River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon by Buddy Levy



From the acclaimed author of Conquistador comes this thrilling account of one of history’s greatest adventures of discovery. With cinematic immediacy and meticulous attention to historical detail, here is the true story of a legendary sixteenth-century explorer and his death-defying navigation of the Amazon—river of darkness, pathway to gold.

In 1541, the brutal conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro and his well-born lieutenant Francisco Orellana set off from Quito in search of La Canela, South America’s rumored Land of Cinnamon, and the fabled El Dorado, “the golden man.” Driving an enormous retinue of mercenaries, enslaved natives, horses, hunting dogs, and other animals across the Andes, they watched their proud expedition begin to disintegrate even before they descended into the nightmarish jungle, following the course of a powerful river. Soon hopelessly lost in the swampy labyrinth, their numbers diminishing daily through disease, starvation, and Indian attacks, Pizarro and Orellana made a fateful decision to separate. While Pizarro eventually returned home barefoot and in rags, Orellana and fifty-seven men, in a few fragile craft, continued downriver into the unknown reaches of the mighty Amazon, serenaded by native war drums and the eerie cries of exotic predators. Theirs would be the greater glory.

Interweaving eyewitness accounts of the quest with newly uncovered details, Buddy Levy reconstructs the seminal journey that has electrified adventurers ever since, as Orellana became the first European to navigate and explore the entire length of the world’s largest river. Levy gives a long-overdue account of the native populations—some peaceful and welcoming, offering sustenance and life-saving guidance, others ferociously hostile, subjecting the invaders to gauntlets of unremitting attack and intimations of terrifying rituals. And here is the Amazon itself, a powerful presence whose every twist and turn held the promise of new wonders both natural and man-made, as well as the ever-present risk of death—a river that would hold Orellana in its irresistible embrace to the end of his life.

Overflowing with violence and beauty, nobility and tragedy, River of Darkness is both riveting history and a breathtaking adventure that will sweep readers along on an epic voyage unlike any other.


4 Stars

This is a good retelling of the horrendous, yet spectacular, journey of Spanish Conquistadors down the Amazon. I didn’t look at the description close enough before starting, so I was mildly annoyed at first. I was thinking this was a translation of Carvajal, rather than a retelling using various sources. My mistake, I should have checked first. It would have also been helpful if I had brushed up on the conquest of the Incas before reading this book, as they are very intertwined.

Using a compilation of several sources he tells of the general history of the Pizzaro brothers conquering the Inca, and relates how Orellana is involved with the Pizzaros, and eventually how Orellana gets involved with Gonzalo Pizarro’s expedition over the Andes to search for el Dorado. If you are a believer in omens, the earthquakes and nearby erupting volcano at the beginning of the journey should be a smack in the face of a portent of how this expedition is going to be.

I was hoping for more description of the natives. I’m not sure what Carvajal and Orellana actually put in their journals (I don’t read Spanish/Latin), so I’m unsure if there really is more description or not. Hence why I was initially disappointed this wasn’t a straight translation of the primary sources. The journey itself is still fascinating. The contrast between the cruel Gonzalo Pizzaro and the somewhat more humane Francisco Orellana, and the results they are able to get is quite stark. Had it been Pizzaro who took the boat down river I fully expect he would have perished. As it was, I’m surprised Orellana not not only didn’t die, he got most of his men safely back to Spanish held territory. It seems odd that the conquistadors never learned from the natives how to hunt/fish along the river, nor what plants/fungi might be edible. Perhaps they thought they, as the ‘civilized’ or more ‘advanced’ people they knew better; or perhaps the Indians just weren’t forthcoming with the information when asked. If the former, it seems a glaring weakness in survival strategy. If the latter, there really isn’t much that could be done.

Given the harsh realities of the situation they found themselves in (little food, salt deprived, little sleep, constant harassment from the environment, hostile natives) it’s a wonder more of the members of the crew didn’t go insane. They were a hardy bunch, much more used to deprivation than modern Americans I think.

The extraordinary tales of large thriving villages/chiefdoms brought back must certainly seem fanciful to later investigators who came upon nothing but small scattered villages. And there is certainly gold in the Amazon basin, but it’s not always easy to get to. The epilogue speaks of a large lake up the Orinoco River that doesn’t exist. In looking at some of the information regarding Lake Manoa, there is the possibility that up until the 1690 earthquake there actually was a lake in the area that drained as a result of the shifting landscape.

The Pizarro family is quite interesting. They made tremendous accomplishments in conquering the Incan Empire and discovering great wealth. They were also quite cruel by today’s standards, and even by the standards of the time considering that Las Casas was able to convince the King of Spain to implement the New Laws regarding treatment of the natives. They are among the more tragic of historical figures as well. The only one of the brothers who didn’t die an early death by violence was Hernando, who spent decades in a Spanish prison.

Orellana was also rather tragic. After his miraculous trip down the Amazon through hostile territory and a voyage around the northeastern coast of South America in a couple of small brigantines, he made it back to Spain and successfully argued for a commission to explore and settle the Amazon. Only he left in a hurry without receiving final approval, lost half of his fleet on the journey back to the Amazon, and died somewhat mad without accomplishing his task. Surprisingly, he perished at the mouth of the Amazon a year and half before Gonzalo was executed in Peru.

There are notes at the end of each chapter with a slightly broader explanation to the point marked in the story. There are also notes and bibliography at the end of the story. There are also copies of paintings commemorating historical events at the end, along with a brief chronology.

The eBook was formatted well with only a couple of minor spelling errors. I was disappointed in the resolution in the maps. Though I wasn’t expecting to be able to blow up the maps on my Nook, checking the maps online still didn’t allow for them to be of much use as the resolution was not great enough to blow them up to a decent size without the text becoming overly blurry.