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ACROSS THE ANDES
On October 1, 1907, twenty-one-year-old Walter Hardenburg, who was working on the construction of the Colombian Pacific Railroad, and his fellow American workmate, Walter Perkins, three years his elder, set out from the construction site at Buenaventura on the Pacific coast of Colombia for the adventure of a lifetime.
Hardenburg and Perkins had been offered better positions to work on the Madeira-Mamoré Railway, an ambitious project designed to bypass the unnavigable Madeira River in the western part of the Brazilian Amazon in order to transport rubber from northern Bolivia to the Amazonian port of Manaus.
Rather than getting to the site by the normal sea and river route, Hardenburg and Perkins decided to make an adventure of their relocation by going overland across the Andes and into Amazonia. Those few Europeans who had made this journey recommended that the best way to get to the Amazon from Colombia was to travel south to Quito in Ecuador, cross the Andes there, and, once on the eastern slopes of the Andes, join the Napo River and follow its course until it met the Amazon northeast of the Peruvian town of Iquitos. Hardenburg and Perkins started to follow this recommendation, but at some point on their way south through Colombia, for reasons that have gone un-recorded, they changed their minds and opted for the much-less-frequented route of crossing the Andes in southern Colombia and following the Putumayo River from its source high in the Colombian Andes to its confluence with the Amazon more than a thousand miles to the southeast.
It was a foolhardy and dangerous decision. The map they had with them was large-scale and showed only the general course of the country’s main rivers, and all the advice they got should have put them off their chosen route. In the southern Colombian town of Pasto, the last sizable settlement in that part of the country, from where the pair would make their final crossing of the Andes and begin their descent into Amazonia, no one they met in their first days there could even tell them where the Putumayo was; and the one person they found who did know the river warned them not to go, for "if by chance [they] escaped the cannibal Indians who inhabit its banks, [they] would certainly fall victims to the deadly fevers which reign there continuously." To make matters worse, Hardenburg and Perkins also learned from General Pablo Monroy, a senior military officer who had been there himself, that about halfway down the river’s course, where the Caraparaná, a major tributary, flowed into the Putumayo, they would be entering a kind of no-man’s-land, an area whose ownership was disputed by both Colombia and Peru. After more than fifty years of argument and protest, General Monroy told the pair, the two countries had recently agreed to a modus vivendi, to withdraw their garrisons and military authorities from the region to their respective lines while negotiations about the future of the region continued. Still, the general didn’t think the Peruvians were abiding by the agreement.
But it was not all bad news, for Hardenburg and Perkins also learned from another source that they would not need to paddle all the way to the Amazon. About five hundred miles downriver, at a place called El Encanto, where the Caraparaná met the Putumayo, they would be able to catch a launch to Iquitos, from where they could continue their journey to the railroad construction site in Brazil. It would save them weeks of effort.
With this piece of encouragement, despite the warnings to the contrary, the intrepid pair pressed on with their decision and spent three days in Pasto buying supplies, both for themselves and to trade, that would last them two months. It was a bewildering collection of material, from hats to knives, brightly colored shirts, harmonicas, fish-hooks, and food. As Hardenburg himself put it, "When we finally got all our purchases together, we found that we had goods enough to set up a shop and our room was so crowded with them that we had hardly space enough to turn in."
Crossing the most easterly of the Andean peaks proved to be much more difficult than the whole journey until that point, and the 150 miles they traveled until they reached the first navigable point on the Putumayo River took them as long as it had taken them to get from Buenaventura to Pasto. Still, they had made it so far without mishap, and on December 1, 1907, Hardenburg and Perkins, together with their provisions and now accompanied by two local boatmen, one of whom steered from the stern and the other who stood watch in the bow, set off downriver in their newly purchased canoe.
The Putumayo is navigable for most of its length—from the Colombian Andes until it meets the Amazon at Santo Antônio do Içá in the western part of Brazil at about three degrees south. The river has no waterfalls or rapids. It moves along placidly, meandering in long, winding curves. As the current switches from one bank to the other, the river becomes very wide in places and relatively shallow. This same action creates sand islands in the middle and on both sides. The forest teems with wildlife, both large and small—tapirs, peccaries (wild pigs), and capybaras (large rodents resembling guinea pigs) are especially numerous and provide excellent game—while the river is abundantly stocked with fish.
For the first few days every thing went splendidly. Hardenburg and Perkins must have congratulated themselves on their decision to venture onto the Putumayo River. "What a pleasant sensation it was," wrote Hardenburg, "to sit calmly in the canoe, while the swift current bore us steadily onwards, and to watch the thick, tropical vegetation, which lined the banks of the stream, swiftly recede until hidden from view by a bend of the river! How different it was from the monotonous climbing and descending of the Andes that had caused us so much toil!"
