About this title:
From the acclaimed author of Conquistador comes this thrilling account of one of history’s greatest adventures of discovery. With cinematic immediacy and meticulous attention to historical detail, here is the true story of a legendary sixteenth-century explorer and his death-defying navigation of the Amazon—river of darkness, pathway to gold.
About the Author:
In 1541, the brutal conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro and his well-born lieutenant Francisco Orellana set off from Quito in search of La Canela, South America’s rumored Land of Cinnamon, and the fabled El Dorado, “the golden man.” Driving an enormous retinue of mercenaries, enslaved natives, horses, hunting dogs, and other animals across the Andes, they watched their proud expedition begin to disintegrate even before they descended into the nightmarish jungle, following the course of a powerful river. Soon hopelessly lost in the swampy labyrinth, their numbers diminishing daily through disease, starvation, and Indian attacks, Pizarro and Orellana made a fateful decision to separate. While Pizarro eventually returned home barefoot and in rags, Orellana and fifty-seven men, in a few fragile craft, continued downriver into the unknown reaches of the mighty Amazon, serenaded by native war drums and the eerie cries of exotic predators. Theirs would be the greater glory.
Interweaving eyewitness accounts of the quest with newly uncovered details, Buddy Levy reconstructs the seminal journey that has electrified adventurers ever since, as Orellana became the first European to navigate and explore the entire length of the world’s largest river. Levy gives a long-overdue account of the native populations—some peaceful and welcoming, offering sustenance and life-saving guidance, others ferociously hostile, subjecting the invaders to gauntlets of unremitting attack and intimations of terrifying rituals. And here is the Amazon itself, a powerful presence whose every twist and turn held the promise of new wonders both natural and man-made, as well as the ever-present risk of death—a river that would hold Orellana in its irresistible embrace to the end of his life.
Overflowing with violence and beauty, nobility and tragedy, River of Darkness is both riveting history and a breathtaking adventure that will sweep readers along on an epic voyage unlike any other.
Buddy Levy is the author of Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs and American Legend: The Real-Life Adventures of David Crockett. As a journalist, he has covered adventure sports and lifestyle around the world. He is a clinical associate professor at Washington State University and lives in Moscow, Idaho, with his wife and two children. Visit his website at http://buddylevy.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A Confluence of Conquistadors
The vast and rugged lands of extremadura, Francisco Orellana’s homeland in the kingdom of Castile, produced hard and unyielding men, men who learned the arts of warfare as boys, and who by their early teens could ride their Iberian mounts with panache and wield their Toledo swords with deadly efficiency. Theirs was a temperament forged by eight hundred years of conflict with the invading Moors. To this day, Extremadura is the least populated province in all of Spain, a haunting and landlocked place where seemingly endless tracts of rocky pastureland and burned-out bunchgrass are punctuated by scrubby stands of deep green encina oak. On elevated promontories, the only respite from the terminal vistas, perch the ruins of castles and ramparts and their crumbling keeps, and the granite remains of Roman arches and bridge columns. The panorama inspired dreams of far-off lands and a better life, as did the stories brought back to Iberia by explorers like Columbus, whose famous Carta of 1493 told of innumerable islands peopled by peaceful, naked inhabitants and flowing with spices and gold. The options for men without titles to rise beyond a hardscrabble existence herding swine or cattle were few. They could better their class status through marriage, though most herdsmen or peasants knew that their chances of courting and winning a lady of the elite were less than favorable.
The only other chance for fame, fortune, and titles was a triumphant military career, and this alternative lured many an Extremeño to the ships at Seville headed for the newfound world across the seas.
Such was the lure for young Francisco Orellana. Born in 1511 to a prominent Trujillo family related to the famous Pizarros, Orellana himself declared that he was “a gentleman of noble blood, and a person of honor.” Although information on his early years is scant, his upbringing, including early training in the arts of warfare, would have been much the same as that of another Trujillo family to which his was related the Pizarros, whose eldestson, Francisco, was already winning renown in the New World. Certainly, Orellana’s eventual leadership roles and his rapid acquisition of native languages point to a high intellect and distinguished bearing.
Orellana claims to have arrived in the Indies in 1527, at which time Panama was the base from which most of the Spanish expeditions were mounted. Orellana, then still a brash but ambitious teenager, soon signed on as a mercenary soldier, and in the regions north of Panama, likely in Nicaragua, “he performed his first feats of arms as a conquistador.” It would have been a thrilling and chivalric time for the young man, fighting alongside veterans of conquest in lands so different from his native Iberia, in lands that very few Europeans had ever seen and that in fact had only recently been discovered by Columbus.* Indeed, the Spaniard’s staging area of western Panama lay on the very coast of the Pacific Ocean (the Gulf of Panama) that, after hacking their way across the brambly isthmus, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, with Francisco Pizarro as second-in-command, had discovered just fourteen years earlier.
Over the next decade Orellana would distinguish himself by participating in numerous expeditions and invasions in Central America, and ultimately in the conquests and civil wars waged in Peru. Orellana proudly claimed to have fought “in the conquests of Lima and Trujillo [Peru, not Spain] and . . . in the pursuit of the Inca in the conquest of Puerto Viejo and its outlying territory.” Through his efforts and bravery Orellana acquitted himself with great honor and won the admiration of his peers, including the powerful Pizarros. His stature and reputation came not without cost, however. During one skirmish he lost an eye, and from then on he wore a patch, though his loss never diminished his conquistador’s focus and vision.
