News of the riches of Inca Peru began to reach the Caribbean ports during the 1530’s, and caused the Spanish colonists to wonder if there might be a land route southwards to the Pacific. Three expeditions, planned independently but destined to meet each other, were to explore Colombia.
Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada was second in command to the Governor of Santa Marta and proposed an exploration of the sources of the River Magdalene to find this land route and also the emerald mines which supplied the Tairona and the coastal tribes. He was accompanied by Juan de Castellanos, author of ‘Elegías de Varones Ilustres de Indias’.
Quesada’s plan was to send one party upstream by boat, carrying stores and provisions, while the main group would strike out overland to the river. With Quesada’s land party were a large number of Indian porters, with some six hundred soldiers, eighty-five horses, a little group of priests, and royal notaries to count the spoils. In the forests and swamps the expedition became bogged down and made slower progress, contending with flooded rivers, constant hunger, fever, insect pests, jaguars, snakes, and ‘alligators, which ... are fish some 10, 12, 15, 20 and more feet long, lizard shaped, and as ferocious as man-eating beasts or Wild Cannibals.’
Eventually the Spaniards reached the river at the native trading centre of Tamalameque, sacked only five years before by a German-led expedition from Venezuela. Quesada’s situation was critical. The Indians were hostile; the provision fleet was late; men were dying and deserting, and the soldiers were so desperate with hunger that Quesada threatened death to anyone who killed a horse for food. When, after many delays, the fleet joined up with Quesada’s land party, the combined group pushed upstream to La Tora. Here, Quesada began to realize that he was indeed midway along a trade route linking the highlands with the coast.
‘As we gradually ascended the Rio Magdalene we noticed that all the salt which the Indians ate reached them by means of trade, and that it came to them from the sea and from the coasts of Santa Marta. It was bartered in granular form for more than 70 leagues from the mouth of the river. By the time it had reached this point, so little remained that it was very dear, and only the rich could afford to eat it. Poor people made their salt from human urine and from the powdered ashes of plants. After passing La Tora, we came across another salt, not in grains like the other, but in solid loaves, and as we journeyed upstream this salt became cheaper and cheaper among the Indians. For this reason, and because of the difference between the two kinds of salt, we concluded that the granular salt was traded upstream, and that the slat loaves came from the opposite direction,m and were traded downstream.’ Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada
These salt loaves, the local Indians informed him, were brought (with emeralds and painted cotton mantles) by traders from the high mountains to the east, the homeland of a rich and powerful people.
Quesada was now within striking distance of the Muisca kingdoms, and he left the main river to follow the salt trail up the Rio Opón and into the highlands. This was a well-travelled route, and Quesada’s troupe emerged at Vélez, a market centre at the northwest corner of Muisca territory.
Once on the high Muisca tableland, the Spaniards began to reap their rewards. They visited the emerald mines at Somondoco, and the salt-producing towns of Nemecón and Zipaquirá; they sacked the royal capital at Tunja and carried away 150,000 pesos of gold and two hundred and thirty emeralds; at Sogamoso they burned down the temple after stealing its golden ornaments. They must also have heard, for the first time, about the Gilded Man and the ceremonies which took place at the sacred lagoon of Guatavita.
But before he could turn his attention to the lake, Quesada heard disquieting news; another expedition, led by the German, Nicolaus Federmann, had reached Muisca territory by a quite different route.
‘On the second day of October in the year 1529, I, Nicolaus Federmann the younger, of Ulm ... left in a ship given to me by Messer Ulrich Ehinger, belonging to Messers Bartholomew Welser and Company, of which I was appointed captain, and also commander of 123 Spanish soldiers and of 24 German miners. My job was to take them to the country of Venezuela, situated in the Great Ocean Sea, whose government and dominion were conceded to the said Welsers, my masters, by His Majesty the Roman Emperor.’ Nicolaus Federmann 1537
Charles V granted the house of Welser the right to ‘discover, conquer and populate’ the Venezuelan littoral, to enslave Indians and import up to four thousand Negroes, to erect forts and to found two Spanish cities, to bring in horses, send out gold, and to pay only minimal taxes.
Using Coro as their base, two previous expeditions had explored the hinterland. Ambrosius Alfinger reached Tamalameque, on the Rio Magdalena, in 1531 and between 1535 and 1538, Governor Georg Hohermuth crossed the lowland plains and got within 80 kilometres of the Muisca outpost at Sogamoso before being forced to turn back. Both heard of the gold and salt routes that Quesada was to follow later.
Federmann himself set off whilst Hohermuth was still away. Crossing the vast grasslands east of the Andes, he turned westwards up the Rio Ariari to discover a pass across the bleak and unpopulated páramo of Suma Paz. Within forty days he had climbed from near sea level to a height of over 3500 metres, and the cold was intense. ‘I lost many people and horses. Of the 300 with which I left, no more than 90 survived, and in the march there died 70 men.’ But he succeeded in his objective. The survivors, tired out and dressed in skins, broke through into the Muisca domain - only to find Quesada already in possession. News had already reached Quesada of yet another force about to arrive.
Belalcázar had served with Pizarro during the conquest of Peru, and, after receiving his share of Atahuallpa’s ransom, had moved north to attack the Inca general Rumiñavi and to found the city of Quito at the site of the Inca’s northern capital. It was near Quito, according to Castellanos, that an Indian from Bogotá told Belalcázar about a land of gold still further north, where there lived ‘a certain king who went naked aboard a raft, to make offerings...smeared all over with resin and with powdered gold from head to foot, gleaming like a ray of the sun.’ If this is true - and Castellanos was writing long after the idea of El Dorado (The Gilded Man) had become popular, then Belalcázar would have been the only one of the three explorers consciously seeking the legend.
During the campaign against Rumiñavi, 1534, Belalcázar’s men had indeed captured a chief they called ‘el indio dorado’, but his kingdom was somewhere in southern Colombia only twelve days’ march from Quito and it is equally likely that Belalcázar was merely exploring his northern territories with a view to claiming them for himself.
He moved slowly, taking with him dogs, cattle, horses and a great number of pigs - as well as five thousand indians and a service of silver plate. His route followed the cordillera northwards to the headwaters of the Rio Cauca and the city of Popayán, which he had founded two years earlier. From here, with some two hundred Spaniards, he crossed the central range of the Andes to the Rio Magdalena, and followed this river to the southwestern edge of Muisca territory, where he met Quesada’s envoys.
It was a difficult situation for all the participants. Confronting each other in the Muisca heartland were three quite independent forces, of roughly equal size, each one led by an ambitious man who was technically a mutineer, or - at very least - had exceeded his authority. Instead of fighting it out among themselves, as was the custom in Peru, the three leaders came to an understanding. ‘These generals got on very well together; and though minor rifts soon began to appear, the gold converted them into laughter.’ (Juan Rodríguez Freyle, 1636)
On 6 August 1539 there took place the formal ceremony of the foundation of Santa Fe del Nuevo Reino de Granada (Bogotá), and soon afterwards the three commanders departed together to argue their respective claims before the officials in Spain.
‘All who knew about it considered it a great marvel for men from three governorships - those of Peru, Venezuela and Santa Marta - to join up in a place so far from the sea, as remote from the South (Pacific) Sea as from the North (Caribbean).’ (Juan de San Martin and Antonio de Lebrija, in a letter to the King, 20 September 1539)