"Eldorado Exploring Expedition"
18th century engraving of the Eldorado legend
Public Domain18th century engraving of the Eldorado legend - Credit: Bernard Montabo

El Dorado was a legendary South American country of gold. It was one of a number of mythical regions of great riches (including Cíbola, Quivira, the City of the Caesars, and Otro Méjico); the search for these treasure-filled lands led to the rapid exploration and conquest of much of the Americas by Spanish conquistadors. In ‘Geography and Some Explorers’, Conrad described the discovery of the Americas as ‘the greatest outbreak of reckless cruelty and greed known to history’; he expressed little sympathy for exploration motivated by what he called the ‘acquisitive spirit, the idea of lucre in some form, the desire of trade or the desire of loot’:

I suppose it is not very charitable of me, but I must say that to this day I feel a malicious pleasure at the many disappointments of those pertinacious searchers for El Dorado who climbed mountains, pushed through forests, swam rivers, floundered in bogs, without giving a single thought to the science of geography. Not for them the serene joys of scientific research, but infinite toil, in hunger, thirst, sickness, battle; with broken heads, unseemly squabbles, and empty pockets in the end.

In a 1903 letter to Cunninghame-Green, Conrad saw that same ‘acquisitive spirit’ at work within the Belgian colonial enterprise, whose agents he described as ‘our modern conquistadores’:

Their achievement is monstrous enough in all conscience – but not as a great human force let loose, but rather like that of a gigantic and obscene beast. Leopold is their Pizarro, Thys their Cortez and their ‘lances’ are recruited amongst the souteneurs, sous-offs, maquereaux, fruit-secs [ponces, N.C.O.s, pimps, and losers] of all sorts on the pavements of Brussels and Antwerp.

Conrad's Eldorado Exploring Expedition was based on another group of gold-seekers, Alexandre Delcommune's Katanga expedition. This was one of a number of expeditions launched by Leopold with the aim of asserting sovereignty over Katanga, an area south of the Congo Free State rumoured to be rich in minerals and other natural resources (including copper and perhaps gold). Delcommune was instructed to persuade the kingdom's ruler, Msiri, to accept Leopold as king. His party reached Bunkeya in October 1891, but he failed in his diplomatic task and continued south to where the gold fields were thought to be.

Conrad would have encountered the party at Kinshasa, where the expedition arrived in three groups on 20/23 September and 5 October 1890, before leaving on 17 October.