River Of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage Of Death and Discovery Down The Amazon, by Buddy Levy
This is a compelling story, to be sure, and a reminder of the time before Brazil was ruled over by Portuguese speakers and before Brazil’s native population was reduced to insignificance. Although there are clearly some conclusions that a reader can draw from this book, including the appreciation of Orellana’s humanity and the poisonous nature of politics among the hidalgos who conquered most of Latin America for Spain. And while this is an epic tale of survival, a great many readers are likely to feel a struggle to feel a sense of empathy with the characters. To be sure, I found it an epic and compelling tale of survivor and a reminder of the frailty of humanity, but not everyone will agree with that. There are certainly some people who will find the survival of the Spaniards (spoiler alert) to make it down the Amazon River and home to safety with few casualties despite the ferocious conditions, including starvation, that they faced to be a horrifying tale rather than an inspiring one. As is often the case in history, much depends on context, and my own sympathies here are definitely with the European outsiders who use their savvy to gain enough support to make it safely down a deadly and lengthy river.
Like many books of its length, a bit more than 200 pages, this book is about more than its topic in order to fill the pages necessary to make a book, but that additional context isn’t a problem at all. The book begins with a map and prologue and then discusses the group of related conquistadors who participated in the conquest of Peru (1). After that the author discusses the beginning of the El Dorado myth (2) and the trip of one of the Pizarro brothers and Orellana over the Andes (3) before they separated and Orellano built the San Pedro (4) and split to travel down the Amazon (5). The author then discusses the various rivers (7) as well as the building of a new ship (8) that was larger and better able to provide defense. The author then moves to discuss the problems of the Pizarros in Peru (9), the assassination of Francisco (10), and then switches to Orellano’s efforts to reach a native government on the river (11). The author discusses life for the Spanish while they sought to repair (12) and regroup and the blackwater river they encountered on their trip downstream (13) as well as their encounter with Amazons (14). The rest of the book discusses what happened to the others left behind and the short career of Gonzalo Pizarro (15, 18), the travels to the mouth of the Amazon (16) and then back home (17), and then the sad return to the river and Orellana’s demise.
What is it that made the Amazon a river of darkness for these explorers? For one, the Europeans traveling down the river lacked knowledge of its flora and fauna, what was good for food, and the people who lived in the place. They did not know the course of the river or how long it was and did not even know the languages of the people who lived there. And while some of these things were learned by the Spaniards, who wondered if the mouth of the Amazon was within Portuguese territory agreed to by treaty, some of the information learned by the Spanish was not very useful, because while the Amazon River basin was heavily populated according to Orellana’s accounts, it was not very heavily populated at all by the time it was re-settled by Portuguese settlers. That means that those who want to discuss the demographic collapse of Brazil’s native peoples are placed in the awkward position of having to trust European accounts, which many contemporary activists tend not to appreciate very much, but that’s the way that life works sometimes.