Colombian history: the conquistadors and Bogotá in 1538

Colombian history
Bogotá’s Muisca heritage is a popular theme for street art. Photo: Gerald Barr

As the capital celebrates its birthday, we follow Jiménez along the salt trails to the home of the Muisca.


Were Conquistadors a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? I’m in two minds. True, those bad-boy gold-hungry Spaniards rained down hell on the locals using sharp Toledo swords, armoured horses and mastiff dogs trained to munch testicles.

But the pre-Columbians weren’t living in paradise either: the continent had head-chopping Aztecs who sacrificed 80,000 folk in just four days to inaugurate one pyramid. The Maya had similar bloody death cults, while further south the humourless Incas founded an empire nominally on trade but backed by ruthless might. Any detractors were killed along with family, friends, pets, plants and the back garden sprinkled with salt.

With these thoughts in mind I cycle downtown to confront Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, pre-Columbian Colombia’s chief invader and Bogotá’s founder. I find him po-faced on a plinth in the pretty Plazoleta del Rosario, looking remarkably unlike any of his portraits and holding a sword above his head to form a cross.

Now here’s a mixed message: a sword as a cross. Convert or be killed. Jiménez would have known all about that, coming from a Jewish family forced to adopt Catholicism but suspected of secretly observing their Judaic beliefs. Intriguingly, he named his first settlement on the banks of the Magdalena River ‘La Torá’: the Torah.

Whatever his inner faith, the young lawyer-soldier would need to draw on every ounce of it soon after leaving the coastal colony of Santa Marta at the head of 800 armed Spaniards with horses and thousands of indigenous slaves from coastal tribes.

Raiding parties

The year was 1536. The plan was to march up the banks of the Magdalena River, with support from a small flotilla of boats, in search of wealthy civilisations to raid. Maybe they’d even reach Peru – from where fabulous wealth was being reported – or the mythical El Dorado.

Tisquesusa, the Zipa of Bogotá, killed by Spanish soldiers in 1537. Photo: www.wikiwand.com/en/Tisquesusa

Instead they found swamps, jungles and a maze of flooded plains where hidden tribes waited to pick off the invaders with poisoned arrows and darts. Even nature conspired against them. Rain, mud and mosquitoes took their toll. Boats sank on the treacherous river, only for the survivors to swim ashore and die in a hail of arrows. Or to be chomped by caimans. Or sink in quicksand.

At night the terrified chapetones – wannabe Conquistadors – were dragged from their hammocks and eaten by jaguars, bitten by poisonous snakes or struck by tropical diseases. They were even mauled by anteaters.

Eight months in and three quarters of the Spanish contingent – and untold numbers of slaves – were dead or missing. The survivors faced starvation and endless lagoons with no clear path to the highlands. The SNAFU was now FUBAR. Most people would have given up. Not Jiménez. He pushed on. (Text continues below the box)

Meet the Muiscas

Muisca culture lives on in more than just local names. Here are a few places where you can catch a glimpse of their past.

Laguna de Guatavita – the mysterious green lagoon and sacred Muisca site, also the origin of the El Dorado legends, is a major tourist attraction that includes a visit to a bohio and talks on Muisca culture. The lagoon is 75km northeast of Bogotá and can be visited in a day trip from the city.

Museo del Oro – Bogotá’s gold museum houses a large collection of Muisca artefacts, including the famous gold Muisca Raft, which depicts the ceremony of El Dorado.

Sugamuxi and the Temple of the Sun – this Boyacá province calls itself the Cradle of the Muisca and encompasses the reconstructed Temple of the Sun (in the main town of Sogamoso), Muisca rock painting, and encounters with Muisca communities that offer spiritual retreats, music and food. Find out more at www.visitsugamuxi.com

Parque Arqueológico de Moniquirá – this astronomical observatory of standing stones and a burial complex dates from nearly 2,000 years ago but was also used by the Muiscas. It’s 5km from the Boyacá town of Villa de Leyva.

