02 October 2008

Francisco de Orellana - A brief history of the first explorer of the Amazon

Francisco de Orellana was a Spanish explorer and conquistador. He may have been a relative of Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador of Peru. Like his Pizarro relatives, Orellana was born in Trujillo, Estremadura. He reached the New World as a teenage boy and participated in the Pizarro conquest of Peru, where he lost an eye in battle. He was one of Gonzalo Pizarro’s lieutenants during his 1541 mission across the Andes Mountains east of Quito into the heart of South America in quest of El Dorado and the Country of Cinnamon.

They faced tremendous challenges overcoming the Andes, leaving from Quito, when they finally arrived at the Napo River, one of the Amazon river´s tributaries that lead to the Amazon basin lowlands.  They faced Indian attacks and captured many, who under duress kept confessing to there being a land of gold and nutmeg downriver.  After weeks of hardship and with their food reserves running low (by this time they had eaten their horses and dogs), Orellana was ordered by expedition leader Pizarro to sail downriver in search of food and signs of treasure and then return.

Orellana was chosen because he knew many native languages, and could communicate with the Indians and get help. But he and his men didn’t find any villages while navigating the Napo River. Instead, they suffered so much hunger they ate their own shoes.

He descended the stream to its junction with the Amazon River, in present-day northeast Peru; instead of returning, as he had promised Gonzalo Pizarro, he proceeded down the river to the Atlantic Ocean. Orellana managed to navigate the length of the Amazon in one of the most surprisingly successful expeditions in known history, arriving at the river’s mouth on August 24, 1542.  He then managed to follow sea current up the coast of South America, finally reaching the Caribbean and Isla Margarita in Venezuela, from where he was taken to Spain to meet the king and tell of his amazing journey.  He is known as the first European to descend the Amazon river.

Chaplain of the expedition, Gaspar de Carvajal, wrote a diary of their voyage, which provides interesting, if not always accurate, descriptions of what the Amazon was like before Europeans arrived.  He describes fertile croplands and turtle farms in the heart of the Amazon Basin. Long thought to be exaggerations, attitudes to Orellana’s claims are beginning to change. His description of continuous riverside human settlements are slowly being met by the archeological record, showing that the Amazon is a place that can sustain large human agglomerations, as long as the appropriate technology for sustainability exists. 

He may have well led the first party of Europeans through a greatly advanced civilization that thrived in the Amazon for centuries – a civilization whose existence was thought to be impossible. 

The excavation of ruins and even fragments of the language of Amazonians with words for crops they were supposedly unable to farm suggests that there were complex agricultural practices in place thousands of years ago.

Archaeologists have found that these Amazonian farmers apparently developed raised fields over half-mile long with irrigation canals in between. Somehow they found a method to enrich the soil with a microorganism that creates a dark, loamy stratum with potting-soil like qualities. Up to 10% of the Amazon Basin has been terra-formed in this manner by the ancients – an area the size of France.

A Spanish expedition in 1617 remarked on the extent and high quality of a network of raised causeways connecting villages in the Amazon together. These causeways can still be seen as straight lines cutting across the savannah. Alongside them run canals, the result of their construction. This canal network could have sustained hundreds of thousands of people, and archaeologists believe that this area was home to a society that had totally mastered its environment.

During his voyage, Orellana also described encountering a tribe of women very white and tall and doing as much fighting as 10 men. These warrior women were very skilled with bows and arrows, and their queen, Conori, was said to have great treasures. Their formidable strength brought to mind the Amazons of Greek mythology, and Orellana’s tales of these female warriors gave the river and the region its name.

Orellana’s own name remains a bit stained owing to the suspicion that he abandoned Pizarro in a desperate situation. However, his men testified and he was found innocent. When he returned to Spain, Orellana sought and obtained a dispensation to explore and rule New Andalusia, meaning roughly the land south of the great river. He sailed from Sanlúcar on May 11, 1545, with an inadequately outfitted fleet and accompanied by his wife, Ana de Ayala, whom he had married in Spain. 

After being appointed governor of New Andalusia, he and his men arrived at the Amazon river delta, built a riverboat and explored 500 km of the region. They faced many hardships and of the 300 men he had taken with him from Spain only 44 were rescued at sea by another Spanish fleet.  Orellana was one of the casualties – he died in November 1546.

The Amazon is the world’s second-longest river at 3980 miles. Its collects water from 40 percent of the continent, in the form of thousands of tributaries, many of which are more than 1000 miles long. As with the Nile, the people who lived in the Amazon in ancient times used the river for agriculture and transportation.

There is now an inland province of Ecuador named Orellana, the capital of which is Puerto Francisco de Orellana. The province is named after Orellana, who is said to have sailed from somewhere near the town to the Atlantic Ocean. He did this trip several times looking for El Dorado and a rumored nutmeg forest, nutmeg at the time being a very expensive spice.

Orellana, fanatical as he was with finding gold, was known as the “Gilded Man.” He claimed to have seen the glittering El Dorado, stories of which still reverberate through the archaeological community, and while it is perhaps easier to believe that Orellana was a fraud, there are still those who look for remains of the past that might confirm that the legendary city did exist.

The legend of El Dorado apparently originated in a tradition of the Chibcha people of Colombia who each year selected a chieftain and rolled him in gold, which he then ceremonially washed off in a sacred lake, casting offerings of emeralds and gold into the waters at the same time. This custom had evidently vanished long before the coming of the conquistadors, but the tales lived on and grew into a legend of a land of gold and plenty.

Orellana’s exploration also produced an international issue between Spain and Portugal because, according to the Treaty of Tordesilhas, the delta of the Amazon should be ruled by Portugal. It would only be resolved a century later with the exploration of Pedro de Teixeira.


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