Cover image for Invading Colombia: Spanish Accounts of the Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada Expedition of Conquest By J. Michael Francis

Invading Colombia

Spanish Accounts of the Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada Expedition of Conquest

J. Michael Francis


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Latin American Originals

Invading Colombia

Spanish Accounts of the Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada Expedition of Conquest

J. Michael Francis

“To add to the tragic brutalities of Cortés’s conquest of Mexico and Pizarro’s conquest of Peru, J. Michael Francis now offers us an admirable reconstruction of the hitherto unexplored events that took place to the east of Peru. His Invading Colombia: Spanish Accounts of the Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada Expedition of Conquest is the result of an exhaustive exploration of Sevillian archives. Accompanied by a lively introduction, and by commentaries and annotations that are as reliable as they are readable, the book poses the intriguing question of why an exploration that led more Spaniards into Colombia than Cortés led into Mexico, or Pizarro into Peru, should have remained almost completely unknown.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
In early April 1536, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada led a military expedition from the coastal city of Santa Marta deep into the interior of what is today modern Colombia. With roughly eight hundred Spaniards and numerous native carriers and black slaves, the Jiménez expedition was larger than the combined forces under Hernando Cortés and Francisco Pizarro. Over the course of the one-year campaign, nearly three-quarters of Jiménez’s men perished, most from illness and hunger. Yet, for the 179 survivors, the expedition proved to be one of the most profitable campaigns of the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, the history of the Spanish conquest of Colombia remains virtually unknown.

Through a series of firsthand primary accounts, translated into English for the first time, Invading Colombia reconstructs the compelling tale of the Jiménez expedition, the early stages of the Spanish conquest of Muisca territory, and the foundation of the city of Santa Fé de Bogotá. We follow the expedition from the Canary Islands to Santa Marta, up the Magdalena River, and finally into Colombia’s eastern highlands. These highly engaging accounts not only challenge many current assumptions about the nature of Spanish conquests in the New World, but they also reveal a richly entertaining, yet tragic, tale that rivals the great conquest narratives of Mexico and Peru.

“To add to the tragic brutalities of Cortés’s conquest of Mexico and Pizarro’s conquest of Peru, J. Michael Francis now offers us an admirable reconstruction of the hitherto unexplored events that took place to the east of Peru. His Invading Colombia: Spanish Accounts of the Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada Expedition of Conquest is the result of an exhaustive exploration of Sevillian archives. Accompanied by a lively introduction, and by commentaries and annotations that are as reliable as they are readable, the book poses the intriguing question of why an exploration that led more Spaniards into Colombia than Cortés led into Mexico, or Pizarro into Peru, should have remained almost completely unknown.”
“Not only does this volume present a fascinating story as told by participants and contemporaries, its impeccable scholarship, useful maps, tables, and index, and the lucidity of Francis’s writing will make it valuable not only to students but to others as well who are interested in the early period of Spanish expansion in the Americas and the varied peoples they encountered there.”

J. Michael Francis is Hough Family Chair of Florida Studies and Professor of History at the University of South Florida - St. Petersburg


List of Maps and Tables


Preface and Acknowledgments

1. Introduction: The Other Andean Conquest

2. Three Capitulaciones: Don Pedro Fernández de Lugo and the Governorship of Santa Marta

3. By Land and by Sea: From Santa Marta to La Tora

4. Into the Highlands: From La Tora to Muisca Territory

5. Treasure, Torture, and the Licenciado’s Return





The Other Andean Conquest

[Cortés and Pizarro] did not discover or settle better or richer provinces than I, even if [the lands they conquered] were larger.

—Don Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, 1562

In 1528, eight years before Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada’s expedition embarked on its journey up the Magdalena River, a Spanish vessel bound for Seville docked briefly in the port city of Santa Marta, located on modern Colombia’s Caribbean coast (see Map 1). This was not a rare occurrence; ships destined for Spain stopped in Santa Marta with some frequency. But this particular vessel generated an unusual amount of excitement among Santa Marta’s residents. The ship’s exotic cargo included some unique treasures that had been collected from somewhere along the Pacific coast of South America, by a band of conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro. Pizarro hoped that these gifts would earn Crown favor and thus help him to secure a royal contract (capitulación) to conquer the region for Spain. Of course, these treasures, which included several strange New World sheep, only hinted at the fabulous riches that Pizarro and his followers would win when they returned to Peru four years later.