Orellana forever will be linked historically to his kinsman Gonzalo Pizarro through their dual roles in the expedition of 1541–42. Their coming together was hardly a coincidence, given their kinship and common origins in Trujillo. Gonzalo was the second youngest of the five infamous Pizarro brothers,* an ambitious and enigmatic quintet of conquerors sometimes referred to as the “Brothers of Doom,” not only for their harsh and duplicitous treatment of the native populations they conquered but for their own rather ignominious ends. Of this deeply loyal band of brothers, only one of the five—Hernando—would die of natural causes. As with Orellana, the details of Gonzalo’s early life are sketchy, though his exploits and activities after arriving in the New World with his older brother (some thirty years older, in fact) Francisco, as well as his place of origin, provide much evidence and suggest a great deal about his personality and character.
Described by his chroniclers as exceedingly handsome, a womanizer, an avid hunter, and skilled beyond his years with a sword—“the best lance in Peru” and “the greatest warrior who ever fought in the New World”—he was also known to be cruel and impulsive. Tall and well-proportioned, with an olive-dark complexion and a very long black beard, Gonzalo Pizarro, rather poorly educated, expressed himself in direct, if crude, language.
To fully understand Gonzalo, we must first consider Francisco Pizarro. Eldest of the Pizarro brothers, Francisco struck out for the Indies in 1502,* and by 1513 he was accompanying Vasco Núñez de Balboa across the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific. Little more than a decade later, in 1524, the ambitious and skilled Francisco had become a leader himself and put together an expedition to head south from Panama to explore the coast of Colombia in a yearlong venture. There he met fierce resistance from natives and lost a great deal of money, but he remained convinced that there were riches to plunder. In 1524 he formed, with two associates, a private corporation called the Company of the Levant,† which would be devoted to raising money dedicated to further conquest in the New World. For the next two years Francisco Pizarro raised money to sponsor an expedition to the coast of what is now Ecuador. Soon after arriving, they had their first tangible discovery of the riches they sought. Along the seashore’s tropical waters they spotted a sailing craft moving steadily along. On closer inspection they could see that the vessel was constructed of local balsa wood, propelled by handmade cotton sails, possessing a woven reed floor and two sturdy masts, and navigated by several native mariners. The sight proved curious and intriguing, for Francisco Pizarro knew of no Indian population who understood and employed sailing ships—not even the highly civilized Aztecs his countryman and distant cousin Cortés had reported so much about.
As the Spanish caravel moved alongside the craft, some of the natives leaped into the ocean and swam toward shore. The Spaniards overtook the remaining crew and questioned them through sign language. The natives indicated that they were from Tumbez, on the northwestern coast, south of Quito, but Pizarro’s men were much more fascinated by the contents of the craft, which included many wonders, according to a letter later enthusiastically written to Charles V:
They were carrying many pieces of gold and silver as personal ornaments [and also] crowns and diadems, belts, bracelets, leg armor and breastplates . . . rattles and strings and clusters of beads and rubies, mirrors adorned with silver and cups and other drinking vessels.
After absconding with the contents of the balsa craft and sending the frightened and confused natives on their way, Pizarro took careful stock of the booty. Here was the first substantial evidence that, as he hoped and banked on, somewhere in the vicinity there must surely be an empire, perhaps one as grand and immensely wealthy as the one Cortés had discovered. Francisco Pizarro was almost fifty and had spent nearly half his life searching for just such a prize, but he needed confirmation of its existence. After setting up camp on a mosquito-infested jungle island they later named Gallo, Pizarro is reputed to have assessed his travel-weary troops; many of the men were sick and hungry, some already dying and begging to return to Panama. They had depleted most of their stores. The generally taciturn Pizarro, himself by then gaunt and ragged, is said to have stood before them on the beach and etched a deep line in the sand with his sword tip. “Gentlemen,” he bellowed,
This line signifies labor, hunger, thirst, fatigue, wounds, sickness, and every other kind of danger that must be encountered in this conquest, until life is ended. Let those who have the courage to meet and overcome the dangers of this heroic achievement cross the line in token of their resolution and as testimony that they will be my faithful companions. And let those who feel unworthy of such daring return to Panama; for I do not wish to [use] force upon any man.
With that, Francisco Pizarro stepped across the line himself, indicating that all who followed him would continue south, away from Panama, away from Spain, away from their wives and families and the comforts of home, perhaps forever. Thirteen men, slowly at first, and then with growing conviction, stepped over the line to join him. They would forever be known as “the Men of Gallo.” The remainder of the crew, those who refused to cross the line, soon sailed back to Panama on a supply ship that had come to reinforce them.
Those who remained with Pizarro had reason to believe, at least for a time, that their decision had been prudent. They sailed on, and very soon they encountered a coastline that offered open views, unimpeded by mangrove and tidal forest, of the interior. There, at a place called Tumbez, they spotted over a thousand well-made native houses, with wide an...
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