El Dorado was one of the most famous legends of all time. The myth of El Dorado has all the elements of a great story—riches, adventures, madness, and deaths. It also involves maps, for El Dorado became one of the longest lasting cartographic myths of all. The myth of El Dorado was in circulation for about 50 years before it appeared cartographically, but once it was “put on the map,” it didn’t disappear for almost three centuries.
The myth began as the story of El Hombre Dorado, that is the “golden man.” As with many legends, there was probably a factual basis underneath the layers of fiction which built up, though it is not certain what the facts of that basis are. It is known that the legend of El Hombre Dorado had its beginning in what are today the central Colombian highlands. In the early sixteenth century, it seems that the local Muisca or Chibcha Indians had some sort of ceremony involving their chief, Lake Guatavita, and at least some quantity of gold. The most common story is that a newly crowned chief was coated in gold dust before bathing in the lake.
In any case, sometime between 1535 and 1541, the Spanish heard rumors of El Hombre Dorado. The Spanish set out for the Lake Guatavita region but when they got there, they did not find El Hombre Dorado, in fact they found almost no gold even after several attempts to drain the lake. This did not make them happy, so they used every means of persuasion they knew of—most of which were violent—to try to get the local Indians to fess up about where the gold was. The Indians soon realized it was to their advantage to send the Spanish off somewhere else to look for gold, so they started telling them, in effect, “Oh, that El Hombre Dorado. Yes, we know where he is, over the mountains that way….”
Beginning in 1542, and lasting for about the next half century, the Spanish search for El Hombre Dorado worked its way slowly across the northern part of South America. From the Colombian highlands, down into the Amazonian basin and then into the grasslands to the east of the Andes, the search moved ever eastward.
At some point, the story began to morph in its content as well as location, for the search began to focus on a rich kingdom or city, rather than on a man, the legend becoming that of simply “El Dorado.” By the late sixteenth century, the Spanish became convinced that El Dorado—never where it was supposed to be, always “over that way,” —was located in one of the most inaccessible parts of South America, the Guiana highlands between the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers.
In 1584, Antonio de Berrio, who by then had received the royal governorship for El Dorado—should it ever be discovered—heard from Indians that there was a large lake—called Lake Parime after the Indian word for ‘big lake’—located in the Guiana highlands. Supposedly this lake was so big it took three days to paddle across and upon its shores was located a rich city called Manoa. To Berrio, this was obviously the legendary El Dorado, and stories he heard.
At this time another famous figure makes his appearance in our story, Sir Walter Ralegh, who convinced Queen Elizabeth that he could discover for her “a better Indies for Her Majestie then the King of Spain has any.” One of Ralegh’s captains had captured a Spanish report which detailed Berrio’s search for El Dorado, convincing Ralegh that here was a prize worth pursuing for his Queen. Ralegh set sail from England in 1595, captured Berrio and convinced him to tell all he knew of El Dorado. Berrio told him what he had come to believe and Ralegh bought the story hook, line and sinker, writing,
Despite several unsuccessful, subsequent expeditions in search of the golden kingdom, Ralegh remained undaunted and continued to try to convince the Queen to allow him to find and conquer El Dorado. In 1596 Ralegh published a book, The Discovery of a Large, Rich and Beautiful Empire of Guiana which included a full description of Manoa or El Dorado, conflating many of the old stories which had been told of this legendary place.
In 1603, after Queen Elizabeth died, her successor, James I—who was immune to Sir Walter’ charms—threw Raleigh into the Tower of London. Ralegh petitioned James to get out so he could continue his search for El Dorado. Eventually James was convinced enough to allow Ralegh out on this mission, but only on the condition that he not get into a fight with the Spanish. Ralegh set off for South America in 1617, and through a series of misfortunes—including battles with the Spanish resulting in the death of his son—returned to England a failure. James threw him back into prison and soon thereafter, at the urging of the King of Spain, Ralegh was beheaded; one of the last deaths directly related to the legend of El Dorado.
Though his search for the fabled golden city failed, Ralegh did manage to put El Dorado on the map for the first time. While his was working on his Discovery..of Guiana, he prepared a manuscript map perhaps originally intended for inclusion in that book. Ralegh’s map was never published, but a printed map showing El Dorado was issued in 1598 by Dutch cartographer Jodocus Hondius. Soon other maps followed showing the lake and the legendary city of gold.
Lake Parime and Manoa continued to be included on maps of northern South America even into the middle of the eighteenth century, though the lake took on different shapes and Manoa moved around a bit. However, by the early eighteenth-century doubts about the existence of Manoa and Lake Parime began to grow. Some of the more scientifically inclined, and thus skeptical, cartographers such as Vincenzo Maria Cornonelli and Guillaume Delisle either showed Manoa and the lake with notes calling them into question, or didn’t show the cartographic myth at all, instead just including a note mentioning its possible existence. By the late eighteenth century, most geographers had figured out that there wasn’t a city of gold in the region, for despite many years of searching, no evidence of Manoa or any other large and wealthy city had appeared. Eventually the idea of searching for “El Dorado” came have the connotation of a hopeless quest.
Interestingly, however, Lake Parime had taken on a life of its own. I guess people forgot that the lake was simply part of the legend of El Dorado, thinking that there was independent evidence for its existence. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a number of expeditions were sent out to find Lake Parime, all without success. However, the Guiana Highlands are especially inaccessible and as it is always harder to prove the non-existence of something than to prove that it does exist, so Lake Parime continued to appear on maps even after El Dorado itself had disappeared.
Still, the end of the eighteenth century was almost the end of this cartographic myth. From 1799 to 1804, German explorer and scientist Baron Alexander von Humboldt explored northern South America, in part looking for Lake Parime. His extensive survey of the region led him to conclude that the lake did not exist. Humboldt’s prestige was such that this tended to remove Lake Parime from most maps, but not all. Quite a number of maps, especially British ones, continued to show the lake even as late as 1875!