The banks of the river were alive with wild turkeys, ducks, and monkeys; flocks of parrots flew by at great speed while the forest resounded with the squeals and howls of invisible creatures. There was no shortage of fresh provisions—wild turkeys and monkeys in particular. The only problem was getting a good shot from the canoe, which wasn’t easy.
But then, no more than four days into the journey downriver, the two boatmen decided that they would go no farther, and they ran away. Bad people, they warned, lived beyond.
Hardenburg and Perkins had no choice but to go it alone. So, on December 7—Perkins in the stern, perched on his high seat, and Hardenburg, eyes peeled in the bow—the two adventurers set off downriver. The next day, crossing the equator, the pair celebrated with a good stiff glass of aguardiente. Later the same day they stopped at a tiny settlement ("eight or ten little bamboo huts"), where the chief told them they were very brave to make the trip alone.
For the next two weeks Hardenburg and Perkins worked their way toward the Putumayo’s confluence with the Caraparaná, and they experienced every thing the tropics could throw at them: "suffocating heat, and not a breath of air—our thirst was astounding." They battled outbreaks of fever, ran out of fresh food, and suffered unexpected risings and fallings of river levels, which on more than one occasion left them stranded on a sandbank with nothing to do but wait for the river to rise again. They were attacked by gnats and mosquitoes whenever they weren’t attempting to find shelter from bouts of torrential rain. Apart from one occasion when they ran into a band of Indians returning from a hunt, and another when they were startled by a three-man detachment of Colombian police returning to Pasto from the Caraparaná, they never saw another human being in the jungle.
On the afternoon of December 22 they spotted a house, which turned out to belong to a Colombian rubber trader, Jesús López. López alerted them to what lay ahead and told them more about the political situation.
Hardenburg and Perkins already knew, from what General Monroy had told them in Pasto, that the ownership of the area around the Caraparaná was disputed by Colombia and Peru, and that a modus vivendi was officially in place between the two countries. López warned them that the Peruvians, in clear contravention of the agreement, were harassing and violently expelling Colombian settlers. These acts, López added, were being carried out by the Peruvian military, but behind the scenes a firm calling itself the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company was calling the shots. It was the company’s intention, maintained López, to get hold of all the Colombian concessions, by whatever means possible.
Colombian rubber traders had been working their way down the Putumayo since the 1890s, and by the turn of the century they had reached the area bounded by the Igaraparaná River on the east and the Caraparaná River on the west. The farther they came downriver, the farther they found themselves from the nearest Colombian town, at the same time getting closer to Iquitos, the nearest Peruvian town, which had vastly more resources than its Colombian counterpart. At one time, there had been dozens of Colombian rubber stations in this area, but by the time Hardenburg and Perkins were on the Putumayo, only three remained, the rest having been taken over by the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company.
López told them not to take the launch from El Encanto to Iquitos and suggested a safer, alternative route. He recommended that they aim for Remolino, five days farther down the river and the site of another Colombian post. From there they could travel overland to the Napo River farther to the south, which would take them to a point where it flowed into the Amazon just above Iquitos. There was regular traffic on the Amazon where the Napo joined it, and they would find it easy to get to Iquitos this way, which would also avoid the trouble between the Peruvian and Colombian factions on the Caraparaná.
Hardenburg and Perkins saw the sense in López’s advice, and the combination of incessant rain and persistent attacks by gnats had brought to an end their initial romance with the Putumayo. At Remolino they would be able to sell their canoe, which, López promised, would be easy—Antonio Ordoñez, a Colombian who collected rubber at a place called La Unión on the Caraparaná and who used Remolino as his shipping post for Iquitos, would certainly buy it.
On December 30 Hardenburg and Perkins reached Remolino, intending to bid the Putumayo farewell and be in Iquitos shortly. But Ordoñez was away on a rubber-collecting excursion. Hardenburg left Perkins to wait with the canoe and traveled alone to La Unión, hoping to find Ordoñez. When he got there, he could not locate Ordoñez and instead pressed on to another rubber station, a place called La Reserva, where, he was told, there was another rubber trader who could help him out. This time Hardenburg was more fortunate. At La Reserva, a Colombian, David Serrano, a "short, middle-aged, coffee-coloured gentleman," agreed to help Hardenburg and Perkins by buying their canoe and any other goods they were willing to sell. Serrano sent three local guides to find Perkins and bring him and the sale goods back to La Reserva. Serrano instructed the guides to tell Perkins to make his way first to a place called Josa, Serrano’s landing stage on the Putumayo near the mouth of the Caraparaná River, where he could leave the canoe and their personal baggage. The idea was a good one, for the onward route, overland to the Napo River and thence Iquitos, would pass by Josa. Luckily, Serrano needed to go to Iquitos, and he agreed to accompany the Americans to their destination. Things could not have worked out better.
