The Legend Of El Dorado: One Man’s Obsession With Finding A City Made Of Gold

We investigate the remarkable story behind a mythical South American city.

Words by Jack Clayton

When you think of El Dorado, what springs to mind? For some, it’s the legendary city made of gold; for others, a moderately famous Disney film (about a legendary city of gold, we hasten to add). Whatever springs to mind, it’s fairly remarkable that you’ve even heard of it at all.

But that’s what us humans do, isn’t it? We put legs on far-fetched fictions, and make them run for centuries upon centuries without ever letting them pause for breath and rub the cramp out of their muscles. This ability, this total unwillingness to let stories burn out and die, is what sets us apart from the animals.

One man, from an English perspective at least, has become synonymous with the idea of El Dorado.

One man, from an English perspective at least, has become synonymous with the idea of El Dorado. His name, preceding knighthood included, Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh is widely considered to be one of the most notable figures of the Elizabethan era. Writer, poet, soldier, politician, courtier, spy, adventurer, landed gentleman and explorer; he really was a 16th century Jack-of-all-trades. If something needed doing, or something exciting was happening (like an expedition to discover a legendary city made of gold, for example), you could bet your fanciest pair of breeches that Raleigh would be all over it with his elaborate facial hair and excessively puffy clothing.

Born in either 1552 or 1554, depending on which source you believe, he grew up near the sea in a Devon farmhouse. Walter was the youngest of five sons born to Catherine Champernowe. Growing up by the shore, he would listen to the stories of experienced sailors and marvel at their exciting adventures. It’s not too much of a stretch to believe that it was in these formative years that Raleigh developed a thirst for exploration. His childhood is beautifully portrayed in a famous painting by John Everett Millais.

Raleigh became fascinated by the idea of it; seduced by the gold, and by the legend of it.

Raleigh’s family was deeply Protestant in religious orientation, and had a number of narrow escapes during the brutal reign of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary I (aka “Bloody Mary”). One of the most significant of these escapes,  involved Raleigh’s father hiding in a tower to avoid execution. When you consider that Queen Mary burned religious dissenters at the stake, 280 of them in total, it’s fair to say that his dad had a lucky escape. As a result of these persecutions, Raleigh developed a hatred of Roman Catholicism (the religion of England’s European rival, Spain).

In 1569, his love for Protestantism drove him to fight for the Huguenots in the French religious civil wars (pretty reckless when you consider he was somewhere between the age of 15 and 17, at the time). Following on from this, he spent the majority of his young adult life living in Ireland and squashing rebellions. For his part in crushing the Desmond Rebellions, Raleigh received an impressive 40,000 acres (160 km2) of Munster-based land. Not bad for a lad from Devon, albeit one connected to royalty through his great-aunt Katherine Ashley (governess and friend to Elizabeth I).

The early 1580s saw Raleigh’s stock rise massively, and he became a firm favourite of Queen Elizabeth I due to his work increasing the Protestant Church’s influence in Ireland. In 1585, he was knighted and made Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall (as well as Vice-Admiral of Devon and Cornwall). Raleigh, now officially a “Sir”, represented Devonshire in parliament and was also granted the right to colonise America. To misuse and misquote that World Cup 2006 football song by Embrace, at the time Raleigh really did have the world at his feet (even if his outfit choices seem a little strange by modern standards – see image).

A year earlier, in 1584, the beginnings of Raleigh’s exploratory and adventure-filled later years began to emerge when Queen Elizabeth granted him a royal charter that authorised him to explore, colonise, and rule any “remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries, and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince, nor inhabited by Christian People,” in return for one-fifth of any gold and silver that might be mined there. This offer of a 20% commission, from Her Majesty the Queen of England no less, will have been one of the main driving forces behind Raleigh’s obsession with finding El Dorado in later life. Because, let’s face it, if you can’t make people do it for the glory; you can probably make them do it for lots and lots of gold.

The Queen continued to pour favours upon Raleigh, including London’s seriously swish Durham House in 1592. The more you look at the events around this time, it’s no surprise to discover that some historians believe Elizabeth I held something of a flame for Raleigh. This idea is supported by what happened when Elizabeth discovered Raleigh had secretly married one of her ladies-in-waiting (Elizabeth Throckmorton); the furious Queen ordered Raleigh to be imprisoned and Throckmorton to be dismissed from court. It would be a whole year, with intervening prison time before Raleigh got back to some sense of normality. The married pair stayed loyal to each other, and went on to have two sons (Walter and Carew).

In 1594, Sir Walter Raleigh came upon the story of El Dorado. Maybe Raleigh didn’t realise it at the time, maybe it took some weeks to sink in, but the Spanish account of a magnificent golden city at the headwaters of the Caroni River (in modern-day Venezuela) would change his life forever. Raleigh became fascinated by the idea of it; seduced by the gold, and by the legend of it. His thoughts became consumed by the myth, and in 1595 he set sail on behalf of Queen and country to claim El Dorado for himself.

Map: Parime Lacus//By Hessel Gerritsz (1625).

Raleigh aimed to reach Lake Parime, in the highlands of Guyana, which was a supposed location of El Dorado. Encouraged by the account of Spaniard Juan Martinez, who had taken part in Pedro de Silva’s search for El Dorado in 1570, Raleigh pressed on with a genuine belief that he would discover the legendary city made of gold. Martinez claimed, in his account, to have been captured by the Caribs of the Lower Orinocco (a South American tribe),  taken to the golden city with a blindfold across his eyes, “entertained” by the natives, and that he had been allowed to leave the city; only discovering later that he couldn’t remember how to get back.

