The first European to explore the Amazon was Pinzn, formerly
captain of Columbus's Nia: in 1500 he travelled to the Great River's estuary.
But the deed did not raise any interest, and the Rio Santa Maria del Mar Dulce,
as it was initially named, wasn't mentioned again for several decades. A later
attempt to explore the vast area to the east of the Andes, encouraged by legends
of gold, initiated from Peru. Despite its significant size (210 Spaniards, 4,000
Indios, 5,000 pigs, 1,000 dogs, llama herds), the expedition that left Quito
in 1541 was soon trapped in the forest, forcing some of its members to descend
the Amazon River to the Atlantic Ocean. Twenty years later the same feat was
undertaken by the gentleman Pedro de Urzua, who was killed in an uprising led
by the devilish Aguirre. The voyage down the river thus turned into a bizarre,
blood-spattered drama, ending with the death of the man who had become a dark
myth, an angel of evil, a rebel dreamer, a crazed visionary. This fascinating
chain of events is but one among many that make up the epic saga of the Amazon:
treasure chest and triste tropique , mirage of the dispossessed and nemesis
of the greedy.
Massimo Livi Bacci teaches Demography at the
University of Florence. He is a member of the Lincean Academy and a Senator
of the Republic.