“Tell Osborn I have already lived and enjoyed as much of life as any nine other men I know; I have had my full share, and if it is necessary for me to leave my bones in South America, I am quite ready to do so.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Last week my coworker handed me Candice Millard’s River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. The promise of a historical account of my favorite president exploring the uncharted rivers in the Amazon was too tempting for me, so I started reading right away. I couldn’t put it down, and when I did I couldn’t wait to get back so I could find out what befell the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition on their perilous journey down the River of Doubt.
“Far from its outward appearance, the rainforest was not a garden of easy abundance, but precisely the opposite. Its quiet, shaded halls of leafy opulence were not a sanctuary but, rather, the greatest natural battlefield anywhere on the planet, hosting an unremitting and remorseless fight for survival that occupied every single one of its inhabitants, every minute of every day.”
Depressed from the blow of losing the 1912 Presidential election and dejected from the social ostracism due to his independent “Bull Moose” party bid, Roosevelt decided to raise his spirits in the only way that he knew. Adventure. Answering an invitation to visit Argentina, Brazil, and the Amazon the former 25th President now 55 years old, made his way to South America for what was initially going to be a leisurely speaking tour followed by a safe trip through known parts of the Amazon rainforest.
Once he reached South America, the true adventurer changed plans. Upon meeting the famous Brazilian explorer Colonel Candido Rondon, Roosevelt decided to take the expedition down the recently discovered Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt). An uncharted, unknown tributary of the massive Amazon, a river so massive that if superimposed on a map of the United States it would stretch from Bangor, Maine to San Francisco, California.
The newly christened Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition included the American Naturalist George Cherrie, a figure whose life exploits put the adventures of Indiana Jones to shame, and Roosevelt’s 24-year-old son Kermit, along with several soldiers and laborers from Rondon’s Telegraph corps. All tough men, seasoned explorers, and accomplished hunters.
The expedition would take them into the unknown. They would map and chart a river unknown to civilization and be the first Old World explorers to set foot in the unknown deepest darkness of the untamed Amazon rainforest. This kind of adventure was exactly what Roosevelt dreamed of all his life, the ability to test himself against the harshest of nature and put himself on equal footing with the worlds greatest explorers.
On February 27, 1914, the expedition launched their heavy loaded canoes into the unknown Amazon. Immediately the expedition faced hardship due to the poor planning and provisioning their gear was unsuitable, the canoes barely floated, and their food stores tragically insufficient.
The 19 men of the expedition endured the green hell of the rainforest, rowing down the snaking river in unsuitable boats that had to be taken out and portaged around impassable rapids. Work that was excruciating and deadly. The torrential rain poured non stop, soaking all, covering everything with mold and rusting all equipment. Sickened with Malaria and finished by their lack of rations the men withstood constant attack from the jungles millions of predatory insects. Sweat bees that drank the fluid from their eyes, flesh-eating ants, and termites that devoured their clothing off their backs, carnivorous piranas, caimans, and poisonous snakes whose venom kills in minutes. Most of all the River of Doubt was the territory of yet uncontacted tribes of Indians. Warlike cannibals that were experts of stealth and deadly with their poisoned arrows known as the Cinta Larga, Portuguese for wide belt, due to the armor made of bark the warriors wore around their abdomen.
River of Doubt is a fantastic read about a group of hard men in a world where the unknown and the unexplored still existed. It’s a riveting account that rivals any fantastic adventure fiction I have ever read. Rosevelt himself, a famed cowboy in the Dakotas, famous leader of the Rough Riders, Secretary of the Navy, Commissioner of the New York Police, and two time President of the United States, is almost an unbelievable character and a giant of a man. A man so tough that after enough life achievements to satisfy 100 men he decides to risk his life in the Amazon. At the age of 55, he battles nature itself, suffering from Malaria, blood poisoning, and enough physical hardship to kill men half his age. The other members or the expedition are almost as equally interesting, Rondon who goes on to become one of Brazil’s national heroes is a first-class explorer and humanist who spent his life fighting for the rights of the Amazons Indian population.
The account shines when it comes to the detailed description of the relationships the men developed. The mutual respect and admiration between Roosevelt and Rondon. The brotherly love Cherrie felt for Roosevelt. Most of all the father-son relationship between Theodore and the fascinating dark and brooding Kermit.
Candice Millard wrote a riveting account of great men on a deadly adventure and I am glad that I got the chance to ride along with Roosevelt and Rondon, imagining myself in an era where the world remained unexplored and wilderness still ruled.
History Channel video on the expedition.