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The Amazon

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Reprinted from the THE SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY,
January, 1944, Vol. LVIII, pages 16-23.


In the year 1502, more than a century before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, while Henry VII, first son of The House of Tudor, ruled over Britain, the existence of the great Amazon was discovered. That was more than four centuries ago.

Today the potentialities of the Amazon River and its incomparable basin of some 2,722,000 square miles - over twice the estimated drainage area of the Mississippi and its combined tributaries - is still a vast region of undiscovered treasure. As the years progress chemistry will find uses for the myriad of plant species indigenous to the Amazonian basin; engineers will harness the untold horsepower of energy, and have, for centuries, wasted themselves in their journeys through the virgin jungles to the sea; botanists, biologists, and ornithologists will enrich their sciences with discoveries in regard to the flora and the fauna of the Amazonian tropics; and among other phenomena to be studied archeologists may analyze the earthly lamina of this "great unknown" to solve mysteries predating those of the pre-Columbian era. In the fields of science the Amazon River is still a vast virgin world in itself, awaiting exploration and exploitation in the light of modern advancements. Click for larger image

Its long arms of flowing waters, capable of moving ocean craft for more than 2,000 miles westward from the Atlantic Ocean, beckon to the engineers of navigation, inviting them to utilize its watery pathway to bring to manufacturing and commercial centers, natural wealth that is so profusely to be found in but few places on the face of the earth.

The "dreamers" of the lands through which these waters flow have perhaps not failed to appreciate the potentialities of the natural assets that lie there unused. Three governments have, through the same medium, seen fit to invite attention to this watery Colossus of the Western Hemisphere. Their chosen vehicle of publicity has been drama in a picture form with which all residents of their great areas are in intimate contact–postage stamps. Used by all who read, they convey their silent messages to the far corners of the world.

Click for larger imageWhile it is true that none of the group of twenty-one stamps dedicated to the Amazon openly touches on the future development of this river, it is not at all improbable that this subject may have been in the minds of those who promoted their issuance.

In this era of experimentation many novel ideas have been tried. The direction and guidance of public thought is one development of political science that has received much attention. In the stimulation of national ideologies, postage stamps have played an important and surprisingly large part. World's Fairs, religious observances, and national industrial opportunities have frequently been depicted on postage stamps. On innumerable occasions political philosophies have been epitomized in the portraits of such heroes as Bolivar, San Martin, Washington, Artigas, and Sucre. Click for larger image

During the years 1940, 1941, and 1942 Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil dramatically invited attention to the mighty Amazon through postage stamps. In all three cases the four hundredth anniversary of the discoveries of Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana have been used as justification for these postal issues. Their adventures constitute a series of the most dramatic incidents in all of the sensational history of the unfolding of the Western world.

In 1540 a substantial Spanish population had already gathered in widely separated localities of South America. The settlers, largely conquistadors and adventurers, had a fair conception of the general geographical characteristics of the land to which the lure of wealth had drawn them. Their ancient maps, black and yellow air mail stamp of Ecuador, illustrate their fairly accurate concept of the vast South American continent.

Click for larger imagePrior to that time, in the year 1500, Vincente Pinzon, one of the Captains of the original Columbus expedition, skirted the eastern shore of this great "island," as he presumed it to be. At a point close to the equator he fell upon a mystery more baffling than any he had previously encountered. The salty nature of the ocean had changed to fresh water. The aimless tossings of its billows assumed a slight current, directed toward no particular destination but emanating endlessly from between two points of land so widely separated that to his mind they could not have been the opposite shores of a river. As Pinzon sailed his ship westward between them he became more perplexed than ever, for nowhere in the experiences of Columbus, The Great Navigator, or the scientific discourses of Toscanelli, or the fantastic writings of Marco Polo, had the story ever been told of a body of fresh water lying within or adjoining the great salty ocean. After sailing westward for several days against the increasing current, he christened the strange waters with the name "Mar Dulce" and contented himself with having it noted in his log, leaving the significance of the strange experience to others. Click for larger image

So incomprehensible was the enigma Pinzon had presented that the "wise men" of the old world demonstrated their wisdom by remaining silent. As a result four decades and longer passed before the world realized that Vincente Pinzon had, in fact, achieved one of the greatest discoveries of the New World. Pinzon and a whole generation of his fellow men died without ever having realized that he had discovered the giant of New World waterways, later named the Amazon.

