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El Dorado in the Marshes: Gold, Slaves and Souls between the Andes and the Amazon

ISBN: 978-0-7456-4552-0
368 pages
December 2009, Polity
El Dorado in the Marshes: Gold, Slaves and Souls between the Andes and the Amazon (0745645526) cover image
The search for gold and for the mythical El Dorado gripped the imagination of the conquistadors from the beginning of the sixteenth century. Crossing over the Andes, they explored the unknown eastern forests and jungles, launching expeditions that were often disastrous and always disappointing. As the range of exploration expanded, El Dorado retreated, always just beyond the horizon.

The last goal of these explorations was the land of the Mojos, a land located in the upper Amazon basin and which lies many months of the year submerged under water. It is a mysterious land and, as legend had it, inhabited by a people rich in gold and precious stones. Yet all the Spaniards found – as narrated in these compelling pages – was a limitless swamp, sparsely inhabited by a small number of people and so ill suited to usual system of productive forced labor. It was the Jesuits instead who established here a network of missions second in size and population only to that or Paraguay and so went in search of souls rather than gold.

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Introduction.

I A gold nugget as large as a suckling pig; the treasure of Atahuallpa enriches 74 horsemen, 138 foot soldiers, and the king of Spain; El Dorado, a vain cacique covered in gold dust washes off in the lagoon; stories of Amazons and a Greek artilleryman.

II At the foot of the Andes, under water for five months of the year. The inhabitants of the great swamp: mild, ingenious, adaptable. Three men in a boat take a census. Vast quantities of land and water, but no gold, silver, or precious stones.

III The myth of Paititi, Father-Tiger, and the mysterious Incan migrations over the Andes. A rich and noble mestizo with fourteen men seeks to conquer half of America. El Dorado bogs down in the swamps of the Mojos. The citizens of Santa Cruz – eleven disorderly streets – look for slaves.

IV The round up of Indian slaves comes to an end while the contest for their souls begins. A chaplain-physician and a polyglot missionary. Hatchets, wedges, and knives in exchange for obedience. Three-naved cathedrals of mud and wood.

V The good fathers confront the loose habits of the Mojos. A straw mattress, two geese, and two spindles make up the bride’s dowry. The Indios and disease: stoic or healthy? Portuguese and Spaniards at war on the edge of the swamp. The sad expulsion of the fathers in 1768: twenty-four leave but only fourteen arrive.

Epilog.

Chronology.

Glossary.

Appendix.

Index.

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Massimo Livi Bacci is Professor of Demography at the University of Florence.
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  • An enthralling account of the Spanish search for gold in the Americas and the myth of 'the gilded man'.
  • Livi Bacci is an outstanding historian and demographer of the early modern period.
  • This is beautifully illustrated throughout, with paintings from the time and stunning photographs of the gold artefacts.
  • This compelling study will appeal to all those interested in this history of colonialization as well as the interested general reader.
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"Following in wake of Spanish explorers and missionaries centuries ago, Massimo Livi Bacci enters the extraordinary world of Bolivia's Llanos de Mojos. There he documents the European search for an elusive El Dorado, finding instead sustainable, indigenous adaptations that in time were modified and undone by outside intrusion."
W. George Lovell, Queen's University, Canada

"Massimo Livi Bacci weaves together with masterful skill narratives of European exploration, Jesuit relations, and demographic data to tell a remarkable story of the Mojos, indigenous peoples of what is today eastern Bolivia. Livi Bacci places the Mojos' story within the totality of colonialism, its ruthless quest for gold and slaves, its diseases, its religious imperatives to save Native souls, and its imperial rivalries and warfare. In doing so, Livi Bacci shows how the Mojos' history was neither linear nor preordained. El Dorado in the Marshes provides an even-handed account and is a must read for those who want an accessible yet sophisticated telling of European colonization and its impact on indigenous peoples."
Paul Kelton, University of Kansas

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