Madeira River

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Madeira River

Madeira River, an Amazonian tributary that competes with the Amazon for the volume of water that flows through it. Four major rivers merge to form the Madeira before it begins its 2,000-mile journey to join the Amazon 90 miles east of Manaus: the Madre de Dios, the Beni, the Mamoré, and the Guaporé, which forms the border between Rondônia and Bolivia. Jesuits and slave raiders began pushing up the river in 1639. Along their way, the Jesuits converted and captured Indians until after 1719, when the Portuguese settlers eliminated the Torá Indians, who lived near the Madeira's mouth. The Mura, who were brilliant at guerrilla warfare, reclaimed the Torá's territory and prevented settlement along the upper Madeira for most of the eighteenth century.

During the rubber boom of the late nineteenth century, the Madeira and its tributaries were used to transport rubber to waiting markets. Steamships began operating on the river in 1873 and could navigate for 800 miles before encountering the Alto Madeira Falls. After that point, rapids and turbulent waters extend for 260 miles and make passage impossible. When the rubber boom ended, Brazilians fished the Madeira mainly for local consumption.

No other major product was extracted from the river until the gold rush of the 1980s. Indians found gold in the river's bottom where the Madeira passes through Rondônia. An estimated half million prospectors battle with malarial mosquitos and other prospectors as they work in rapids and waters up to 60 feet deep to bring up gold from the deep. The mercury used to extract gold from the sand has polluted the Madeira and has poisoned the fish.

See alsoAmazon Region; Amazon River; Gold Rushes, Brazil.


R. Kay Gresswell and Anthony Huxley, eds., Standard Encyclopedia of the World's Rivers and Lakes (1965).

Alex Shoumatoff, The Rivers Amazon (1986).

David Cleary, Anatomy of the Amazon Gold Rush (1990).

Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Craig, Neville B. Recollections of an Ill-Fated Expedition to the Headwaters of the Madeira River in Brazil. White-fish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2007.

Francis, Pauly. O garimpeiro: Fievre de l'or sur le Rio Madeira. Paris: R. Laffont, 1991.

Michigan Historical Reprint Series. The Amazon and Madeira Rivers: Sketches and Descriptions from the Notebook of an Explorer. Ann Arbor, MI: Scholarly Publishing Office, 2005.

                                      Carolyn Jostock