Orellana expedition (1541-1542; 8 months; chronicled by
Spanish Dominican Gaspar Carvajal in Relación del
nuevo descubrimiento del famoso río Grande que
descubrió por muy gran ventura el capitán Francisco de
Orellana (published only in 1895).
Francisco Orellana (1511-1546); traveled to Caribbean at
17 (1527); he served in Nicaragua until joining army of
Francisco Pizarro in 1533. He was second in command of
expedition of Gonzalo Pizarro (1502-1548), recently
appointed governor of Quito (Ecuador), east in search of
La Canela (the Land of Cinnamon) and El Dorado, fabled
city of gold in 1541.
Left Quito in Feb. 1541 with 220 Spaniards and 4,000
Native Americans. By lat e1541, about 140 of the 220
Spaniards and 3,000 out of 4,000 natives had died. On
February 1542, they decided Orellana would continue
sailing down the Napo river in search of food along with
50 men. At confluence of Napo/Amazon, he decided to
continue following the river, until he reached the estuary
of the Amazon in August 1542.
River named Rio Grande, Mar Dulce or Rio de Canela
(Cinnamon), was renamed Amazon, because of fierce
female warriors like the mythological Amazons described
by Homer.
This expedition met significant misfortunes, particularly
downriver from the Negro. Carvajal recorded numerous
things of interest about indigenous groups, such as the
size and density of communities, tactics of war, rituals,
customs, utensils, and the like, notably large, densely
settled populations.
We went among some islands which we thought uninhabited, but,
after we got to be in among them, so numerous were the
settlements which came into sight … that we grieved; and, when
they saw us, there came out to meet us on the river over two
hundred pirogues [canoes], that each one carries twenty or thirty
Indians and some forty …; they were quite colorfully decorated
with various emblems, and they had with them many trumpets
and drums …. and on land a marvelous thing to see were the
squadron formations that were in the villages, all playing on
instruments and dancing about, manifesting great joy upon seeing
that we were passing beyond their villages
Gaspar Carvajal, 25 June 1542 (Medina 1988:218)
This short passage, but one of many from early chronicles, attests to the
vigorous and populous societies that thronged the banks of the river, but it
suggests how foreign this complexity was to the European eyes. “Great
was their [early European colonial authorities] disapproval on seeing that
those strapping men glowing with health preferred to deck themselves out
like women with paint and feathers instead of perspiring away in their
gardens (Clastres 1987:193).”
Ursua-Aguirre Expedition (1560-1561)
Pedro de Ursúa (1526 – 1561), as
governor of Panama (1550s), Ursúa
subdued a (ex-slave) revolt by deceiving
leader (Bayano) into meeting, captured him
and sent him to King Phillip II of Spain. In 1560, Ursúa
set out from Lima to the Amazon region in search
for El Dorado with the mercenary Lope de Aguirre,
nicknamed “El Loco” (the madman), who assassinated
Ursua and the subsequent leader of the expedition, Guzman.
Lope de Aguirre arrived in the New
World (Peru) in 1536-37 and became
renowned for violence, cruelty, and
sedition. Chronicle by Pedro Simon has
little of interest about native peoples,
particularly from later parts of journey.
Together with his daughter he joined the
1560 Ursua expedition down the
Maranon and Amazon with 300 Spanish
men and hundreds of natives. A year
later, he participated in the overthrow
and killing of Ursúa and his successor,
Fernando de Guzmán, whom he
ultimately succeeded. He and his men
reached the Atlantic (probably via the
Orinoco River), destroying native
villages on the way. In 1561, he
reportedly said: I am the Wrath of God,
the Prince of Freedom, Lord of Tierra
Firme and the Provinces of Chile.
In 1561, he seized Isla Margarita and
brutally suppressed any opposition to his
reign, but when he crossed to the
mainland to take Panama he was
captured and killed, but not before killing
his daughter and several followers. His
body was quartered and pieces sent to
various cities in Venezuela.
