Francisco De Orellana’s Epic Navigation Of The Amazon

Francisco de Orellana Bejarano Pizarro y Torres de Altamirano was born in Trujillo, Spain, probably around 1511, although the precise date is uncertain.  He seems to have been a relative of the conqueror of Peru, Francisco Pizarro; and this sanguinary connection, combined with opportunities for glory and wealth, may have provided the impetus for him to emigrate to the New World around 1527.  He joined Pizarro’s army and served his kinsman well in the power struggles that were then rife among the Spaniards; and when the dust settled, he found himself in possession of substantial tracts of land in Ecuador, and an unsatiated ambition.

In 1540 he was placed second in command of an expedition headed by Gonzalo Pizarro that was to head east from Ecuador in search of the so-called “Land of Cinnamon.”  The expedition was beset by difficulties, and became separated; Orellana was ordered to explore the Coca River, but this task soon proved to be an immense undertaking.  Tormented by disease, mutinous men, and lack of provisions, his party eventually reached the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon; and without clear guidance from his superior, and unable to return upriver, he elected in 1542 to go forward as the Napo poured into the Amazon.  Removed from these events by the space of five hundred years, we can still imagine the awe that Orellana and his men must have felt as they were carried east on the milky, immense Amazon in their rickety brigantine (a two-masted sailing vessel).  The expedition consisted of only fifty-seven men:  fifty-seven men to navigate what is arguably the world’s most powerful river—then entirely unknown—through an expanse of impenetrable jungle and unknown peoples.

Orellana’s route through the Amazon

With Orellana was a Dominican friar named Gaspar de Carvajal (c. 1500—1584), who had also been born in Trujillo.  Carvajal precious gift to history was the vivid account he wrote of the Amazonian expedition, Relación del nuevo descubrimiento del famoso río Grande que descubrió por muy gran ventura el capitán Francisco de Orellana (Account of the Recent Discovery of the Famous Grand River which was Discovered by Great Good Fortune by Captain Francisco de Orellana).  His book languished in manuscript form for centuries, virtually ignored by scholars; it was finally published in 1895.  Carvajal’s descriptions of flourishing, thickly-populated Indian communities along the banks of the Amazon were long dismissed as exaggerations or outright fabrications; but recent archaeological and ethnographic studies have caused a re-evaluation of these assumptions.  Certainly his account has the feel and flavor of the truth.  Here he announces the genesis of the expedition:

[A]nd so the said Captain Orellana picked out fifty-seven men, with whom he embarked in the aforesaid boat and in certain canoes which they had taken away from the Indians, and he began to proceed down his river with the idea of promptly turning back if food was found; all of which turned out just the reverse of what we all expected, because we did not find food for a distance of two hundred leagues, nor were we finding any [for ourselves], from which cause we suffered very great privation, as will be stated farther on; and so we kept going on, beseeching Our Lord to see fit to guide us on that journey in such a way that we might return to our companions.  [Trans. by B.T. Lee]

Here Carvajal describes an early encounter his starving band had with the Indians:

At the end of two leagues of advancing down the river we saw coming up the river to look over and reconnoiter the land four canoes filled with Indians, and, when they saw us, they turned about at great speed, giving the alarm, in such a manner that in less than a quarter of an hour we heard in the villages many drums that were calling the country to arms, because they are heard from very far off and are so well attuned that they have their bass and tenor and treble; and at once the Captain ordered the companions who were at the oars to row with all speed, so that we might arrive at the first village before the natives had gathered together; and so it was that at very great haste we began to move on, and we arrived at the village where the Indians were all waiting to defend and guard their homes, and the Captain commanded that in very good order they [i.e. his men] should all leap out on land…and the Indians left the village and all the food that there was in it, which was no small relief and support for us. Before the companions should eat, although they had great need [of food], the Captain ordered them all to scout about the village in order that afterwards, while they were gathering food together and resting, the Indians might not turn back on us and do us some harm, and it was so done. Here the companions set about to make up for the past, because they did nothing but eat of that which the Indians had prepared for themselves and drink of their beverages, and this [they did] with so much eagerness that they thought that they would never satisfy themselves…

Orellana’s party was met with a mixed reception by the various Indian tribes along the Amazon.  Most were friendly, and disposed to trade and render assistance; but others were hostile.  In a friendly Indian community, Orellana took the opportunity to build a better brigantine:  “Such great haste was applied to the building of the brigantine that in thirty five days it was constructed and launched, calked with cotton and tarred with pitch, all of which the Indians brought because the Captain asked them for these things. Great was the joy of our companions over having accomplished that thing which they so much desired to do. There were so many mosquitoes in this village that we were unable to aid one another either by day or by night, being thus at a loss as to what to do for one another,” [yet we managed to get along] because with the good lodgings and the desire we had of seeing the end of our expedition we did not [fully] realize our hardships.”  Here Carvajal describes a hostile encounter:

Before we had come within two leagues of this village, we saw the villages glimmering white, and we had not proceeded far when we saw coming up the river a great many canoes, all equipped for fighting, gaily colored, and [the men] with their shields on, which are made out of the shell-like skins of lizards and the hides of manatees and of tapirs, as tall as a man, because they cover them entirely. They were coming on with a great yell, playing on many drums and wooden trumpets, threatening us as if they were going to devour us. Immediately the Captain gave orders to the effect that the two brigantines should join together so that the one might aid the other and that all should take their weapons and look to what they had before them…

