The Amazon River is Blocking My View
The real and imagined river of doubt
When you turn yourself into a hammer, every object resembles a nail that you long to bang hard, again and again.
As the resident Queen of Doubt, imagine my excitement when I came across a review of a new book about a Brazilian explorer, Cândido Rondon, who helped former president Theodore Roosevelt in 1913 to navigate a difficult, dangerous tributary to the Amazon River known as the River of Doubt (from the Portuguese Rio da Dúvida).
A river called doubt! What can it mean? Who named it? And why?
Apparently, the River of Doubt (later renamed after Roosevelt himself, in typical white colonial fashion), has been the subject of more than one book, podcast, and film.
Not surprisingly, most people drawn to this topic are fascinated by the river’s heart-of-darkness qualities. It’s nearly 500 miles long and very dangerous, and at the turn of the 20th century it was “an uncharted capillary of the Amazon that ran through some of the most treacherous terrain the great rain forest could offer,” wrote Candice Miller in her 2005 book about the Roosevelt expedition under Rondon’s leadership.
To the white folks tooling around the Amazon, the River of Doubt was a mystery, its length and course not listed on any map. (It may be that local indigenous groups also did not have the full measure of the river—but that doesn’t necessarily mean they harbored doubts about its complexity.)
In any case, this patch of the great unknown was a perfect temptation for the adventure-minded, barrel-chested ex-president, who proclaimed his desire to contribute to scientific knowledge by exploring an unfamiliar river teeming with giant caimans (a type of alligator), anacondas, and razor-toothed piranhas.
As Roosevelt himself said a year after the harrowing five-month journey, which he barely survived:
“We were quite uncertain whether after a week we should find ourselves in the Gy-Parana, or after six weeks in the Madeira, or after three months we knew not where. That was why the river was rightly christened the Duvida.”
What’s in a name, anyway?
But back to the river’s name. I could not discover an indigenous origin story, which isn’t surprising, considering that local populations such as the Cinta Larga had limited interactions with white foreigners up to and including the early 20th century. One account suggested that Rondon himself named it the River of Doubt, but I’m not sure that’s true.
In any case, the name is so evocative, so richly metaphoric.
Rondon and Roosevelt came of age at a time when nature was to be tamed, conquered, and developed. And if that were not possible—if a branch of the mighty Amazon was unconquerable—then at least she could be surveyed and mapped, reducing the ‘doubt load’ for future explorers. Her unknown qualities might become known, thereby dispelling doubts about what was really out there.
How very ‘manifest destiny.’
And also how futile, as this terrain, a multifaceted ecosystem, will always pose dangers unforeseen and unknown. You can’t entirely remove ‘doubt’ from any face-off between humans and the wildest landscapes.
“It may be said with confidence…that in all South America there is not a more difficult or dangerous journey than down the River of Doubt.” —Frank Chapman, Curator of Ornothology, American Museum of Natural History, 1908-42
Indeed, surveying and mapping the river were Rondon’s goal. But Roosevelt approached the expedition as a rousing adventure and a distraction from losing an election. This man known as the Bull Moose overflowed with hubris…but doubt has a way of fighting back. For Roosevelt died five years later, at 60, never having fully recovered from the wounds and tropical viruses he suffered while navigating the River of Doubt.
I love imaging the River of Doubt in all its extravagant, wild glory (no doubt seriously threatened now by a variety of manmade forces that raise doubts of another sort entirely).
And I love transforming this real place into a metaphorical one, where ‘a river of doubt’ becomes a lower-case phenomenon: any event or journey, real or imagined, that keeps you guessing because you have no idea what lies just around the next bend.
Where has the river of doubt taken you? And will you return safely?