The “Wild Coast”
Pedro Teixeira (1585-1641), first expedition up the Amazon,
and third descent (first round-trip). In 1637, two Franciscan
friars and six soldiers paddled the length of the Amazon from
Quito and arrived at Presidio (Belem). This aroused
Portuguese concerns over Spanish colonization of the Amazon,
which resulted in expedition led by Texeira (with 47 canoes, 70
soldiers, and 1200 native and African slaves), which departed
in Oct. 28, 1637. Texeira was a veteran in campaigns in the
lower Amazon to capture and control indigenous groups and
expel colonial rivals, notably Dutch, English, and Irish.
Spain and Portugal were both under the rule of Philip IV of
Spain, but still colonial rivals. Commisioned by governor of
Maranhao (chronicled by Maurício de Heriarte, 1662). After
almost one year, in October 1638, the expedition reached
Based on the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) and Orellana’s
expedition, Spain considered the Amazon Spanish. Texeira
founded town – Franciscana – on margins of the Napo
(8/16/1639) to establish Portuguese presence.
On return, Cristobal de Acuna (Jesuit) chronicled the
expedition, published in 1641 as Novo Descobrimento do
Grande Rio das Amazonas (Madrid).
In it, he gives a glowing account the Amazon regions and is
especially complimentary towards the indigenous Brazilian
natives and their way of life. The expedition itself appears to
have been uneventful, apart from a disagreement between the
Jesuits and the Portuguese officers over slaving around the Rio
Negro. Expedition reached Belem (Presidio) 12/12/1639.
In 1640, Joao IV was proclaimed king of Portugal and, in 1641,
king of Brazil as well. Texeira accepted the post of governor of
Grao-Para on 28 February 1640 but he yielded the office after
three months due to ill health. He died on 4 July 1641.
When the revolution of 1640 placed Joao IV on
the throne in of Portugal and Brazil. Antonio
Vieira (1608-1697) went to Lisbon and so
impressed the king, he was appointed royal
preacher with free access to the palace. He was
regularly consulted on the business of the state.
Vieira devoted his life to the conversion of the
African slaves and indigenous peoples in Brazil,
as well as their defense against abusive colonial
forces. In 1653, he returned to Maranhao and
Grao Para, and began tireless campaign to
establish missions and defend indigenous peoples
in the Lower Amazon.
Due to abusive colonial administrators, Vieira
argued that indigenous peoples must be placed
under the control of Jesuits and returned to Lisbon
in 1654 to plead the cause. In 1655, obtained
royal decrees to give Jesuits unprecedented
control over indigenous affairs (particularly
missions), except in extreme cases (just wars).
Organized many missions across coastal
Maranhao and Grao Para, on Marajo and along
the Amazon, where he described massive native
populations, as well as the injustices to them in
the context of colonialism.
Colonists and secular authorities actively opposed
Vieira, attributing the shortage of slaves and the
consequent diminution in their profits to the
Jesuits. They were joined by members of the
secular clergy and the other Orders who were
jealous of the monopoly enjoyed by the Jesuits in
the governing native groups.
In 1661, was sent back to Portugal with other
Jesuits, and with death of Joao IV power over
indigenous affairs returned to secular authorities.
Pombal Directorate,
Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo,
Marquês de Pombal (1699-1782)
During two centuries of colonial rule, every indigenous people living on the main
Amazon and its navigable tributaries had been destroyed. The diseases brought by
European settlers – smallpox, measles, influenza, and later malaria - had annihilated
tribe after tribe. The few survivors were mercilessly brought down the river in slaving
expeditions; or ‘descended’ from their forest homes to fill denuded mission
villages [resgates, “rescues”]. Slavery of Indians (but not of blacks) was officially
abolished in the 1740s; but it continued in all but name.
The Marquis of Pombal, strongman of Portugal in the mid-eighteenth century, expelled
first the Jesuits then the other monastic orders. He tried to replace them in the mission
villages with lay Directors, under the crazy impression that these laymen would be
disinterested towards their Indian charges. Hardly surprisingly, the Directors were
appalling oppressors. They forced men and women to work ceaselessly for them, and
often abused girls in harems that shocked visiting ecclesiastics.
Pombal’s Directorate was abolished in 1798; but exploitation of the poor did not abate.
