The voyage of Francisco de Orellana Down the River of the Amazons by Antonio de Herrera

(Trad. Clemens Markham)

From the sixth decade: “General History of the Western Indies – Book IX”

I – Of the voyage which Captain Orellana commenced, on the river which they call San Juan de las Amazonas.

Some say that Orellana and his companions deserted Pizarro without his knowledge, and others that they continued the voyage with their commander’s permission, in a barque which they had built, and some canoes. Voyaging, as they say, with the design of returning to Gonzalo Pizarro, with provisions, they found themselves, after going over two hundred leagues, unable to return, and, therefore, continued to sail on until they came out into the ocean.

The second day, after they parted from Gonzalo Pizarro, they expected to have been lost in the midst of the river, as the barque struck upon a floating tree, and stove in a plank; but being near the land, they ran her on shore, repaired her, and continued the voyage. They made twenty or twenty-five leagues a-day, assisted by the current. Passing the mouths of many rivers on the south side, they continued their course for three days, without seeing any habitation.

Finding that the provisions they brought with them were exhausted, and that they were so distant from Gonzalo Pizarro, they thought it best to pass on with the current, commending themselves to God by means of a mass, which was performed by a Dominican monk named Carbajal.

Their difficulties were now so great, that they had nothing to eat but the skins which formed their girdles, and the leather of their shoes, boiled with a few herbs.

On the 8th of January, 1541, when they were all expecting their deaths, Orellana heard the drums of Indians, at which they rejoiced, as it now seemed that they would not die of hunger. After going on for two leagues, they came upon four canoes of Indians, who presently retired, and Orellana came to a village, with a great number of Indians ready to defend it. The captain ordered all his people to land in good order, and to take care not to straggle.

At the sight of the village these afflicted soldiers plucked up such courage that, attacking the Indians with valour, the latter fled, leaving their provisions behind them, with which the Spaniards satisfied their excessive hunger.

Two hours after noon the Indians returned in their canoes, to see what was going on. The captain spoke to them in the Indian language, and, although they did not understand all he said to them, yet when he gave them a few Spanish trifles, they remained content, and offered to give him all he required.

He only asked them for food, and they at once brought abundance of turkeys, partridges, fish, and other things. On the following day thirteen chiefs arrived, with plumes of feathers, and gold ornaments. Orellana spoke to them with great courtesy, requested them to be obedient to the crown of Castillo, and took possession of the country in the king’s name.

As he knew the good feeling of the Indians, and his people being rested ; knowing also the danger of sailing in the barque and canoes, if they reached the sea ; he proposed to build another brigantine. One of the chiefs, according to the account of friar Caspar de Carbajal, gave information respecting the Amazons, and of a rich and powerful chief in the interior.

Having commenced building the brigantine, they found no difficulty except in getting nails, but it pleased God that two men should make that which they had never been taught to make, whilst another took charge of burning the charcoal. They made bellows of their leathern buskins, and worked hard at everything else ; some carrying, some cutting, and others doing various things, the captain himself being the first to put his hand to the work. They manufactured more than two thousand nails in twenty days, a delay which was prejudicial, because the provisions were consumed which had previously been collected.

Up to this point they had made two hundred leagues in nine days, having lost seven companions, who had died of hunger during their former sufferings. They now deter-mined (in order not to exhaust the Indians) to depart on the feast of Candlemas*.

Twenty leagues further on, a stream flowed into the river on the right hand, which was so swollen, that at the point of junction with the larger stream, the waters struggled with such violence that the Spaniards expected to have been lost.

Escaped from this danger, for the next two hundred leagues that they traversed, they met with no habitations, and suffered much from toil and dangers, until they arrived at some villages where the Indians seemed to be quite off their guard.

In order not to disturb them, the captain ordered twenty soldiers to land and ask them for food. The Indians were delighted to see the Spaniards, and gave them plenty of provisions, turtles and parrots. Orellana then went to a village, at another part of the river, where he met with no resistance.

