When the Paraguayan army invaded Mato Grosso in 1864, the Brazilian province was so remote that it took an entire month for the news to reach the government in Rio de Janeiro. “At the end of the world there exists a river,” wrote the nineteenth-century general and politician Floriano Peixoto; “at the end of this river there rises a hill; behind the hill stands Cuiabá,” the capital of Mato Grosso. And quite a ways behind Cuiabá—“our tropical Siberia,” it was called in Rio—was the tiny village of Mimoso, where Cândido Rondon was born six months after the Paraguayan invasion. Yet even this corner of the back of the back of beyond still belonged to Brazilian civilization. And that uncomfortable word, with all its unsatisfactory meanings, is central to a new biography of Rondon by the veteran Brazil corrrespondent Larry Rohter.
Rondon’s life was so incredible, so full of colorful incidents, that one can imagine Rohter’s excitement upon discovering it. Did it need to be discovered? As the only Brazilian to have a state named after him (Rondônia, along the Bolivian border), Rondon is hardly unknown. By the end of his long life, he had traveled more than 25,000 miles—equivalent to the circumference of the earth—exploring and mapping uncharted territory. He had helped overthrow an emperor; prevented at least one Latin American war; suppressed domestic rebellions; become “the largest single contributor of specimens to the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro”; created the Indian Protection Service, which earned him a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize; established his country’s first national parks; and refused an invitation to become a military dictator.
But public acclaim had fossilized him, and when Into the Amazon appeared in Portuguese in 2019, for many Brazilian readers it was as if a statue had suddenly stepped down from its pedestal. And the book had additional resonance during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, for whom the devastation of the Brazilian ecosystem, far from being a tragedy, was something like an article of faith. Rondon’s story suggested that there might have been an alternative—some other path—for Brazil and its civilization.
Rondon’s mother was entirely indigenous. His father had some European ancestry. But he never knew either. His father died before he was born, and he lost his mother when he was two. He was raised by his grandfather and then by his uncle. It was an inauspicious start, and though the boy was bright and ambitious, the place where he grew up offered few possibilities for the bright and ambitious: the church, perhaps, or the army. Rondon set off for military school in Rio de Janeiro when he was sixteen. The journey to the capital passed through three foreign countries—Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay—and took twenty-nine days.
The school was so harsh that students regularly died. But Rondon was strong—strong enough that in his spare time he scaled the sheer granite faces of Sugarloaf Mountain. And he was smart: he immediately grasped the social and intellectual opportunities that the school offered. Among the faculty and students was a constellation of Brazilians who were asking how this vast, primitive, empty country (in 1889 the population was only around ten million) could be forged into a modern nation. Progressives were painfully aware that Brazil was stuck in the past, its conservatism symbolized by the monarchy—the only one in the Americas—and by the perdurance of slavery, which lasted longer there than anywhere else in the western hemisphere.
Born in the month of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Rondon was twenty-three when slavery was finally abolished in Brazil in 1888. The next year he played a minor but active part in the conspiracy that deposed Emperor Pedro II. Yet abolition and the creation of a republic didn’t answer the fundamental question posed by the thinkers in the military academy: What should “Brazilian civilization” mean?
Until recently, one answer could be seen near downtown Rio, in a building called the Temple of Humanity, which looked as if a set from an old production of Aida had wandered onto a humdrum street. It is now a decaying ruin and has been more or less abandoned. But in the early years of the twenty-first century, its printshop and the archive of the Religion of Humanity, also known as Positivism—of which it was the headquarters—were still intact. (The archives and some surviving art have been moved to a nearby museum at the Palácio do Catete.)
The first time I visited the temple, around a quarter-century ago, it was exciting in the way that I imagine it is exciting to stumble on an Egyptian tomb. Almost nothing had been touched for more than a hundred years. Unfortunately this included the roof, which caved in a decade ago. And like an Egyptian tomb, it was—weird. Though Positivism, the “religion” founded by the French philosopher Auguste Comte, was atheistic, it nonetheless preserved many traditional aspects of Catholicism. Its saints were artists and scientists, represented by gaudy statues around the nave, and in place of the Virgin were images of Comte’s ideal woman, Clotilde de Vaux, with whom he was platonically in love.
You’ve got to be kidding, I remember thinking. How was it possible that this mumbo jumbo was so attractive to Brazilians of Rondon’s generation? And not just in passing: the original drawing of the national flag was kept in this building, and the motto on the flag, “Ordem e progresso,” was borrowed from Comte.
Rohter’s book provides an explanation. Comte, who coined the word “sociology,” sought to approach society according to the principles of modern science, and this, to people living in a country dominated by ecclesiastical and monarchical obfuscations, felt fresh, modern, rational. Comte also rejected the classification of people by race, which was common in the heyday of scientific racism. Many authorities of the time preached that inadequate whiteness condemned a country to permanent inferiority. To Brazilian thinkers, this was a source of great anxiety. Did Brazil’s mixed population mean that it was doomed? Not according to Comte. What mattered was not race but a nation’s level of social development.
Positivism also addressed another urgent question. The first country in the hemisphere to free itself of colonial rule was the United States, but it was not an obvious model for Latin America. Unlike the English colonies, which had a largely literate and middle-class population along with a tradition of democratic governance, the Iberian colonies had a history of dictatorial and often despotic rule over huge populations of slaves and Indians who—again unlike in the United States—were often the majority. Moreover, in most Latin American countries, the rural populations, even when not enslaved, lived in something like peonage. These societies could not easily become democratic, even if they aspired to—and almost all their early leaders voiced this aspiration.
