The Forgotten Contribution of the Germans to the Age of Discovery

An interesting BBC documentary this week shed some light on the pre-Columbian Muisca people of South America, whose intricate gold-working skills and gold-themed ceremonies helped inspire rumours of “El Dorado”, the fabled lost city of gold that ruined many a fine European explorer.

The BBC programme was primarily concerned with the Muisca themselves, although it did briefly gloss over two familiar names of El Dorado’s seekers; Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada and Walter Raleigh. Others, however, had sought the mythical city earlier and, surprisingly, they were predominantly German.

The gold workings of the Muisca were unprecedented
The gold workings of the Muisca were unprecedented

In 1528, the Welser banking group of Augsburg was given a lease by Emperor Charles V to colonise Venezuela as a partial repayment for the substantial loans previously provided by the German merchants to the Spaniards for their New World enterprises. Settling in the coastal town of Coro, the German leaders and their Spanish subordinates were quickly gripped by gold fever. Through poor translation and blind greed the Europeans misinterpreted native descriptions of their lands and soon rumour of a legendary golden kingdom in the interior with a rich king, first identified as the “Meta” and subsequently as “El Dorado” materialised.

Although there had possibly been a king of the Muisca people who had washed himself in gold as part of a ceremonial ritual at Lake Guatavita in Eastern Colombia during the previous century, the Europeans turned this symbolic act into proof of extensive wealth, which was only fuelled by the Atahualpa ransom in Peru.

The first German governor of the Welser colony, Ambrose Alfinger, soon embarked on a murderous rampage across the north of the continent, founding the town of Maracaibo in the process. What little gold he accrued was the result of merciless plunder from the native Caquetio people and the promise of a golden kingdom alluded him.

Known as "the cruel of the cruels", Ambrose Alfinger sacrificed everything in pursuit of riches
Known as “the cruel of the cruels”, Ambrose Alfinger sacrificed everything in pursuit of riches

His deputy, Nikolaus Federmann, carried out a simultaneous venture to the south of Coro, consequently disregarding his colonial duties, for he was supposed to be looking after the administration of the beleaguered colony. Despite limited signs of wealth, the German leaders and their Spanish colonists stubbornly continued to believe the native stories which always informed them that gold existed further into the interior. Not once, does it appear, did the Europeans consider that they were being led astray by a populace keen to rid themselves of the invaders’ presence. Rather, their accounts of their missions (for both Federmann and the succeeding Welser governor Georg Hohermuth recorded their travels) provide frequent shows of optimism whenever the latest golden rumour was raised.

Between 1535 and 1538, Hohermuth, with an accompaniment of 490 men, searched desperately for “El Dorado”, whose doubtful existence had been solidified in European minds by a medieval association between gold and the tropics. He returned a broken man, with most of his men having perished, still no closer to either confirming or denying the legend.

Hohermuth's pre-exploration finery was not to last
Hohermuth’s pre-exploration finery was not to last

Federmann, who by now had virtually ceased to be in Welser employ and was little more than a mercenary, had began a second exploratory mission in 1536. The only successful German gold-seeker, he stumbled upon the rich province of Cundinamarca in 1538, just as Quesada and fellow conquistador Sebastian de Benalcazar did likewise. Given his disloyalty, Federmann was unable to secure the province for Venezuela and it ultimately passed to Quesada’s Santa Marta, later becoming the gold-synonymous province of New Granada.

Such was their preoccupation with finding El Dorado that the Welser’s colony in Venezuela never flourished and its population rarely exceeded thirty permanent inhabitants. Yet, despite their failure to find the golden city, the German leaders were paramount in leading the Europeans to New Granada, the closest anyone would get to a golden kingdom.

Their exploratory endeavours are astounding, each leader traversing thousands of miles in his lifetime, and they opened up vast swathes of the South American continent, including parts of present-day Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. The last German leader of the Welser colony, Philipp von Hutten, spent five years in the interior (1541-1546), convinced that even greater riches laid buried beyond Cundinamarca. He, like all the other German pioneers, would meet an early death, executed by a rogue Spanish soldier.

Even after the discovery of New Granada, Philipp von Hutten persisted in trying to discover El Dorado
Even after the discovery of New Granada, Philipp von Hutten persisted in trying to discover El Dorado

The German contribution to the Age of Discovery is often consigned to a few pages in history books regarding their mercantile support for Spain and Portugal. Such facts are crucial and need to be given greater prominence, as do the Germans exploratory achievements. For they are the true pioneers of El Dorado and, foolish or not, undertook the most heroic adventures in the name of gold.

How many Venezuelans, Colombians, Ecuadorians and Germans know this story is unclear. But they should know it, for it forms an integral part of their country’s histories, and that of the world. At a time of a monumental clash of civilizations and belief systems, the Germans weren’t wholly preoccupied with the religious upheaval confronting them at home. Some of them were at the forefront of the Age of Discover and the Welser colony and its buccaneering leaders deserve greater recognition for it.

