After I finished A Storm of Swords, I felt traumatized and brutalized. I felt like I needed something gentler for my next read, so I picked up Candace Millard’s River of Doubt, Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. Because the best palate cleanser for fictional brutality is historical brutality. Oh, it’s a different kind of brutality, less about people killing each other creatively, though there is some of that, and more about brutal deprivation and surviving in an inhospitable environment for which you are devastatingly unprepared.
After suffering a political defeat, his ill-fated independent run at the White House, and having recovered from a failed assassination attempt, Teddy Roosevelt needed something to occupy his time. While planning a speaking trip in South America, a confluence of interests and encouragements prompted Roosevelt to join an expedition to chart a tributary of the Amazon known as the River of Doubt. The Smithsonian Institute and the Brazilian Government were among the sponsors of the expedition. Roosevelt was paired up with an experienced Brazilian explorer and army officer, Candido Rondon. As it turns out, this was one of the few good things the expedition had going for it. Things began going wrong before Roosevelt ever left the United States.
A couple of the Americans who planned to join Roosevelt on the expedition had either fudged their experience, or incorrectly assumed their prior exploration experience would translate to the Amazon. The man charged with provisioning the expedition, Anthony Fiala, had no concept of the environment they were going into. He had previous experience as a polar explorer, and may have thought a tropical jungle would be easier. He carefully selected tins of spices and bottles of olive oil and good wines and liquors. Tons of luxury provisions were shipped to Brazil for the expedition. Fiala assumed the party would be able to hunt for meat, so provided only a small amounts of dried meat. He lacked understanding of the environment the party would have to travel through to get to the start of their river journey. The provisions would need to be carried by donkey through jungle, and then across an arid plateau with little water before they reached the river. Rondon immediately saw this would be a problem, so he reduced the rations sent for the camarades, the Brazilian soldiers who would be doing most of the physical labor, in order to carry the provisions provided by Roosevelt’s team for the “officers”. Almost half the provisions were lost or abandoned before the expedition ever reached the River of Doubt. Many of the burros used to carry the food and equipment died en route or ran away. It might seem reasonable to assume that fishing and game would be plentiful when traveling on a river through a jungle. The Amazon basin is teaming with life, but from the river, all the human eye sees is green. It becomes a monotonous green dessert. Actually catching fish from the river or hunting game in the jungle was more difficult than the Americans anticipated. As a result, all the members of the expedition were on starvation rations.
The other casualty prior to reaching the headwaters of the River of Doubt was the canoes. In this case, the canoes had been well researched and would have been an asset to the expedition. Unfortunately, transporting them to the river was not feasible. The expedition was forced to use the more primitive log dugout canoes used by indigenous tribes. The dugouts were unwieldy, did not traverse rapids well, were prone to tipping and were heavy to carry at the many portages the expedition would encounter. They had the advantage of being available and replaceable.
In addition to hunger, the expedition also faced illness, injury and danger from the jungle and the river. The miracle of the journey was that they were not attacked and killed by the indigenous tribes that watched them struggle down the river. Col. Rondon had long standing orders that indigenous tribes were never to be attacked, avoided if possible, and he left gifts for area tribes at every camp site. This policy likely saved their lives. Later expeditions did not fare so well.
The other advantages the expedition had were Roosevelt himself and his son, Kermit. Though Roosevelt gravely underestimated the rigors of the expedition, he and Kermit were hard workers and good companions. Roosevelt’s bluff good nature went a long way towards endearing himself to the comerades and to Col. Rondon. Roosevelt developed an infection from a leg injury as well as malaria. He barely made it out of the jungle alive. Kermit also became desperately ill, but hid it as much as possible. Every member of the expedition came near to death. Roosevelt never fully regained his health after the expedition and was plagued by his injuries and malaria flareups for the remaining 5 years of his life.
River of Doubt is a fascinating book. The people involved in the expedition are fascinating. I would gladly read more about most of them. The politics and racial relations of the time are interwoven with the scientific and nation building goals of the expedition. You will learn far more about the multitude of ways you can be uncomfortable, sicken, and die on the Amazon than you ever wanted to know. If you do read this book, I want to assure you that the story about the candiru, a tiny, spiny catfish reputed to have once swum up a man’s urethra and lodged there, is probably apocryphal.
If you want to do further reading, the Almanac of Theodore Roosevelt has source materials and photographs from the expedition. http://www.theodore-roosevelt.com/trbrazil.html