Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Geographical Exploration and the Elusive Mapping of Amazonia

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Geographical Exploration and the Elusive Mapping of Amazonia

Article excerpt

In July 1925 the New York Times reported disappointing news from Amazonia: The latest expedition of the American explorer Alexander Hamilton Rice had met a premature end, having failed to locate the source of the "great river," following an accident in which three canoes carrying provisions had capsized. "At the time his party believed that they were no more than seventy-five miles from success, but in such a wild country the goal might have been far distant. Ranges of mountains intervened" (NYT 1925a). Defeated by the river, as well as by growing hunger and disease, this was Rice's seventh expedition to Amazonia, a region he had first visited in 1901 (Figure 1). Following in the footsteps of more celebrated nineteenth-century pioneers, including Alexander von Humboldt, Richard Spruce, and Robert Schomburgk, but with all the advantages of modern equipment, Rice had hoped this time to reach the headwaters of the Rio Branco, a major tributary of the Rio Negro in northern Brazil. In particular, his objective had been to map a detailed route from the Orinoco River to the Parima branch of the Uraricuera River, a head-stream of the Rio Branco, which he had heard about from indigenous peoples of the upper Orinoco River during a previous expedition (Rice 1925b, 115-116). (1)

Outlining his plan for the expedition in an article published in the Geographical Review, Rice had highlighted a distinctly more human obstacle to the exploration of the Amazon--the resistance of indigenous peoples the origins of which he traced back to the historic encounter of the Amerindians with the forces of the Spanish Boundary Commission under Francisco Bobadilla in 1763. A band of Guaharibos had blocked Rice's own attempt to reach the main source of the Orinoco in 192o, which ended in failure, as had all previous attempts to explore the region:

  Humboldt was deterred from attempting it [reaching
  the path leading from the Orinoco River to the
  Parima branch of the Uraricuera River] by the
  authorities at Esmeralda [Venezuela] and his poor
  physical condition. [Agustin] Codazzi, the
  valiant Italian, is said to have been repulsed.
  Spruce's Venezuelan allies failed to reach Esmeralda.
  Schomburgk crossed from the east too far to the north
  and was outside the danger zone on the [Rio]
  Padamo, by which route he reached Esmeralda. [Francisco]
  Rojas y Michelena [sic] ascended to the mouth of
  the Rio Umauaca [Mavaca River, a tributary of the
  Orinoco River] only. [Jean] Chaffanjon, the Frenchman,
  in 1886 actually succeeded in passing the raudal
  [rapids at] Guaharibos and ascended slowly and
  laboriously for several days more. He claimed to
  have reached the source; but Caripoco, a
  Maquiritare Indian, the only surviving member of
  Chaffanjon's crew and a member of mine in 192o,
  assured me that they did not reach the source and
  that the river was a deep, narrow catto [channel]
  when they turned back, at which point it showed no
  signs of coming to an end. (Rice 1925b,115-116)

This laborious recounting of the archive of failed geographical exploration in Amazonia served a specific purpose: It placed Rice at the end of an illustrious sequence, making him the bearer of the accumulated hopes of his predecessors. The achievements of the last and nearest to success, Jean Chaffanjon, had been recognized by the Paris Geographical Society, which awarded him a gold medal for his work on the upper Orinoco River in 1888. A year later Chaffanjon had published a popular travel narrative, L'Orenoque et le Caura: Relation de voyages executes en 1886 et 1887. This book in turn inspired Jules Verne to write his celebrated novel The Mighty Orinoco ([1898] 2002; see also Dupuy 2008), in which the quest for the source of the river is intermingled with a search for the missing father of the novel's hero(ine) (Figure 2). Beyond France, however, the representatives of the scientific community were less impressed. Writing in Richard Spruce's Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes, the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace described Chaffanjon's sketch map as "evidently quite untrustworthy" (Wallace 1908, 1: 447). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.