They M’ere much pleased, and invited Orellana to come and see their chief**. It would appear that Orellana intended to have built his brigantine at this spot, but that, after making the necessary preparations, he changed his mind, deferring the execution of his project until he reached the territory of the chief Aparia (1).


II. Of what happened to Captain Orellana in his voyage, and in his discovery of this river of the Amazons.

When captain Orellana found that he met with a cordial reception, he determined to build the brigantine at this place ; and it pleased God that there should be an engraver in his company, who, though ship building was not his business, proved of great use. The timber having been cut and prepared with great labour, which the men endured with much willingness, in thirty-five days she was launched, caulked with cotton, and the seams payed with pitch which was given them by the Indians.

At this time four tall Indians came to the captain, dressed and adorned with ornaments, and with hair reaching from the head to the waist. With much humility they placed food before the captain, and said that a great chief had sent them to inquire who these strangers were, and whence they came.

Orellana gave them some articles of barter, which they valued very much, and he spoke to them in the same way as he had done to the others, and so they departed.

The Spaniards passed all Lent at this place, and all the Christians confessed to the two priests who were in the company, and the priests preached to them, and urged them to endure the hardships they would have to encounter with constancy, until there should be an end of them.

The new brigantine being completed, and fit to navigate the sea, they set sail on the fourth of April from the residence of Aparia, and voyaged for eighty leagues without encountering a single warlike Indian. The river passed through an uninhabited country, flowing from forest to forest, and they found no place where they could either sleep or fish.

Thus with herbs and a little toasted maize for food, they went on until the 6th of May, when they reached an elevated place which appeared to have been inhabited. Here they stopped to fish, and it happened that the engraver, who had been so useful in building the vessel, killed a guana with his cross bow.

The creature was in a tree near the river, and fell into the water. A soldier named Contreras also caught a large fish with a hook, and, as the hook was small and the fish was large, it was necessary to take hold of it with his hand; and when it was opened, the nut of the cross bow was found in its stomach.

On the twelfth of May they arrived at the province of Machiparo***, which is thickly peopled, and ruled by another chief named Aomagua. One morning they discovered a number of canoes, full of warlike Indians, with large shields made of the skins of lizards and dantas/ beating drums, and shouting, with threats that they would eat the Christians.

The latter collected their vessels together, but met with a great misfortune in finding that their powder had become damp, and that they were thus unable to load their arquebusses. The Indians approached with their bows, and the cross-bows did them some damage ; and thus, while reinforcements continued to arrive, a gallant conflict was maintained.

In this way they descended the river, engaged in a running fight until they reached a place where there was a great crowd in the ravines. Half the Spaniards then landed, and followed the Indians to their village ; and as it appeared large, and the people were numerous, the ensign returned to make his report to Orellana, who was defending the vessels against the Indians, who were attacking him from their canoes.

Understanding that there was a quantity of provisions in the village, the captain ordered a soldier, named Cristoval de Segovia, to take it. He started with twelve companions, who loaded themselves with supplies, but were attacked by more than two thousand Indians, whom they resisted with such vigour, that they forced them to retreat, and retained the food, with only two Spaniards wounded.

But the Indians returned with reinforcements, and pressing on the Spaniards, wounded four. Cristoval de Segovia, though he wished to retire to the ships, said that he would not leave the Indians with the victory, nor place his retreat in such peril, and, making a gallant resistance, he succeeded in retiring in safety.

Meanwhile, another body of Indians attacked the vessels from two sides, and, having fought for more than two hours, it pleased the Lord to assist the Spaniards, and some, of whom little was expected, performed wonderful deeds of valour’. Such were the acts of Cristoval de Aguilar, Bias de Medina, and Pedro de Ampudia.

The Indians having retired, the wounded, who amounted to eighteen, were ordered to be attended to. All recovered except Ampudia, a native of Ciudad Rodrigo, who died of his wounds in eight days. In this encounter the value of the commander’s example was shown ; for Orellana did not, because he commanded, cease to fight like any common soldier ; while his good disposition, his form, his promptitude, and forethought animated the soldiers.

