Starting Out With The Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition In Brazil

The naturalist Leo E. Miller published an engaging record of his South American adventures in 1918 entitled In the Wilds of South America.  We have previously related one of his adventures in Colombia, his quest for the elusive “cock of the rock” whose nesting places were perched over inaccessible, cavernous waterfalls.  While he was in British Guiana, he received word that ex-president Theodore Roosevelt had received permission from the Brazilian authorities to explore the ominously-named Rio da Duvida in the Amazon; he would be guided in this effort by Brazil’s most famous living explorer, the indestructible Candido Rondon.

I have read Candice Miller’s fascinating account of this expedition, and am currently reading Roosevelt’s own memoir Through the Brazilian Wilderness.  But it is also instructive to read a narrative written by a relatively unknown expedition member.  Miller, as a trained professional, was a sensitive and keen observer of South America’s efflorescent animal life.  The following passage gives an idea of the reverence and awe he felt when surrounded by the rain forest:

As one moves quietly along the narrow lanes, enclosed on both sides by walls of trees, the lofty tops of which form a leafy vault overhead, he cannot fail to be impressed with the great breathless silence of the forest. The gloomy solitude seems pregnant with mysterious forces that draw the thoughts of the lonely wayfarer to far-off regions of blissful oblivion. Then, suddenly, a low, wailing cry of anguish rising in tremulous crescendo, but with liquid smoothness, smites the wanderer’s revery and brings him back to earth with palpitating heart and throbbing pulses; the whinny rapidly decreases in volume and dies with a few short sighs.

“Something, perhaps the combination of all these, makes one feel as if he had been caught with his soul naked in his hands; when, in the midst of subdued and chastened revery, this spirit voice takes the words from his tongue and expresses so perfectly all the mystery, romance, and tragedy that the struggling, parasite-ridden forest diffuses through the damp shade.” It is the voice of the forest tinamou.

Here he describes the persistence and aggressiveness of the continent’s mosquitoes:

After a shower, mosquitoes were numerous and attacked with the utmost persistency. This irresistible thirst for blood is very extraordinary; it does not seem possible that more than a very small proportion of the countless millions of these insects living in a given area ever have an opportunity for satiating their appetite for blood during their entire lifetime; yet the instinct remains, and they attack on sight ferociously and without hesitation any living thing whose skin their beaks can penetrate. It is also a well-known fact that malarial fever, so prevalent in the tropical lowlands, is transmitted by a genus of mosquito, Anophiles. The germ of this fever, however, passes only one period of its existence within the insect’s body, and the spores must be secured from some living creature, and after development transmitted to another to complete the life cycle.

He greeted the news of his selection as part of Roosevelt’s party with pride.  “While at Minnehaha Creek I received the information that Colonel Theodore Roosevelt was shortly to embark on a voyage to South America; and also, much to my pleasant surprise, that I had been selected as a member of his expedition. The time remaining at our disposal was very limited, so we rather reluctantly gave up our intended visit to Kaieteur Falls and Mount Roraima, and returned to Wismar for our last work in British Guiana.”

Since Roosevelt had left the office of the presidency, he had preferred to be called Colonel Roosevelt rather than “president,” a clear sign that he took as much (if not more) pride in his service as a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War than he did in his presidency.  Miller and Roosevelt arrived in Bahia, Brazil on October 18, 1913.  They then had a chance to see Rio de Janeiro, which even in those days had an allure of its own:

Besides Colonel Roosevelt, the expedition consisted of Geo. K. Cherrie, Anthony Fiala, Jacob Sigg, Father Zahm, and myself. Bahia was reached on the 18th; Kermit Roosevelt [the president’s son] joined the expedition at this place. The Van Dyck [the ship] remained at anchor the entire day, thus allowing sufficient time for a casual inspection of the city. Two days after, we arrived in Rio de Janeiro. The paucity of the English language does not permit of an adequate description of the natural beauties of the harbor and the city.

All steamers entering the bay must sail through the narrow passage between the famous Pao de Azucar and the mainland on the opposite side. The great loaf-shaped rock rises to a height of twelve hundred feet above the water; if one craves excitement, it is possible to ascend to the top in a small car travelling on steel cables. In few cities is In few cities is there such a display of great wealth.

