Scholars and Amazon: Former Director of the Royal Geographical Society John Hemming Looks Back at the Society's Rich History of Pioneering Exploration and Scientific Expeditions in the Amazon Rainforest, Which Resulted in Discoveries That Have Shaped Our Modern Understanding of the World

By Hemming, John | Geographical, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Scholars and Amazon: Former Director of the Royal Geographical Society John Hemming Looks Back at the Society's Rich History of Pioneering Exploration and Scientific Expeditions in the Amazon Rainforest, Which Resulted in Discoveries That Have Shaped Our Modern Understanding of the World


Hemming, John, Geographical


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

When the young Yorkshire botanist Richard Spruce first saw the Amazon in 1849, he wrote excitedly to a friend: 'The largest river in the world flows through the largest forest. Fancy if you can two millions of square miles of forest [Spruce's italics] uninterrupted save by the streams that traverse it!'

Spruce was right: the Amazon is far and away the world's largest river by most criteria. Of all the water that enters the oceans from all the rivers on Earth, one fifth flows through the Amazon--that's more than the next five largest rivers combined. It's also the colossus in the size of its basin, number and size of tributaries, and probably even in length (whether the Amazon or the Nile is the longest river has been a matter of debate for many years). And, as Spruce surmised, this great river also winds through the largest mass of tropical rainforest (roughly 60 per cent of the world's total), and this forest contains the richest biodiversity of any ecosystem.

So why was Britain not more concerned with the mighty Amazon? Perhaps it was because the British Empire's only foothold near the river was British Guiana (now Guyana), so the Nile and Central Asia were of far greater strategic interest. British engineers and businessmen were active throughout South America during the 19th century, but explorers and scientists tended to leave it to their counterparts from the USA. And, the Amazon was first navigated by Francisco de Orellana's Spanish explorers in 1542, whereas the rivers of Central Africa were still tantalisingly unknown to Europeans three centuries later.

EARLY YEARS

There were, however, some notable exceptions to this disregard, and the Royal Geographical Society was involved with most of them. In 1835, five years after the Society was founded, its council received an impressive map from a young German by the name of Robert Schomburgk. The Society engaged Schomburgk to explore the interior of British Guiana, which he did with some success.

In 1838-39, Schomburgk embarked on an extraordinary circuit: starting from Fort Sao Joaquim in the extreme north of Brazil, he persuaded Indians to paddle him up scores of rapids of the unexplored Uraricoera river, across an unknown watershed to the upper Orinoco in Venezuela, through the Casiquiare link, down the Negro and back up the Branco. He had said that he would return to the fort in a year; in fact, the 3,500-kilometre journey only took him seven months. It's a feat that would deserve one of the Society's gold medals today; Schomburgk received his in 1840.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In 1848, two young Englishmen, 23-year-old Henry Walter Bates and 25-year-old Alfred Russel Wallace, arrived at the mouth of the Amazon. Bates had left school at 12 and Wallace when only slightly older; neither had any money or family influence. They met at Leicester Collegiate School as fellow insect collectors and shared a passion for natural history.

After reading a contemporary travel book about the Amazon, Bates and Wallace decided to explore the region 'to gather facts towards solving the problem of the origin of species'. They rapidly organised an agent to sell specimens they collected in order to defray the cost of their voyage and departed for South America; the botanist Spruce joined them a year later.

Bates, Wallace and Spruce were together for some time, before travelling up and down the Amazon and its great tributaries, sometimes in pairs but mostly alone. They were never out of the forest and rivers, collecting feverishly, exploring uncharted territory, making first-class scientific discoveries, and surviving hazards such as near-drowning, getting lost, attempted robberies, agonising bites, hunger and violent attacks of malaria. Despite these hardships, Wallace researched in Amazonia for four years, Bates for 11 and Spruce for 16.

Bates observed that some edible insects survive predation by imitating the gaudy colouring of poisonous species--a strategy now known as Batesian mimicry. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Scholars and Amazon: Former Director of the Royal Geographical Society John Hemming Looks Back at the Society's Rich History of Pioneering Exploration and Scientific Expeditions in the Amazon Rainforest, Which Resulted in Discoveries That Have Shaped Our Modern Understanding of the World
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    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.