By that time, the total population in villages under government control throughout Pará
and Brazilian Amazonia had fallen to under 20,000. The European ruling class needed
native labour for every aspect of life: paddling canoes, farming, hunting, fishing,
construction of buildings and forts, shipbuilding, gathering forest produce, plantations,
and all domestic service. There were few black slaves, because Amazonia was
generally too poor to afford them.
Hemming (2006); see Hemming Red Gold (1978) and Amazonian Frontier (1987)
Charles Marie de La Condamine
(1701 – 1774)
La Condamine went to South
America to measure the equator
(1735). Travelled from Quito down
the Amazon, ultimately reaching
Cayenne (French Guiana).
Discovered rubber from indigenous
peoples in the region, but generally
described the Amazon River as
desolate with small and dispersed
indigenous populations, in stark
contrast to the descriptions of the
previous centuries. Considered first
scientific exploration of the Amazon.
The journal of his ten-year long
voyage to South America was
published in Paris in 1751.
Journal du voyage fait par ordre du
roi à l'équateur (Paris 1751,
Supplement 1752)
Relation abrégée d'un voyage fait
dans l'intérieur del'Amérique
méridionale (Paris 1759)
• By the mid-18th century, when naturalists began
describing the Amazon, the floodplain polities
had been destroyed as intact indigenous
polities, reduced to mixed blood ribeirinho
(“caboclo”) groups dispersed along the Amazon
and it’s major tributaries
• By the 19th century, overall population of the
Amazon had been drastically reduced and intact
indigenous groups concentrated in upland
areas, removed from the major navigable rivers
(the U-shaped distribution of native peoples
noted by Steward in the Handbook of South
American Indians, 1946-1950, six volumes)
Gold & Slaves
Lecture to ‘Religion, Science and the Environment’ Symposium by Dr John Hemming
Rio Negro near Manaus, July 2006
Treaty of Madrid of 1750 its diplomats effectively secured Brazil’s modern boundaries – which embrace half South
America. So Portugal was paranoid about protecting this jewel in its colonial crown from prying foreigners. Captain
Cook was not allowed to set foot on Brazilian soil when his ships watered at Rio de Janeiro. When the great
German polymath Baron Alexander von Humboldt in 1800 made his way up the Orinoco and crossed to the
remote headwaters of the Rio Negro, he was refused entry into Portuguese dominions and forced to retrace his
route through what is now Venezuela. All this changed during the Napoleonic Wars, when in 1808 the Portuguese
court escaped to Brazil; and in 1822 the Bragança prince Dom Pedro declared Brazilian independence.
The first foreign scientists allowed onto the Amazon, in 1818-20, were the Bavarians Von Spix and Von Martius.
[Followed by …] three remarkable young English naturalists. Alfred Russell Wallace and Henry Walter Bates
scraped up the money to sail to the Amazon in 1848 – when aged 25 and 23 respectively. They were followed a
year later by the Yorkshire botanist Richard Spruce, who was in his early thirties. Remarkably, all three came from
humble origins and had no higher education. Wallace was a struggling schoolmaster with socialist beliefs that he
retained throughout his life. Bates left school at thirteen to work in his family hosiery business. The two met in
Leicester, collecting insects on Sundays. Spruce was the son of village schoolmaster, and he also started by
teaching; but his heart was in botany. Spruce published papers about Yorkshire plants. The head of Kew Gardens
was impressed and recognised him as a potentially great botanist.
For a while the three young naturalists roomed together in Santarém, and each then sailed far up the Rio Negro
and Solimões, sometimes together but more usually alone. They collected constantly, passionately and
prodigiously – for selling their specimens to European museums and collectors was their sole means of support.
They were dazzled by Amazonia. Bates wrote to a friend: ‘The charm and glory of the country are its animal and
vegetable productions. How inexhaustible is their study! It is one dense jungle: the lofty forest trees, of vast variety
of species, all lashed and connected by climbers, their trunks covered with a museum of ferns, Tillandrias, Arums,
Orchids, &c.’ When Bates finally left after eleven years of non-stop collecting, he was heartbroken to leave ‘the
glorious forest for which I had so much love, and to explore which I had devoted so many years. It is a region
which may fittingly be called a Naturalist’s Paradise.’ The others were equally staggered by the size and
exuberance of everything. Spruce wrote: ‘The largest river in the world flows through the largest forest. Fancy if
you can two millions of square miles of forest, uninterrupted save by the streams that traverse it.’
