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El Dorado, the myth

The discovery of the cultures of the New World by European explorers at the end of the 15th century largely surpassed it’s geographical and economic importance. It also strongly rekindled the slumbering medieval myths and legends, like the Fountain of Youth and the Garden of Eden, as their supposed location was situated in the newly discovered continent. The engraving presented in room 15 of the Museum by Théodore de Bry represents the origin of the El Dorado myth or the myth of the Golden Indian ‘El Indio Dorado’ or the Golden King ‘El Rey Dorado’.

The engraving by Théodore de Bry

The engraving by Théodore de Bry

The origin of the El Dorado myth

Contemporaries of Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo (1478-1557) and their offspring in the Old World were able to glimpse the reality of life in the New World thanks to the publication ‘General and Natural History of the Indies’ (1535).

Spaniards who were living in the neighbourhood of Quito (Ecuador) informed him that they had learned from an Indian tribe of an extremely wealthy ruler. This ruler was said to cover himself daily in a layer of gold dust because he considered the wearing of jewellery and other objects made by hammering or stamping rather vulgar. Each night he would wash away the gold from his body. This was the story, the reality however was slightly different. Although there was an Indian tribe, the Chibcha, who performed a similar ceremony but … only once a year. Their chieftain was sprinkled with gold, taken to a platform in the middle of a lake where he finally took a dive into the fresh water lake. The European explorers were completely stunned: such a ceremony could only mean luxuriance and thus they set off to search frenetically for the land of the gilt man.

Engraver Théodore de Bry (1527/1528-1598)

Several travel narratives illustrated with engravings fired the imagination of the gold-loving public and fuelled the El Dorado myth. Théodore de Bry immortalized the origin of this myth by his engraving of the gold ceremony of the Chibcha chieftain. De Bry was born in Liège in (1527 or) 1528 and became the founder of one of the first modern and prosperous printing houses in Europe. Yet, he was not predestined to become an illustrator. Like his forefathers, he was apprenticed to become a goldsmith and he worked at his father’s workshop until 1560 before moving on to Strasbourg where he remained active as a goldsmith. Religious intolerance however and personal reasons brought him to the metropolis Antwerp around 1577. There he joined the guild of the goldsmiths and the guild of St-Luke, the guild where artists and printers met one another. Gradually, the Liege goldsmith evolved into a renowned engraver who applied the technique of the copper engraving. To obtain such an engraving one has to cut the image into a copper plate with a style or burin. Ink is applied to the surface of the copper plate and then rubbed with cloth to remove most of the excess, leaving ink only in the incisions. The plate and paper are run through a printing press that, through pressure, transfers the ink from the recesses of the plate onto the paper. With this technique, also called the intaglio printmaking, up to 300 good quality prints could be produced of each creation. Today this technique is still used in the printing of euro notes. De Bry enjoyed international renown. Before moving to Frankfurt in 1588 he lived for a short period in London (1586-1588) where he executed several engravings for his English clients. They had learned to appreciate him for his eccentric style and his extraordinary technical knowledge. He was particularly well-known as the engraver of the travel narratives ‘America’ and ‘Spieghel der Zeevaerdt’ by Lucas Wagenhaer (1533/1534-1605/1606).

He edited, amongst other works, the series ‘Petits Voyages’ and ‘Grands Voyages’ (i.e. The Great Travels or The Discovery of America). Théodore de Bry’s well-filled life came to an end in Frankfurt, 27 March 1598.

The engraving by Théodore de Bry

The engraving by Théodore de Bry

Gold fever

As already mentioned before, the gold fever was fuelled by the travel narratives which were avidly bought and read by an interested European audience. Attempts to reach El Dorado soon followed. A brief but incomplete outline. The first who set off were the Germans. Under the guidance of Ambrosius von Alfinger, the governor of Venezuela, a group of German settlers succeeded in having a flimsy contact with the tribe of the Chibcha Indians. Superficial though it was, it ended up in the murder of the governor who got killed by a poison pill.

Also in 1531 the obstacles to reach El Dorado proved too difficult for the Spaniard Diego de Ordaz and his companion who sailed the Orinoco up to the Rio Meta. One of his lieutenants, Jeronimo de Ortal, was equally doomed to fail. But the Spaniards got convinced that they had to look for El Dorado in the north-western part of the continent. Another Spaniard, Gonzalo de Quesada, set off in 1536 in that direction and it took him two years and half of the members of his expedition to find the Chibcha tribe as well as their gold and emeralds. It is a matter of course that this discovery of gold and precious stones incited many others to follow in their footsteps.

The travel narrative of Sir Walter Raleigh, ‘The discoverie of Guiana’ about his search for goldmines along the Orinoco river in Guyana (1595) popularized the idea of the Parime lake. Apparently, the bottom of this lake was covered with gold and the story of the lake got interwoven with the El Dorado myth.

Conclusion: for many years European explorers have invested time, money and often their lives to find the ultimate land of gold, but all in vain. They often came in conflict with the local population and the conquistadores were ruthless enough to destroy local civilizations and decimate the indigenous population. The Indians were shocked by the insatiable gold thirst of the Europeans and not all of them were ready to be led like lambs to the slaughter. They took revenge and obliged the conquistadores to swallow smelted gold. This native custom has also been engraved by Théodore de Bry as one of the illustrations of the narrative by Girolamo Benzoni (1519-ca. 1570) on the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. And the tortured … they experienced personally that money is not everything.

Ineke Meul
Museum guide

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