Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

Gonzalo Pizarro and the Land of Cinnamon

We have now to relate the most remarkable adventure in the story of the conquest of Peru, and one of the most remarkable in the history of the New World,—the expedition of Gonzalo Pizarro to the upper waters of the Amazon and the pioneer voyage down that mighty river.

Francisco Pizarro was well aided by his brothers in his great work of conquest, three of them—Hernando, Juan, and Gonzalo—accompanying him to Peru, and all of them proving brave, enterprising, and able men. In 1540, eight years after the conquest, Gonzalo was appointed by his brother governor of the territory of Quito, in the north of the empire, with instructions to explore the unknown country lying to the east, where the cinnamon tree was said to grow. Gonzalo lost no time in seeking his province, and made haste in starting on his journey of exploration to the fabled land of spices.

It was early in the year that he set out on this famous expedition, with a force of three hundred and fifty Spaniards and four thousand Indians, one hundred and fifty of the whites being mounted. They were all thoroughly equipped and took with them a large supply of provisions and a great drove of hogs, five thousand in number, as some writers say. Yet with all this food they were to suffer from the extremes of famine.

We can but briefly tell the incidents of this extraordinary journey. At first it was easy enough. But when they left the land of the Incas and began to cross the lofty ranges of the Andes, they found themselves involved in intricate and difficult passes, swept by chilling winds. In this cold wilderness many of the natives found an icy grave, and during their passage a terrible earthquake shook the mountains, the earth in one place being rent asunder. Choking sulphurous vapors issued from the cavity, into whose frightful abyss village of several hundred houses was precipitated.

After the heights were passed and they descended to the lower levels, tropical heats succeeded the biting cold, and fierce storms of rain, accompanied by violent thunder and lightning, descended almost ceaselessly, drenching the travellers day after day. It was the rainy season of the tropics, and for more than six weeks the deluge continued, while the forlorn wanderers, wet and weary, could scarce drag themselves over the yielding and saturated soil.

For several months this toilsome journey continued, many a mountain stream and dismal morass needing to be crossed. At length they reached the Land of Cinnamon, the Canelas  of the Spaniards, where were forests of the trees supposed by them to bear the precious bark. Yet had it been the actual cinnamon of the East Indies, it would have been useless to them in that remote and mountain-walled wilderness. Here their journey, as originally laid out, should have ended, but they were lured on by the statements of the wild tribes they met, they being told of a rich and populous land at ten days' journey in advance, in which gold could be found in abundance.

Gold was a magic word to the Spaniards, and they went eagerly onward, over a country of broad savannahs which led to seemingly endless forests, where grew trees of stupendous bulk, some so large that the extended arms of sixteen men could barely reach around them. A thick network of vines and creepers hung in bright-colored festoons from tree to tree, beautiful to look at but very difficult to pass. The axe was necessary at every step of the way, while their garments, rotted with the incessant rains, were torn into rags by the bushes and brambles of the woodland. Their provisions had been long since spoiled by the weather, and their drove of swine had vanished, such of the animals as were not consumed having strayed into the woods and hills. They had brought with them nearly a thousand dogs, many of them of the ferocious bloodhound breed, and these they were now glad enough to kill and eat. When these were gone no food was to be had but such herbs and edible roots and small animals as the forest afforded.

At length the disconsolate wanderers emerged on the banks of a broad river, the Napo, one of the great tributaries of the Amazon, issuing from the northern Andes to seek a home in the bosom of that mighty stream. Gladdened by the sight, they followed its banks downward, hoping in this way to find an easier route. Thickets still beset their way, through which it needed all their strength to open a passage, and after going a considerable distance a loud and increasing noise met their ears. For miles they followed it as it gradually rose into a roar, and at length they reached a place where the stream rushed furiously down steep rapids, and at the end poured in a vast volume of foam down a magnificent cataract, twelve hundred feet in depth.

