Sierra de la Plata: The Inca Legend of the Silver Mountain
It was gold and silver that drove the Spanish on in their exploration and conquest of the Americas. By the 1530s, less than 50 years after Christopher Columbus had reached the New World, the Spanish had succeeded in conquering the two superpowers of the region, the Aztec and the Inca Empires. Yet, the encounter with these powerful empires, and the material wealth gained from them served only to fire the imagination and increase the European lust for gold. Both before and after the destruction of these empires, legends about fabled cities and places filled with gold, silver and other precious objects arose amongst the conquistadors, sending the explorers ever deeper into the interior of the continent. One of the legends circulating amongst them was that of the Sierra de la Plata .
Sierra de la Plata literally means ‘Mountain of Silver’, and is a legend about a city that was filled with a quantity of silver that was almost inconceivable. Although the Spanish would eventually discover the silver mines of Potosi in 1545, this was not the same as the legendary Sierra de la Plata . One of the reasons being that whilst Potosi is located further to the west in present day Bolivia, the Sierra de la Plata is reported to be situated somewhere deep in the jungles of Brazil. Moreover, whilst ‘ownership’ of Potosi was unclaimed until the arrival of the Spanish, the Sierra de la Plata is said to be ruled by a ‘White King’.
Some believe the legend of Sierra de la Plata came from Potosi Mountain. Image: View of Potosi (Cerro Rico). ( Public domain )
The legend of the Sierra de la Plata probably has its origins in the early 16th century. In 1515, the Portuguese explorer Juan Díaz de Solís was commissioned by the Spanish Crown to seek the elusive strait that connected the Atlantic Ocean to Balboa’s Southern Ocean, i.e. the Pacific Ocean. De Solís and his men sailed south along the coast of the continent until they arrived at the Rio de la Plata (meaning ‘River of Silver’), an estuary formed by the confluence of the Uruguay River and the Paraná River. De Solís then proceeded to explore the Uruguay River, where he was ambushed and killed by hostile Charria Indians.
- Mountains of Silver: Tiny Bolivian village of Potosi was once the largest industrial mining complex in the world
- The Search for Cibola, the Seven Cities of Gold
Landing of Juan Diaz de Solis on the shores of the Eastern Band (present Uruguay), stalked by the Charrúas, who would kill him soon after. ( Public domain )
The survivors of the expedition decided to return to Spain, and sailed north along the Brazilian coast. A violent storm, however, wrecked one of the ships off the island of Santa Catrina. It has been estimated that 18 men survived, one of them being a Portuguese explorer by the name of Aleixo Garcia. The fate of these castaways was not too bad, as the region was quite pleasant. The climate was gentle, whilst the rich forests and abundant game provided sufficient food. Drinkable water was also supplied by clean streams. Moreover, the natives, the Guarani, were friendly, and treated the men well. The men were stranded for years, and Garcia eventually learnt the language of these people. Through his conversations with the Guarani, Garcia became aware of stories told about the Incas, the Sierra de la Plata and the White King who ruled it.
Map from the Miller Atlas (1519) showing the coast of Brazil and the mouth of the Río de la Plata. ( Public domain )
This story prompted Garcia to lead an expedition in search of this wealthy city. Garcia managed to muster an army of 2,000 Guarani warriors, who were enthusiastic about the prospect of raiding the Incas. Leaving two of his men behind (to make contact with any European ship that might stop in the area), Garcia headed west, eventually reaching the foothills of the Andes. Somewhere between Miaque and Tomina, Garcia and his Guarani army penetrated the Inca frontier, and began to pillage and plunder as they pressed on. At the towns of Presto and Tarabuco, near Sucre, the capital of present day Bolivia, the Incas finally managed to stop the invaders. Faced with an opposition of 20,000 trained Inca warriors, Garcia decided on a tactical retreat to raise reinforcements and secure the loot. Before returning to Santa Catarina, however, Garcia, his European companions, and a large number of Guaranis were murdered on the Paraguay River, well beyond Inca territory. A later record states that Garcia was killed in the spring of 1525, though it is unknown whether his assailants were former Indian allies or an entirely different group of natives.
Soon, a ship, the San Gabriel , had arrived at Santa Catarina, where the crew found Ramirez and Montes, the two men left behind by Garcia. The two men showed the captain some of the Inca silver sent to them by Garcia. The relationship between the stranded men and the captain, however, soured, and the San Gabriel sailed away shortly after without them. Nevertheless, the story of the Sierra de la Plata began to circulate and eventually reached Europe. Despite the fact that the Spanish succeeded in capturing the Inca ruler Atahualpa in 1532, the stories about the Sierra de la Plata continued to inspire the Europeans, and explorers continued searching for this legendary mountain and its White King. Though these searches have been futile, the legend lives on in the Rio de la Plata and the country Argentina, both of which derived their names from the myth of the Sierra de la Plata .
Featured image: Cerro Rico de Potosí as depicted in 1715, a possible origin of the Sierra de la Plata myth. ( public domain )
Bane, T., 2014. Encyclopedia of Imaginary and Mythical Places. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc..
Goodman, E. J., 1992. The Explorers of South America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Healey, K., 2015. Alcixo Garcia, Who?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.saexplorers.org/system/files/magazine/sae-mag-7d-aleixo-garcia.pdf
New World Encyclopedia, 2008. Rio de la Plata. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Rio_de_la_Plata#Name
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Available at: http://www.argentine-embassy-uk.org/docs_eng/links/links_information_argentina.shtml