Monday, November 28, 2011


Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon was Brazil’s most famous Amazon explorer – and one of the best friends the indigenous peoples ever had.

 Born of a poor family, orphaned at the age of two, he joined the army to get a higher education, earned a science degree and was given the task of stringing telegraph wires for the Corps of Engineers.

It was that assignment that set him on the path of greatness.

Some of the wires had to be strung through the hearts of Brazil’s vast rainforests, areas populated by tribes antagonistic to the inroads of modern civilization.

In his first contact with a hostile tribe, the Nambikuára, an arrow grazed his face and another lodged in his belt. His only response was to fire two shots in the air. One of his junior officers shouted that it would be a disgrace for the army not to set a corrective example.

Rondon’s reply was, “I represent the Army here and the Army did not come to wage war. The Nambikuára do not know that our mission is a peaceful one. If this was your land and someone came to rob it and, moreover, started to shoot you, wouldn’t you forget your manners?”

This seems quite normal to us today, but it was a revolutionary position to take at the time. In those days settlers in the region seemed bent on butchering every last Indian.

Rondon’s men lowered their weapons.
The Indians withdrew into the forest.
And what Rondon had said and done came to the attention of the government.

When his task of stringing almost 4000 miles of telegraph wire was done, he was put to work as an explorer, a pacifier and a mapmaker. And his work took him further and further into the unknown.

In May of 1909, Rondon undertook what was to be his longest expedition. He and his men set out from Tapirapuã, in Mato Grosso with the intention of cutting their way through the jungle, to the Madeira river, a major tributary of the Amazon.
By August, the party had eaten all of its supplies, and was subsisting on what they could hunt and gather from the forest.
It was December before they got back to civilization. By that time, they’d all been given up for dead, and Rondon was hailed as a hero for having brought his men through the ordeal without the loss of a single life.
It was on this expedition that he discovered the large river which he named the River of Doubt.
And to which, some four years later, he guided Theodore Roosevelt on the journey that almost killed them both. (See my post of last week)
Rondon’s most famous order to his men is one that all Brazilian schoolchildren know: “Die, if necessary, but do not kill.”

His achievements include the establishment of the Xingu Reservation, a place I’ll be telling you about in a future post, and the Indian Protection Service (SPI). In the latter, sixty-seven posts were established to provide means to help the tribes develop. Metal tools were provided, as well as remedies, hygienic products, salt for the preservation of food, and instruction in the spinning, weaving, and the sewing of cloth.

Rondon was credited, during his lifetime with the “pacification” of over a hundred tribes.
And the consequent salvation of tens of thousands of people who might otherwise have been slaughtered.

He ended his life as a Marechal, the highest rank in the Brazilian army.

And died at the age of 93.

He once remarked, “Hinterlands where civilized man never set foot are already included in public registers as if they belong to citizen A or B; sooner or later, according to where their personal interests lie, these land-owners will expel all the Indians who, by a monstrous reversal of facts, reason and morals, will be thought of and treated as if they were the intruders and thieves.”

In that he was prescient. The practice of encroaching on Indian land went on for many years after his death. It continues until this very day.

Rondonia, the Brazilian State that bears his name (in red on the map above) is about the size of Italy.
Three-fifths of it has been deforested in the course of the last forty years – and most of the indigenous people who previously lived in its rainforests have been displaced.

Rondon would not have been pleased.

Leighton - Monday 


  1. Rondon would certainly not have been pleased. A boss of mine used to say "People are no damned good!" That certainly fits people filled with greed. The Bushmen of the Kalahari could have done with an African version of Rondon. Great post.

  2. Interesting the terms that are used: How is the word "civilization" used? I'm sure that the societies of the Indigenous peoples had their own laws and customs, ways of dealing with those who'd violated them, and providing for the ill and elderly.

    A friend of mine used to say that a group of Indigenous people from Brazil came to the U.S. years ago and saw orphans. They could not believe it. They had no word in their language for orphans. Any child who'd lost biological parents was incorporated into the larger social grouping and not left alone, with no one.

    This marks more "civilization" than how the "civilized" live, a social obligation to everyone in the tribe.

    Now today in the U.S., many don't feel the social obligation to the unemployed, the nearly 50 million without health care or the 15 million children who go to bed hungry.

    And yet a trillion dollars is spent on war and destruction. Civilization?

    I'm sure that would confound the Brazilian Indigenous population, which unfortunately has been decimated over the years.

    Are you writing a book about this issue?

  3. Greed seems to trump every other human feeling, except for some special people, or so it seems, these days.

  4. As the population increased and countries in the west became more urban than rural, the "village" of the book title became more an idea than an actual construct. Rural communities tended to have very few degrees of separation. People did't travel more than a few miles from the place they were born. Marriages were often business arrangements that had a lot to do with land, even in the poorer groups. When people from the country moved to the city, almost always to get jobs because the farm could no longer support everyone, the "safety net" didn't exist. Children who were orphaned didn't have immediate family to take them in so it was left to strangers.

    Global warming, climate change not weather change, is in large part a result of the deforestation that has been occuring since people decided they would rather sit on a block of wood than a rock. New England was a great prize for the English who shipped timber back to Britain where it was turned into building materials that were purchased by other countries.

    The Thanksgiving myth gave the relationship between the English Pilgrims and the Native Americans a gloss that didn't exist. The native population may have assisted the English by pointing out things that they could eat without fear of poisoning, but it was a one sided relationship from the get-go. The guys with guns win when they go up against the guys with bows and arrows.

    Some of the worst poverty in the United States exists on reservations. There is a horrifying number of children born each year with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome because of rampant alcoholism; if there is no work and no money, diving into a bottle is a way to get through the day.

    Like the people of Brazil, Native Americans had no concept of land ownership. In this country, their culture was based on hunting and on moving from one area to another, chasing the seasons so they could acquire food.

    Greed and selfishness are the deadly sins that form policy for the poor in this Congress. In less than a year, the people of the United States will make the decision to use its resources to support corporate America or to take care of the poorest and weakest among us. We are the greatest country in the world but we have a higher infant mortality rate than most industrilized countries of the west and China. We are the only industrilized country not to have health care for all its people. Forty percent of American children live below the poverty line.

    Newt Gingrich is gradually overtaking Mitt Romney as front runner in the Republican primaries. Mitt is no friend of the average man; his business success is based on buying companies and then shutting them down. Newt makes Mitt look good by suggesting that unemployment can be eliminated if those without work take a bath.

    Maybe we need to redefine "greatest".

  5. They certainly don't make 'em like Rondon anymore Leighton. Great post.

  6. I'm sure there still are people like Rondon out there among us. The trouble is, they never get the chance to lead.