Wallace left the Amazon after six years, in 1855; but he went on to achieve fame researching in the forests of
South-East Asia. Bates left in 1859. Spruce returned to England in 1864, after 15 years of arduous exploring. The
three young naturalists adored the Amazon and generally got on very well with Brazilians and other South
Americans. They of course had tremendous adventures – near drowning, getting lost, hunger, near-fatal malaria
for each one of them, terrible bites and illnesses, almost killed and robbed, and suffering loneliness and
depression. But their achievements were utterly amazing.
Hemming (2006)
Henry Walter Bates,
Alfred Russel Wallace,
Richard Spruce,
Notes of a botanist on the Amazon & Andes,
being records of travel on the Amazon and its tributaries, the Trombetas, Rio Negro,
Uaupés, Casiquiari, Pacimoni, Huallaga and Pastasa : as also to the cataracts of the
Orinoco, along the eastern side of the Andes of Peru and Ecuador, and the shores
of the Pacific, during the years 1849-1864
Prince regent João VI moved Portuguese court to Brazil in
1808, to escape Napoleon. Returned to Portugal in 1821;
appointed son, Dom Pedro, regent in Brazil. D. Pedro
refused to return to Lisbon, established a legislative
assembly in São Paulo and proclaimed Brazil's
independence from Portugal on Sept. 7, 1822 (Brazilian
4th of July)
Up until that point the colony of Grão Para dealt directly
with the Portuguese crown, and only after independence
claimed allegiance to Brazil.
Cabanagem revolt (1835-40). Caused by extreme poverty
of Paraense people, exacerbated by political irrelevance
of region after Brazilian independence. Province had
120,000 inhabitants, being 32,750 Amerindians, 30,000
black slaves, 42,000 mixed-race, and only 15,000
European background (mostly Portuguese).
The Cabano leaders declared autonomy for Para,
establishing a new government, but were brutally
defeated. Estimated 30-40% of population died in revolt.
Belém, founded in early 1600s (1.4 million)
Rubber, 1850-1920
The Rubber Boom (1850s-1910s) increased interest in more remote regions of Brazil, which
brought many groups into direct contact with “uncontacted” indigenous groups, typically with dire
In 1839 Charles Goodyear developed vulcanization. Then, useful for hoses, tires, industrial bands,
sheets, shoes, shoe soles, and other products. Bicycle “revolution” spurred early boom, followed
and greatly intensified after 1900 by automobiles.
The Brazilian rubber industry: high-wage cost structure from labor scarcity and lack of competition.
Workers borrowed money to move in and survive in region from employers, paid back through
work (patrao/fregues; regatao), basically indenture servitude.
Between 1900 and 1913, these conditions ceased to hold. First, the demand for rubber
skyrocketed, providing a huge incentive for other producers to enter the market. After 1880s, SE
Asia market with low cost labor, slowly eclipsed Brazil monopoly.
In order to compete in rubber production, Brazil would have to have had significantly lower wages
– needed vastly expanded transport network and agriculture. Such an expensive solution made
no economic sense in the 1910s and 20s when coffee and nascent industrialization in São Paulo
offered much more promising prospects.
Bio-piracy (seeds left Brazil clandestinely in 1877 to England)
5k tons
From 1890 to 1920, during rubber boom, Amazonian
cities like Manaus prospered enormously; although conditions of
urban and rural poor extremely bad.
900 k
Manaus (1.7 million)
Teatro Amazonas, 1896
Santarém, Brazil (200,000)
Home of the primary town of the
Tapajós polity in 1500-1600s
Estimated at 20 km² with a core
area of 100 ha (350 acres) in
1500 (largest prehistoric
settlement in Amazon)
Iquitos, Peru (375,000)
Social relations/alliance
“Slavery” & Debt
The “Local”

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