To this day, and perhaps for all future time, however, the discovery of the Amazon will continue to be accredited to another conquistador. This capricious award of fame is no doubt attributable to the more sensational and melodramatic story of Francisco de Orellana and the manner in which he became associated with the Amazon. In truth, it might be recorded that, while Vincente Pinzon discovered the existence of the river, it remained for Orellana to discover its greatness and, vaguely, its course. Strangely, they approached the river from opposite ends, Pinzon unknowingly having entered its mouth and Orellana having traced its course down the eastern slope of the Andes, beginning 3,000 miles from its mouth in the highlands of the Republic now known as Ecuador.

The early seat of Spanish authority and military power centered about the Vice- Royalty of Peru where Francisco Pizarro, the Viceroy, ruled with uncompromising authority. His fame and success was to no small extent due to the loyal prowess of his brother Gonzalo, and to his lieutenants, Francisco de Orellana and Diego de Almagro. As the dominant Pizarro's prestige rose, Almagro’s ambition for recognition and reward increased, and as has so often been the case where friends of unusual prowess vie, disagreement soon arose. The Viceroy Pizarro knew but one satisfactory course to pursue when his power was challenged.

In 1538 he dispatched a substantial force of his military strength under command of his brothers Gonzalo and Hernando against Almagro, and assigned an important military task to his trusted friend, Francisco de Orellana. Their forces were large and their equipment surpassed that of Almagro who suffered defeat, and, after surrendering, the penalty of death for his insubordinate challenge to the authority of the Viceroy Francisco Pizarro. Gonzalo Pizarro was rewarded for his successes by being named Governor of the Province of Quito.

The military skill and the daring of Orellana in warfare so pleased the Pizarro brothers that the intrepid soldier received high praise and was rewarded with the title of Governor's Lieutenant General of the newly founded city of Santiago de Guayaquil, situated west of the peaks of the Andes. There he demonstrated that he was as proficient in civic administration as he had been successful in battle. Guayaquil, as a vassal city to that of the Viceroy, prospered and grew.

The early Spanish conquistadors, however, were not an agricultural people content to establish a community and live on such products of the land as its resources might offer. Gonzalo Pizarro well recognized that fact and found little difficulty in convincing his brother, the Viceroy, that it would be well to organize a strong force to move eastward to discover and take possession of the fabulous wealth of El Dorado, the Man of Gold, and of La Canella, the Land of Cinnamon. No difficulty was encountered in recruiting a following to proceed on an adventure that promised such rich reward. According to Indian report and tradition, El Dorado possessed wealth in gold that knew no bounds. The most menial utilities were made of the precious metal that glittered and scintillated in the brilliance of the ever present tropical sun. It came from sources that were seemingly inexhaustible. El Dorado alone knew of their locations. Then too, in the same general direction as the abode of El Dorado, was the Land of La Canella where the fragrance of cinnamon perfumed the air with a deep, piquant, stimulating odor that surpassed the exotic and aromatic incenses of Oriental spice lands.

Toward the attainment of these rewards awaiting mere taking by the Spaniards, the adventurers rallied to the call of Gonzalo Pizarro. Several thousands, including Indian servants, made ready to follow the leaders appointed by the Governor, chief among them being Francisco de Orellana and Gonzalo Diaz de Pizarrro. With munitions of warfare, building materials, food supplies in casks and bales, and even livestock on the hoof, they finally got under way. Late in February of 1541 the advance unit of the expedition set forth.

By day they traveled down paths of verdant grasses and at even tide paused in a cool ravine to enjoy relaxation and a satisfying meal. They gathered before open fires to revel in the interpreted stories of their native Indian guides. Each evening the Spanish adventurers relaxed to absorb further and more exaggerated stories of the glittering golden horde of El Dorado. As succeeding nightly camp fires were lighted, the men were assured that the land of their desire was but a few days further travel toward the rising sun. Each morning they arose at dawn fired with the certainty that the forthcoming day's journey would bring them closer to El Dorado. In their enthusiasm less consideration was given to the fact that food supplies were diminishing than to the hope of reaching their desired destination of gold. They appeared wholly oblivious to the fact that the dense vegetation through which they were forging their way offered no fresh supplies of food and that animal life consisted largely of snakes, lizards and ugly monsters that crawled on their bellies.

One day, however, the situation in regard to their lack of food stores dawned on them with startling emphasis. They held a consultation and it was decided that a brigantine was to be built which, freighted with their heavier burdens of munitions and cannon, was to move down the river to a point where, it was told, supplies of fresh meats and vegetables were to be found. There the heavier articles of their equipage were to be left, along with some of the men. Food was to be brought back on the return trip and then all were to proceed onward again to the Golden Land of El Dorado.

