A character-rich narrative of the exploration and exploitation of the Amazon River and the land drained by it from the days of the first European explorers to today’s cattle ranchers, farmers and oil men.
Former book editor and publisher De Bruhl (Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden, 2006, etc.) opens with facts and figures demonstrating the immense size and importance of the Amazon. Each of the subsequent chapters tackles a period of the history of the region, beginning with the Inca Empire and its destruction by the Spanish conquistadores and the Christian friars who sought to impose their faith on the indigenous people. Less well-known is the story of the aristocratic Isabel Godin, whose harrowing journey down the Amazon in the late 18th century is a truly amazing feat. De Bruhl then chronicles the travels of German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, whose writings laid the foundations for physical geography and meteorology. In the Victorian era, other scientists followed—Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry Walter Bates and Richard Spruce—and the author recounts the adventures of each. Spruce’s role in smuggling out cinchona seeds (the bark was used in the production of quinine) makes for fascinating reading. Similarly, De Bruhl’s account of the rubber boom and bust is a rich story, revealing much about the plantation aristocracy and the virtual enslavement of the rubber tappers. In the final chapter, “Exploitation, Despoliation, or Conservation,” De Bruhl discusses the impact of logging, cattle ranching, oil drilling and soybean farming, presents the arguments of environmentalists working to save the rain forests of the Amazon and discusses the pros and cons of the Brazilian government’s actions and inactions. As he writes, it is a tale of “greed, altruism, rapacity, generosity, preservation, exploitation, religious fervor, even genocide.” The Amazon’s problems are the world’s problem, he argues, and what happens there affects us all.
A whirlwind tour through the history of a vast foreign land. One quibble: The profusion of unfamiliar names is overwhelming and disorienting, requiring more help than that provided by the single map included in the book.