Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Search for El Dorado*

                      The Longest Wild Goose Chase in History

Europeans first heard of a magical, hidden city full of gold from the natives when they conquered the countries in South America in the sixteenth century. The search for this magical place was to fire the flames of imagination of some of the greatest explorers for the next few centuries.
The Spanish ordered at least five major expeditions to find the magical lost city, but each was to prove fruitless. One expedition was to lead to one of the greatest journeys ever carried out-the first complete journey from the source to the mouth of the mighty Amazon River.

In 1541 Gonzalo Pizarro together with his nephew Francisco de Orellana gathered about 350 soldiers and 4000 Indians, and set out to look for the elusive city. After attacks from hostile natives, hunger, disease, and desertions Pizarro quit, but ordered Orellana to continue his journey. Orellana continued and ended up following the course of the Amazon River until he eventually made it to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Incas were an advanced and sophisticated people who the Spanish had conquered in Peru. But they were also a highly intelligent people, who did their best to outwit the Spanish to protect their people and culture. Their magical, golden city did exist, but the Incas did what you or I would do to protect it. They subtly lured the Spanish in completely the opposite direction!! They planted exhausted natives delivering false messages to the Inca King, but who surprisingly ended up in the hands of the Spanish!
Orellana must have realized that he had been duped. If he did not, he seems to have survived the journey at the expense of his sanity. On returning to Spain he told fantastic tales of being attacked by giant women warriors called Amazons (wishful thinking is a wonderful thing!), encountering amazing walled cities, and organized farms. His exotic and fantastical tales further fuelled the flames of the legend of El Dorado. It was only many years later that we discovered that the women of the Amazon are surprisingly short, and there are no walled cities or organized farms in the Amazon, even today.

Sir Walter Raleigh, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite explorers, on her death found himself in the Tower of London, charged with treason in 1603. But Raleigh had a fantastic imagination and he eventually persuaded the new King James I that he knew where the legendary city was located, and would bring him back untold riches. The lure of the gold was too much for the new King who decided to give Raleigh a second chance.

So in 1618 Raleigh set out for the Americas. Raleigh encountered hostile Spaniards, hostile natives and hostile monsters from a tribe of headless, club-wielding warriors with eyes and mouths on their torsos. Raleigh had clearly lost his head, and when he returned to England empty-handed, King James ensured that he did. 

The secret of the whereabouts of this lost, magical and golden city would hold for a few hundred years yet.

 *The first in a four part series on The Search for El Dorado.

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