History Friday: The Roosevelt–Rondon Scientific Expedition

In 1913-14 former president Theodore Roosevelt embarked on an exploratory expedition into the Brazilian wilderness. The expedition was beset by serious difficulties and Roosevelt almost died. The literary fruit of this ordeal was Roosevelt’s book Through the Brazilian Wilderness (1914). I am currently reading it and I recommend it highly.

The Roosevelt–Rondon Scientific Expedition was led by the Rough Rider, as well as the amazing Brazilian explorer Cândido Rondon:

“Colonel Rondon [had] been for a quarter of a century the foremost explorer of the Brazilian hinterland.” Roosevelt on Rondon:

On the Brazilian boundary we met a shallow river steamer carrying Colonel Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon and several other Brazilian members of the expedition. Colonel Rondon immediately showed that he was all, and more than all, that could be desired. It was evident that he knew his business thoroughly, and it was equally evident that he would be a pleasant companion. He was a classmate of Mr. Lauro Muller at the Brazilian Military Academy. He is of almost pure Indian blood, and is a Positivist—the Positivists are a really strong body in Brazil, as they are in France and indeed in Chile. The colonel’s seven children have all been formally made members of the Positivist Church in Rio Janeiro. Brazil possesses the same complete liberty in matters religious, spiritual, and intellectual as we, for our great good fortune, do in the United States, and my Brazilian companions included Catholics and equally sincere men who described themselves as “libres penseurs.” Colonel Rondon has spent the last twenty-four years in exploring the western highlands of Brazil, pioneering the way for telegraph-lines and railroads. During that time he has travelled some fourteen thousand miles, on territory most of which had not previously been traversed by civilized man, and has built three thousand miles of telegraph. He has an exceptional knowledge of the Indian tribes and has always zealously endeavored to serve them and indeed to serve the cause of humanity wherever and whenever he was able.

Theodore Roosevelt was an excellent writer. I previously read The Rough Riders which is a superb book.

I am about halfway into Through the Brazilian Wilderness. The expedition is still going well, and though conditions are hard, the wheels have not yet come off. I am sure Roosevelt will be blunt and accurate in his descriptions, as he was in The Rough Riders, and unsparing of himself to the extent his own errors caused the expedition to go awry.

There are many excellent passages in this book, but I will limit myself to this one which contains a typical detailed naturalistic description, but takes an unusually philosophical turn:

At the close of the day, when we were almost back at the river, the dogs killed a jaguar kitten. There was no trace of the mother. Some accident must have befallen her, and the kitten was trying to shift for herself. She was very emaciated. In her stomach were the remains of a pigeon and some tendons from the skeleton or dried carcass of some big animal. The loathsome berni flies, which deposit eggs in living beings—cattle, dogs, monkeys, rodents, men—had been at it. There were seven huge, white grubs making big abscess-like swellings over its eyes. These flies deposit their grubs in men. In 1909, on Colonel Rondon’s hardest trip, every man of the party had from one to five grubs deposited in him, the fly acting with great speed, and driving its ovipositor through clothing. The grubs cause torture; but a couple of cross cuts with a lancet permit the loathsome creatures to be squeezed out.
In these forests the multitude of insects that bite, sting, devour, and prey upon other creatures, often with accompaniments of atrocious suffering, passes belief. The very pathetic myth of “beneficent nature” could not deceive even the least wise being if he once saw for himself the iron cruelty of life in the tropics. Of course “nature”— in common parlance a wholly inaccurate term, by the way, especially when used as if to express a single entity—is entirely ruthless, no less so as regards types than as regards individuals, and entirely indifferent to good or evil, and works out her ends or no ends with utter disregard of pain and woe.

There is some remarkable video from the expedition: Part I here and Part II here.

Theodore Roosevelt was a realist, but not a cynic. He was a practical idealist. He was a patriot. He had physical courage.

In my view, with hindsight, Theodore Roosevelt was seriously wrong in many of his domestic policy decisions.

But I cannot disparage the man.

They do not make them like Theodore Roosevelt anymore.

8 thoughts on “History Friday: The Roosevelt–Rondon Scientific Expedition”

  1. Roosevelt was a product of his times. It was expected that men should be self-reliant, tough, brave and industrious. Imagine that you grew up surrounded by Civil War Vets, people who took the early wagon trains across to California, fought in the indian wars. The hero’s of kids dime novels were explorers, pony express riders, gold rush prospectors and Edison like inventors. Expectations matter and we demand little of ourselves these days. Now those who crave adventure are restricted in their views to extreme sports enthusiasts. This seems bland compared to what TR did, if only that his seemed more genuine. Also in the background was the realization that most men’s lives ended around 60 years old and you needed to take the world on early in your life.

  2. I finally finished “Bully Pulpit” by Doris Kearns Goodwin and it managed, against all odds, to diminish the regard I have had for Roosevelt. He really lost his mind in 1912 during the campaign against Taft for the nomination. Taft gained my respect, however, no matter how she tried to depict him as a “reactionary.”

    My daughter (The middle one) while living in Ecuador for the summer, took a flight over the Andes to the upper Amazon in Brazil. There, among other things, she saw blue mosquitoes the size of horseflies.

    There are large flies on Catalina Island that deposit eggs in children’s eyes and this brings many to the ER in Avalon. They are very quick and almost spit the eggs into the eye.

  3. I received ‘The River of Doubt’ as a gift last Christmas, and it’s still sitting on top of a stack of books next to my nightstand.
    His first person account sounds like a better version to read. I’ll have to finally clear out some time to read it.

  4. Grurray-

    I have read the “River of Doubt”. It is very good I think. Not a lot of deep concepts but good as an adventure story. Roosevelt was really never the same after this trip and did not long survive it. I’m wondering what recent Presidents might have done something like this but I’m coming up empty. Maybe W? Ford? No chance Clinton or Obama would ever do something like this trip.

  5. Some months ago I downloaded Through the Brazilian Wilderness from the same source you use- Project Gutenberg. I haven’t read it yet. When it comes to acquiring books, either hard copy or electronic, my eyes are bigger than my stomach. Many more acquired than read.

    Regarding TR as a writer: I found Edmund Morris’s books on TR more readable than TR’s autobiography. But as TR wrote a truckload of books, the man could write.

  6. Speaking of explorers of the Brazilian wilderness, the expeditions led by the Bandeirantes [followers of the banner] played a prominent role in 17th and 18th century Brazil in expanding the scope of Portuguese settlement in Brazil. There is a multi-person sculpture in Sao Paolo memorializing the Bandeirantes. What were the primary reasons for the Bandeirantes’s expeditions into the Brazilian wilderness? To capture Indians for slavery, and to look for silver and gold.

    I have a t-shirt of a Brazilian soccer team- Bandeirantes. Just imagine having a team in the US named after slave catchers.

  7. Interesting. I am working my way through the Deadwood TV series on Amazon Prime at present. The protagonist is the Sheriff of Deadwood, Seth Bullock. He was a real person, as are many of the characters on Deadwood, and in real life became a friend of TR’s when the young Roosevelt went out west to toughen up. Roosevelt learned a lot about the Old West from Bullock, who had seen quite a lot in his career, and he ended up asking him to serve as an officer in the Rough Riders and also in the volunteers Roosevelt tried to put together to serve in World War One. (Wilson refused to accept volunteers; he wanted only draftees.)

    The Deadwood series had to work hard to live up to the real-world story of the town.


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