Not a lot to go on, admittedly, but Raleigh was hooked on the Martinez story; convincing himself as the days went by that it must be true and that the city of gold was real. Would it be located round the upcoming river bend? Or behind that funny-shaped tree? Every piece of gold he discovered, whether it be on the riverbank or in some remote village, only strengthened his resolve. Did the obsession drive him to madness, and make him forget the comforts of home? Nobody can say for certain. What we do know is that Raleigh was a great believer in travelling into the unknown, and making it known as a result.

Raleigh was determined not to be beaten, and motivated himself by thoughts of beating the Spanish who he despised for their connections to Roman Catholicism (and Queen Mary I). Not only did he want to lay claim to El Dorado before the Spanish, he also wanted to develop an English presence in the Southern Hemisphere that could compete with that of Spain’s.

Spain had become the envy of the European elite for the way they had colonised large parts of the Americas and taken great wealth from it. Their method of doing so had often been brutal and bloody, with the massacre in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan regularly cited as an example. Of course, European royalty conveniently overlooked these “indiscretions”; well aware that a noble moral stance wouldn’t pay the bills and that finger-pointing wouldn’t help diplomatic relations.

Unfortunately, and with much disappointment in his heart, Raleigh was unable to find El Dorado. He was forced to head back to England, defeated by a legend that was always tantalisingly out of reach. Once back on home soil, Raleigh published ‘The Discovery of Guiana’. It was an account of his voyage, and his exploration of South America, which has been criticised by many in recent years for the exaggerated claims contained within it.

Historians feel this book has only added to the legendary status of El Dorado; a fictional place made real by the people desperate for it to be something more than a myth. Claims that Raleigh discovered gold mines and Angel Falls for example, although not impossible, are not supported by enough evidence to be considered likely.

...the legend of El Dorado became more than just a man; it became a city, a kingdom, an empire.

After returning to England, he managed to rekindle favour with Queen Elizabeth I through his actions in various military operations. Unfortunately, when Queen Elizabeth I died Raleigh found himself locked up for a perceived role in a bid to replace King James I with the more strongly protestant Arabella Stuart. He was imprisoned in 1603, and stayed imprisoned until 1616. Travel, exploration, and the great world beyond his bars though were never far from Raleigh’s mind, especially the golden city of El Dorado, and while inside he found time to write ‘The Historie of the World’.

In 1617, Raleigh was given a second shot at exploring Venezuela and finding El Dorado. He was 64 by this point, and certainly no spring chicken. However, another chance to find the golden city that had haunted his dreams for so long was too good a chance to turn down and, besides, it certainly beat spending another year in the can. Raleigh was released from his prison, and set out on another voyage.

The hunt for the golden city of El Dorado had taken another life, and the expedition was abandoned soon after.

It did not, it’s fair to say, go according to plan. During the expedition, Rayleigh’s men, who were under the command of his friend Lawrence Kaymis attacked a Spanish outpost on the Orinoco River. This was in direct violation of peace treaties that had been made with Spain. Tragically, Raleigh’s son (also called Walter, and also on the expedition) was fatally shot. It is said that Keymis broke the news to Sir Walter, and begged him for forgiveness. He did not receive any, and committed suicide pretty much on the spot. The hunt for the golden city of El Dorado had taken another life, and the expedition was abandoned soon after.

Raleigh returned to England, broken and defeated. An outraged Spanish ambassador, Count Gondomar, demanded that Raleigh face a death sentence for the breaking of the peace treaty. King James I agreed to this in the hope it would ease tensions between the nations, and Raleigh was transferred from Plymouth to London. Despite having numerous chances to escape, a mournful Raleigh turned them down; choosing instead to face the executioner’s axe.

Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded at the Palace of Westminster on the 29th of October 1618. After requesting to see the weapon that would end his life, Raleigh said: “This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases and miseries.” His biographers believe his final words, as he braced himself for the “medicine”, were: “Strike, man, strike!”

While the golden city of El Dorado, which was dismissed as a complete myth at the start of the 19th century, was never found by Raleigh or the countless explorers who went looking for it; the work that went into trying to discover it resulted in the mapping of the South American continent (dramatically changing our perception of the earth, in the process). If Raleigh, and the other gold-hungry adventurers who went searching for El Dorado, were alive today they might just find a shred of comfort in this world-altering silver-lining

So, what was El Dorado then? What lay at the heart of this enduring mystery?  After all, there’s no smoke without fire. Well, with that in mind, you might be interested to discover that El Dorado is Spanish for “the golden one” and that El Dorado wasn’t actually a city at all; it was a man.

El Dorado was believed to be a tribal chief of the Muisca people of Colombia. As an initiation rite, “the golden man” (as he was also known) would cover himself in gold dust and dive into Lake Guatavita in order to appease the gods. Word spread of this tribal chief and through excitable hear-say, and whispered rumours, the legend of El Dorado became more than just a man; it became a city, a kingdom, an empire.

400 years since the words ‘El Dorado’ enraptured Sir Walter Raleigh to the point of obsession, and near madness, we still talk about its legend as if it actually means something; as if it’s still relevant. And in an age where social media, and smartphones in particularly, have reduced our attention spans to mere microseconds that really is something to write home about. Of course, the story of El Dorado is very much of its time; a legend forged by the perceived other-worldliness of South America during the 16th century and by the greed of European explorers who wanted to take advantage of it.

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