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.
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.
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.
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.
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.