The tale of the first European scientific expedition to South America and its extraordinary aftermath.
Science journalist Whitaker (Mad in America, 2002, etc.) begins in 1769, when Isabel Godin took her first steps on a journey down the Amazon River to meet husband Jean, who some two decades earlier had been one of a group of French scientists seeking to determine the exact shape of the Earth by measuring a degree of longitude near the equator in what was then Peru. As with other Spanish colonies of the time, Peruvians of Spanish descent maintained an iron control over the lower classes of Indian or mixed heritage. The Frenchmen, at first welcomed as representatives of European culture, inevitably ran afoul of local prejudices, which led to one member of the expedition being murdered in broad daylight. High altitude and primitive conditions impeded the scientists’ measurements, which took seven years to complete. Meanwhile, Jean Godin, a young assistant, had married Isabel Gramesón, the daughter of a prominent local family. When the expedition leaders returned to Europe, Godin stayed behind. After falling into financial difficulties, he traveled to French Guiana, where for 20 years he called upon the king (or anyone else who would listen) to bail him out. Meanwhile, Isabel stayed with her family, raising a daughter who died without ever seeing her father. When Godin sent for his wife at last, she set off down the Amazon. The journey was a nightmare. Isabel, who probably had never spent a night outdoors, was stranded in the jungle. Two of her brothers died, as did those of her servants who had not already abandoned her. Whitaker brings forward a wealth of detail to throw both the scientific and social history into sharp relief. Indeed, he makes Isabel’s ordeal so vivid that her rescue, reunion with Godin, and journey with him to France come almost as an anticlimax.
A great story, deftly told.