Pygmy Elephant Slaughter Latest Sign of Historical Trend

The poisoning of ten rare pygmy elephants in Borneo comes at a time of serious concern for the global conservation effort. It follows on from the end of a year in which a ferocious hike in the poaching of African elephants and rhinoceroses was widely reported in the international media.

It often takes atrocities such as this to reinvigorate government attitudes towards conservation
It often takes atrocities such as this to reinvigorate government attitudes towards conservation

This is, of course, part of a general trend over the past two centuries, during which time the population figures for many of the world’s largest animals and top predators has declined dramatically. However, it is also indicative of a worrying recent trend in which poaching has accelerated in many parts of the world. The reasons for this are many; the East Asian obsession with powdered medicines made from tusks and horn; the encroachment of humans into traditional animal territory; the protection of livestock; the appearances of animals in warzones.

At the same time, it should be noted that dedicated conservationists have far from given up. More people than ever dedicate their lives to the well-being and, in some cases, virtual resurrection of the world’s fauna and flora.

Perhaps what is happening currently is government negation of conservationist duty in many vulnerable countries. Government concern for its animals and plants tends to be fitful. Conservation efforts will be sponsored (mainly with an expectant boon in tourism to follow) and short-term rewards will be reaped. Impressive population censuses may follow (forgetting that perhaps no accurate census had before been taken) and the job will appear a success. Funding, or at the very least attention, will be diverted from the conservation effort and the positive immediate trends will be reversed.

This scenario plays out across the world’s most biodverse countries and helps explain why animal populations and poaching statistics have fluctuated in many regions over the past couple of decades. It usually takes a saddening event, such as the pygmy elephant killings, to reinvigorate government interest in a serious long-term issue. However, such issues have systemic causes and without an enduring coordinated strategy the conservation effort will fail for many species, despite the massive efforts made by individuals and charitable organisations.

Conservation efforts should not, of course, be restricted to anti-poaching measures. Checks need to be kept on invasive species that ruin ecosystems, vaccines for diseases must be sought, habitats have to be safeguarded and climatic changes monitored. All these contribute to population fluctuation in the animal kingdom.

Yet it is the trends in poaching statistics that illuminate best the success of conservation movements for it is an issue that the government is almost exclusively responsible for. The fact that the army is now patrolling South Africa’s Kruger National Park to halt poaching is alarming. It may testify to a renewed conservation drive but it is also testament to recent failures.

Of course one has to concede that there are significant human challenges occupying the minds of many developing countries’ governments. Nevertheless, these so often are indirectly linked to the conservation effort; overcrowding, lack of education, impoverishment. Such phenomena contribute to poaching and a lack of sensitivity towards the animal kingdom. Conservation should therefore be thought of as a social issue. Without a long-term strategy, such as many states have tried to implement for poverty eradication, fluctuations in the effectiveness of the conservation effort will continue and the general trend in animal populations will remain forbidding.

French arrival in Timbuktu welcome but it may be too late

French forces have continued their seamless northwards progress through Mali, capturing Gao on the weekend and now poised to retake Timbuktu, one of the Middle Ages’ preeminent cultural centres. I wrote recently about the dilemmas posed by French intervention in their former African colonies. Nevertheless, the swift advance of French troops in their bid to oust the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine from North Mali has potentially served a crucial historical purpose.

French progress in Mali has been aided by militant withdrawals
French progress in Mali has been aided by militant withdrawals

A major centre of Islamic learning and academia between the 13th and 17th centuries, Timbuktu is (hopefully) home to vast collections of priceless tomes, treatises and creative arts, all painstakingly preserved in a series of vaulted libraries. Ansar Dine is known to have burnt many important works, some held at holy shrines, although the extent of the damage is unknown. It might just be possible that the French arrival has secured the future for some of the many books and manuscripts stored in underground vaults throughout the city.

Timbuktu was once seen as a golden city in the heart of barbarous Africa
Timbuktu was once seen as a golden city in the heart of barbarous Africa

Removing Ansar Dine from Mali’s cities is one thing; defeating the group across the vast desert landscapes and dry plains is another challenge altogether. As Al-Shabab has shown in Somalia, the tactical withdrawal of militant forces from the cities to the countryside has obvious benefits. Firstly, the poor rural areas often serve as potential recruiting grounds for militants, whose promise of food and glory is enough to convince many a starving person. Secondly, militant cells can move more fluidly in rural areas and are unconstrained by having to defend strategic checkpoints in towns and cities. Rather than engaging in the conventional warfare which has seen them defeated by trained armed forces in the past, Al-Shabab has resorted to more traditional terror tactics. Namely, indiscriminate bombings of civilian centres, hijackings and armed robbery.

It is very possible that Ansar Dine will pursue a similar policy, clear in the knowledge that armed confrontation with French forces can only result in their defeat. Given this, the security of Timbuktu and Mali’s other urban centres is far from assured. Whilst the country’s historical and cultural heritage has been offered succour by the French arrival, the days of fear and threat are still not over for those people dedicated to maintaining the riches of Timbuktu.

It is to be hoped that the French are in this for the long haul.