The main street, the Avenida Central, is wide and beautiful, and the sidewalks are of coarse mosaic. There are numerous palatial buildings, though some of them are too ornate to appeal to North American taste, and gold-leaf and carved marble have been used lavishly in their decoration. The public squares, filled with the finest of tropical trees and plants, give a park-like appearance to at least parts of the city.

Then as now, Rio’s Botanical Gardens were an object of fascination:

No visit to Rio de Janeiro is complete without an inspection of the botanical gardens, which cannot fail to appeal to all lovers of the beautiful. Immediately upon entering, one is confronted by avenues of stately royal palms, ninety to one hundred feet high. The “mother of the palms,” towering above all the others, is pointed out with pride by the gardeners.

It is said that this was the first of the species to be planted, and that all of the others were grown from seed taken from this one plant. There are also attractive little lagoons filled with flowering pond-lilies and fishes, and bordered with graceful travelers’ palms introduced from Madagascar. Rows of bamboo form sheltered lanes where the visitor may seek relief on comfortable benches from the midday sun.

Roosevelt and Rondon made their final expedition preparations in Rio, which involved a change of plans from their original intentions:

The palace Guanabara, dating back to the time of Dom Pedro, was opened for the use of Colonel Roosevelt. Its location is in the most attractive spot imaginable. Sitting at the table in the immense dining-room, one may look down a palm-lined avenue to the blue water of the bay, a half-mile distant; it was through this lane of tall, beautiful trees that Isabella, daughter of the King, drove to her daily bath in the surf. Acting upon the invitation of officials of the Brazilian Government, Colonel Roosevelt abandoned the plans he had made previously and changed the character of the expedition from a zoological to a geographical one.

Colonel Rondon, who had been engaged some years in making a survey through Matto Grosso for a telegraph-line, had discovered the headwaters of an unmapped river. This he had called the Rio da Duvida, or River of Doubt, for no one knew whither it went. The invitation to explore and map this stream was tendered to Colonel Roosevelt, and he accepted it. We left the colonel at Rio de Janeiro, after making arrangements to meet subsequently, and continued on to Buenos Aires, spending a day en route in Santos, and one in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay.

Here is one of Miller’s photos of a street scene in 1913 Buenos Aires:

And here is a photo of Roosevelt–probably taken by Miller himself–from the beginning stage of the expedition:

Before concluding this article, I wanted to transcribe Miller’s description of the piranhas of the Rio Negro (the largest left tributary of the Amazon):

The Rio Negro teemed with a species of piranha. They are deep-bodied and blunt-nosed, and the jaws are armed with sharp, triangular teeth. Although they grow to a length of eighteen inches in the Orinoco and some of the other large South American rivers, those we found in the Rio Negro did not exceed eight inches in length; but they travelled in enormous schools, and made up in numbers what they lacked in size. During the hours of late after noon, when our day’s work was over, I tried many experiments with the piranhas. They have a bad reputation and are known to attack animals much larger than themselves, and even human beings who enter the water.

Usually they are slow to attack unless their appetite has been whetted by a taste of blood from a wound; then, however, their work is done with lightning-like quickness, and unless the luckless victim succeeds in reaching the shore immediately nothing but the skeleton will remain within a very short time. If I fished with a hook and line baited with any kind of raw meat the fish would scarcely wait for the bait to sink below the surface of the water. The number caught depended entirely upon the amount of time spent in fishing. The bodies of large mammals, such as monkeys, after we had skinned them, were thrown into the stream; instantly the ravenous hordes charged the spot and tore greedily at the bloody flesh; so great were their numbers that they threw one another out of the water in their mad struggles to reach the gory repast.

On several occasions I threw dead or stunned individuals of their species into the midst of the frenzied mob, but, strange to relate, they floated on the surface of the water untouched. Unplucked birds were not molested, either. A struggle in the water seems to attract the fish, but I must admit that their behavior is very erratic. While washing my hands in the edge of the stream one day a piranha snapped a piece out of a finger; a few days later a man in passing over the river on a bridge dropped his purse into the water in almost the exact spot where I fished, and where the piranhas were most abundant; he stripped, waded out very slowly and cautiously so as not to create a disturbance, and felt about with his toes for the lost article; although the water was over four feet deep and he remained in it fully fifteen minutes, he remained untouched.

In later installments, we will relate Miller’s observations on the progress of the expedition as it moved through the Amazon.


Read more stories of adventure in Thirty-Seven: