Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada

Gonzalo Jiménez  de Quesada
Gonzalo Jiménez  de Quesada

The man who conquered New Granada (modern-day Colombia) for the Spanish Empire, Gonzalo Jiménez (or Ximenes or Giménez) de Quesada, was one of the least controversial of the famous conquistadores and one of the few to write in detail about his experiences (although the book has been lost).

Jiménez de Quesada was born in either Córdoba or Granada in Spain. He was trained in the law in Granada, which had been captured from the Moors in the last stage of the Reconquest of Spain (Reconquista) in 1492.

After many years as a lawyer, he was offered the position of magistrate and auditor to the province of New Andalucia, the northern part of South America, with a base at Santa Marta in modern-day Colombia.

There Governor Don Pedro de Lugo put Quesada in charge of an expedition to find some land suitable for settlement as Santa Marta, despite being located on the Pearl Coast. Of the 1,000 men capable of bearing arms, Quesada took charge of 800.

He organized the men into work parties and they built six rivercraft. Quesada divided his men into two groups; 200 manned the vessels and sailed up the Magdalena River, while the remaining 600 with him trekked inland, leaving on April 6, 1536. In spite of the heat, all the men wore heavily padded quilted cotton to protect them from arrows; even the horses were covered in the improvised armor.

Quesada had arranged a meeting point up the Magdalena River where the men on foot would meet with the boats, which carried much of the supplies. The land group were slowed down by the jungle, occasional attacks by Indians, insects, and disease.

However they reached the agreed meeting point on time but the sea party was not there. After waiting a few days, Quesada urged the men to continue inland, rather than return to Santa Marta. Although he had no military training, Quesada’s years as a lawyer enabled him to present the matter in a persuasive manner, and all acquiesced.

The men were desperately short of food, and there are the usual accounts of eating snakes, lizards, frogs, and even some dogs captured from the Indians, as well as boiling down leather harnesses to satiate their hunger.

Expedition Saved

Quesada in Bogota

The expedition was saved when the sea party turned up soon afterward, having been delayed by tropical storms. Quesada was then able to send the sickest men back to Santa Marta, replenish the supplies of the others, and press on with the expedition, which, in January 1537, reached the foothills of the Andes.

After covering 400 miles in eight months, there were only 166 men and 60 horses left. Quesada then had his men elect him as their captain-general, and they were determined to conquer land for themselves.

Unlike many other conquistadores, Quesada forbade his men to slaughter Indians, urging them to treat them humanely. However, Quesada was not averse to looting Indian temples, which were often covered in gold and precious stones. After one Indian chief, Bogotá, was killed in battle, the Spanish captured his successor, Sagipa, whom they offered to free for a large ransom in gold.

Soon afterward, Quesada heard that Sagipa was planning to trick him, and he had the chief executed. The nearby land was then declared conquered “in the name of his most sovereign emperor, Charles V.” A small township was then built, which Quesada named as Santa Fe de Bogotá (it was long believed that Quesada was born at Santa Fe, in Spain).

Having established his own town, Quesada was eager to return to Santa Marta and have the conquest officially acknowledged. Before he could do so, two other conquistador parties arrived.

One, led by Sebastián de Belalcázar, one of the men who had served under Francisco Pizarro, arrived from Quito, having founded the cities of Pasto, Popayan, and Cali. The other, led by a German adventurer, Nicholas Federman, on an expedition paid for by the Welser financiers of Germany, who had been granted a concession by Charles V, had come from Venezuela.

The three forces—that of Quesada, and the two new arrivals—were all about the same size, and they all realized that any fight would probably leave the victor, with numbers seriously depleted, at risk of attack from the Chibcha Indians, who still lived in the area.

Sense prevailed and the three decided to return to Spain and put their claims to the king of Spain, who would be able to arbitrate the matter. It seems that Quesada would have been the man who suggested this and also thought that he would have the best hope of winning any litigation.

Quesada then returned to the coast and in July 1539 sailed from Cartagena back to Spain. In Madrid, all three conquistadores failed to win the land. Don Pedro de Lugo, who had been a friend of Quesada, had died and his son, Luís, who had abandoned Santa Marta many years earlier after having stolen vast amounts of gold and emeralds from the Indians, was given title to his father’s land, and to the area found by Quesada. Quesada was appointed marshal of New Granada, and an alderman of Bogotá, the city he had founded.

Returning to New Granada, as the new Spanish colony was called, Quesada became one of the most influential men in the region, where he was well known for being critical of the rapaciousness of the large landowners, and also that of some officials.

Many people came to him for advice and it was not until 1569, when he was in his 70s, that Quesada decided to lead one last expedition. This was to try to locate the famous El Dorado, which was said to be 500 miles southeast of Bogotá.

There, an Indian king was said to cover himself in gold dust and then wash it all off in a lake. The legend had long captivated many people in Europe and the king of Spain agreed to help with the expedition in exchange for a share in the proceeds.

The expedition had 300 mounted soldiers, 1,500 Indian porters, several hundred black African slaves, 1,100 horses and mules, 600 cattle, and 800 sheep. Nearly three years later, Quesada led 28 men back to Bogotá.

On the journey several thousand Spanish, Indians, and Africans had died, and others had fled into the jungle. Disease, Indians, and wild animals had taken their toll and even Quesada had contracted leprosy. He was also faced with a massive bill—60,000 ducats—for the failed expedition.

Devastated by his failure, Quesada retired to his country house, La Suesca, where he wrote of his life, in the hope that sales might help pay off his debts. He died on February 16, 1579, of leprosy. His book was lost. The township that Quesada had founded is now the city of Bogotá (current population 7 million), and one of the main roads in the city is Avenida Jiménez de Quesada.