Saturday, April 6, 2013

Theodore Roosevelt And The River Of Doubt

by Leighton Gage

In 1912, after his unsuccessful bid for a third-term in the White House, Theodore Roosevelt was in search of adventure.

Father John Augustine Zahm, a friend, suggested they find it together in an expedition to the Amazon Rainforest. Roosevelt agreed – and arranged financial support from the American Museum of Natural History.

Kermit, Theodore’s son, didn’t want to participate, having recently become engaged.
But he finally acquiesced to his mother’s wishes to accompany the expedition and protect his father.

Upon their arrival in Brazil, it was suggested they join-up with Candido Rondon, the famous Brazilian explorer. (More about him in a future post.) Rondon had recently discovered the headwaters of a river he called the Río da Dúvida (The River of Doubt) so-named because no one had ever mapped its course.
And he was anxious to do so.

Here’s a photo of the initial party. Seated left to right are Father Zahm, Rondon, Kermit, the American naturalist George Cherrie, the expedition’s physician, Doctor Miller, four Brazilians and Roosevelt. They set out on the ninth of December, 1913, reached their objective on the 27th of February and set out in dugout canoes to explore the river.

By that time, malaria had infected almost everyone in their party, leaving them all in a constant state of sickness. The food ran out, forcing them to live on starvation diets. The Cinta Larga Indians stalked them constantly, and could have wiped them out at any moment. Some had festering wounds. All had high fevers. 

The river was fraught with rapids, and the heavy dugout canoes were often lost, stopping them for days at a time, while they built new ones. Of the 19 men who set out, only 16 returned. One died from drowning in the rapids, one was murdered and one (the murderer) was left in the jungle where he presumably perished.

Roosevelt suffered a minor leg wound when he jumped into the river to try to prevent a canoe being lost.
The wound festered, and he developea fever. Kermit and the expedition’s doctor, had to treat him day and night. He became delirious and would keep on reciting, again and again, the first stanza of Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

In his rare moments of lucidity, Roosevelt insisted that the expedition continue without him because his condition had become a threat to the survival of the others. But they did not. And, although he never entirely recovered from his ordeal, he was able to return to the United States.

Where he lived on for another five years.

They don’t make Presidents like him anymore.

If you have time for it, here’s a link to the only motion picture in existence of the Roosevelt/Rondon expedition:

It’s about fifteen minutes in length, with the trek downriver beginning at about two-and-a-half minutes in. The titles in quotes are Roosevelt’s words, extracted from Through the Brazilian Wilderness a book he later wrote about his adventure.

The Dyott expedition referred to in the titles, and from which some of the footage is taken, took place in 1927. You can read about George Dyott and his exploits here:

They don’t make explorers like Dyott either.

The river, now called the Rio Roosevelt, winds for about 400 miles (640 km) until it joins the Aripuanã, which then flows into the Madeira, thence into the Amazon


Anonymous said...

This is an awesome article! Checking out the video too!

Anonymous said...

This is awesome! I'm checking out the video too! p.s is there anything on Roosevelt in Africa? Would love to read that😀