Rodrigo Alvarez Palomino, however, Santa Marta’s governor at the time, was so impressed by the 1528 cargo that he immediately organized an expeditionary force to explore Colombia’s interior in an effort locate the source of these riches. Alvarez assembled three hundred foot soldiers and fifty horsemen for the expedition, but his untimely death doomed the venture before it even left Santa Marta. Further attempts to launch overland expeditions from Santa Marta failed to locate rich new lands, and all were plagued by severe shortages of men, money, and supplies. Thus, with the continued failures of expeditions into the interior, coupled with an increasingly hostile local indigenous population, Santa Marta faced possible abandonment.

Four years later, news of Pizarro’s exploits in Peru reached Santa Marta’s already disgruntled residents. This only served to make matters worse. With rumors of unimaginable riches to be had in the Inca realm, many of Santa Marta’s inhabitants abandoned the province and made their way to Peru. One of Santa Marta’s residents later testified that the reports from Peru had sparked a mass exodus, leaving the coastal town virtually abandoned. By early 1535, only nine horsemen and forty foot soldiers remained to defend the city from potential attacks from local natives, or from French or British pirates. The city desperately needed a massive infusion of men and resources, without which the Crown risked losing what little presence it had along South America’s northern coast.

The solution to Santa Marta’s woes came from a most unlikely source. In late 1534 the sixty-year-old governor of the Canary Islands, adelantado don Pedro Fernández de Lugo, sent his son Alonso to Spain to negotiate terms for the conquest and governorship of Santa Marta. Twice the Crown rejected Lugo’s proposals, until at last the two parties reached an accord. In the final agreement, signed on January 22, 1535, don Pedro promised to recruit, organize, and equip an armada of seventeen hundred men to sail to Santa Marta. Furthermore, he committed to the construction of three fortresses to defend the town from attack, and he agreed to build six brigantines in order to launch an expedition to discover the source of the Magdalena River. Eager to prevent the complete abandonment of the province, and at the same time promote further exploration of the South American interior, the Crown offered Lugo (and his son) a long list of concessions, including the governorship of all new lands conquered between Santa Marta and the South Sea (that is, the Pacific Ocean). Santa Marta’s fortunes were about to change.

At the end of November 1535, after more than seven months of careful and costly preparations, don Pedro Fernández de Lugo’s armada departed from the port of Santa Cruz on the island of Tenerife. In all, the armada consisted of no fewer than ten ships, which together carried somewhere between one thousand and twelve hundred passengers (among them a small number of women and black slaves). After a brief stop on the island of Hispaniola to gather additional supplies, the armada continued to Santa Marta, where it arrived to great fanfare and celebration on January 2, 1536. The new governor wasted no time in his effort to recoup the expenses he had incurred over the previous months. After several moderately profitable campaigns into nearby provinces, Lugo selected his lieutenant general, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, to command an expedition up the Magdalena River. In early April, just three months after his armada had arrived in Santa Marta, don Pedro sent the Jiménez expedition into the Colombian interior.

The Other Andean Conquest

It is unfortunate that the conquest of New Granada has not captured more popular or academic interest. Its influence on the broader historiography of the conquest era has been marginal at best. However, a closer examination of the Jiménez expedition reveals several important characteristics that challenge conventional wisdom about the conquest period in general and the lives of the conquistadors. For example, a brief comparison of the ages, previous New World experience, and attrition rates for Francisco Pizarro’s forces (the “men of Cajamarca”) and Jiménez’s men forces us to reconsider some long-held notions about the conquest of the New World and the conquistadors who participated in it.

Previous New World military experience, or lack thereof, is one of several striking differences between Pizarro’s men of Cajamarca and Jiménez’s men of New Granada. For example, more than half of Peru’s first conquistadors had at least five years of military experience in the New World. Furthermore, almost all the leaders of the expedition were hardened veterans; men such as Francisco Pizarro, Sebastián de Belalcázar, and Hernando de Soto had been in the Indies for two decades. By contrast, with less than four months’ experience in the Indies, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada was a true chapetón, an unseasoned and inexperienced newcomer to the Americas. And he was not the only one. Of the ninety-three veterans of the expedition for whom we have data, only sixteen had more than five years of experience in the Indies. A handful had previous military experience in other parts of Europe, but 63 percent of Jiménez’s men had practically no military experience at all. In fact, the vast majority, Jiménez among them, had only arrived in the Indies in January 1536, as part of Pedro Fernández de Lugo’s ten-vessel armada. Thus, unlike either the Cortés expedition to Mexico or Pizarro’s forces in Peru, the conquest of Colombia’s eastern highlands was, for the most part, carried out by newcomers to the Americas.