This was the height of the fall as measured by the eyes of the wanderers, a guide not much to be relied on. The stream itself had narrowed until it was at this point not more than twenty feet wide, and the hungry wanderers determined to cross it, with the hope of finding beyond it a country yielding more food. A bridge was constructed by felling great trees across the chasm, the water here running through vertical walls several hundred feet in depth. Over this rude bridge men and horses made their way, only one Spaniard being lost by tumbling down the giddy depth.

The country beyond the stream proved no better than that they had left, and the only signs of in-habitants they met were savage and hostile tribes of Indians, with whom they kept up a steady skirmish. Some of the more friendly told them that the fruitful land they sought was but a few days' journey down the river, and they went wearily on, day by day, as the promised land still fled before their feet. Doubtless they were led by their own desires to misinterpret the words of the Indians.

In the end Gonzalo Pizarro decided on building a vessel large enough to carry the baggage and the men too weak to walk. Timber was superabundant. The shoes of horses that had died or had been killed for food were wrought into nails. Pitch was obtained from gum-yielding trees. In place of oakum the tattered garments of the soldiers were used. It took two months to complete the difficult task, at the end of which time a rude but strong brigantine was ready, the first vessel larger than an Indian canoe that ever floated on the mighty waters of Brazil. It was large enough to carry half the Spaniards that remained alive after their months of terrible travel.

Pizarro gave the command of the vessel to Francisco de Orellana, a man in whose courage and fidelity he put full trust. The company now resumed its march more hopefully, following the course of the Napo for weeks that lengthened into months, the brigantine keeping beside them and transporting the weaker whenever a difficult piece of country was reached. In this journey the last scraps of provisions were consumed, including their few remaining horses, and they were so pressed by hunger as to eat the leather of their saddles and belts. Little food was yielded by the forest, and such toads, serpents, and other reptiles as they found were greedily devoured.

Still the story of a rich country, inhabited by a populous nation, was told by the wandering Indians, but it was always several days ahead. Pizarro at length decided to stop where he was and feed on the scanty forest spoil, while Orellana went down the stream in his brigantine to where, as the Indians said, the Napo flowed into a greater river. Here the nation they sought was to be found, and Orellana was bidden to get a sup-ply of provisions and bring them back to the half-starved company. Taking fifty of the adventurers in the vessel, he pushed off into the swift channel of the river and shot onward in a speedy voyage which quickly took him and his comrades out of sight.

Days and weeks passed, and no sign of the return of the voyagers appeared. In vain the waiting men strained their eyes down the stream and sent out detachments to look for the vessel farther down. Finally, deeming it useless to wait longer, they resumed their journey down the river, spending two months in advancing five or six hundred miles—those of them who did not die by the way. At length they reached the point they sought, where the Napo plunged into a much larger stream, that mighty river since known as the Amazon, which rolls for thousands of miles eastward through the vast Brazilian forest.

Here they looked in vain for the brigantine and the rich and populous country promised them. They were still in a dense forest region, as unpromising as that they had left. As for Orellana and his companions, it was naturally supposed that they had perished by famine or by the hands of the ferocious natives. But they learned differently at length, when a half-starved and half-naked white man emerged from the forest, whom they recognized as Sanches de Vargas, one of Orellana's companions.

The tale he told them was the following: The brigantine had shot so swiftly down the Napo as to reach in three days the point it had taken them two months to attain. Here, instead of finding supplies with which to return, Orellana could obtain barely enough food for himself and his men. To attempt to ascend against the swift current of the river was impossible. To go back by land was a formidable task, and one that would add nothing to the comfort of those left behind. In this dilemma Orellana came to the daring decision to go on down the Amazon, visiting the populous nations which he was told dwelt on its banks, descending to its mouth, and sailing back to Spain with the tidings and the glory of a famous adventure and noble discovery.

He found his reckless companions quite ready to accept his perilous scheme, with little heed of the fate of the comrades left behind them in the wilderness. De Vargas was the only one who earnestly opposed the desertion as inhuman and dishonorable, and Orellana punished him by abandoning him in the wilderness and sailing away without him.

