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In 1492, the first known European explorers reached the Caribbean region when Christopher Columbus, sailing under the Spanish flag, landed in the Bahamas. For nearly 50 years after, very few ships sailed in the region.

In 1499 Alonzo de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci, sailing together, reached the northern coast of South America in the region of Suriname. They then sailed west along the coast of Guyana. Vincente Yanez Pinzon in 1500 also sailed along the Guyana coast, but no attempt to land was then made, with the exception of an unsuccessful effort by Pinzon in the neighbourhood of the Amazon.

Immediately after the territorial discoveries were made by Columbus, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella petitioned Pope Alexander IV to recognise the "new" lands as Spanish possessions. At that time, the Pope's declaration was regarded as the supreme law in the Christian world, and it was important for Spain to win papal recognition of its discoveries, particularly at the same time when Portuguese explorers were reaching lands in Africa and Asia. The Portuguese had also approached the Pope to recognise their African "discoveries" as their legal possessions.

In 1493, as a result of these requests, the Pope drew on a map a north-south line 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands and proclaimed that all lands discovered west of that line belonged to Spain. When the Portuguese objected that the line was too near to Africa, the Pope, after consultations with the Portuguese and Spanish sovereigns, in 1494 drafted the Treaty of Tordesillas by which the line was shifted to 270 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. Thus, the American continent, with the exception of Brazil, fell under Spanish domination.

The Treaty of Tordesillas is significant because it would be used in later years by Venezuela, who inherited Spanish rights after independence, to lay claim to nearly the whole of Essequibo. However, it is important to note that, except for the rulers of Spain and Portugal, other European sovereigns never recognised this Treaty which divided the world between Spain and Portugal.

By the year 1500, the coast from the Amazon to the Orinoco began to be referred to as Guyana. At first little attention was placed on exploring this region. Actually, the Spaniards only began to take an interest in South America when Pizzaro found gold in Peru.

In Colombia, the Spaniards learned about the legend of El Dorado and his golden city of Manoa. They tried desperately to find the fabled golden city there, and after they failed, they moved eastwards to look for it in the Guyana region.

Many expeditions came to Guyana. An important one was led (about 1530) by Don Pedro Malaver da Silva who investigated the region between the Essequibo River and the Oyapok River to the west. His expedition was a disaster and all, except one member of his party, were killed by the Caribs. The lone survivor Juan Martinez, according to his own story, begged the Caribs to spare his life which they did. He lived with them in the Caroni district for ten years, and then escaped by way of the Essequibo River to the island of Margarita on the coast of Venezuela. There he told people of his experience and said that he was living in the golden city until he escaped.

Not much is known about Martinez. Another account says that in 1531 he was a crew member of a ship captained by Don Diego de Ordas on an expedition up the Orinoco. Martinez was in charge of the munitions, but after the gunpowder exploded, he was punished for his negligence by being set adrift in a canoe. It was in this manner that he was found by his captors.

The Legend of El Dorado

In one version of his tale, Juan Martinez related that his Amerindian captors blindfolded him, and after a forced march for four days, took him to their city. His blindfold was removed and he was astounded at the sight before him. As far as he could see were houses made of gold and precious stones. For an entire day, they marched him through the golden city, which was built on the banks of a lake named Parima (in the area of the Rupununi), until they arrived at the palace of their king, El Dorado. The king ordered that he should be treated well, but prevented him from leaving the city which was called Manoa. According to Martinez, El Dorado was bathed with gold dust and anointed with fragrant spices and herbs each day.

After many months, Martinez longed to return to his own people. At first El Dorado refused, but finally relented. He gave him a large quantity of gifts of gold and precious stones and provided him with guides to lead him to the Orinoco River. However, on the way hostile Amerindians attacked them but Martinez managed to escape, despite being wounded, with two gourds of gold beads. Somehow, he managed to reach Margarita where he related the tale to priests who nursed him of his wounds.

This story, which was probably aimed at winning sympathy for himself, fired the imagination of many adventurers and soon the existence of a golden city in the Guyana region was much talked about in Europe.

While there existed many stories of the location of the mythical Manoa in Andean locations in Peru and Colombia, it was the Spanish Governor of Trinidad, Antonio de Berrio, who was responsible for fixing its site in the boundaries of Guyana. He himself made three expeditions to the region in 1584, 1585 and 1591. After he sent his lieutenant Domingo de Vera to make further explorations in 1593, Berrio declared that the city was near the source of the Caroni River, an eastern tributary of the Orinoco.

The Spaniards under Berrio were unable to get further into the interior. Sir Walter Raleigh, writing of 1595, stated that Berrio "dare not send any of his soldiers any farther into the land than to Carapana, which he called the port of Guiana". Large reinforcements arrived from Spain and they were put under the command of Domingo de Vera in 1596, so that Berrio had at his disposal some 470 men. He was able to, at once, send an expedition in the supposed direction of the fabled city of Manao. But the column was cut off by the Amerindians with the loss of over 350 men, and famine and pestilence decimated those who remained.