Not only did Jiménez’s men lack military experience in the Indies, but their inexperience was also combined with youth (see Table 1.2). Among Pizarro’s men, roughly 31 percent (34 of the 107 men for whom there is evidence) were under the age of twenty-five when they arrived in Cajamarca in 1532; by contrast, of the 121 veterans of the Jiménez expedition for whom we have data, 55 percent fell into that category, with another 17 percent falling between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. The median age of the “men of New Granada” was only twenty-three. This combination of youth and inexperience perhaps explains why only 179 of the roughly eight hundred Spaniards on the expedition survived the twelve-month venture; still, as we will see below, those who reached Muisca territory tended to live long lives. Not only that, but most veterans of the Jiménez expedition chose to remain in New Granada; only twenty men are known to have returned home to Spain, and no fewer than 108 decided to settle permanently in some part of New Granada.

Perhaps the most striking difference between Pizarro’s men of Cajamarca and the men of New Granada, and a topic that certainly merits further inquiry, is the dramatic variation in the attrition rates (see Table 1.3). Among Jiménez’s men, the median age at death was more than sixty years old, astonishing for the sixteenth century and even more remarkable among conquistadors. No fewer than forty-two veterans of the expedition lived beyond the age of sixty-five, and half of those lived well into their seventies or early eighties. For reasons not yet fully understood, the conquistadors of New Granada enjoyed far longer lives than their counterparts in Peru and, most probably, elsewhere in the Americas. Of course, it is important to note that New Granada did not experience any of the bitter civil wars that claimed the lives of at least thirty-one of Pizarro’s men before peace finally came to Peru in the 1550s. Military conflicts, either between competing Spanish factions or against the Muisca population, were rare affairs in early colonial New Granada. But it is unlikely that postconquest violence, or lack thereof, accounts for such a dramatic difference in the attrition rates of the two regions.

Perhaps more important than challenging some of the conventional wisdom about the conquistadors in general, a more rigorous examination of the conquest of New Granada forces us to reconsider several of the accepted notions of the Jiménez expedition itself. Even the purpose of the expedition should be subject to greater scrutiny. Most accounts of the conquest of New Granada explain that the expedition’s aim was twofold: to discover an overland route to Peru, and to follow the Magdalena River to its source, which many believed would lead them to the South Sea. A 1537 letter from Santa Marta’s town council to the Crown (translated in Chapter 2 of this volume), written just thirteen months after don Pedro Fernández de Lugo’s death, certainly supports the claim that the Jiménez expedition had been sent to discover a path to Peru.

Indeed, news of Pizarro’s exploits in Peru generated widespread excitement in the governorships of Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Venezuela. In August 1533 the members of Santa Marta’s cabildo (town council) sent a letter to the Crown explaining that local Spanish sailors were convinced that following the Magdalena River would lead to the South Sea and to Peru. Six months later, Santa Marta’s governor, García de Lerma, reiterated this belief. Similar letters were sent to Spain from the governorships in Cartagena, Venezuela, and even from the Audiencia (high court) of Santo Domingo. For example, in a letter dated November 27, 1534, Santo Domingo’s secretary, Diego Caballero, wrote a letter in which he urged the Crown to send at least five hundred Spaniards to Santa Marta. According to Caballero, not only would this lead to the opening of a land route from Santa Marta to Peru, it would also lead to the discovery of “many other Perus” that must exist between the two regions. It is likely that Caballero’s letter reached Madrid just as the Crown was finalizing the details of its agreement (capitulación) with don Pedro Fernández de Lugo.

