Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada

Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (1509-1579) was a major Spanish conquistador. His conquest of the Chibchas brought one of the important American culture areas under Spanish rule.

Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada was born at Cordova, probably of a converted Jewish family. He studied at a university, presumably Salamanca, and practiced law for several years before the Royal Audiencia of Granada. In 1535 Pedro Fernández de Lugo, newly appointed governor of Santa Marta on the Caribbean, offered Jiménez de Quesada the post of chief magistrate there, and he accepted.

When Lugo's large expedition reached Santa Marta, it found the infant colony in bad condition, with food scarce and disease prevalent. The governor's son, Alonso de Lugo, soon absconded to Spain with the first gold supply discovered, but the elderly Don Pedro remained hopeful. He sent Quesada, in whom he had discovered qualities of leadership, into the interior with most of the available manpower.

Conquest of the Chibchas

With about 800 men and several brigantines, Quesada ascended the Magdalena River with no precise objective. The ascent provided great hardships, as the men died rapidly of hunger, fever, snakebite, and the attacks of Indians and wild beasts. When Quesada reached the Opón, a Magdalena tributary, 9 months after leaving Santa Marta, he was near the semicivilized Chibcha (or Muisca) Indian country, rich in gold and precious stones. He had 166 men and 62 horses left with which to undertake the conquest.

Though the Chibchas had a warlike history, their conquest proved rather easy, as they seemed psychologically cowed by the Spaniards. Entering their land early in 1537, Quesada soon defeated and slew their most powerful chieftain, Zipa Bacatá, and took his city. He also made short work of the second in power, the Zaque of Tunja. By August 1538 Quesada had the plateau of Cundinamarca under fairly firm control. Next, Sebastián de Benalcázar from Popayán and Nikolaus Federmann from Coro in Venezuela brought their own expeditions to the Chibcha country, lured by reports of gold. Questions of jurisdiction arose, and the three decided to go together to Spain for a royal judgment.

Quesada proved slow in getting to the court and damaged his reputation by frequently gambling, being once arrested in Lisbon for gaming after hours. These delays caused the thieving Alonso de Lugo to be preferred over him—Don Pedro having meanwhile died—and Alonso received both Santa Marta and New Granada, as Quesada's conquest was called. Lugo went to Bogotá, but the general knowledge of his former misconduct and the corruption of his government forced him soon to leave.

Quesada left Spain and settled for some years in France and Flanders. In 1549, his fortune spent, and no longer young, he petitioned in Spain for some appointment in New Granada and received the title of marshal of Bogotá. He went there in 1550 and, despite his poverty, became the leading citizen of the area and was virtually governor de facto.

In 1569 Quesada led an expedition into the interior of South America in search of fabled El Dorado. It lasted 3 years and explored the tributaries of the Orinoco and Amazon, from which he and a few disappointed survivors returned. He died in 1579 and is said to have been a leper, but many skin ailments were then called leprosy and his disease cannot be diagnosed with certainty.

Further Reading on Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada

Biographies of Jiménez de Quesada are R. B. Cunninghame Graham, The Conquest of New Granada, Being the Life of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (1922), and Germán Arciniegas, Knight of El Dorado (1939; trans. 1942). Each has some merits, yet neither is entirely reliable. Walker Chapman, The Golden Dream (1963), has a chapter on the Chibcha conquest. Jesús M. Henao and Gerardo Arrubla, History of Colombia, translated and edited by J. Fred Rippy (1938), provides reliable material on Quesada.

Additional Biography Sources

Cunninghame Graham, R. B. (Robert Bontine), 1852-1936., The conquest of New Granada: being the life of Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, Boston: Longwood Press, 1978.