The plan was excellent. While the brigantine was being constructed of rough hewn forest logs, further consultations were held as to which of the Governor's lieutenants was to captain the ship. Gonzalo Diaz de Pizarro was the only one seriously considered beside Francisco de Orellana. A decision was quickly reached, the former being assigned to remain with Gonzalo Pizarro and the main contingent of the soldiers, while Orellana accepted the honor and the responsibility of leading the contingent about to go forward for food.

In ambitiously accepting that assignment Orellana unknowingly was facing the turning point of his life. As a result of this new phase of his adventure, the high regard of the Pizarros, both Viceroy and Governor, was to turn from admiration to vindictive hatred, and the former praise he had received as soldier and as chief of the City of Santiago de Guayaquil was to be succeeded with charges of insubordination, treason, and treachery. As a matter of actuality his reputation became sullied with the most unkind and uncomplimentary aspersions which endured for centuries after he had died.

Orellana, born in 1511 in the town of Trujillo, Province of Esremadur in Spain, was the son of a prominent family. He was hardly more than a boy when he went to sea. In the service of Francisco Pizarro, to whom he was distantly related, he found a place among the early conquistadors who introduced the blood of Spain into the New World. During early life, in one of many hand-to-hand battles he lost one of his eyes, which added color to the infamous title, ''the One- Eyed Traitor," by which he was long known in the records of history–accepted as authentic until the end of the nineteenth century.

In 1894 Jose T. Medina, a deep student of the source materials of writings long accepted as authoritative, completed a research that had engaged his major attention for a long period of years. He had taken issue with the record "created" by Jiménez de la Espada some three hundred years before, while lingering reflections of the old Pizarro-Orellana feud still persisted. Medina's views now appear not only to warrant favor, but to possess a logical sequence of factual data that justifies the honor and prestige restored and rightfully belonging to Francisco de Orellana.

On December 26, 1541, amid salvos of good wishes and the cheers of his comrades, Orellana captained the brigantine his fellow adventurers had built and started eastward on what was to have been a mission of mercy in finding food and returning it to his companions. He planned to move downstream with the aid of his sails and the mild current, and then to return. The stream broadened as he proceeded, the waters took on a more powerful movement, and the jungle land became more dense, but neither villages nor edible vegetation greeted the ever watchful eyes of Orellana and his men.

From time to time occasional small bands of jungle natives greeted him through unfamiliar signs and incomprehensible mouthings. Through them Orellana was led to believe, or chose so to interpret their messages, that supplies of food were to be found ahead after another day of travel. But as each day waxed from noon to night, the quest lured him further down stream. The current increased, the river widened, and the waters, fraught with cataracts and rapids, rendered progress more dangerous with every hour. Each day his surroundings changed even the character of the natives differed. In place of friendly Indians he met with a savage tribe whose greetings were conveyed by arrows with hardened tips bathed in the poisons of the jungle. They were an odd lot; according to the record of the historian Carvajal, they had fair skins, long blonde hair, and wore tunics that reached to their knees. As a result of this record, however clothed with imagination it may have been, these unfriendly natives were referred to as the feminine Amazon warriors of the New World. Battle with them and even flight from their missiles called for all the skill Orellana could command.

Orellana’s food stocks ebbed and then disappeared entirely. The captain of the mission of mercy in search of food for his companions upstream began to realize that his temporary assignment had, for the time being, assumed less importance than his own growing predicament of danger. The increasing river current, the savage natives, and his crew of men whose morale had reached its lowest ebb with cases of scurvy and other diseases prevalent, constituted problems that had changed the whole world for Orellana. In heart and mind he had not forgotten Gonzalo Pizarro and the mission he had been called on to perform, but as a practical matter there was no course for him to pursue other than onward into the indefinite spaces ahead at the mercy of the current and the winds. Had it been possible for Orellana to return to Pizarro, it was obvious that there was no point in taking that chance for the single purpose of reporting a failure to accomplish his objective.

Onward with the current Orellana willingly or otherwise plunged, finding the task of keeping the keel of his ship beneath him as much as he could manage. Torrential rains further handicapped his better management of the brigantine, the rains beating upon its deck with such force that the forecastle was not visible from the stern of the ship. Days followed weeks with a monotony varied only in the type and character of changing dangers. Time had lost its significance, direction had no meaning, even a destination was of less interest to Orellana than the ever present consequences of hunger. Starvation, scurvy, and death all took their toll as the nameless brigantine tossed and lurched its way down stream to an unknown destination.