While the discovery of an overland route to Peru would have appealed to the Crown, a careful examination of other documentary evidence reveals that the participants themselves probably had different motivations and expectations. In fact, it is unlikely that the men who volunteered to join the Jiménez expedition had much interest in plotting an overland route to Peru, a place that already had been conquered and settled by Spaniards; moreover, the spoils of the conquest had long since been divided among the fortunate few who had followed Pizarro from Panama. Likewise, the quest to find the Pacific Ocean did not motivate men to invest their earnings and risk their lives on this venture. Instead, what Jiménez and his followers wanted was to find was a hitherto undiscovered “Peru,” a “Cajamarca” of their very own. In fact, in the rich corpus of available documentary evidence, few veterans of the Jiménez expedition ever suggest that their mission was to discover an overland route to Peru, or to locate a river route to the South Sea. Instead, when asked about the purpose of the Jiménez expedition, most men simply stated that the goal was to discover tierras nuevas, new lands.

Even Pedro Fernández de Lugo’s motivation for authorizing the expedition was based on the desire to find new lands, and with them the profits needed to cover the debts he had incurred in mounting his armada. Of course, the search for an overland route from Santa Marta to Peru and the South Sea most certainly would have appealed to the Crown, something that Lugo used to his advantage in his negotiations to secure the rights to conquer the region, but that goal did not inspire Lugo himself. Jiménez and his men were sent out to win riches, and Lugo stood to earn 10 percent of all the spoils. Not only that, but one should not forget that Lugo had been granted the governorship of all new lands discovered between the city of Santa Marta and the South Sea. Most assuredly, then, Lugo was interested in reaching the South Sea, if only to determine the full extent of his governorship. Still, it is also worth noting that in Lugo’s written instructions to Jiménez, drafted four days before the expedition departed from Santa Marta, there is no mention of Peru, nor are there any references to the search for the South Sea, let alone what the men should do if they succeeded in finding either. Instead, of the fourteen instructions given to Jiménez, eleven addressed either the just treatment of the indigenous populations they should encounter or the nature in which all the gold (and other booty) should be acquired, recorded, and distributed. Undoubtedly, the conquest of Peru provided powerful incentives to launch expeditions into undiscovered parts of the South American continent—but the participants who joined these ventures, and the governors who authorized and helped to fund them, did so in the hope of finding new riches of their own.

As the opening paragraph of the preface suggests, narrative accounts of the Jiménez expedition bear a striking resemblance to the Peruvian conquest narrative—the timing, the Andean backdrop, the numbers of men involved (168 in Peru, 179 in New Granada), as well as the captured cacique, his promised ransom, and his subsequent execution. These are all shared features of both conquest narratives. A closer examination of the conquest of New Granada reveals far more differences than similarities, however. Perhaps the most enduring misconception of the Spanish conquest of Muisca territory involves the story of the indigenous civil war, and its influence on the eventual outcome. Interpretations of the conquest of Peru and the conquest of New Granada both emphasize the importance of the bitter civil unrest at the moment Spaniards first arrived. And while there is indisputable evidence of such a conflict between Atahualpa and Huascar in the Inca realm, there is no compelling evidence in either Spanish or Colombian archives to support the occurrence of a civil war in Muisca territory. Future scholarship may prove otherwise, but the so-called Muisca civil war between the Zipa of Bogotá and the Zaque of Tunja appears to be nothing more than an invention of later Spanish chroniclers (none of whom participated in the conquest), whose treatment of the conquest of New Granada simply borrowed from the Peruvian conquest narratives. Curiously, despite the lack of corroborative evidence, historians have never questioned the veracity of the Zipa-Zaque civil war, and it continues to be repeated in virtually every treatment of the Spanish conquest of New Granada.

Readers will note that none of the primary documents that follow, which represent some of the earliest firsthand accounts of the conquest story, makes any reference to a civil war between the caciques of Bogotá and Tunja. Not only that, but readers will also notice (in Chapter 5) that when Bogotá’s ruler, Sagipa, offered his allegiance to Jiménez in exchange for Spanish military assistance, it was not to launch a campaign against Tunja but rather to fight against Bogotá’s real enemies, the Panches. Until more convincing evidence emerges, the common perception that the conquest of Muisca territory was facilitated by an internal civil war between the Zipa and the Zaque should thus be viewed with deep suspicion.

