Introduction of Voyage of Francisco Orellana by Clemens Markham

The early expeditions into the great valley of the river of Amazons, during the sixteenth century, are, perhaps, the most romantic episodes in the history of Spanish discovery. The first that is deserving of notice was sent by the conqueror Pizarro, under the command of his youngest brother Gonzalo, ” who was held to be the best lance that ever went to those countries, and all confess that he never showed his back to the enemy.”

I have translated the narrative of the expedition to the land of Cinnamon, undertaken by Gonzalo Pizarro, from the royal commentaries of Garcilasso Inca de la Vega. This chronicler had excellent opportunities of collecting information respecting the expedition, and, as we have no account actually written by one who was concerned in it, Garcilasso’s narrative may be considered to be the best that is now procurable.

His father was intimate with Gonzalo Pizarro ; the younger Garcilasso had himself seen him when a boy, he had conversed with several persons who were engaged in the expedition, and had consulted the accounts of Zarate and Gomara. The Inca historian has frequently been accused of exaggeration ; but in narrating the terrible sufferings endured by Gonzalo and his followers, their heroic endurance, and final escape from the dismal forests, I cannot see that he outsteps the bounds of probability in any single instance.

The base desertion of Orellana, which added so much to the sufferings of Gonzalo’s people, was the means of discovering the course of the mightiest river in the world. I have translated the account of Orellana’s voyage from Antonio de Herrera’s ” Historia general de las Indias occidentales ;” and it forms a sequel to the expedition of Gonzalo Pizarro. Herrera held the post of historiographer of the Indies for many years, during the reigns of Philip II and Phihp III, and died in 1625. He had the use of all public documents, and his account of the expedition of Orellana is the best that has come to my knowledge.

After the disastrous termination of these enterprizes, no attempt was made to penetrate far into the of Huarlna in 1547, the young Garcilasso went out as far as Quispicanchi (about three leagues) to meet his father, who was then serving under the rebel chief. Garcilasso describes all the events of this day, which seem to have been deeply impressed on his mind. He tells us that he walked part of the way, and was carried ‘ by Indians towards the end of his journey, but that he got a horse to come back on. He remembered these trifles, “porque la memoria guarda mejor lo que vio en su ninez, que lo que pasa en su edad mejor.” — Com. Real., ii, lib. v, cajJ. 27.

I allude to the escape of some of the followers of the younger Almagro into the forests of Caravaya, after the final overthrow of the young adventurer at the battle on the heights of Chupas in 1542. A few scattered notices respecting these fugitives have alone come within my reach. It appears that they crossed the snowy range of the Andes to the eastward of the city of Cuzco, and descended into the great tropical forests of Coahuaya ; where they discovered rivers, the sands of which were full of gold.

On the banks of these rivers they built the towns of Sandia, San Gaban, and San Juan del Oro ; large sums of gold were sent home to Spain ; and the last named settlement received the title of a royal city from Charles V. But eventually the wild Chuncho Indians, of the Sirineyri tribe, fell upon them, burnt the towns, and massacred every Spaniard to the eastward of the Andes. Until within the last few years no further attempt was made to settle in these forests of Caravaya ; but it is said that the Cascarilleros, or Don Manuel Guaycocliea, the obliging Cura of Sandia, supplied me with some of the above information.

The province of Colla-huaya (now called Caravaya), in the Peruvian department of Puno, is becoming important, both on account of its gold washings, and of the number of valuable cinchona trees in its forests. The village of Sandia is on the eastern slope of the Cordillera, and on the verge of the boundless forests, which extend for hundreds of miles to the north and east.

Collectors of Peruvian bark, sometimes stumble upon ruined walls almost hidden in the dense underwood : — the crumbling remains of San Gaban, or San Juan del Oro. Beyond this settlement in Caravaya, no attempt was made to penetrate into the valley of the Amazons, after the return of Gonzalo Pizarro, for about fourteen years. In 1555, however, the Marquis of Canete, a scion of the noble house of Mendoza, was appointed viceroy of Peru.