St. Louis Day late in August of 1542 dawned and unexpectedly proved to be the end of a voyage auspiciously begun eighteen months before–a voyage that was intended to have lasted but two weeks. Orellana and his men had reached the Great Ocean, having traveled some three thousand miles eastward from the Andes. The original objective of their mission had long since been forgotten yet it was, according to Medina, in this way that they brought to an end their navigation and experience which had been entered upon unintentionally and turned out to be so extraordinary that it is one of the greatest things that ever happened to men.

Orellana's original objectives of finding El Dorado and La Canella were never realized. His secondary mission of obtaining food for his companions was likewise never accomplished. For this latter failure he was censured throughout the realm of the Pizarros as having been a traitor in deserting his companions in the hour of their greatest need. In Spain, after the full extent of Orellana's journeys became known, he was acclaimed a hero on whom great honors were bestowed. But his triumph was transitory. At the height of his fame he was sent to Colombia to investigate a difficulty which had arisen between certain of the Spanish officials stationed there. After familiarizing himself with the situation he made the unfortunate error of ordering the arrest and imprisonment of several members of the "Audencia." The Council of the Indies in Spain, on reviewing the situation, disapproved of Orellana’s action, and in turn, ordered him to prison where he died a short time later. So destitute was the great voyager, that it became necessary for someone else to meet the expenses of his funeral.

Despite the misfortunes of his own life, Orellana is today credited with the distinction of having been the first man to have navigated the entire length of the Amazon, thus bringing recognition of its immensity to the world. His reports stimulated a series of exploratory voyages to and up the river and its several tributaries. Among them the most dramatic were those of Lope de Aguirre and, later, that of Pedro de Teixeira. Despite these explorations, the Spaniards acquired only a vague idea of the magnitude of the Amazon, its tributaries and drainage basin. This is evidenced by their crude maps, now obsolete, several of which are to be seen on the recent postage stamps of Ecuador and Peru. A fuller picture of the vast reaches of the Amazon, at least insofar as the Brazilian basin is concerned, is to be noted on a 1943 brown map stamp of Brazil released by Brazil in 1943.

The increased needs of world markets for many basic materials and substitutes for others, so sternly realized in connection with the prosecution of World War II, has brought a distinct change to the Amazon Basin. The great rubber industry has reawakened, embracing not alone the agricultural phases of cultivation but likewise the subject of manpower coupled with the endless human needs of food, shelter, and clothing for the workers and their families, schools for their children, health and sanitation facilities, and the equally great problem of transportation by land, sea, and air. Rubber is said to have been indigenous to the Amazon valley, although later cultivated in the East Indies and Africa where it gained great commercial prosperity. From present indications it would appear that the Era of Rubber in the Amazon Valley is about to begin.

Quinine, a product of the bark of various species of the cinchona tree, is likewise a native of the Ecuadorean and Peruvian basins of the Amazon. The unprecedented movement of men to tropical climates in connection with the pursuit of World War II, so stimulated the need for the medicinal powers of quinine that the cultivation and treatment of cinchona trees of the Amazon valley have received an impulse greater than ever before. Woods of a wide variety, fibers, tin, manganese, and other natural resources in quantities and grades still unknown lie dormant in the huge Amazon Basin covering an area larger than that portion of the United States east of the Mississippi River. Many species of native flora of the Amazonian regions still remain subjects of chemical and commercial experimentation and exploitation such as the vegetable ivory trees, the babassú nuts and the carnauba palm. This latter species, which flourishes in the dry regions of the northeast has already received considerable attention. In regard to it Professor Fred A. Carlson of the Ohio State University has written in his Geography of Latin America:

The root is depurative and is widely used in treatment of blood diseases. From the bark is prepared a meal which is highly prized. The trunk furnishes a wood employed in rough timbering. The fruit is an excellent food for animals, and when ripe, has a soft, dark, lustrous sweet pulp which is delicious either raw or made into a conserve. Around the fruit is a shell five inches in diameter, which when roasted, is made into a drink resembling coffee, and which yields an illuminating oil. From the surface of the young leaves comes the famous carnauba wax which is widely used in phonograph disks, in cinema films, in insulation for cables and in candles.

To science the great Amazon River and its far-reaching Basin still remain to be discovered with a view to a fuller use of their abundant natural wealth. As Vicente Pinzon in 1500 discovered the existence of the river, and Orellana in 1542 its length and course, so, even today, after a span of more than four centuries, there remains for discovery through the advanced sciences of our generation, a multitude of practical uses for the natural assets of the Amazon Basin.

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