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Christian Indians in Sixteenth-Century Brazil? May 23, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

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Today a return to the Amazon and a passage from Carvajal’s journal of Orellana’s mad rush for the sea in 1542: the Spaniards were, it will be remembered, sailing down that river towards the Atlantic. Regular readers will recall that we dedicated a number of posts to this expedition to try and uncover more information on the Spaniards supposed  meeting with a series of women warriors: the Amazons. However, we skated over another episode that now requires attention. The Spaniards, as is their custom, raid a village in search of food. After killing the leader of the village with a crossbow bolt, they scavenged and as well as turtles, maize and turkeys, they picked up ‘an Indian girl of much intelligence’. There followed one of these slightly surreal discussions between two individuals, Orellana and said girl, who came from unimaginably different cultures and who did not share a common language. For you and I this would have been a problem. But by this stage on the journey the Spaniards were up for anything.

[The intelligent Indian girl] said that nearby and back in the interior there were many Christians like ourselves and that they were under the rule of an overlord who had brought them down the river; and she told us how there were two white women among them [as wives of two of these Christians], and that other had Indian wives, and children by them; these are the people who got lost out of Diego de Ordaz’s party, so it is thought from the indications which were at hand regarding them, for it was off to the north of the river.

There are two remarkable things here. First, the claim that there are Christians living close to the Amazon river in 1542. Then, second, the claim that there are two white women living among the Indian Christians. As Orellana was the first, white Christian known to us to come anywhere near this part of the Amazon this is a hearty surprise: the first fact is more remarkable than the second, but the second also takes some swallowing.  Carvajal rather sensibly surrendered in the face of the first assertion: a Christian Amazon tribe. But he and his companions thought that they could explain the two white women. They belonged, the Spaniards believed, to ‘Diego de Ordaz’s party’. Now de Ordaz was a Spaniard who had sailed with a certain number of settlers (overwhelmingly though men) to the New World in 1531. He landed near the mouth of the Orinoco and failed to put in there, but in putting off he lost one of his ships and three hundred souls. The fate of this lost ship was much discussed among the Spaniards who believed that the crew had saved themselves.    The great Castellanos had this to say about Ordaz’s lost men and certainly came closer to the truth than Carvajal: who was though exploring a mere decade after.

Very close to the land they were shipwrecked, but without suffering any loss from the dashing to pieces of their ships, and so ‘tis said that they all escaped with their lives and penetrated into regions ne’er before looked upon by men, until the at last discovered and joined some great and powerful tribes, at a spot where they were later found and where have prospered, constantly increasing in numbers and welfare. This report used to be peddled around as absolutely trustworthy by many whom I got to talk with and whom I have known well; but it is pain and obvious fiction, and an idle tale in my opinion, for if these persons had not long since died, they would have turned up in a thousand places; hence it will not be speaking from blind judgment to say that they all soon perished.

So who were the Christians and the mysterious two white women? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com A few thoughts. First, whenever Carvajal talks of the ‘interior’, you might as well be stepping into fairyland. It is the interior where the Amazons live, it is the interior where all the silver and gold is, it is the interior where various legendary kings have their kingdoms. Second, in the New World, Christians frequently came across Christian-like customs in native tribes that seemed to them diabolical twisting of Christian doctrine. In this, at least, we know better. What we have here are simply universal or coincidental motifs cropping up far from home. Third, the Amazons were said to be white by the Spaniards, perhaps we are dealing with the range then of different skin colours in the Amazon basin or perhaps the Indian girl was saying something as simple as ‘they come from the other side of the Andes like you’.

Given that this was likely a wild goose chase it is just as well that Carvajal and friends left well alone.

We proceeded on down our river without seizing any village, because we had food on board, and at the end of a few days we moved out of this province, at the extreme limit of which stood a very large settlement through which the Indian girl told us we had to go to get to where the Christians were; but, as we were not concerned with the matter, we decided to press forward, for, as to rescuing them [the two women] from where they were, the time for that will come.

When?!

Beach wonders idly if the Indian girl ever reached the sea.