An exciting, well-plotted excursion down the Amazon River with the early Spanish conquistador.
Levy follows his account of Hernán Cortés, Conquistador (2008), with this accessible new book, which follows Francisco Orellana’s accidental but monumental trip down the Amazon only a few years after Cortés. Orellana was second-in-command of an expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro, one of the famous, swashbuckling Pizarro brothers, in pursuit of El Dorado in 1541. A royal cousin of the Pizarros, Orellana was just 30 years old when he was chosen to accompany Pizarro on a quest for gold and cinnamon in the unknown lands east of the Andes. Though the mouth of the Amazon had been discovered in 1500 by the former captain of Columbus’s Niña, no European had descended the world’s largest river. The two arrogant Spaniards set out with an astonishing 200 soldiers and horses, thousands of swine earmarked for food, llamas, war hounds and 4,000 Indian slave porters, and immediately ran into bad omens including freezing weather, an erupting volcano, Indian attacks and impassable forest. Pizarro had the brilliant idea to build a boat and make better progress, yet by December 1541 they had resolved to split up for survival. Orellana would advance with 60 men onboard the San Pedro and find food downriver, then return with provisions in 12 days, while Pizarro’s camp would follow slowly on foot. However, the Napo river soon joined the Amazon, and at terrific speed, so that there would be no way to return upstream—Orellana and crew were hurtling 2,500 miles toward the Atlantic Ocean. Thriving riverside populations awaited them (some friendly, some fierce), as well as mythical sightings of the Amazon women—all of which Levy ably captures in this knowledgeable work.
Not as gripping as Conquistador, but a richly textured account of the rogue, rebel and visionary whose discovery still resonates today.