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River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana's Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon

River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana's Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon

4.1 9
by Buddy Levy

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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.


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.

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for River of Darkness:

"River of Darkness immediately takes its place as the definitive book on one of the great voyages into the unknown of all time, Orellana's accidental first descent of the Amazon. Not only is it a solid contribution to the scholarly literature on Amazonia, but it is a riveting and irresistible read, narrative history of a literary quality rarely encountered that compares with Alan Moorehead's great books on the Nile. Bravissimo !" -- Alex Shoumatoff, contributing editor, Vanity Fair; publisher DispatchesFromTheVanishingworld.com,
and author of In Southern Light, The Rivers Amazon, and The World is Burning

“In River of Darkness, Buddy Levy proves that the scariest stories are the true ones.  Filled with fascinating details and the terror that comes with exploring something for the very first time, this is history coming back to life.”
- Brad Meltzer, Bestselling author of The Book of Fate and The Inner Circle
“Buddy Levy is one of those rare and gifted authors whose books are virtual time machines that effortlessly transport us back through centuries.  In River of Darkness, we participate in one of history’s signal explorations, Francisco Orellana’s descent of the Amazon River. We see blood, smell smoke, hear screams of joy and agony.  Levy’s impeccably researched book is at once harrowing adventure and revealing history. Better than any in recent memory, River of Darkness sheds new light—and reveals the darkest aspects—of the Conquistadors’ brave and bloody New World forays.”
-James M. Tabor, Author of Blind Descent:  The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth.

Kirkus Reviews

An exciting, well-plotted excursion down the Amazon River with the early Spanish conquistador.

Levy follows his account of Hernán Cortés, Conquistador (2008), with this accessible new book, which follows Francisco Orellana's accidental but monumental trip down the Amazon only a few years after Cortés. Orellana was second-in-command of an expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro, one of the famous, swashbuckling Pizarro brothers, in pursuit of El Dorado in 1541. A royal cousin of the Pizarros, Orellana was just 30 years old when he was chosen to accompany Pizarro on a quest for gold and cinnamon in the unknown lands east of the Andes. Though the mouth of the Amazon had been discovered in 1500 by the former captain of Columbus'sNiña, no European had descended the world's largest river. The two arrogant Spaniards set out with an astonishing 200 soldiers and horses, thousands of swine earmarked for food, llamas, war hounds and 4,000 Indian slave porters, and immediately ran into bad omens including freezing weather, an erupting volcano, Indian attacks and impassable forest. Pizarro had the brilliant idea to build a boat and make better progress, yet by December 1541 they had resolved to split up for survival. Orellana would advance with 60 men onboard theSan Pedro and find food downriver, then return with provisions in 12 days, while Pizarro's camp would follow slowly on foot. However, the Napo river soon joined the Amazon, and at terrific speed, so that there would be no way to return upstream—Orellana and crew were hurtling 2,500 miles toward the Atlantic Ocean. Thriving riverside populations awaited them (some friendly, some fierce), as well as mythical sightings of the Amazon women—all of which Levy ably captures in this knowledgeable work.

Not as gripping as Conquistador, but a richly textured account of the rogue, rebel and visionary whose discovery still resonates today.

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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 and orderly streets, a port filled with boats, and thick-coated, long-necked animals that looked like giant sheep being herded about, while hundreds of curious onlookers dotted the shoreline. Francisco Pizarro had discovered the Incas.