As it appeared to Orellana that it was useless, and could serve no purpose to fight with the Indians, he determined to continue his voyage. He embarked a great part of the provisions, and got under weigh; while the Indians on shore, amounting to nearly ten thousand, gave loud shouts, and those in canoes continued to assault the Spaniards with much audacity.

In this way the whole night was passed until dawn, when they saw many villages. The Spaniards, fatigued by so bad a night, determined to go and take refreshments on an uninhabited island ; on which, however, they were unable to get any rest, from the crowds of Indians who landed and attacked them.

On this the captain determined to proceed. He was continually followed by one hundred and thirty canoes containing eight thousand Indians, and accompanied by four or five sorcerers, while the noise of their drums, cornets, and shouting was a thing frightful to hear.

If the Spaniards had not had arquebusses and cross-bows, they must have been destroyed, for the Indians advanced with the determination of grappling with and boarding the vessels. Orellana sent forward an arquebusier named Gales, who shot the Indian general, and the other Indians crowded round to assist him.

The ships then set out down the river, followed by the canoes, without resting for two days and nights, and in this way they departed from the settlements of the great chief who was named Machiparo.

Having left the canoes behind, the Spaniards came to a village defended by several Indians. Orellana thought it would be well to rest here for four days, after the former toil, and having brought the vessels to, he landed his men vith arquebusses and cross-bows. The Indians fled, and he took possession of the village.


III. Captain Orellana continues the discovery of the river, which is also

called by his name.


They remained at this village for three days, eating plentifully. The captain calculated that they had sailed down the river for three hundred leagues from Aparia, two hundred of which were through uninhabited regions.

Having embarked a good supply of the biscuit which the Indians make from maize, yucas, and fruit, they set sail on the Sunday after Ascension ; and a league, further on, Orellana found that another great stream entered the river, with three islands at its mouth, for which reason he called it the river of the Trinity.

The land appeared to be well peopled and fertile, and many canoes came out into the river. On another day they discovered a small village in a very beautiful spot, and, though the Indians resisted, they entered it and found plenty of provisions.

There was a country house containing very good jars of earthenware, vases, and goblets of glass enamelled with many bright colors, resembling drawings and paintings. The Indians at this place said that these things came from the interior, together with much gold and silver.

They also found idols worked from palm wood in a very curious fashion, of Putumayu, was named Machiparo. — South Brazil.

Ol’ gigantic stature, with wheels in the fleshy part of the arms. The Spaniards found in this village gold and silver ; but as they only thought of discovery and of saving their lives, they did not care for anything else.

From this village two highroads branched off, and the captain walked about half a league along them, but finding that they did not end, he returned and ordered his people to embark and continue the voyage, because in a country so well peopled, it was not advisable to remain on shore during the night.

Having sailed for one hundred leagues through this inhabited country, always in the middle of the river, to keep clear of the Indians ; they reached the territory of another chief named Paguana, where the people were friendly, and gave the Spaniards what they required.

These Indians had sheep of Peru, the land W’as productive, and yielded very good fruit. On Whit-sunday they passed in sight of a great village with many suburbs, and large crowds of people at each suburb. When they saw the vessels pass, the Indians got into their canoes, but returned, owing to the damage they received from the arquebusses and cross-bows of the Spaniards.

On another day they reached a village which ended the dominion of Paguana. They then entered the territory of another chief of a warlike people, whose name they did not know ; and on the eve of Trinity Sunday they came to a village Avhere the Indians defended themselves with large shields ; but the Spaniards entered their village, and supplied themselves with food.

Soon afterwards they discovered a river, on the left hand, with water as black as ink, the force of which was so great that, for more than twenty leagues, its waters flowed separately, without mingling with the Amazons river(8). They saw many small villages, and entered one where they found quantities of fish.

Though it was necessary to force open a door in a wooden wall which surrounded the village. Continuing the voyage, they passed through a populous country, well supplied with provisions ; and when they were on one side of the river, it was so broad that they could not see the other bank.

