Mirage de el Dorado

Document 512

After a long and futile search the adventurer sighted a mountain of glistening gemstones, (perhaps wet quartz crystals glistening in the setting sun from a recent rain).  Approaching the mountain the expedition discovered a stone city that appeared to have been ravaged by a great earthquake, tumbled columns and buildings.

The explorers entered a long street lined with empty houses and ventured down to a square. In the center of the square a towering column of black stone supported the statue of a man, left hand on his hip and his right pointing a forefinger to the North Pole. Each corner of the square contained an obelisk similar to those erected by the ancient Romans.

A great palace stood on one side of the square. The figure of a half-naked, clean-shaven youth crowned with laurel looked down from its entryway. Beneath the figure they discovered a weathered inscription:

On the opposite side of the square they found a temple in ruins: its walls inlaid with frescos of superior workmanship. On the portico of the temple they saw another inscription:

“…About a cannon shot from the stone village, was a building, a country-house with a front 250 paces long.” The explorers “ascended the staircase of many colored stones which opened into an immense saloon, and afterward into 15 small houses, each with a door opening into the said saloon…” 

The size and grandeur of the ruins stood mute testimony to a once thriving and prosperous city of great importance, now home only to “swallows, bats, rats and foxes.”

Who had lived there? And why had this opulent center of culture been abandoned?

Inside one of the stone houses a large gold coin was discovered. On one side it bore the image of a figure on his knees, and on the other side a crown, bow and arrow.  (A later twentieth century scholar, Rene Chabbert, claims there is only one gold coin that fits this description – the gold Daric. It depicts King Darius of Persia (521-486 BC) as an archer kneeling with a bow, quiver and spear. (Assuming this is the coin in question, how did it find its way into the depths of the Amazon?)

The above paraphrased description was drawn from a manuscript in the Brazilian National Archive in Rio de Janeiro known as Document 512, written by a Portuguese adventurer, João da Silva Guimarães, who wrote that in 1753 he had visited the city he described. His account provided great detail without giving a specific location in the Amazon basin.

Some scholars speculate that Guimarães may have stumbled upon the site of the legendary mine discovered and developed by Muribeca Días, a shipwrecked Portuguese mariner. As the story goes Robério Días, the mestizo grandson of Muribeca, approached the king of Portugal to plead for legitimacy and a title in exchange for the inherited mine of his grandfather. Mestizos were not regarded as acceptable for elevation to the status of nobility and the king attempted to swindle Días of his property without acceding to the mestizo’s petition. Robério Días was imprisoned, but eventually drawing on the wealth acquired from the mine, he bought his freedom. Robério died in 1622 without revealing the location of the mine.

Document 512 of the Brazilian National Archive came to the attention of an English soldier and adventurer in the early twentieth century. In 1925, Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett, his son Jack, and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell set out into the Brazilian Mato Grosso in search of what he termed the City of Z. (The Lost City of Z  is the title of a 2005 article in The New Yorker magazine by David Grann, later in 2007 he expanded it into a book and it may someday become a movie).

Fawcett plunged into the rain forests of the Mato Grosso, and eventually abandoned by his bearers and guides, disappeared in the wilderness with his son and Rimell, joining the long list of treasure hunters and explorers, who in their search for the wealth of El Dorado, had preceded him into legend.

Tales of ill-fated twentieth-century adventurers pursuing El Dorado doesn’t end with Fawcett. In 1947 a New Zealand school teacher named Hugh McCarthy resigned his post, flew to Rio and studied the documents related to Fawcett’s expedition and disappearance, and then embarked on his own obsession. Deep in the Mato Grosso, McCarthy befriended a missionary, Jonathan Wells, who warned him of hostile natives inhabiting the region that he intended to enter. McCarthy refused to abandon his quest, so Wells gave him seven caged carrier pigeons and they agreed upon a code for messages the birds would bring back to Wells. Only three of the seven messages McCarthy dispatched reached Wells.

The first to arrive, six weeks after his departure, was the third that McCarthy had sent. He had suffered an accident, been rescued by forest Indians and was recovering. The message reads in part, “When I regained consciousness, I was looking into the face of the beautiful girl. Her pale blue eyes made me think I had already died and gone to heaven. I have changed her name (from Tana) to Heather and now I am teaching her English. Tomorrow, I leave to continue my mission. . . “

Several weeks later Wells received McCarthy’s fifth message (the fourth never arrived) stating that he had reached the “snow-capped mountains” but was in “dire circumstances.” Having abandoned his rifle and canoe, he was “living on berries and wild fruits”. He wrote of turning back to his native girlfriend, but decided he would first scale those peaks to find “Fawcett’s Lost City of Gold or die trying.”

The adventurer’s last epistle came with the return of the seventh carrier pigeon. McCarthy stated that he was dying and prayed that all of the pigeons he had sent had gotten through; “I hope my map arrived safely by carrier pigeon number six, so that you, of all people in the world will know the location of the City of Gold. It is magnificent and unbelievable, with a golden pyramid and exquisite temples.”  He ended “My work is over and I die happily . . .” The map borne by the sixth pigeon never arrived.

Wells chartered a plane to Rio de Janeiro and delivered McCarthy’s missives to the local authorities in hope that a rescue mission might be launched, but no such effort was mounted.

May 2022 Issue

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Robert Bruce Drynan
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