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Amazons 1#: First Contact April 19, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

red queen of the amazons

In 1542, a small party led by Francisco de Orellana, a thuggish conquistador (was there any other sort?) was making its way down a huge South American river towards the sea. In the depths of this dangerous region, where no white man had ever gone before, the Spaniards began to hear strange stories of… Well, Beach will allow Gaspar de Carvajal, a friar on the expedition, to put their experiences into his own words.

Here [the locals] spoke to us of the Amazons and the riches that they have down there. The one who told us was an Indian called Aparia, an old man who said that he had been to their lands and he also told us of another lord who lived off from the river, inland, who had great gold. This man was called Ira: we never saw him because, as I noted, he lived away from the river.

Aquí nos dieron noticia de las amazonas y de la riqueza que abajo hay, y el que la dio fue un indio llamado Aparia, viejo que decía haber estado en aquella tierra, y también nos dio noticia de otro señor que estaba apartado del río, metido en la tierra adentro, el cual decía poseer muy gran riqueza de oro. Este señor se llama Ira; nunca le vimos porque, como digo, se quedó desviado del rio.

Orellana called the river on which they were travelling after himself: but his name was quickly shouldered out by the legend of these warrior women, who the Spanish called ‘Amazons’, mindful no doubt of their classical education. Indeed, travelers to the Amazon were still hearing tales about these extraordinary women deep into the nineteenth century, whereas Ira (who may or may not have been legendary) went the way of the dodo.

GdC gives four references in his travelogue to these women, women who he would, he claimed, eventually see for himself: in fact, they were indirectly responsible for the good friar losing an eye. Today’s is the first of a number of posts that will examine Gaspar’s words, but here at the beginning we should set out the basic options that historians and anthropologists have wrestled with ever since Gaspar arrived in Cuba to tell of his extraordinary travels.

1) Gaspar de Carvajal was a fantasist, the Amazons did not exist outside of his imagination.

2) The women did not exist outside the imagination of the Indian tribes on the Amazon: they were legends.

3) Gaspar de Carvajal came across accounts of and witnessed the Amazons. Their civilization was doomed, though, and they had died out before later European explorers could make contact.

Beach was tempted to add ‘(4) Somewhere, even today, in a deep valley…’ But that is the kind of sentence that ends with ‘maybe you can hire the ATeam’. So I’ll spare you. Any other options? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Explanation (1) enjoyed a certain vogue for many years. Beach should say here at the beginning that there is always something disturbing about supercillious library-anemic academics calling into question the honesty of eye-witnesses who lived through extraordinary adventures hundreds of years ago. But to be fair Gaspar de Carvajal often seems to describe things that historians ‘knew’ were not to be found in the Amazon. For example, his descriptions of numerous towns there earned him the scorn of those who believed that the Amazon was only inhabited by ‘savages’ (hunter-gather tribes to the polite). However, with the years, archaeological discoveries on the banks of that river have gone some way to showing that GdC was not necessarily exaggerating. (Settled Amazonian civilization collapsed, possibly as a knock on effect of European colonization.) And it has to be said that reading Gaspar you do not have the sense of an Hispanic John Mandeville. GdC may have been naïve, he may have been bigoted, he may have had bad sight (particularly after the arrow alluded to above took one of his eyes), but he does not seem to have been dishonest. Then, there is a more general description of the voyage, which borrows though from other witnesses, corroborating much of what GdV says in other passages. In short, forget the idea that GdV was a Baron Munchausen of the Amazon basin. The question boils down to, rather, whether the Amazons were (2) Indian legends or (3) an Indian reality. Let us suspend though this question for a moment and get some sense of what was believed (correctly or incorrectly) and reported by European travellers. This seventeenth-century account usefully touches many of the same bases as sixteenth-century Gaspar de Carvajal and gives Beach the courage to think that Orellana and his crew had understood their native informants despite their lack of a common language.

I do not treat of the important information which, by order of the Royal Audience, was collected from the natives during many years, concerning all which the banks of this river contained; one of the principal reports being that there was a province inhabited by female warriors, who lived alone without men, with whom they associated only at certain times; that they lived in villages, cultivating the land, and obtaining by the work of their hands all that was necessary for their support. Neither do I make mention of those reports which were received from some Indians, and particularly from an Indian woman, in the city of Pasto, who said that she had herself been in the country which was peopled by these women, and her account entirely agreed with all that had been previously reported, I will only dwell upon that which I heard with my own ears, and carefully investigated, from the time that we entered this river.

There is no saying more common than that these women inhabit a province on the river, and it is not credible that a lie could have been spread throughout so many languages, and so many nations, with such an appearance of truth. But the place where we obtained most information respecting the position of the province of these women, their customs, the Indians with whom they communicate, and the roads by which their country may be entered, was in the last village of the Tupinamads. Thirty-seven leagues from this village, and lower down the river, on the north side, is the mouth of that of the Amazons, which is known among the natives by the name of Cunuris. This river takes the name of the first Indians who live on its banks, next to whom follow the Apantos, who speak the ‘lingoa geral’ of Brazil. Next come the Taguaus, and the last, being those who communicate and traffic with the Amazons themselves, are the Guacards. These manlike women have their abodes in great forests, and on lofty hills, amongst which, that which rises above the rest, and is therefore beaten by the winds for its pride, with most violence, so that it is bare and clear of vegetation, is called Yacamiaba.

The Amazons are women of great valour, and they have always preserved themselves without the ordinary intercourse with men; and even when these, by agreement, come every year to their land, they receive them with arms in their hands, such as bows and arrows, which they brandish about for some time, until they are satisfied that the Indians come with peaceful intentions. They then drop their arms and go down to the canoes of their guests, where each one chooses the hammock that is nearest at hand (these being the beds in which they sleep); they then take them to their houses, and, hanging them in a place where their owners will know them, they receive the Indians as guests for a few days. After this the Indians return to their own country, repeating these visits every year at the same season. The daughters who are born from this intercourse are preserved and brought up by the Amazons themselves, as they are destined to inherit their valour, and the customs of the nation, but it is not so certain what they do with the sons. An Indian, who had gone with his father to this country when very young, stated that the boys were given to their fathers, when they returned in the following year. But others, and this account appears to be most probable, as it is most general, say that when the Amazons find that a baby is a male, they kill it. Time will discover the truth, and if these are the Amazons made famous by historians, there are treasures shut up in their territory, which would enrich the whole world. The mouth of this river, on which the Amazons live, is in 2,5° of latitude.

Stripped down to its absolute essentials the Amazons live: (i) away from the river; (ii) they dominate the nearby tribes (this is particular important in Gaspar de Carvajal’s account); (iii) some Indians have visited their lands; (iv) Amazons have sex and manage to reproduce themselves; (v) they are immensely rich; and (vi) they are immensely fierce.