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Athena Review, Vol. 1, No.3

Orellana and the Amazons

In 1540 Francisco de Orellana (originally from Trujillo, Spain) became governor of Guayaquil, Ecuador. The following year he joined the expedition of Gonzalo Pizarro to explore the area east of Quito, thought to be rich in cinnamon and precious metals. The expedition soon ran out of food, and Orellana volunteered to lead a search party downstream for food. Swept along by the strong river current, however, they never returned. On this journey of 1541-1542, Orellana and his followers became the first to travel the entire length of the Amazon River, named for women warriors they encountered after months of sailing downriver.

Sources: The primary account of the expedition was written by Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, the chaplain who accompanied Orellana down the Amazon. Parts of Carvajal's Relación had appeared in Oviedo's Historia general de las Indias, written in 1542 at the conclusion of Orellana's journey, but not published until 1855. Oviedo's account is especially valuable because he combined Carvajal's narrative with interviews of Orellana and some of his men. The full Relación, however, was not published until 1895 when edited by the Chilean scholar José Toribio Medina. Later, in 1934 it was extensively revised by H.C. Heaton.

Learning of the Amazons: On June 5, 1542, after months of sailing downriver through the territory of the Omaguas and neighboring tribes, Orellana's boats came to a sizable village which paid homage to the Amazons. A public square in the village contained a large wooden relief carving of a "walled city" with enclosure, gates, and towers with windows, resting on the paws of two "fierce lions "(possibly jaguars). Between the lion figures was a hole for libations of chicha to be poured to the Sun-god. A native reported that such carvings symbolized their mistress, the ruler of the Amazons, who required tribute from these villagers in the form of colored macaw and parrot feathers used to line the roofs of their temples. Nearby in the public square was a ceremonial house with feather garments used in dances and sacrifices. A similarly carved tree trunk was encountered at the next village.

[Fig.1: Map of Orellana's route down the Amazon (after Medina 1934; Athena  Review 1,3)]

Increased gatherings of natives seemed ominous for the Spaniards, who had obviously outstayed their welcome. Orellana's party, therefore, continued downriver under constant threat of attack until June 7, when they captured a small village for supplies. Departing to avoid a skirmish with the natives, Orellana came upon the río Madeira, which he called "río Grande" because of its size. Here the north bank of the Amazon was lined with "very large settlements standing on a slope." Along the river banks, human heads were displayed like trophies on picotas (gibbets or racks). The Spaniards accordingly called this stretch of the Amazon "the Province of the Gibbets."

Orellana landed several times over the following two weeks to raid villages for supplies. In one case, after the inhabitants retreated to their houses, Orellana burned them. Oviedo thus calls this settlement Pueblo de los Quemados ("Town of the Burned"). Then, forced on June 22 by strong currents and high winds to bypass a town on the north shore whose "houses were glimmering white," they instead landed the following day at a large village they named Pueblo de la Calle ("Town of the Street"), because it contained a central street with dwellings on either side.

The Amazons attack: The next day, June 24, 1542, the Spanish boats were attacked by Indians led by ten or twelve Amazons who shot so many arrows that the brigantines "looked like porcupines." One of these arrows struck Carvajal in the eye, causing its loss. He reports that during the battle the Amazons showed themselves as courageous and capable fighters and leaders of the other Indians. Eventually "...our companions killed seven or eight... of the Amazons, whereupon the Indians lost heart, and they were defeated and routed..." This situation could only be temporary, and the vastly outnumbered Spaniards fled down the middle of the river with Indians chasing them out of their territory.

From then on, with many of his men wounded and supplies (including armaments) running low, Orellana whenever possible avoided land, as he was now typically met by warriors assembled to defend their villages against intrusion. In late June and early July Orellana skirted large islands of the lower Amazon which appeared unihabited, but whose adjacent banks "bristled" with warlike natives.

By the middle of July Orellana was approaching the Xingu River, a region which was obviously fertile and populous. Some of Orellana's men considered staying and befriending the natives, but they soon encountered men stained black who came out to attack the flotilla. These warriors were of the chiefdom of Arripuna, whose territory abuts that of the Carib tribes led by Tinamostón.

In this Carib province near the Amazon mouth were many islands whose natives used poison-tipped arrows, killing one Spaniard, Antonio de Carranza. In light of this, the group moved as quickly as possible downriver. After making repairs to the smaller brigantine on the north shore of Marajo Island, the flotilla at length entered the Atlantic Ocean on August 26, 1542, exactly eight months after leaving Pizarro's party, on what had started out to be temporary foray for food.

 [For related information, see Languages of South America.]

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