The eldest Pizarro brother wasted little time. He hurried back to Spain in early 1528, hoping to gain an audience with King Charles, who was soon to be Holy Roman Emperor. He managed to obtain his hearing, possibly at least partially owing to the king’s receptive frame of mind when it came to discussions of conquest—quite an achievement for an illegitimate peasant from Extremadura. Hernán Cortés had only just been at court himself, where his presentation of dancing and juggling Aztecs and his many crates full of golden treasures had garnered him the king’s favor and earned him the title of Marquis de Valle, making him one of the richest and most powerful men in the Spanish Empire.*

The king listened attentively to Francisco Pizarro’s tales of his first two journeys to this place called Peru,† and to his proposed plan for a third expedition. Then, taking a page from Cortés, as he would do again and again over the course of his conquest, Francisco Pizarro presented the king with fine pottery and embroidered linen clothing from the region. He even paraded a few live llamas before his majesty, highlighting the value of their wool and their usefulness as beasts of burden. He described the riches he had seen in Tumbez, bringing forth shining specimens of gold and silver. All had the desired impact, and on July 6, 1529, Queen Isabella of Portugal, Holy Roman Empress,* signed the royal license, a document granting Francisco Pizarro the right of “discovery and conquest in the province of Peru—or New Castille,” as Mexico had been decreed New Spain.

Working quickly as the head of his recently founded Company of the Levant, Francisco scurried to call in favors and raise money, then convened his brothers in Trujillo, rallying them for a long trip across the sea and the uncertainty and great potential that lay ahead. Finally, in January of 1530, the five Pizarros—Francisco, fifty-four; Hernando, twenty-nine; Juan, nineteen; Gonzalo, eighteen; and Francisco Martin†, seventeen— boarded a ship in the harbor of Seville, a ship packed with all the cannons, gunpowder, swords, crossbows, harquebuses, and horses necessary for battle and conquest in foreign lands, and set sail for Peru. Peering over the gunwale and watching his native Spain recede in the distance, young Gonzalo Pizarro could only vaguely imagine the wonders and horrors, the glories and riches, deprivations and degradations, he would encounter during the next meteoric but star-crossed eighteen years of his life.

the pizarro brothers’ infiltration of Peru was much aided by an ongoing civil war waging between the indigenous rival royal Inca brothers Atahualpa and Huascar. The kingdom of Peru the Pizarros marched across in early 1532 was a full-fledged civil war zone; they found formerly great cities like Tumbez reduced to rubble and ruin, abandoned amid the complex civil strife. Looting for riches as they went, the Pizarros cut a swath south from Tumbez toward the city of Cajamarca, where, they had learned through interpreters, Atahualpa and his large victorious army were encamped. Atahualpa, the Pizarros understood, had defeated Huascar and would now be sole lord of the Inca Empire. What they did not know was that Inca spies and runners had been reporting the Spaniards’ movements to Atahualpa since their arrival on the coast, and that the ruler was deeply intrigued by the reports and descriptions: “Some of the strangers, he was told, rode giant animals the Incas had no word for as none had ever before been seen. The men grew hair on their faces and had sticks from which issued thunder and clouds of smoke.” The Inca ruler was less frightened by these reports than curious, so he did nothing about the small band of encroaching foreigners—only waited curiously while he planned his own coronation, to see if they might arrive.

Arrive they did. By early November 1532, Francisco Pizarro, his brothers, and his small army became the first assemblage of Europeans to ascend the Andes, climbing a well-maintained roadway to the cold plain of Cajamarca at 9,000 feet above sea level. They were on the Royal Inca Road, the two-thousand-mile network of stone paving connecting the entire Inca Empire, from Carnqui north of Quito all the way to Copiapo on the coast of what is today Chile. Hernando Pizarro had been impressed enough to utter that “such magnificent roads could be found nowhere in Christendom.”

On November 16, 1532, Francisco Pizarro and his 167 “Men of Cajamarca”* brazenly confronted the emperor-elect of the Incas, Atahualpa, persuading him to attend a friendly meeting with the Spaniards in the Cajamarca central square. There the Spanish infantry and cavalry lay in wait, hidden inside the empty town buildings. They knew that Atahualpa’s army was enormous, with estimates of as many as eighty thousand warriors. Some of the Spaniards were so unnerved that they “made water [urinated] . . . out of sheer terror.” Soon Atahualpa arrived with all the ceremony attended to an emperor: borne on a feather-bedecked and gilded litter, preceded by attendants wearing ornate headdresses, “large gold and silver disks like crowns on their heads,” who swept the ground before him and followed by nearly six thousand troops armed only with ceremonial weaponry.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

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.  

From the Hardcover edition.

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River of Darkness 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
JGolomb More than 1 year ago
Buddy Levy's most recent two books have been histories focused on the Spanish conquest of the new world, and he's shown to be a master of taking complex historical events and creating consumable, interesting, reliable and accurate narratives. In "Rivers of Darkness", Levy journeys south of Cortes' New Spain (Mexico), hops around the Inca Empire and travels the length of the mighty Amazon River following the travails of conquistador and explorer Francisco Orellana. Orellana was actually a cousin to the Pizarro clan and, though a generation younger than Francisco Pizarro, established himself as a brave and loyal supporter of the Pizarro's during their conquest of the Incas in Peru. Levy makes it clear that Orellana was cut from the same Extremaduran Spanish mold as his cousin (Extremadura was a poverty-stricken part of Spain that produced an inordinately large amount of conquistadors). He wanted glory and he wanted gold. Like all conquistadors in the New World, he had heard the whispers and rumors of the famed El Dorado. The rumors were strong that El Dorado lay just on the eastern side of the Andes. One of Pizarro's half-brothers, Gonzalo, the hardheaded, reactive and most violent of the clan, was pulling together an expedition to conquer new lands and find new riches. Orellana offered up supplies and troops and was rewarded by being named second-in-command to Gonzalo. Through the first horrible months of the journey, Gonzalo thoroughly played his role as conquering Pizarro - act first and ask questions later; lead with violence. Unsurprisingly, they didn't get far. Nobody knew how to hunt for food in the jungles and they only just barely knew how to survive, while making enemies of every tribe they encountered. After almost a year and barely out of sight of the mighty Andes, Gonzalo ordered Orellana to take some of his troops further into the jungle in the hopes of finding a village rumored to be friendly towards visitors and where they could find food and rest. Orellana descended the Napo River many miles and for several days without finding an appropriate place to stop en masse, and decided (at least according to his records and chroniclers) that it would be impossible to fight back up river and reconnect with Gonzalo's troops. Levy compares the style of the two cousins after Orellana's first encounter with a native village had been a peaceful one: "It is clear that his (Orellana) approach of using language and diplomacy before violence was effective...and a diametric departure from the techniques favored by his own captain, Gonzalo Pizarro, who no doubt would have already tortured and killed a good portion of the villagers." It was clear early on in Orellana's 8-month long adventure that his journey was becoming one of survival rather than conquest. He and his chroniclers, however, continued to observe and record what they saw. And after a time, Levy points out that they were "conquistadors no more." They were explorers and they were survivors. Months later, after being spit out of the Amazon into the ocean, Orellana's two ships worked their way north until they cam across a small Spanish pearl fishing island. Levy writes: "Captain Francisco Orellana . completed one of the most remarkable, daring, and improbable journeys in the history of navigation and discovery. (His) achievement would later be called one of the world's greatest explorations, 'something more than a j
Superior_Shores More than 1 year ago
This has to be one of the best written books in my arsenal. The book has finite details never before revealed. The epilogue added more detail to an already incredibly well written book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best books i have ever read. It does a fantastic job of describing what a journey down the amazon may have been like. It doesnt read at all like a history book. Anyone who enjoys an epic adventure/journey would love this book.
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One day a guy walked to work. But he didnt walk to work. He walked two blocks on his route to work. But he never actually made it to work. Cuz he pooped his pants and had to run home. But there was no clean pants so he put on coffee stain pants that lookd like pee stain pants. So the stupid guy ended up skipping work. ***---***camofur im sorry about my typos where i wrote "to camostar". I will get my next story pronto!! Love Silverstream/Lilyflower