Review – River of Doubt

Aside from my partner, accompanying me on my trip to the Amazon was the fantastic book The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard. River of Doubt tells the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s discovery of the Rio da Duvida (later re-christened the Rio Roosevelt), a fateful adventure that proved nearly fatal for Roosevelt and almost certainly led to his early demise at the age of 58.

While headlines of cooperation and alliance between Trump and Brazilian President Bolsonaro seem to harken back to World War II, where Brazilian allegiance to the US led to it declaring war on the Axis, and sending ~28,000 troops into battle, Millard’s book tells the story of a lesser-known chapter of Brazilian-American diplomatic history.

river of doubt

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard (Doubleday 2005)

Roosevelt’s Brazilian expedition was prompted by a combination of timely and chance circumstances. In the period leading up to the expedition, Roosevelt was undergoing a rare downswing in his long political career and post-Presidential life, following a election defeat suffered in 1912. Fascinatingly, Roosevelt’s 1912 election campaign was an attempt to secure a third term, four years after his second, as a member of the third-party Progressive Party (a party due for a revival?).

Wallowing in his defeat, Roosevelt accepted an invitation by an Argentinian intellectual salon, leading to his initial South American journey. Roosevelt’s acceptance was no doubt prompted by a desire to visit his son, Kermit, whose paternally-endowed zeal for adventure led him to work in Brazil as a bridge builder. Arriving in the northeastern city of Bahia along with his family to visit Kermit, Roosevelt was received by a Brazilian diplomatic party. No doubt seeking to kindle Roosevelt’s own infamous lust for life, a Brazilian diplomat made a passing comment that had untold consequences, offering Roosevelt the opportunity to discover an “unknown river,” to quite literally place it on the map. Roosevelt was immediately intrigued by this opportunity, a chance to another chapter to his legacy as an explorer and conqueror of the infamously treacherous and untamed Brazilian interior.

Millard draws on a wealth of source material to explain how the ill-fated group of adventures who accompanied Roosevelt came to be, including Roosevelt’s son Kermit, an old acquaintance, Priest, and Notre Dame professor named Father Zahm, two naturalists affiliated with the newly-established Museum of Natural History, and a Brazilian party of military officers and camaradas (support staff) led by one of the true heroes of Brazilian history (and previously unknown to me): Colonel Cândido Rondon.

Rondon was previously the leader of the Rondon Commission, an attempt to map and lay thousands of miles of telegraph line in the Brazilian interior (now the state of Mato Grosso and Pantanal region). During his Commission, Rondon came into contact with several previously uncontacted indigenous tribes, many of which, despite their vast skills as warriors and survivalists living of the region’s uninviting land, were otherwise technologically in the Stone Age. Rondon became widely known for his commitment for winning over these native tribes via peaceful and diplomatic means, refusing to retaliate or attack even in the face of the murder of his men or animals.

Rondon was fiercely committed to his cause, and saw the opportunity to join / lead Roosevelt’s expedition (exploring a river that he had initially discovered himself at the end of the deadly telegraph Commission) as a continuation of his life’s work: to open up the Brazilian interior (and its inhabitants) to the rest of Brazil. For his lifetime of service, bravery, and dedication to his cause the Indian Protection Service, which operates to this day as the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI), as well as the christening of a ~90k square mile part of northern Brazil as Rondônia.

As the officially-titled Roosevelt–Rondon Scientific Expedition courses through the Brazilian highlands and into the Rio da Duvida, Millard provides a good deal of high-level scientific basis to better explain the region, including the geographic, geologic, biologic, and ecologic foundations that make the Amazon River unrivalled and so unique. Her explanations of the river, its thousands of tributaries, and the surrounding jungle region make for a fascinating and useful (if not terrifying) companion to my time in the Amazon. In addition, Millard incorporates firsthand accounts (journals, letters, lectures, published articles and books), as well as anthropological research and oral histories to provide insights into not only the Brazilian and American officers mindsets and retellings of their journey, but also the native tribes who came into contact with the Expedition, including the Pareci, the Nhambiquara, and the Cinta Larga tribes, the last of which’s consensus-based tribal decision making process led to the fateful survival of the Expedition (a fate not shared by many ensuing foreign explorers of the region at the hands of the justifiably suspecting Cinta Larga.)

The book is a fantastic read for anyone interested in Teddy Roosevelt, Brazil and the Amazon Rainforest/Jungle, and adventure in general. I look forward to following up my read of the River of Doubt with Millard’s other works, Destiny of the Republic, on the assassination of James Garfield), and Hero of the Empire, on Churchill’s exploits in the Boer War.

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