They came to a place where they captured an Indian who told them that the territory belonged to the Amazons ; and they found a house containing many dresses made of different coloured feathers, which the Indians Avear, when celebrating their festivals and dances. Afterwards they passed by many other villages, where the Indians were shouting and calling, on the banks ; and on the 7th of June they landed at a village without meeting any resistance, because there was no one in it, but women.

They loaded themselves with fish, and, owing to the importunities of the soldiers be-cause it was the eve of the festival of Corpus Christi, Orellana consented to stay there. At sunset the Indians returned from the fields, and finding such guests, they seized their arms; but the Spaniards resisted and discomfited them.

Nevertheless the captain embarked his people, and, continued his voyage, always through an inhabited country, until they came among Indians with gentle dispositions.

Passing onwards they discovered a large village, in which they saw seven gibbets with men’s heads nailed on them, on which account they named this land ” the Province of the gibbets.” Paved roads issued from this village, with fruit trees planted on each side. On another day they came to a village, where they were obliged to land for provisions.

On seeing this, the Indians concealed themselves, and when the Spaniards landed they attacked them, led on by their chief; but a cross-bow man aimed at and killed him, on which the Indians fled ; and the Spaniards found a supply of maize, turtles, turkeys, and parrots.

With this large supply of provisions they went to rest on an island ; and they learned from an Indian woman of intelligence whom they captured, that in the interior there were many men like the Spaniards, and two white women, with a chief, who had brought them down the river.

The Spaniards supposed them to be of the party of Diego de Ordas, or Alonzo de Herrera. Passing by villages, without touching at any of them, because they were supplied with provisions ; at the end of some days they came to another large village, where the Indian woman said they would find Christians, but, as there was no sign of any, they passed on.

Two Indians came out in a canoe, and looked at the brigantine, but although the Spaniards called them, they would not come on board. After four days, they came to a village which the Indians did not defend. They found maize, and Castillian oats, of which the Indians made a liquor like beer ; and the Spaniards discovered a store house of this liquor, also good cotton cloths, and a temple with warlike arms stored up, and two litres like those of bishops, woven with various colors.

According to their custom, the Spaniards went to pass the night on the other side of the river, where many Indians came in canoes to disturb them.

On the twenty-second of June, they discovered many villages on the left bank, but they could not get at them on account of the strength of the current. The following Wednesday they came to a village, with a large square, through the midst of which flowed a stream. Here they obtained supplies, and they continually passed the habitations of fishermen.

In doubling a point of the river, they came upon some very large villages. The Indians were prepared for the Spaniards, and came out to attack them on the water. Orellana called to them, and offered them articles for barter ; but they mocked at him, and a great multitude of people advanced against him in different troops.

The captain ordered the ships to retire to the place where his people were searching for food ; but the flights of arrows which the Indians discharged were such that, having wounded five persons, and among others the Father Fray Gaspar de Carbajal, Orellana made great haste to bring the vessel to, and land his people ; where the Indians fought bravely and obstinately, without taking account of the number of killed and wounded.

Father Carbajal finds that these Indians defended themselves so resolutely, because they were tributaries of the Amazons, and that he and the other Spaniards saw ten or twelve Amazons, who were fighting in front of the Indians, as if they commanded them, with such vigour that the Indians did not dare to turn their backs ; and those who fled before the Spaniards were killed with sticks.

These women appeared to be very tall, robust, fair, with long hair twisted over their heads, skins round their loins, and bows and arrows in their hands, with which they killed seven or eight Spaniards (9).

As reinforcements were coming up from other villages, the Spaniards embarked and retired ; calculating that up to that day they had gone over one thousand four hundred leagues, without knowing how far it might be to the sea.

Here they captured an Indian trumpeter, aged thirty years, who told them many things respecting the interior ; but some of the Spaniards were of opinion that Captain Orellana should not have given the name of Amazons to these women who fought, because in the Indies it was no new thing for the women to fight, and to use bows and arrows ; as has been seen on some islands of Barlovento, and at Carthagena, where they displayed as much courage as the men.

IV. End of the discovery of the river of Orellana.

Having reached the centre of the river, at a short distance they discovered a large village, and, yielding to the importunities of the soldiers, the captain went to it to get provisions, though he said that if Indians were not to be seen, it was because they were concealed, which proved to be true.

