- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2011

RIVER OF DARKNESS: FRANCISCO ORELLANA‘S LEGENDARY VOYAGE OF DEATH AND DISCOVERY DOWN THE AMAZON
By Buddy Levy
Random House, $27, 324 pages, illustrated

It was one of the great adventure stories in an age of great adventures. In February 1541, conquistadors Francisco Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro set out from Quito, Ecuador, leading a band that included several hundred Spaniards and native bearers, hundreds of horses and, for food, several thousand live swine. Their goal was El Dorado, the legendary land about which they had heard many enticing stories, the most exciting of which concerned the existence of huge amounts of gold available for easy taking.

So rich was this El Dorado, lurking somewhere in the jungles of South America, that its ruler was said to be powdered every morning with gold dust, which he then washed off in the clear waters of a nearby lake. Over the years, according to the legend, so much dust accumulated at the lake’s bottom that it alone would make its owner the wealthiest man in the world.

Wealth and power on the order of what Cortes had found in Mexico two decades earlier were what Orellana and Pizarro sought. Wealth they did not find, nor did power come their way. Pizarro returned early from the expedition, penniless, and was beheaded during a revolt he led against Spanish colonial authorities. Orellana and his men continued, ultimately covering the entire course of the massive 4,500-mile Amazon River, the first Europeans to do so.

In “River of Darkness” Buddy Levy tells Orellana’s riveting story with the ease of someone who has mastered the material and loves the story he’s telling. This comes as no surprise. Mr. Levy, who co-stars in Brad Meltzer’s “Decoded” on the History Channel, is the author of “Conquistador,” the equally riveting tale about Cortes and his subjugation of the Aztec Empire.

Both Pizarro and Orellana had been born in Extremadura, the rugged, sparsely populated region of Spain that lies next to Portugal. But these harsh origins - and their great ambition - were all the two men shared, Mr. Levy notes.

Pizarro was the stereotypical Spanish warrior in America: severe, uncompromising. He expected total obedience from his men (and got it) and had no qualms about turning his dogs on recalcitrant natives. Orellana was far more reasonable, often consulting with his men to reach joint decisions. As Mr. Levy shows, he also was an extraordinarily gifted linguist, picking up Amazonian languages quickly to converse with Indian chiefs.

The expedition was a harsh one for Orellana and his men. Hostile tribes attacked, armed with darts and arrows whose tips had been dipped in the venom of frogs, whose poison led to an agonizing death. The very size of the Amazon frightened the Spaniards, as Mr. Levy explains. Often the river was miles wide, and many of the tributaries they encountered were larger that any rivers they had seen elsewhere.

To emphasize its sheer massiveness, Mr. Levy points out that the Amazon discharges one-fifth of all the fresh water on earth - 60 times that carried by the Nile.

The Spaniards navigated this largest of all rivers on two brigantines - the Victoria and the San Pedro - they had rigged together from scratch. Hunger was a major problem, as was salt deprivation. Friendly villages graciously provided large amounts of food, but these were few and far between.

Mr. Levy writes that on one occasion, the hunger-crazed travelers raided a field of yuca at an abandoned village and devoured it. But unprocessed yuca is highly toxic - it contains cyanide - and many fell ill and died. Mr. Levy marvels that the men hadn’t noticed the elaborate steps in preparation natives took before eating the food.

It probably would be fairer (and underline just how starved they were) to say many had taken notice - the yuca-making process is a long one - but in their hunger, they forgot everything but the desire to eat.

Some of the tribes met on the river surprised the Spaniards by their high level of culture and social organization. Indeed, Orellana thought some of the pottery he saw rivaled and sometimes surpassed that of Spain. Others were very primitive. But the encounter that struck the Europeans most vividly - and which helped give the great river its name - came in early summer 1542.

A hostile tribe vigorously attacked the Spaniards on St. John the Baptist’s feast day (June 24). On the battle’s second day, Orellana and his men found themselves fighting against 10 or 12 (accounts vary) very tall women with pale white skin. The women - who formed the first line of defense, followed by male warriors - fought fiercely. Not surprisingly, the Spanish, with their knowledge of classic mythology, called them “Amazons.”

The San Pedro and the Victoria reached the Amazon’s mouth two months later, in late August 1542. Orellana returned to Spain and arranged for another Amazonian expedition, which cost him his life.

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