Here there happened to us a misfortune by no means slight when one considers the situation in which we were at the time, which was that the arquebusiers found their powder damp, in consequence whereof they turned out to be of no use, and it was necessary for the crossbows to make up for the deficiency of the arquebuses; and so our crossbowmen began to inflict some damage on the enemy, as they were close up and we [were] fear-inspiring; and when it was seen [by]f the Indians that so much damage was being done to them, they began to hold back, [yet] not showing any sign of cowardice, rather it seemed as if their courage were increasing, and there kept coming to them many reinforcements, and every time that some came to them they set about to attack us so boldly that it seemed as if they wanted to seize hold of the brigantines with their hands.  In this manner we kept on fighting until we came to the village, where there were a great number of men stationed on the high banks to defend their homes. Here we engaged in a perilous battle, because there were many Indians on the water and on land and from all sides they gave us a hard fight…

Some of the most fascinating passages in Carvajal’s account are his description of the female Indian warriors he calls “Amazons,” in deference to the eponymous tribe of classical antiquity.  After a fight, he provides the following details:

I want it to be known what the reason was why these Indians defended themselves in this manner. It must be explained that they are the subjects of, and tributaries to, the Amazons, and, our coming having been made known to them, they went to them to ask help, and there came as many as ten or twelve of them, for we ourselves saw these women, who were there fighting in front of all the Indian men as women captains, and these latter fought so courageously that the  Indian men did not dare to turn their backs, and anyone who did turn his back they killed with clubs right there before us, and this is the reason why the Indians kept up their defense for so long. These women are very white and tall, and have hair very long and braided and wound about the head, and they are very robust and go about naked, [but] with their privy parts covered, with their bows and arrows in their hands, doing as much fighting as ten Indian men, and indeed there was one woman among these who shot an arrow a span deep into one of the brigantines, and others less deep, so that our brigantines looked like porcupines…

The Captain asked him what women those were [who] had come to help them and fight against us; the Indian [interpreter] said that they were certain women who resided in the interior of the country, a seven-day journey from the shore, and [that] it was because this overlord Couynco was subject to them that they had come to watch over the shore. The Captain asked him if these women were married: the Indian said they were not. The Captain asked him about how they lived: the Indian replied [first] that, as he had already said, they were off in the interior of the land and that he had been there many times and had seen their customs and mode of living, for as their vassal he was in the habit of going there to carry the tribute whenever the overlord sent him. The Captain asked if these women were numerous: the Indian said that they were, and that he knew by name seventy villages, and named them before those of us who were there present, and that he had been in several of them…

The Captain asked him how, not being married and there being no man residing among them, they became pregnant: he said that these Indian women consorted with Indian men at times, and, when that desire came to them, they assembled a great horde of warriors and went off to make war on a very great overlord whose residence is not far from that [i.e. the land] of these women, and by force they brought them to their own country and kept them with them for the time that suited their caprice, and after they found themselves pregnant they sent them back to their country without doing them any harm; and afterwards, when the time came for them to have children, if they gave birth to male children, they killed them and sent them to their fathers, and, if female children, they raised them with great solemnity and instructed them in the arts of war.

He said furthermore that among all these women there was one ruling mistress who subjected and held under her hand and jurisdiction all the rest, which mistress went by the name of Cofiori.  He said that there was [in their possession] a very great wealth of gold and silver and that [in the case of] all the mistresses of rank and distinction their eating utensils were nothing but gold or silver, while the other women, belonging to the plebeian class, used a service of wooden vessels, except what was brought in contact with fire, which was of clay. He said that in the capital and principal city in which the ruling mistress resided there were five very large buildings which were places of worship and houses dedicated to the Sun, which they called “caranain,” and [that] inside, from half a man’s height above the ground up, these buildings were lined with heavy wooden ceilings covered with paint of various colors, and that in these buildings they had many gold and silver idols in the form of women, and many vessels of gold and of silver for the service of the Sun…

Few achievements in the annals of exploration and discovery can match the awe-inspiring bravery and diplomatic skill of Orellana’s navigation of the Amazon.  It is difficult enough to enter harm’s way when one knows the road and the final destination; but to plunge into the hostile Unknown takes a type of valor and courage that is, we must admit, beyond the comprehension of our feeble modern age.  There is something in these old Spanish accounts that stirs an elemental fire in the blood, and prompts every man to take stock of his own fortitude; one wants to pick up sword and helmet and leap aboard with Orellana.  And yet there is no bombast or boastful hyperbole in Carvajal’s account; on the contrary, there is a quiet confidence, a reassuring tranquility, that demonstrates the power conferred by will when linked to a transcendent Ideal.  He closes his narrative with these pious words:

I, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, the least of the friars of the order of our brother and friar, Father Saint Dominic, have chosen to take upon myself this little task and [recount] the progress and outcome of our journey and navigation, not only in order to tell about it and make known the truth in the whole matter, but also in order to remove the temptation from many persons who may wish to relate this peregrination of ours or [publish] just the opposite of what we have experienced and seen; and [what]* I have written and related is the truth throughout; and because profuseness engenders distaste, so I have related sketchily and summarily all that has happened to Captain Francisco de Orellana and to the hidalgos of his company and to us companions of his who went off with him [after separating] from the expeditionary corps of Gonzalo Pizarro, brother of Don Francisco Pizarro, the Marquis, and Governor of Peru. God be praised.  Amen.



Read more in the new translation of Lives of the Great Commanders:

2 thoughts on “Francisco De Orellana’s Epic Navigation Of The Amazon

  1. As a side note. CAO cigars has released the 4th in their series of Amazon Basin cigars and it’s named: Orellana in honor of the explorer. It’s a very good cigar.

    Liked by 1 person

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