In 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro (Francisco’s younger brother) led an expedition east from Peru across the Andes, searching for riches like a Land Of Cinnamon or an El Dorado. After a hellish eight-month trek, he sent his second-in-command, Francisco Orellana, downriver to seek out supplies and return. Orellana decided to keep going. His expedition turned into the European discovery of the Amazon, and the subject of River Of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage Of Death And Discovery Down the Amazon.
At the time, all Spaniards with armor and drive could feel like they had the chance to become the rulers of an empire. Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro had apparently conquered the Aztec and Incan empires with little more than ambition and aggressiveness. In retrospect, the conquests also relied on an astounding confluence of luck, disease, and technological advantage, and there were no other empires comparable to the Aztecs and Incas. This didn’t stop Europeans from playing conquistador all over the world, including some with the never-tested theory that China could be conquered with a few hundred cavalrymen. Cortes and Pizarro proved to be historical object lessons on the lure of wealth and power, but their would-be-successors instead provide marvelous stories about mankind at the limits of endurance, and the futility of hubris.
River Of Darkness author Buddy Levy is clearly fascinated by Orellana, and does his best to humanize the conquistador. Orellana’s gift for language and willingness to use diplomacy instead of force is contrasted with Gonzalo Pizarro’s torture-first policy, but their goals are the same—conquest of Amazonia and exploitation of its riches for Spain’s glory. Orellana is willing to be friendly with the natives he encounters, but only because he’s exploring on this expedition in order to come back and conquer later.
But his story is a rollicking adventure. Sailing down the Amazon in a rickety brigantine, Orellana discovers massive tributary after massive tributary, as well as a variety of friendly, wary, and hostile native civilizations. Orellana’s most controversial discovery was a group of warrior women who gave the river its current name, which Levy notes as plausible, since most everything else in his account can be verified to some degree. Indeed, the story is given extra weight by the recent archaeological evidence that the Amazon housed large, complex societies of the sort Orellana described.
As impressive as Orellana’s feat of discovery and survival was, Levy makes it clear that it was a unique event, one that ends painfully for most of the protagonists. Orellana and Pizarro were both dead and disgraced within a few years, and later attempts at conquest, including the infamous Aguirre expedition, failed dismally. Levy successfully conveys the Amazon’s power and majesty, while shedding light on the futility of humanity’s attempt to tame it.