Biography of Gonzalo Jimenez De Quesada:
Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada was a Spanish explorer, administrator and conquistador
. He was in charge of the Spanish expedition that discovered and conquered the Muisca people, who lived on a plateau in present-day Colombia. Unlike Cortés in Mexico and Pizarro in Peru, Quesada's conquest did not make him a wealthy man and he continued adventuring into his late years.
Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada:
Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada was born around 1500 (some sources say as late as 1506) in Córdoba, Spain: his father was a lawyer and his mother came from nobility. Unlike most of the other conquistadors, Quesada was well educated and erudite. He grew up in Granada and followed his father into the practice of law, at which he proved to be quite skilled. He had a hunger for adventure, however, and in 1535 he decided to accompany Don Pedro de Lugo to South America. Lugo had been given the governorship of the colony town of Santa Marta and the energetic, educated Quesada was a welcome addition.
Quesada Sets Out:
Once the nearby native villages had all been sacked and looted, Lugo, Quesada and the others had to look further inland in their hopes of finding more gold. It was decided to mount a massive expedition. On April 6, 1536, Quesada set out at the head of over 700 Europeans, including 85 horsemen. There were many native porters along as well. Lugo would remain behind to administer Santa Marta. The expedition foundered at first, as brigantines sent to bring reinforcements and supplies up the Magdalena River got lost. Meanwhile, the expedition was decimated by disease and predators such as crocodiles and jaguars.
They wandered in the jungle for several months, their condition worsening. Natives in the region were extremely hostile, as the bloodthirsty Ambrosius Ehinger
had passed through a few years before. The men weakened to the point where a return to Santa Marta was discounted: Quesada believed the only hope for survival lay in pressing on. Not long after, however, Spanish scouts found a well-used road and a warehouse full of packed salt: the first real clues that an advanced civilization was nearby. They had found the first signs of the Muisca culture, which inhabited a plateau in present-day Colombia. Quesada and his men were overjoyed and headed for the road.
Discovery of Cundinamarca:
By this point, Quesada and his men had been traveling for about ten months and their numbers had declined dramatically: he was down to 166 men. The Spaniards captured a native chieftain who told them that the culture that produced the salt was nearby, across some frosty mountains. In January, 1537, the surviving Spanish reached the plateau of Cundinamarca, home of the Muisca
people (also known as the Chibcha). Although not on a par with the Aztecs of Central Mexico or the Inca of Peru, the Muisca were an advanced civilization who practiced agriculture and salt mining. The Kingdom of the Muisca was divided in two: one half was ruled by the King, or zipa
: at the time of Quesada's arrival, the name of the zipa
was Bogotá. The other half was ruled by the zaque
, at the time named Tunja. Although the zaque
was supposedly subordinate to the zipa
, in fact there was usually a great rivalry between the two.
Divide and Conquer:
The population of the plateau was probably about 500,000 people. The Spanish discovered the city of Muequetá, the largest on the plateau, but by then Bogotá had left, taking his soldiers and treasures with him. The Spanish then happened upon the realm of the zaque
Tunja, who received the Spanish only to be seized and taken prisoner. The Spaniards swiftly looted all of the treasures of Tunja and began looking for more. Not long after, Bogotá himself was killed in battle, although many of the treasures of Muequetá were lost. The plateau of Cundinamarca belonged to Quesada, who had not even had to fight too hard to earn it. Quesada installed a puppet leader, Sagipá, but executed him when he did not produce enough gold. On August 6, 1538, the city of Santa Fé de Bogotá
Quesada and his men took out the royal fifth and divided up the loot: they were disappointed to learn that there were no gold mines in the region: all of the Muisca gold had come from trade. Still, it was a good haul, if not remotely on the same level as the gold taken from the Aztecs in Mexico or the Inca in Peru. In early 1529, Quesada got some disconcerting news: there were two more expeditions of Europeans on their way. From the south came Sebastián de Benalcázar
, one of Pizarro's top lieutenants, and from the west came Nicolaus Federmann
, a German adventurer formally charged with overseeing some German holdings in Venezuela. Tensions were high, as the three men each was in charge of about 160 men and for a moment it looked like there might be bloodshed, but the three generals met in February of 1839 and decided to go back to Spain together, where the King would sort things out.
Quesada Returns to Bogotá:
Back in Spain, King Charles V awarded Cundinamarca to none of the three Europeans who came to see him. Federmann and Quesada got nothing and Benalcázar was awarded the province of Popayán. Bogotá and Santa Marta were awarded to Alonso de Lugo, son of Don Pedro de Lugo, the man who had sent Quesada off to find El Dorado. Alonso de Lugo was able to persuade the King that all of Quesada’s conquests had been done as an agent of his father, who had since passed away. Quesada, disappointed, dallied around Europe for a while, then petitioned the crown once again for a post in Cundinamarca. He was given the title of Marshal of Bogotá and returned to the New World in 1550, where the people of the city he had founded welcomed him warmly.
The Final Quest:
Quesada settled into life in Bogotá, where he was admired and respected, if not particularly wealthy. For years, he petitioned the King to allow him to resume his quest for El Dorado: in 1568 the king finally relented. Quesada could seek El Dorado and stood to profit richly if he found it. In spring of 1569, Quesada set off one final time for El Dorado, accompanied by a massive expedition of 400 men and countless pack and food animals. Conditions were harsh as he explored the plains and jungles of northern South America, and attrition whittled his expedition down daily. Finally, in 1572 Quesada, now down to only 20 men, gave up and returned to Bogotá, having found nothing. Quesada was 72 and had somehow survived the grueling trip.
Legacy of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada:
Quesada settled down once again to the life of a private but respected citizen, any fortune he ever had long gone. In 1575 he was called upon once again: a tribe of natives known as the Gaulies was attacking settlements along the Magdalena River: Quesada, then 75, was named General of the settler army raised to oppose them. Even though he could no longer ride and had to be carried around, Quesada complied, and beat the Gaulies in battle so that they sued for peace. He somehow found the strength to even lead the charge into the final battle. He died on February 15, 1579, one of the last of the great conquistadors. He had little money but vast lands, which he left to the husband of his niece, Antonio de Berrio.
Quesada's most famous exploit was bringing down the Muisca culture and bringing the Cundinamarca plateau under the control of the Spanish. His actions caused great suffering for the native people of the region, who found their freedom taken away and their lands stolen. Still, if Quesada had not done it, Benalcázar and/or Federmann would have, and there is nothing to suggest that either one of those men would have been any kinder towards the Muisca. As a conquistador, Quesada was relatively humane and limited his use of torture to find gold.
Quesada is seen as an important historical figure in Colombia, and Bogota in particular, but he is relatively unknown elsewhere.
Bushnell, David. The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself. University of California Press, 1993.
Silverberg, Robert. The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado. Athens: the Ohio University Press, 1985.