The story of Orellana's adventure is not the least interesting part of the expedition we have set out to describe; but, as it is a side issue, we must deal with it very briefly. Launched on the mighty and unknown river, in a rudely built barque, it is a marvel that the voyagers escaped shipwreck in the descent of that vast stream, the navigation being too difficult and perilous, as we are told by Condamine, who descended it in 1743, to be undertaken without the aid of a skilful pilot. Yet the daring Spaniards accomplished it safely. Many times their vessel narrowly escaped being dashed to pieces on the rocks or in the rapids of the stream. Still greater was the danger of the voyagers from the warlike forest tribes, who followed them for miles in canoes and fiercely attacked them whenever they landed in search of food.

At length the extraordinary voyage was safely completed, and the brigantine, built on the Napo, several thousand miles in the interior, emerged on the Atlantic. Here Orellana proceeded to the island of Cubagna, from which he made his way, with his companions, to Spain. He had a wonderful story to tell, of nations of Amazons dwelling on the banks of the great river, of an El Dorado said to exist in its vicinity, and other romances, gathered from the uncertain stories of the savages.

He found no difficulty, in that age of marvels and credulity, in gaining belief, and was sent out at the head of five hundred followers to conquer and colonize the realms he had seen. But he died on the outward voyage, and Spain got no profit from his discovery, the lands of the Amazon falling within the territory assigned by the Pope to Portugal.

Orellana had accomplished one of the greatest feats in the annals of travel and discovery, though his glory was won at the cost of the crime of deserting his companions in the depths of the untrodden wilderness. It was with horror and indignation that the deserted soldiers listened to the story of Vargas, and found themselves deprived of their only apparent means of escape from that terrible situation. An effort was made to continue their journey along the banks of the Amazon, but after some days of wearying toil, this was given up as a hope-less task, and despair settled down upon their souls.

Gonzalo Pizarro now showed himself an able leader. He told his despairing followers that it was useless to advance farther, and that they could not stay where they were, their only hope lying in a return to Quito. This was more than a thousand miles away, and over a year had passed since they left it. To return was perilous, but in it lay their only hope.

Gonzalo did all he could to reanimate their spirits, speaking of the constancy they had shown, and bidding them to show themselves worthy of the name of Castilians. Glory would be theirs when they should reach their native land. He would lead them back by another route, and somewhere on it they would surely reach that fruitful land of which so much had been told them. At any rate, every step would take, then nearer home, and nothing else was left them to do.

The soldiers listened to him with renewed hope. He had proved himself so far a true companion, sharing all their perils and privations, taking his lot with the humblest among them, aiding the sick and cheering up the despondent. In this way he had won their fullest confidence and devotion, and in this trying moment he reaped the benefit of his unselfish conduct.

The journey back was more direct and less difficult than that they had already taken. Yet though this route proved an easier one, their distress was greater than ever, from their lack of food beyond such scanty fare as they could pick up in the forest or obtain by force or otherwise from the Indians. Such as sickened and fell by the way were obliged to be left behind, and many a poor wretch was deserted to die alone in the wilderness, if not devoured by the wild beasts that roamed through it.

The homeward march, like the outward one, took more than a year, and it was in June, 1542, that the survivors trod again the high plains of Quito. They were a very different looking party from the well-equipped and hope-inspired troop of cavaliers and men-at-arms who had left that upland city nearly two and a half years before. Their horses were gone, their bright arms were rusted and broken, their clothing was replaced by the skins of wild beasts, their hair hung long and matted down their shoulders, their faces were blackened by the tropical sun, their bodies were wasted and scarred. A gallant troop they had set out; a body of meagre phantoms they returned. Of the four thousand Indians taken, less than half had survived. Of the Spaniards only eighty came back, and these so worn and broken that many of them never fully recovered from their sufferings. Thus in suffering and woe ended the famous expedition to the Land of Cinnamon.