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History Unplugged Podcast

with Scott Rank

The 1541 Spanish Expedition Down the Amazon to Find the Imaginary “El Dorado” and Valley of Cinnamon

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As Spanish conquistators slowly moved through Latin America, they encountered levels of wealth that were unimaginable. Most famously, Incan Emperor Atahualpa was captured by Francisco Pizarro and paid a ransom of a room filled with gold and then twice over with silver. The room was 22 feet long by 17 feet wide, filled to a height of about 8 feet. Such events fired the imaginations of the Spanish, who created myths such as of El Dorado, the “gilded man” who, legend held, was daily powdered from head to toe with gold dust, which he would then wash from himself in a lake whose silty bottom was now covered with gold dust and the golden trinkets tossed in as sacrificial offerings.

The story was fake but it lead to real expeditions, some of which were so dangerous that they nearly killed party members. Such is the 1541 expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro, Francisco’s brother, to find El Dorado, and his well-born lieutenant Francisco Orellana down the Amazon to find these riches.

Today’s guest is Buddy Levy, author of River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana and the Deadly First Voyage through the Amazon. He reconstructs the first complete European exploration of the world’s largest river and the relentless dangers around every bend.

Quickly, the enormous retinue of mercenaries, enslaved natives, horses, and hunting dogs are decimated by disease, starvation, and attacks in the jungle. Hopelessly lost in the swampy labyrinth, Pizarro and Orellana make a fateful decision to separate. While Pizarro eventually returns home barefoot and in rags, Orellana and fifty-seven men continue downriver into the unknown reaches of the mighty Amazon jungle and river. Theirs would be the greater glory.
May 17, 2022
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Meet Your Host
Scott Rank is the host of the History Unplugged Podcast and a PhD in history who specialized in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Before going down the academic route he worked as a journalist in Istanbul. He has written 12 history books on topics ranging from lost Bronze Age civilizations to the Age of Discovery. Some of his books include The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages and History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers.. Learn more about him by going to
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