Orellana, Francisco De (c. 1511–1546)

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Orellana, Francisco De (c. 1511–1546)

Francisco De Orellana (b. ca. 1511; d. November 1546), leader of the first European descent of the Amazon River. Born in Trujillo, Spain, Orellana was in Panama in 1528 and probably joined Alonso de Alvarado's expedition to Peru in 1535. He fought against the native inhabitants in the siege against Lima in 1537 and two years later was one of the founders of Guayaquil, in present-day southwest Ecuador.

During this period, following the battle of Salinas (west Ecuador) on 6 April 1538, Gonzalo Pizarro made his way to Ecuador and organized an expeditionary force to find the wealthy kingdom of El Dorado, the "Land of Cinnamon." Orellana joined as second in command. The 1541 expedition (about 180 Spaniards and 4,300 Indian auxiliaries) entered the upper Amazon basin through the province of Quixos, descending tributaries of the great river. The men failed to encounter Indian groups worthy of note and suffered great hardships, exhausting both food and other supplies. Realizing that a vast jungle stretched before them and that return upriver was daily becoming more difficult, Pizarro sent Orellana downstream in a brigantine that had been constructed earlier to search for supplies, expecting him to return within twelve days. Orellana's group consisted of fifty-seven men, including the Dominican friar Gaspar de Carbajal, who would become the chronicler of the expedition. They left the main camp on 26 December 1541, but did not find an Indian village with food for eight days. Swift currents had carried them so far downstream that they believed it impossible to return to the Pizarro camp within the allotted time. After waiting briefly for Gonzalo Pizarro's forces to descend, they decided to continue on. They reached the mouth of the Napo near present-day Iquitos in Peru on 14 February 1542 and stopped in a village they called Aparia la Mayor, where they constructed a second brigantine.

On 1 March, Orellana and his men signed a document declaring their independence from Pizarro. Setting sail in mid-April, they passed through the Omaguas territory, where from12 May on they faced almost continuous attacks by Indians until they reached the mouth of the Purus River on 23 May. For three months they sailed downriver, passing many large villages with hostile warriors. On 24 June they engaged in combat with a powerful force that included women fighters whom they compared to the Amazons of classical mythology. Carvajal's account of these warriors and of a nearby kingdom where women ruled prompted European cartographers to name the river the Amazon. The group reached the broad mouth of the river on 8 August but no salt water until the 26th. From here they sailed northwesterly along the coast, reaching the island of Cubagua in September and continuing on to Santo Domingo.

Orellana returned to Spain and in May 1543 reported directly to Prince Philip and the Council of the Indies. Meanwhile, Gonzalo Pizarro had managed to struggle back to Quito, losing most of his men to hunger and disease. Complaints of treason were lodged against Orellana, but he secured an appointment (13 February 1544) to return and conquer the vast new land.

With his new wife, Ana de Ayala, Orellana left Spain in May 1545, leading a small fleet. Two of the four ships were lost in the crossing, and illnesses took a severe toll. About half the group sailed up the Amazon, with fifty-seven companions dying of hunger and another ship lost. Orellana himself came down with "fevers" and died in the arms of his wife. The remnants of the expedition sailed to the island of Margarita, off the coast of present-day Venezuela.

See alsoEl Dorado; Explorers and Exploration: Spanish America; Pizarro, Gonzalo.


José Antonio Del Busto Duthurburu, Historia general del Perú: Descubrimiento y conquista (1978), pp. 245-258.

John Hemming, Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians (1978), pp. 185-194.

Additional Bibliography

Latorre, Octavio. La expedición a la Canela y el descubrimiento del Amazonas. Quito: O. Latorre, 1995.

Muñiz, Mauro. Orellana: El tuerto del Amazonas. Madrid: Alderabán, 1998.

Pérez, María Teresa. El descubrimiento del Amazonas: Historia y mito. Seville: Ediciones Alfar, 1989.

                                     Noble David Cook

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