While the guides were away fetching Perkins, Serrano showed Hardenburg around and also told him a harrowing story about his treatment at the hands of the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company, which had become so powerful recently. About a month earlier, he told Hardenburg, a number of the company’s employees had turned up at his place. They chained him to a tree and, before his appalled eyes, raped his wife, whom they had dragged from the house. These men then helped themselves to his stock of goods and, their business done, returned to their launch, carrying away his wife and their small son. He had not seen either since, though he had learned that his wife had been forced to be a concubine of Miguel Loayza, the manager of the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company’s station at El Encanto, and that his son was made Loayza’s personal servant.
The outrage against Serrano had come to the attention of Colombian authorities, and one of them, Jesús Orjuela, the newly appointed police inspector for the region, was expected any day. Indeed, no sooner had Serrano’s local guides set off to fetch Perkins than Orjuela, in company with another Colombian, arrived at Serrano’s place. Orjuela expressed confidence that he could come to some agreement with the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company, and with Miguel Loayza in particular, to make an accommodation with the Colombians in the spirit of the modus vivendi supposedly operating between the two nations.
On January 4, 1908, Perkins and the guides, carrying the sale goods, arrived at Serrano’s. While Perkins dealt with the terms of the sale, Hardenburg decided to accompany Orjuela to El Dorado, another Colombian rubber station downriver, to which Loayza was to be invited for a conference concerning the future relationship between the Peruvians and the Colombians in the region.
A day later the negotiating party set off downriver for El Dorado. While Hardenburg was away, Serrano surprised Perkins by offering to sell him a "half-interest in his establishment at a very low figure—because of his fear of the Peruvians." "I accepted that offer, thinking I would be able to become friends with the authorities and that no objection could be raised. It was my intention," Perkins recalled a few months later, "to settle this matter with Serrano when we reached Iquitos. His business was in gathering wild rubber for which purpose he had about forty Indians." That business concluded, Perkins settled back to wait for Hardenburg’s return.
But the peace was soon shattered. On January 12 a Peruvian gun-boat, the Iquitos, in company with the Liberal, one of the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company’s steam launches, docked at La Reserva. There were hundreds of soldiers on board the boats. A party of them landed. They were looking for Serrano, but he had fled into the forest, obviously (and understandably) terrified. They ransacked the place and took away the goods in the storehouse and almost two thousand kilos of rubber. In spite of Perkins’s protests, the soldiers imprisoned him on board the Liberal.
It transpired that Serrano’s station, La Reserva, was in fact the second stop for the military operation. Previously they had stopped at La Unión, where the Peruvians had totally overwhelmed the Colombians, killing many of them. All the rubber was stolen, and La Unión itself was burned to the ground.
The gunboat and the Liberal continued downriver to El Encanto. Later that day, at Argelia, between La Reserva and El Dorado, the two boats intercepted the canoe carrying Orjuela and Hardenburg, who were returning to Serrano’s place after a futile attempt at making peace with the Peruvians: despite several attempts to make contact with him, Loayza never turned up for the appointment in El Dorado. Orjuela and Hardenburg were promptly seized and thrown on board the Liberal.
Hardenburg was astonished to find Perkins already imprisoned on the boat. Perkins explained what had happened. Hardenburg now understood why Loayza had ignored invitations to talk. From Argelia, the Liberal and the Iquitos continued downriver but not before stopping at El Dorado, which was promptly destroyed.
At dusk on January 13 the Liberal and the Iquitos docked at the wharf in El Encanto. Hardenburg and Perkins were forced to spend the night on the floor of a small, unlit room. The next day, Loayza told them that they would be going to Iquitos once the Liberal was ready to sail. As for their baggage, still at Josa, Loayza promised to collect it and have it shipped to Iquitos.
Pretending that they were working for a large American syndicate and that any harm to them would reverberate right back to Washington, Hardenburg and Perkins managed to wrangle a concession out of Loayza. Hardenburg, it was decided, would go to Iquitos as Loayza insisted, while Perkins would remain to make sure that Loayza kept his word as far as the baggage was concerned.
On January 17, 1908, the Liberal was ready to go, and Orjuela and Hardenburg were escorted to the boat. Earlier that day, Hardenburg had learned that Gabriel Martínez, the Colombian corregidor (magistrate) for the Putumayo, had been kidnapped on December 20 farther up the Putumayo and had been a prisoner in El Encanto since then. He, too, would be going to Iquitos.
For the next fortnight the Liberal steamed its way toward Iquitos. After leaving El Encanto, the boat reached the mouth of the Igaraparaná, where the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company had a number of important rubber stations, including its major settlement, La Chorrera. The boat went a short distance upriver to the shipping port of Santa Julia. There it took on firewood, turned around, and continued downriver until it met the Putumayo.
Excerpted from The Devil and Mr. Casement by Jordan Goodman.
Copyright © 2009 by Jordan Goodman.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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