gold. Their bodies swelled with greed, and their hunger was ravenous; they hungered like pigs for that gold”.
Yet the real El Dorado had actually been found : lake Guatavita, an extinguished volcano shaped like a natural amphitheater where the chief of Guatavita, covered in gold powder (therefore El Dorado, the Golden One), threw gold, emeralds and treasures as an offering to the lake.
It did not meet expectations, so the explorers kept on going. But of all the legends that brought the Conquistadors to search over thousands of miles for gold treasures, it was the only truthful one.
This is a preview of the chapter about the quest for El Dorado, the gold of the Americas, from the book Lost Treasures.