Francisco Orellana at the Confluence of the Napo and Amazon Rivers
February 12th is the day set aside in Iquitos to recognize Francisco Orellana and his crew arriving at the confluence of the Napo River and the giant river they later named the Amazon. They were on their way to becoming the first known Europeans to float down the largest river on earth.
We tend to think of the Spanish conquest of the New World as driven by the quest for gold, but some of the exploration took place because of the world trade in spices. The Portuguese controlled the cinnamon trade. In the early 1500s the value of cinnamon as a commodity exceeded the price of gold or silver.
By the year 1540, Spain, through the Pizzaro brothers, was in control of Ecuador and Peru. Rumor had it that a forest of cinnamon existed to the east on the other side of the Andes Mountains.
Gonzalo Pizarro outfitted an expedition of 220 Spaniards, and 4,000 natives and set off inland from the Pacific coast to find the “Land of Cinnamon.” By the time they crossed the Andes, the expedition was already a disaster, with over half of the Spaniards and three quarters of the natives either dead or deserted, food and supplies running low. As necessity is the mother of invention, desperation is the mother of discovery.
When they reached the Coca River they built a brigantine, a small sailing ship, they named the San Pedro. Histories record they built a forge and cast nails from old muskets and their stirrups. How could they do that? They carried tools? They carried sails across the Andes Mountains? They brought horses over the Andes? Or shot the horses and carried their saddles? Left the saddles but salvaged the stirrups?
It would take a lot of nails to build even a small ship. They must have carved wooden pegs also, and fashioned oars or poles. They could not have waited for the wood to cure, so the wood shrank, and the boat leaked at every joint. When the boat leaked they must have driven the flared pegs in farther and tighter.
Nothing about this expedition was easy. It was the low water season in the Napo River watershed and navigation would be treacherous. Somehow they sailed, floated, and poled downstream to the confluence of the Coca and the Napo River.
Orellana took fifty men including Gaspar de Carvajal, a Dominican missionary, on the San Pedro downstream looking for food and supplies. The current was strong and they could not go back upstream. I believe they knew they could not return before they separated from Pizarro’s main group. They waited a few days, and, then, they constructed another brigantine and named her the Victoria.
They what? They built another small ship in the middle of the jungle? Why would they do that? Wouldn’t that take one month per ship, at least two weeks per ship? They were already looking for food and supplies.
I do not believe they constructed even one ship. I think they tied some balsa logs together with jungle vines and carved long ores and poles and called the rafts brigantines. At least, that is what I would have done. I would have built low walls for protection from arrows and darts, and a thatch roof to protect my men from the elements. Then, for self promotion, maybe I would have Gaspar call it a brigantine in his diary. Maybe someone would paint a picture. (Click the picture to enlarge.)
Pizarro, shivering with malaria, limped back to Quito with no cinnamon or gold and only 80 men left alive out of over 4,000. Orellana “set sail” downstream for destinations unknown. The Napo River is large, but when the explorers swept out onto the Amazon River they must have been amazed. Certainly the Iquito natives who inhabited the area were amazed.
The Domincan missionary, Gaspar de Carvajal, chronicled the events of the descent of the Amazon River in his “Account of the recent discovery of the famous Grand river which was discovered by great good fortune by Captain Francisco de Orellana.” I want to read this “Account.” It must tell of the hardships, uncertainty, fear of the unknown, and the adventures they faced to survive. Maybe it tells how they constructed the ships.
The clash of the two cultures will be reenacted in song and dance on February 12th, 2007, in Iquitos Peru. The name of the program is “The Two Worlds Meeting.” The actors portraying the Spanish will be costumed on stilts as giants with rifles and crossbows. The small rainforest people with only blow guns, spears, and bows and arrows are frightened. The Spanish rape the young maidens. The rainforest people become angry and attack the invaders, driving them off, protecting their homes.
Francisco, Gaspar, and the rest of the crew sail and drift downstream, across South America, into a footnote of History. One could possibly trace their progress by the dates of reenactment festivals across the continent.