On reaching the banks, they discovered a great number, who discharged a flight of arrows, and, as the Spaniards had not put up the defensive cloths, which were made after they left the country of Machiparo, they received much damage.

Father Caspar de Carbajal was so badly wounded by an arrow in the eye, that he lost the use of it ; an accident which caused much sorrow to every one, because this father, besides being very religious, assisted them in their difficulties by his cheerfulness and sagacity.

The multitude of people, and the number of villages, which were not half a league distant from each other, as well on the southern side of the river, as in the interior, showed Captain Orellana the dangers which he must encounter, and induced him to keep his people well together, and advance cautiously. Here they took particular care to notice the qualities of the country, which appeared genial and fertile.

The forest consisted of ever-green oaks, and cork trees, and contained plenty of game of all kinds. Orellana named this country” the Province of St. John,” extending more than one hundred and fifty leagues.

From the time that they entered it, they sailed in the middle of the river, until they came to a number of islands which they believed to be uninhabited; but the natives, on seeing the vessels, came out in two hundred piraguas, each one containing thirty or forty persons, decked out in warlike dresses, with many drums, trumpets, an instrument played with the mouth, and another with three strings. They attacked the brigantine with loud shouts ; but the arquebusses and cross-bows stopped their onslaught ; and on shore there were a vast number of people with the same instruments.

The islands appeared, high, fertile, and very beautiful, the largest being fifty leagues long. The brigantines went on, always followed by the piraguas, and they were unable to get any provisions.

Having left this province of St. John, and the piraguas having desisted from following them, they determined to rest in a forest. Captain Orellana, by means of a vocabulary which he had made, asked many questions of a captured Indian, from whom he learned that that land was subject to women, who lived in the same way as Amazons, and were very rich, possessing much gold and silver.

They had five houses of the sun plated with gold, their own houses were of stone, and their cities defended by walls ; and he related other details, which I can neither believe nor affirm, owing to the difficulty in discovering the truth. The tales of Indians are always doubtful, and Orellana confessed that he did not understand those Indians, so that it seems that he could scarcely have made, in such a few days, so correct and copious a vocabulary as to be able to understand the minute details given by this Indian : but each reader may believe just as much as he likes.

Having rested themselves in this wood, they continued their voyage, not expecting to find more people ; but on the left side of the river they discovered, on an eminence, some large and beautiful villages, and the captain did not wish to approach them so close as to aggravate the Indians. But many of them came out into the water up to their middles, looking at the brigantines, as if they were terrified.

The captive Indian said that this territory extended for more than one hundred leagues, under a chief named Caripuna, who had great quantities of silver. Finding a small village, the Spaniards landed to obtain provisions.

The Indians, in defending it, killed Antonio de Carranca, a native of Burgos ; and here they found that the Indians used poisoned arrows. At this place also the Spaniards first noticed signs of the ebb of the tide. The captain (12) continuing the voyage, desired to rest his men, and halted in a forest. Here they surrounded the brigantines with bulwarks, as a protection from poisoned arrows.

Although they desired to remain here for two or three days, canoes soon began to arrive, and also people by land. Father Carbajal affirms that a bird followed them for more than a thousand leagues, and often cried huy, hutj ; at other times, M-hen they approached villages, it cried huis, which means houses. He also relates other marvellous things.

At this place the bird left them, and they never saw it again. After going on for a whole day, they arrived at some other peopled islands, where, with great delight, they became aware of the presence of the tide ; and a little further on they came to a small arm of the sea, whence two squadrons of piraguas came out, and furiously attacked the brigantines with loud shouts.

The bulwarks were here of great service ; and when the Indians saw the effect of the arquebusses and cross-bows, they retired, but not without doing the Spaniards some harm.

They killed Garcia de Soria, a native of Logrofio, with a wound from an arrow, which did not enter more than half a finger deep, but, being poisoned, he died in twenty-four hours. This land was well peopled, and belonged to a chief named Chipayo.

