Home > Peru, Uncategorized, worldwide travel and exploration > Down the Amazon, no direction home

Down the Amazon, no direction home

August 18th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The recent news that ex British Army captain Ed Stafford has completed his 859 day walk along the Amazon from its source to the sea deserves comment – and praise. It’s an epic achievement and one never achieved before.  Previous attempts  have always been made partly by boat, and for good reason:  some areas of the Amazon, like the Solimoes in Brazil,  flood for hundreds of kilometers each year and there are no roads along the main river, so to walk the entire length is daunting.

I also like his candour.  He told the wire-press agency AP that he was “no eco-warrior” and that while, like all of us, he deplored the destruction of the Amazon rain forest, his own expedition was at its heart simply a grand expedition of endurance:  “The crux of it is, if this wasn’t a selfish, boy’s-own adventure, I don’t think it would have worked.  I am simply doing it because no-one has done it before.”

In these days when every expedition has to have its ‘eco-message’ , however admirable (like the Plastiki, which has just sailed the Pacific on a raft made from recycled plastic bottles that unfortunately proved very difficult to stop drifting sideways), I find this quite refreshing.  The elemental urge ‘to be the first to do something’ has always been an immensely productive one.

I am reminded of the very first attempt to sail down the Amazon.   Gonzalo Pizarro (the brother of the conqueror of Peru) was made governor of Quito in 1540, a few years after the Conquest.  He immediately set off down a tributary of the Amazon, the Napo, in search of valuable cinnamon and treasure.  He and his men met nothing but disappointment.  The Indian tribes would tell them that, while they had no treasure themselves, the next tribe down river assuredly did, and the gullible Spanish were led ever further eastward. 

At one point Pizarro sent an advance party ahead under the leadership of his second-in-command, Francisco de Orellana.  Orellana was supposed simply to reconnoitre and then report back.  Instead, in one of the most spectacular instances of military insubordination on record, Orellana just kept on going until he and his men came out on the Atlantic some thousands of miles away.  The journey took them – like Ed Stafford, who started in April 2008 – a harrowing two years.  In the process, they were the first Europeans to travel down the greatest river in the world.

Not much is left to commemorate their achievements in discovering the Amazon.  I once visited  an Ecuadorian town named after Gonzalo Pizarro (who, after kicking his heels in the jungle for a while, got bored waiting for his lieutenant and headed home to file complaints against him), while Puerto Francisco de Orellana is just downstream and there are a few other small settlements named after him scattered over the Amazon basin.

The rewards of discovery are fickle:  Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India, famously never went to the mountain named after him, but has been immortalised, yet who now remembers Francisco de Orellana, the discoverer of the Amazon?  Perhaps it was because he named the river not after himself but after one of the tribes he encountered, recognising in a way not usually done by colonising explorers that they had been there first.

And there is a fascination in the way that the river should have been called after a Greek myth, on the most spurious of grounds.  Orellana and his conquistadors noticed that among the Indians of one tribe they were fighting were many tall women, attacking as fiercely as the men:  this particular tribe successfully drove the Spanish away.  It is from this small incident that the River Amazon was named.  The defeated conquistadors captured an Indian from another tribe and interrogated him about these female attackers.  He told them – or as sceptical later commentators noted, his answers confirmed all their questions in the manner they doubtless wished – that, yes, these women did all the things the original Amazons did:  they cut off their right breast the better to draw a bow (the word Amazon means ‘breastless’) and had intercourse only once a year. 

His answers fed the conquistadors’ fantasies about the myth they had grown up with, the idea of a tribe of women warriors with super-human strength.  This myth had been given great popularity  by the success of contemporary Spanish potboilers like Sergas de Esplandián in which the Amazon legend figured prominently.  Indeed Esplandián, a sort of Zorro figure cast in the mould that every Spanish conquistador liked to see himself as, not only defeats the Queen of the Amazons in combat, but makes her fall in love with him as well.  As a myth, it hit every button on the conquistador console.  That the native women might share the mythological power of their classical predecessors also soothed any wounded pride at having been defeated by female fighters – not an easy concept for the Spanish mentality to accept. 

Their wilful and gullible acceptance of this story is a good example of the power that literature still had over these men who had often been lured out to the New World in the first place by fantastical stories.  Drifting down river, with, as Dylan would sing, ‘no direction home’, enduring terrible starvation (they cooked the soles of their shoes at one point), living constantly with the threat of death at the hands of hostile tribes, or disease, or starvation, they reached out for a myth to reassure themselves that somehow, contrary to all the evidence, they were engaged on an enterprise as bold as that of Theseus.

Yet the Amazon was where this myth of chivalric endeavour became truly impossible to sustain.  Orellana’s men at least succeeded in getting down the river and emerging sane at the other end.  The expedition led by Pedro de Ursúa twenty years later in 1560 had a far less happy outcome.  By then the quality of conquistador stock had degenerated after years of civil war and easy living off the land:  Ursúa had a rabble to lead and was quickly murdered by the psychopathic Lope de Aguirre, who proceeded to kill most of the rest of the men as they sailed down river (Werner Herzog’s celebrated film about him presents, if anything, a sanitised version).

 He was finally killed by his own bodyguards, but not before he had run his daughter through with a sword and caused the deaths of hundreds of conquistadors and of their Andean porters.

Lope de Aguirre’s famous last, mad letter about the Amazon, addressed to the King of Spain himself, was as near to bleak existentialism as the sixteenth century mind could get.  It told him that ‘if a hundred thousand men came here, none would escape.  For the reports are false:  there is nothing on this river but despair.’

For Ed Stafford to have emerged at the other end of it just about intact (he almost collapsed with a day to go) and still able to blog – at http://www.edstafford.org/ – is an even more impressive achievement.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.