The Truth About El Dorado—Clark Humphrey

Thanks to recently unearthed documents found in a Bogota archive, we know know about the first Europeans to see the village billed as El Dorado to and come back alive. 

And we know that the Frenchman who wrote about this incident was wrong about so many parts of his story.

 For one thing, the streets of the remote village were not “paved with gold” (and other precious metals) as a show of opulence. Far from it. 

The village was blessed by its fertile yet remote location, but cursed by its status as the last standing repository of the Muisca empire’s physical “wealth.” The villagers could not barter or sell these goods, lest the Spanish army or independent conquering bandits find and destroy their precious valley. No, the bullion and metal works were melted and molded into paving stones, because that was among their few practical uses. 

 Similarly, the author took it as a utopian sign that this was a place “where there were no priests and the king’s jokes were always funny.” 

As a surviving outpost of a pre-Columbian society, of course they didn’t follow the Catholic tradition. 

Secondly, the French author seemed not to believe that this was an egalitarian society, and had been since shortly after the village was cut off from the rest of the Muisca civilization. 

He repeatedly referred to the villager tasked as the visitors’ guide and interpreter as “the King of El Dorado.” In reality he was not a king but the village’s storyteller and scribe. His role in village life had led him to become a skilled raconteur, so of course he knew how to deliver a successful joke.

The guide, along with the village as a whole, treated the Spanish/Peruvian man called Cacambo as the leader of the visitors. He was tall. He was muscular. He was an expert traveler through rough terrains. He was a man of quiet wisdom. And the villagers particularly admired his mixed-blood status. More about that later.

The other visitor, the French traveler whom the French author later referred to as “Candide,” was seen by the villagers as Cacambo’s passenger and bumbling assistant. In the tropes of American adventure stories, this relationship would be that of the hero and the comic sidekick. As a son of physically weak aristocrats, he was unsuited for real work, let alone the role he’d given himself as an amateur world explorer. 

The French author, of course, treated Candide as the leader and Cacambo as merely a valet. This author also claimed, in this and other writings, to be opposed to colonialism and to elitist attitudes. It just shows how some some inborn privileges and prejudices are hard to overcome.

However, if Candide really had been the leader of the duo, it would help explain why their expeditions, as described by the French author, led to such continual misfortunes. The village scribe noted that not only was Candide not very strong, he was also not very alert. He seemed to always be speaking philosophical gibberish, while he stared off into every direction except where he was going.

It was just such a stoke of bad luck that had caused Cacambo and Candide’s boat to plummet down the waterfall that led them into the obscure valley of the last Muiscas. But it was a stroke of good luck that they survived the fall alive and intact. 

As I believe I mentioned, visitors there were rare. Most of them floated in on the river that led from the waterfall; those who hadn’t immediately died from the fall didn’t live long thereafter. The few who did live stayed and married into the village. 

Cacambo and Candide were the first outsiders to reach the village alive in more than a decade. As such, they were celebrated and honored. 

But that was not why, as the French author wrote, they were supplied with “four young women who served their every need.”

According to the Muisca scribe’s account, these women were selected by all the women of the village on the basis of their strength, health, and beauty. They were the pride of Muisca womanhood, selected to receive a prize that all the village’s gold and silver could not buy—non-inbred seed.

The scribe (who wrote in Spanish, the Muiscas not having a written language) named and described each woman:

• Esperanza, widely known as the village’s best cook. Married to a crop-tender. 

• Verdada, a skilled artisan and garment maker. Betrothed since childhood to a carpenter.

• Sabiduria, the apprentice to the village seeress who had foretold the visitors’ arrival. Officially pledged to a celibate life, but that was just a formality.

• Fuerza, a medicine woman and midwife in training; had witnessed many stillbirths and short infant lives, which she concluded were the result of poor breeding stock. Betrothed since childhood to a herdsman. 

The visitors, particularly the shorter one, seemed to care little about the women’s stories. Candide enjoyed the frequent sexual congress with each of them, but insisted out loud that he would only love one woman in his life, a woman he had apparently left behind somewhere along his travels. 

It was for the love of this woman that Candide said he would have to leave the village and resume his adventures. Cacambo had to come along, simply to keep Candide from inadvertently killing himself along the way. The women pleaded that the only way out of the village was too treacherous and that their new lives were here, to no avail.

The villagers sent the bulk of the Muiscas’ coins, jewels, and trinkets (goods of no use to the villagers) with the visitors, laden on the backs of some aging pack sheep to travel down the pass that was the only way out of the village. 

The scribe wrote that Sabiduria, the apprentice seeress, related a vision of the pack sheep either stumbling to their deaths down the mountain trail or lying down dead from their age and their burdens. As far as the scribe wrote, Sabiduria did not foresee the fates of Cacambo or Candide. 

The men had been in the village only one month. Not enough time to see if their seed had taken. The scribe wrote that Verdada did give birth to a healthy daughter who had Cacambo’s features. 

Nothing is known about that girl’s destiny, or those of her mother and her compatriots. A little more is known about the Muisca village’s destiny as a whole. 

In 1763,  four years after the book relating Candide’s journey appeared in Europe, mercenary explorers finally found and subdued the last Muiscas. Their village had outlasted the fall of the rest of their nation by two centuries. Those villagers who were not too old to work were enslaved onto plantations, to spend the rest of their days cultivating other people’s gardens.

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About bbcstudiowrites

This blog is me archiving the BBC Studio Writers Workshop.

Posted on January 29, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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