In the annals of American exploration, few names are as distinguished, and perhaps as little known, as that of Marshal Cândido Rondon. As an officer in the Brazilian Army in the late 19th and early 20th century, he revealed more of the Amazonian basin to the world than any single other figure. His incredible toughness, personal background, unorthodox philosophy, and leadership skills make him a unique and startling figure.
He was born in 1865 in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil. He was of mixed ethnic heritage, a fact that would prove an asset in his future explorations. His father was Portuguese, and his mother an Amazonian Indian (of the Terena and Borôro tribes). Mato Grosso in those days was a wild region on the very frontier of the civilized world; and young Cândido grew up in a level of grinding poverty and marginalization that can hardly be imagined by us now.
He was orphaned at an early age: his father died before he was born, and his mother perished in a smallpox epidemic when he was two. He was moved to his grandparents, but they too died shortly after. He was finally taken in by an uncle, who gave him his surname and an opportunity for an education, or at least what passed as an education.
He joined the army when he was 18 and somehow managed to scrape together enough resources to travel to Rio de Janeiro to attend officer’s school. Then, as now, a military career (much like the Church) offered one of the few opportunities for advancement for a poor boy with neither connections nor money. But things were hardly easy for him. He was so poor that he could barely afford even to clothe himself. The fact that he was of mixed race–and half Indian–made him an oddity, and his classmates treated him with a mixture of awe and derision.
And yet he was utterly determined to succeed. Used to brutal labor, he would wake up at 4:00 in the morning to go for a conditioning swim in the ocean, and be back in his rooms while his classmates still slumbered. He would stay up late at night, absorbed in study, and worked himself so hard that he eventually collapsed from malnutrition and exhaustion. He was well again after a period of recovery; and everyone thereafter knew the name of Cândido Rondon. In the late 19th century, it became necessary for the Brazilian government to connect the country with modern wired communications. This had become painfully apparent when, earlier in the century, a neighboring country had invaded Brazilian territory, and the central government in Rio de Janeiro had not known about it for a month. Brazil is a vast country, and the 19th century was even more so: much of the remote interior was unmapped and unknown.
When the time came to build roads and telegraph lines to the country’s outer regions, Rondon’s name seemed a natural choice. He spoke at least nine native Indian languages fluently, and knew how to deal with them in a way that his brother officers did not. He was taciturn, blunt, and of impeccable morals. Perhaps even more importantly, he was an incredibly effective leader, as we will see.
After some initial successes with laying telegraph lines through Mato Grosso, Rondon was chosen to head a full-fledged effort to build telegraph lines all over Brazil, and to connect those lines with neighboring countries. We must again remind ourselves that the Amazon jungle region was arguably the most inhospitable place on earth. It was so dense that a man could get lost by going 10 yards in any direction. It harbored disease, hostile animals, insects, and microbes; and its canopy was filled with Indians who distrusted and despised outsiders.
What aided Rondon in this job was both his background and his personal philosophy. His background we have already noted. But what was his personal creed? Rondon was a follower of the French “positivist” school of thought. Positivism held that theology and metaphysics were unreliable ways of receiving knowledge. The only valid source of information about the world, the positivists claimed, was the information gained by the senses.
It is probably difficult to be anything but a positivist when one is in the Amazonian jungle for any length of time. For there one is assaulted from all sides by sensory input of an oppressive intensity. How did Rondon’s positivism influence his leadership style? He became an ardent advocate of non-violence. When he took his construction teams out on missions, he made them swear that they would never harm an Indian, under any circumstances. Rondon was so insistent on this point that he even denied himself and his men the right to self-defense when they were attacked (which was a frequent occurrence). For a colonel in the Brazilian Army, such a pacifistic worldview was incredible. “Do no violence to the Indians, even if you must die,” was his oath.
One story about him relates how, when he and a team were approaching an Indian settlement, he came under attack by a hail of arrows and darts. One arrow lodged itself in his chest. Rondon calmly turned around, and rode his pack animal back to his camp. Rondon knew that even when relations were apparently good with the Indians, there was a hair-trigger quality to the interactions. Even the slightest problem or hint of an insult could unleash violence against him and his men. His expedition once gave an Indian warrior two aspirin tablets as a gift; when the man died of drowning a week later, his tribesmen assumed that he had been poisoned, and attacked Rondon’s men.
Not only did he forbid his men to do any violence to the Indians, but he was a stern task-master. He worked his men hard, on short rations; but he always shared in their sufferings, a fact that won him respect from his men. Discipline under Rondon was absolute, and could be brutal; but where there was no civilization, it had to be, or his expeditions would have ended in failure and a miserable death for all.
Despite all this, however, assignment to one of Rondon’s expeditions came to be seen as a form of punishment. He had to pay his men seven times the normal wage for similar labor. It was not uncommon for him to lose a significant percentage of his men to disease, Indians, accident, or starvation in any given expedition. At one point the Brazilian government had to ask convicted felons to volunteer for duty with Rondon in the Amazon; many of them preferred to stay in their cells in Rio de Janeiro.
Rondon himself seemed to be almost indestructible. He suffered bouts of malaria like everyone else, but there was something about his fearless way of approaching the Indians that made them want to see and touch him. One time, after having come under Indian attack during the day, he stayed up all night and played a phonograph record, knowing the sound of it would enchant the awestruck Indians, and increase their desire to meet him. Rondon’s philosophy may have been the one thing that saved him. Perhaps only the total abjuration of violence against the Indians would have convinced them to let his expeditions live. After centuries of exploitation and suffering, a lasting resentment had been implanted in the Indian heart, and only a man with Rondon’s unique credentials could have a chance of mollifying it.
But his non-violence rule was not a rule that many of his camaradas (crew men) were enthusiastic about, to say the least. But Rondon’s expeditions produced results: previously unknown tribes were discovered, rivers were mapped, animals and plants were catalogued, and the nation became bound together with modern communications. No one covered more ground, in more terrifying terrain, than did Rondon.
When American ex-president Theodore Roosevelt decided to explore the River of Doubt (Rio da Duvida) in 1913, Rondon was asked to accompany the expedition as a guide and co-commander. The Brazilian government had no wish to see a world-famous American president die in its borders on some Amazonian adventure. Rondon was initially against the mission. “I am not a baby-sitter,” he informed his superiors. But Rondon did not know he was dealing with Theodore Roosevelt. TR most assuredly did not need a baby-sitter. When the two men became acquainted, they developed a great fondness for each other. Rondon respected Roosevelt’s endurance, character, and forthright honesty; and Roosevelt himself found a kindred spirit in this dark, inscrutable Brazilian colonel who had defied death and disease for years and emerged unscathed.
Roosevelt found it hard to understand or accept Rondon’s nonviolent beliefs, but he eventually came to terms with them. Rondon knew more about the Amazon than any man alive, and to Roosevelt, that was all that mattered. He and Roosevelt nearly both lost their lives in the River of Doubt expedition, but the expedition was a success. Rondon, in later years, would form Brazil’s Indian Protection Bureau, the first government agency dedicated to the interests of the native population. The Brazilian state of Rondônia is named in his honor.
Incredibly, he lived to the age of 92, dying in 1958 in Rio de Janeiro. A more perilous and intrepid life can hardly be imagined.