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.
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.