In February 1541, when a band of 200 Spaniards, 4000 indígenas and thousands of assorted horses, dogs and pigs set out from Quito to explore new lands to the east, few of them could have expected that some of their party would end up making the first recorded descent of the Amazon – a journey of over 6000km down part of the largest river system in the world.
They were led by Gonzalo Pizarro, younger brother of the ruthless Francisco (the conqueror of the Incas), and soon joined by Captain Francisco de Orellana. He had won honour as a young man – and lost an eye – in the battles of Lima and Cusco, and at thirty years old was still hungry for adventure.
Even before the expedition had left the mountains, hundreds of indígenas had died in the freezing passes, and as they descended into the uncharted forests, they were running desperately low on food. By Christmas, the group had travelled around 400km from Quito, when they stumbled across the Río Coca. Having eaten all their pigs and most of their dogs, they decided their only choice was to build a boat and send a vanguard led by Orellana downstream in search of food. Orellana never made it back to his leader and the waiting men – a failure which saw him branded a traitor for centuries afterwards.
The captain had a group of sixty men, some weapons and a few supplies, but within a couple of weeks they were “eating hides, straps and the soles of their shoes cooked with certain herbs” and forest roots which poisoned them “to the point of death”. Worse still, the river (they’d now entered the Napo) had become so fast-moving they knew they wouldn’t be able to go back upstream, and they were carried down into territory where war drums raged on either side of the river. Yet Orellana was a great diplomat as well as soldier and, unlike most conquistadors, he was well versed in indigenous languages and picked new ones up with prodigious speed, an ability that saved his life many times on his journey. Here, instead of fighting, he embraced a local chief and gave him European clothes, receiving an abundance of partridges, turkeys and fish in return.
Before long, over 1000km from Pizarro’s camp, their only concern was to stay alive. By June 1542, they reached the Río Negro (near what is now Manaus), naming it after its deep-black waters. News of their presence spread before them, and they came across empty villages with decapitated heads nailed to posts in warning.
A fierce tribe of warrior-women – whom they named Amazons, after the female warriors of Greek mytholody – then attacked them. The chronicler of the journey, Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, described how the Spanish boats looked like “porcupines” after their shots rained down; the friar himself lost an eye in the exchange. Although these women were never spotted again, it has been hypothesized they were male warriors from the Yagua tribe, who sport pale yellow, grass-style skirts and headgear. On August 26, 1542, the expedition finally came to the mouth of the world’s greatest river and named it Orellana, though it soon became known as Amazonas, after the tribe.
Orellana returned to Spain in May 1543 but set out for the river again in December 1545. The ill-equipped expedition lost a ship and more than 220 men before reaching South America. As they entered the Amazon estuary, they’d already run out of food and the remaining ships became separated on the rough tidal waters. Orellana died from illness and grief in November 1546, finally defeated by the river that had brought him fame.