Once more the crowds of piraguas attacked the brigantines, which were under weight ; and Alferez, with a shot from his arquebuss, killed two Indians, and, frightened by the report, many others fell into the water. A soldier named Perucho, a Biscayan, struck one of their chiefs, on which the piraguas retired, and left the brigantines.

It concludes the discovery of the river of Orellana, and the captain enters the sea, and reaches the island of Ciibagua. On account of the many villages on the right hand, they kept on the left side of the river, which had none, though they could see that the interior was peopled.

After resting for three days on the banks, the captain sent some soldiers to go at least a league inland, and reconnoitre. They soon returned, saying that the land was good and fertile, and that they had seen many people who seemed to be going to hunt.

From this place the land was low, and there were many inhabited islands, to which they went to obtain food. Never more were they able to return to the main land on either side, till they reached the sea ; and it appeared that they sailed amongst these islands for about two hundred leagues, to which distance the tide rose with much force.

Continuing their voyage, with great scarcity of food, they saw a village, and the larger brigantine came to in front of it ; the other struck on a snag, and, breaking a plank, it filled.

They landed to get supplies, and so great a multitude of Indians attacked them, that the Christians were obliged to retreat to their vessels ; of which one had sunk, and the other was left high and dry by the tide. In this great danger and difficulty. Captain Orellana ordered that half his company should fight, and that the other half should get the large vessel afloat, and stop up the hole in the smaller one.

It pleased God that this was done with great diligence; and, at the end of three hours labour, the Indians left off fighting, and all the Spaniards embarked with some food, and slept on board in mid channel.

Another time they came to, near a forest, to repair the vessels, which delayed them eighteen days, as it was necessary to make nails. They suffered much from hunger, but God succoured them with a tapir, as big as a mule, that came to the river, and on it they fed four or five days.

Having arrived near the sea, they made their rigging and ropes of grass, and their sails of the blankets in which they slept. Here they remained fourteen days, eating nothing but the shell fish that each man could pick up, and thus ill provided they started on the eighth of August 1541.

They went under sail, taking advantage of the tides, which often when it turned, carried the vessels back ; but it pleased God to deliver them from these perils, because as they went by lands which were inhabited, the Indians gave them maize and roots, and treated them well.

They got water on board in pitchers and jars, toasted maize and roots ; and thus they got ready for sea, to go where fortune might choose to take them, without either pilot, compass, or anything useful for navigation ; nor did they know what direction they should take.

The two fathers of the expedition declare that in this voyage they found all the people to be both intelligent and ingenious, which was shown by the works which they performed in sculpture, and painting in bright colours.

They left the mouth of the river, between two islands four leagues apart, judging that the mouth of the river extended fifty leagues, and that the fresh water extended into the sea for more than twenty leagues. They sailed out on the twenty-sixth of August 1541, at such a good season that neither in the river nor in the sea did they experience rains.

They continued in sight of land by day and night, and saw many rivers which entered the sea; and the small barque, having separated from the large one in the night, she was never seen again during the passage. At the end of nine days they reached the gulf of Paria, and though they struggled for seven days, they could not get on, while their food only consisted of fruit like prunes, which they call hogos.

God led them through the mouth of the Dragon (12),’ and at the end of two days after getting out of that prison,’ without knowing where they were, or where they were going, they reached the island of Cubagua on the eleventh of September, two days after the smaller brigantine had arrived.

They were very well received in Cubagua (13), and from thence captain Orellana determined to go and give an account of his great discovery to the king, certifying that it was not the river Maranon, as the people of Cubagua declared, and many called it El Dorado. According to Father Carbajal they sailed for one thousand eight hundred leagues, including the windings of the river.

A New Discovery of the Great River of the Amazons by Father Cristobal de Acuna, a Priest of the Company of Jesus, and censor of the Supreme General Inquisition.

Which was made by the order of His Majesty in the year 1639,

from the Province of Quito, in the kingdom of Peru.

Dedicated to the most excellent Lord the

Count Duke of Olivarez.

By Permission. In Madrid, in the Royal Press, in the year 1641.

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