On arriving in Lima, he found that the disgraceful feuds of the Pizarros, the Almagros, and their followers, had just been concluded by the death of the rebel Hernandez Giron, at Pucara. It was his care to punish all traitors with severity, and to turn the restlessness of the turbulent adventurers into another channel, by promoting expeditions of discovery Thus it was that Juan Alvarez Maldonado was sent to explore the forests east of Cuzco, and that Pedro de Ursua started in search of El Dorado, and the kingdom of the Omaguas.

Juan Alvarez Maldonado was, says Garcilasso, “one of the fattest and most corpulent men that I have ever seen ;” but at the same time he was brave and active. Throughout Cuzco he was famous for having escaped death in a most unusual way. When fighting against Gonzalo Pizarro, a bullet struck him full on the chest, and knocked him down ; but the ball happened to strike upon the breviary which was in his bosom, and so, by the miraculous interposition of the blessed Virgin, as it was said, his life was preserved.

Ever afterwards he hung the book outside his clothes, as a charm against the evil eye. This cavalier had heard that a number of the Incas, with forty thousand followers, had assembled together, with great store of gold and silver, and had fled far away into the forests to the eastward of Cuzco ;to escape from the oppression of their conquerors. He intended, therefore, to pursue them with a chosen band of soldiers, spoil them of their treasure, and proceed also to explore the great river which was reported to take its rise in those forests.

Maldonado, however, had cause for alarm in the knowledge that another adventurer named Tordoya also intended to chase the Incas; and it was probable that the two parties of Spanish wolves would rend each other over the carcasses of their prey. Maldonado crossed the snowy range of the eastern Cordillera, penetrated some distance into the forests, along the banks of the Tono, (a tributary of the Purus), and encountered his rival Gomez de Tordoya, who was waiting to receive him.

They fought for three successive days, until nearly every man, on both sides, was killed. The wild Indians, called Chimchos, finished off the remainder, three only escaping out of the whole number, among whom was Maldonado himself, who eventually made his escape alone, through the forests of Caravaya, to Cuzco. Such an adventure must have reduced the size of this lucky old soldier.

Thus did these exploring expeditions to the eastward of Cuzco destroy each other ; and we know less now concerning the vast territory along the banks of the Purus, and its tributaries, than was known in the days of the Marquis of Canete, three hundred years ago. The other expedition, mentioned above, under Don Pedro de Ursua, led to more important results ; and the story of his murderer, the pirate Lope de Aguirre, is one of the most extraordinary which even that age of wonderful adventures can furnish.

The enterprize was organized, by order of the Marquis of Cailete, to search for the nation of Omaguas, of whose fabulous wealth most exciting rumours had reached Peru. Felipe de Utre, a German who had started from. Coro, in Venezuela, in search of El Dorado, in 1541, returned with a story that, after many days journey, he had come to a village whence he saw a vast city, with a palace in the centre, belonging to the Omaguas- At about the same time, information respecting this wealthy nation reached Peru from an equally reliable source.

Father Pedro Simon gives the following account of the way in which these wonderful stories were disseminated. “Certain brave rumours,” he says, ” prevailed in those times, both in the city of Lima, and throughout the provinces of Peru, which were spread by Indians from Brazil, respecting the rich provinces which they declared they had seen, when on their road from the east coast. These Indians, more than two thousand in number, left their homes with the intention of settling in other lands, as their own were too crowded ; but others declare that the Indians undertook this journey, to enjoy human food in those parts.

At length, after travelling for ten years, with two Portuguese in their company, they reached the province of the Motilones in Peru, by way of a famous river which flows thence, and enters the Maranon. These Indians brought news respecting the provinces of the Omaguas, in which El Dorado was said to reside. This so excited the minds of those restless spirits in Peru, who were ever ready to give credit to these rumours, that the Viceroy thought it prudent to seek some way, by which to give them employment.”

The expedition in search of Omaguas and El Dorado was, therefore, organized ; and the Marquis of Cafiete selected Don Pedro de Ursua to command. This cavalier was a native of a small town near Pampluna, in the kingdom of Navarre, from which he took his name. He had already served with some distinction, both in New Granada and against the Cimarrones, or rebellious negroes, on the Isthmus of Panama.

Markham, C. trans. 1963. Expeditions into the Valley of the Amazons, 1534, 1540 ,1639. New York: B. Franklin. First published in 1859.