The Sources

As mentioned earlier, no single account stands out as the authoritative voice on the conquest of New Granada, but the absence of such a voice should not suggest that there is a paucity of documentary evidence on the subject. What follows, then, is a reconstruction of the Jiménez expedition and the conquest of Muisca territory, told from the perspectives of seven different sixteenth-century primary documents. Five of the documents included in this study appear in their entirety; two others have been abridged slightly. Readers will note that most of the book is based on three lengthy accounts, namely, the anonymous “Relación de Santa Marta” (probably written by Captain Antonio Díaz Cardoso circa 1545), Captain Juan de San Martín and Captain Antonio de Lebrija’s “Relación del Nuevo Reino” (1539), and the “Epítome de la conquista del Nuevo Reino de Granada.” Excerpts from all three of these accounts appear in Chapters 2, 3, and 4 in order to maintain a clear chronology of the events as they unfolded and to facilitate a comparative examination of the sources. Detailed footnotes also have been added throughout the translations, many from the vast body of colonial probanzas de méritos, or “proof-of-merit” petitions. Brief introductions to each chapter establish the historical context for the documents that follow, and in some cases an additional preface has been added for further clarification.

The story begins in late 1534, with don Pedro Fernández de Lugo’s negotiations with the Crown for the rights to the conquest and governorship of the province of Santa Marta. The three documents in Chapter 2 include don Pedro’s initial petition, his son Alonso’s amended proposal, followed by the final agreement (capitulación), signed in late January 1535. Chapter 3 picks up the story fourteen months later, shortly after the Lugo armada has arrived in Santa Marta. The four documents in Chapter 3 include short excerpts from the two Relaciones, the Epítome, and a 1537 letter from the town council (cabildo) of Santa Marta. All four documents chronicle the first stage of the Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada expedition, a seven-month period that begins with the departure of Jiménez’s ground forces on April 5, 1536, and ends as Jiménez and two hundred followers abandon their route up the Magdalena River and begin their climb into the eastern highlands.

Chapters 4 and 5 include excerpts from the same three sources, namely, the two Relaciones and the “Epítome de la conquista del Nuevo Reino de Granada.” Chapter 4 follows the few surviving members of the expedition across the Opón Mountains and into Muisca territory, where they arrive in early March 1537. It also contains a lengthy section from the Epítome, which provides rich details of Muisca culture and society. The fifth and final chapter, the longest in the book, chronicles a two-year period bound roughly by the Spanish sacking of the Muisca pueblo of Tunja in August 1537 and Jiménez de Quesada’s return to Spain in early July 1539. This period witnessed some of the most dramatic and tragic events of the conquest, such as Bogotá’s murder, the military campaigns against the Panches, the distribution of the booty, and the search for the Amazon women. Two of the three documents translated in Chapter 5 also chronicle the circumstances surrounding the capture, arrest, torture, and subsequent death of Bogotá’s successor, Sagipa. And all three sources end with the arrival in New Granada of the two other expeditionary forces, one from Venezuela, led by Nicolás Federmán (Nikolaus Federmann), the other from Peru, under the command of the conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar. For Jiménez, the unexpected arrival of competing groups of conquistadors led all three men to return quickly to Spain to press their claims to this newly discovered region, and it is with their departure for Spain that the accounts end.

One final note of caution before proceeding—as valuable as the following sources are for helping to piece together the details of the Jiménez expedition and the subsequent exploration, conquest, and colonization of Muisca territory, it is important to acknowledge their significant silences. Spanish accounts reveal virtually nothing of the scores of black slaves, or native carriers, guides, cooks, and translators, all of whom played important if forgotten roles in this story. And although some of the accounts that follow, the Epítome in particular, include some of the earliest descriptions of Muisca culture, including details of their religious beliefs and practices, diet, weapons, clothing, and government, these descriptions are all presented from Spanish perspectives. Not only that, but the accounts reveal almost nothing about the multitude of non-Muisca peoples who resided along the Magdalena River; the only other native group discussed in any detail are the Panches. Spanish descriptions of Panche society are highly untrustworthy, however, and should be read with great care. As a people who resisted both Muisca and Spanish incursions into their territory, the Panches have been treated very unkindly by colonial documents. In the few accounts where they are discussed, the Panches are judged harshly, often reduced by Spanish observers to nothing more than naked cannibals whose daily lives were motivated by their quest for human flesh. It is most unfortunate that for New Granada there exist none of the native accounts of the conquest period that have so enriched the historiography of other parts of the Americas. Sadly, then, in the story that follows, the voices of Muiscas and Panches remain silent.