Sunday, 15 May 2016

The Andes and the Amazon

The Andes and the Amazon; across the Continent of South America.  By James Orton. New York Harper and Brothers publishers 1870. Read on Kindle.

Written on January 26th 2013 

This is a long book describing a scientific expedition to the Equator, the Equatorial Andes and the river Amazon and its tributaries. It extends from the Western shore of South America to the mouth of the Amazon in the East. The expedition took place about 1867. After spending some time in Quito, the capital, and other towns and areas in Ecuador, we are provided with the experience of the writer and his companions travelling across the Andes to the tributaries of the Amazon and to the river as far as the Atlantic Ocean.  

It provides a great amount of detail about their travels over these 3000 miles. We are reminded of the hardship of the long trek, first crossing the immense heights and the extent of the Andes, and later the overpowering influence of water, dense forest, wilderness, the thin scattering of primitive tribes and of little animal life in the vast area of the Amazon and its tributaries.  Living as we are in the 21st century with the modern convenience of travel, clothing, equipment and comfort, it is hard to imagine how these early pioneers, deprived of such luxuries, survived the hazards of exploration.

Siesta - an illustration from the book
The book is really not suited for reading on Kindle because of the need to have a detailed map to follow and to appreciate the immensity and the topography of the journey. It is also somewhat tedious reading where one’s interest is less maintained because of the long descriptions of the enclosing density of the forest.  According to the author the maps of the Amazon basin had previously been drawn with great care following the original observations and surveys of earlier explorers such as Humboldt and Wisse. 

Quito illustration.
The first few chapters relate the nature of the society and circumstances of the citizens of Quito and other towns and settlements of Equator,  the general poverty, the intense mixture of colour and race, and the dominance of the Catholic Church as a primary source, not only  of morality and of spirituality but also of political power.

The history of South America from the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century to the present day is a major challenge to the historian. One striking feature of the Spanish conquest was how quickly the major Spanish areas, Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina, were overcome and the little resistance the local tribes had to their arrival. Perhaps the Incas of the north eastern part of the sub-continent alone had the ability to resist the invasion because of their sophisticated and better organised traditions but they had little opportunity of resisting the armour, horses and cruel dominance of the Spanish invader. It was a time in the world’s history which reminds us of the rawness of life, the cruelty which was part of the disturbance of the native inhabitants and the ambitions of the Spanish conquistadors, an ambition which from the time of  Christopher Columbus at the end of the 15th century was largely based on the obsession among them of seeking for gold, an ambition which proved to be as illusory for the Spanish as it was to be destructive to the local population.

If I were young again, I would remain committed to my medical profession but, if I had the interest in history which I was to find in my later years, I would learn Spanish and become devoted to the history of South America in my spare time and so become aware of the characteristics that make up the failures of the conquistadors, failures based on greed and inhumanity, cloaked as they may be by courage, patriotism, fidelity to one’s sovereign and one’s God.  

Information about some aspects of the expedition is contained in a lengthy summary at the end of the book.

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