This surprising decision was based on salt. The commodity had been getting scarcer as the party travelled from the sea, but suddenly natives were seen trading blocks of rock salt from an inland source. Following this salt trail, Jiménez and his survivors (now a straggle of 200 semi-naked Spaniards with slaves) struggled up the Andean slopes into fertile temperate plains, and the Muisca realm, in 1537.

Be reasonable

The Muisca at this time were one of four Bronze Age civilisations in the New World (along with the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs), but they’re the ones you never read about at school. Perhaps they just weren’t bloodthirsty enough.

They had formed a mostly peaceful confederation of tribes sharing common language and religion, occasionally unifying large mutual armies to fight off aggressors (usually lowland tribes). They generally preferred a harmonic existence based around sun and moon worship (human sacrifices were rare) and high-class jewellery, pottery and textiles. They were also excellent farmers and had salt mines and a huge supply of emeralds from eastern Boyacá, which they traded for gold and cotton.

Mixed message? Colombia’s conquistadors wields his sword in downtown Bogotá. Photo: Gerald Barr

What happened next is subject to some historical debate. In most texts (and certainly official Colombian sources) it is seen as a Good Thing, with Jiménez portrayed as ‘the benign Conquistador’ who vanquished the Muisca with ‘reason, rather than the sword’ and ‘minimum bloodshed’.

This theory only holds if you are daft enough to believe in some divine right of the beardy Christians to plunder and harvest souls. Nowadays, most people don’t. But back in the 1500s opting out of religion was not a safe choice for either a European or Muisca. Thus a clash of cultures was inevitable.

Nothing to lose

Considering their devastating journey across the lowlands, the Conquistadors were now in serious need of anger management. Add to this the fact that these young adventurers (average age early 20s, Jiménez himself was only 27) were sent mostly to their doom under a ‘conquisting’ franchise model that was broken and morally bankrupt in the first place.

The Spanish crown would grant concessions to explore, govern, plunder and convert the New World risking little of its own money, while demanding 20% – the ‘royal fifth’ of all treasure. This forced those doing the dirty work – the Conquistadors – to constantly loot to pay back the expedition costs such as boats, soldiers, horses, priests, then the royal taxes, then the share for each participant, with a slim chance of profit. (Text continues below the box)

What’s in a (place) name?

Newcomers to Colombia’s eastern Andes are often surprised by the not-very-Spanish-sounding towns. It took me years to get my tongue around Fusagasugá and Chiquinquirá, before realising these derived from pre-colonial Chibcha languages such Muysccubun, which was spoken by the Muiscas.

Technically, these are extinct languages since they are no longer spoken day-to-day. But many words live on in the rich lexicon of slang spoken by many Colombians (see related article in this edition on ‘Cachaquismos’), and in the place names of Cundinamarca and Boyacá. Here are some Muisca toponyms.

Bogotá – corral outside the fields

Chia – the moon goddess

Ciénaga – place of water

Choachi – mountain of the moon

Facatativá – stronghold on the plains

Fúquene – den of the fox

Iza – place of healing

Pachavita – proud chief

Ráquira – village of the pans

Suba – flower of the sun

Zetaquira – land of the snake

And get this: any Conquistador arriving in the New World had a 30% chance of dying in his first year – worse odds than Russian roulette. This attracted all manner of desperados with nothing left to lose. Jiménez himself was escaping the shame of a fumbled family law case.

Still, from the Muisca perspective, none of the above justifies what really was a Bad Thing as the arrivistes roamed the eastern highlands on a two-year looting spree torturing and killing Caciques, Zipas, Zaques and Iracas (the Muisca’s regional leaders) to get at the gold and emeralds.

Death and betrayal

The Muisca warriors – the Guechas – did organise and put up some token resistance (first at the salt mines of Nemocón) but were hampered by their poor weapons and their habit of going into combat with the mummy of a dead ancestor strapped on their back.

Meanwhile the Spanish employed their usual chicanery to divide the locals by making false promises then forming (and breaking) alliances. Tisquesusa the powerful, the Zipa of Bogotá, fled from the advancing forces, evacuating his main town but was soon stabbed to death in a skirmish near Facatativá.

Related: Water routes that take us to the heart of the Muisca culture

Back up north in Hunza (now Tunja) the Zaque there was tortured until he died; his successor was decapitated. Meanwhile, the main Sun Temple at Sugumuxi (now Sogamoso) was stripped of its gold and burned. In a later battle, 4,000 Guechas were slain and their leader Tundama (from the town of Duitama) killed with a hammer.

Then there was the betrayal of Sagipa, successor to the murdered Tisquesusa, who initially aided the Spanish but was tried and tortured to reveal hidden treasure. He died after being coated in boiling fat. Jiménez later justified this by claiming that Sagipa was ‘a bit infirm’ anyway. Ho hum. Such violent acts were symptomatic of gold fever. However much they got, the Conquistadors wanted more and that more was never enough.

Gold dust

And there may not have been that much to plunder in the first place. The Muisca traded for gold, and what little they had was beaten into paper-thin sheets to make fine art and decoration. Once stolen by the Spanish and melted into solid coinage – note that peso means both ‘currency’ and ‘weight’ – it didn’t weigh much.

And, under torture, the locals would exaggerate the massive riches that could be found ‘just over the next horizon’ in the hope the Conquistadors would head there. And the feverish Spanish – who rarely took ‘no’ for an answer – were happy to latch onto any hint of El Dorado, which they mistook for a lost city (while all along it was a person sprinkled in gold dust jumping in nearby Guatavita lagoon).

What about Jiménez? He sailed to Spain in 1539 to claim governorship of his Kingdom of New Granada, and found himself on trial instead. This was a common tactic of the Spanish Crown: encourage the Conquistadors to commit excesses, then strip them of their wealth and titles through legal traps.

Jiménez fought on. Again. Using his own resources (he’d probably hidden some Muisca emeralds in his socks) he won the cases and a decade later returned to the Andean highlands and Santa Fe de Bogotá, the settlement he had founded in 1538. The city celebrates the anniversary of this event each August.

Vanquished

Jiménez himself has become largely forgotten over time, which for a Spanish nobleman is definitely a Bad Thing. Despite his travails, he never made it into the Conquistador hall of fame like Hernán Cortés and the notorious Pizzaro brothers.

After some more disastrous – and financially ruinous – expeditions to find El Dorado in the Llanos, the old and worn out soldier-lawyer retired to Suesca to write his memoirs. Which were then lost. He died poor, of leprosy, in 1579. Hence Colombia’s conquest was swept under the carpet of history, a mere footnote to the chronicled invasions of Mexico and Peru. For most rolos, Jiménez is now just a Transmi station, and a nasty one at that.

By a twist of fate, it’s the vanquished Zipa that’s enshrined as Colombia’s capital. After all, Bogotá (or Bacata) was a Muisca settlement long before the Spanish rode up and will be remembered as such long after Jiménez’s statue slips into storage. That is probably for the best.

Further Reading

Invading Colombia: Spanish Accounts of the Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada Expedition of Conquest, edited by J. Michael Francis. English translations and notes from rediscovered first-hand accounts of the Colombian conquest.

Historia de Colombia y sus Oligarquías, by Antonio Caballero. In Spanish. A fun look at local history with cartoons. You can find online versions, check out Capitulo 2, En busca de El Dorado.


Gerald Barr first crossed into Colombia at the wheel of a Mercedes truck in 1994 to find himself pelted with flour bags and water-bombs at a local carnival. Despite this he came back regularly for work and travel in many corners of the country and to be constantly  amazed and enchanted, but also frequently frustrated by ‘Locombia’: its crazy politics and its cultural quirks. He can’t live without it and now calls Bogotá his home. 

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