The question became how to “integrate”: how to turn a crowd into a nation. Positivism offered a path. It was antimonarchical—it had a new calendar whose Year One was 1789—but it preached evolution rather than revolution, conservatism rather than reaction. It was based on a progressive elitism that aimed not to preserve an old aristocracy but to nurture a new one. Regardless of race or class, talented people—like Rondon—would guide their new nations into maturity. He became a fanatical Positivist and remained one throughout his life.
Oddly, for a group determined to remake society down to the names of the days of the week, the Positivists refused to participate in politics. And though Rondon always preferred a tent in the jungle to a sofa in the capital, Rohter shows how dearly this high-minded refusal cost him—and the peoples he had vowed to protect.
As late as 1935 Claude Lévi-Strauss found the words “uncharted territory inhabited by Indians” printed on maps of the western half of the state of São Paulo, which was and still is Brazil’s financial center. It was as if during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt the western half of New York State were still unmapped.
This presented a great opportunity for a young officer who knew the interior. Rondon got his start establishing telegraph lines through that terra incognita, from São Paulo to Mato Grosso. In the bureaucratic phrase “establishing telegraph lines” lurks a great drama. In our world of instant communication, it may be hard to imagine what a connection to the outside world meant to the scattered inhabitants of the Brazilian hinterlands, like Rondon’s family. These people knew that the terrain through which the lines had to be constructed was some of the harshest on the planet. And they knew that the advent of the telegraph represented not merely a feat of engineering but terrifying human sacrifice. In a typical story from Into the Amazon, when one of Rondon’s young officers, Francisco Bueno Horta Barbosa, goes missing, it turns out that he “had fallen or been thrown into the water, where he was consumed by piranhas: all that was left of him was a skeleton with a pair of feet still encased in heavy, protective army boots.”
Rohter compares the economic, military, and psychological impact of Rondon’s telegraph lines to the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States. They were a herculean achievement, yet his success was due less to engineering prowess or expenditure or brawn than to an insight he drew from Positivism. It was summed up in the famous phrase “Die if you must, but kill never,” which meant that he treated the region’s native inhabitants like human beings rather than roadblocks. It was a simple concept, and it had far-reaching consequences.
For centuries the Brazilian Indians had been targeted for expulsion, enslavement, and murder. Rohter points out that though the word had not yet been invented, genocide was a concept with which Brazil was well acquainted. As in most other American nations, the Indian in the far-off forest was a “romantic abstraction” for the inhabitants of the coastal cities—Brazilian poetry is full of such romantic abstractions—but actual Indians were, at best, inconvenient. Politicians, journalists, and scientists spoke of their extermination as a regrettable inevitability.
As an Indian, Rondon understood perfectly well these peoples’ skepticism toward the Brazilian state he represented. But he was convinced that they could be peacefully integrated into the greater nation without sacrificing their cultures, their beliefs, or their territories. Integration would benefit everyone. The Brazilian state could draw on Indian culture and knowledge of the interior, and the Indians could benefit from modern technology, medicine, and education. By approaching them as friends, by patiently and peacefully explaining the benefits of cooperation, Rondon got the results that had eluded generations of would-be explorers and builders, and this alliance saved many an apparently doomed project. Brazil could be explored and mapped; roads and communications could be constructed.
Despite his successes, the depredations continued. Without Rondon’s presence among them, the Indians had few guarantees, and he knew that they needed more than the protection a single officer could give. He got the opportunity to extend his approach nationwide in 1910. A new railroad was being built in São Paulo, straight through the ancestral lands of the Kaingang. The members of this tribe had been struggling since the seventeenth century to maintain their independence and were convinced that the railroad was a mortal threat. In desperation, they started sabotaging it, and this resistance provoked the usual reactions. “The white race should be protected against the red race,” one scientist said, without irony. Meanwhile, so many Indians were being hunted down that the massacres threatened to become an international scandal and tarnish Brazil’s reputation abroad.
Rondon’s solution, which appealed to a Brazilian humanitarian tradition at least as old as the country’s tradition of genocide, was to create the Indian Protection Service, an agency charged with guaranteeing the Indians possession of their lands, safeguarding them from predatory settlers, and removing them from the custody of the Catholic Church, which had vigorously rooted out their languages and beliefs. It was not a perfect solution, and it was subject to endless rounds of bureaucratic scheming, but it nonetheless committed the federal government to protecting these peoples.
Three years later, when he was forty-eight, Rondon had such a great reputation as an explorer that he was the only real choice to guide Theodore Roosevelt through the Amazon, a harrowing story at the center of Rohter’s book. Since leaving the White House in 1909, Roosevelt had been determined to be reelected president, and he had embarked on a series of exotic journeys that showcased his vitality. He was so robust that a year before coming to Brazil, he had stood after an assassination attempt, bleeding and with a bullet lodged in his chest, and given a ninety-minute speech. Only when he had finished did he accept medical attention.
“TR”—the great white hunter, the man with the big stick—became a byword for machismo. But his wife, Edith, knew that he was far more fragile than his public image suggested. And when he became determined to plunge into the Amazon she prevailed on their son Kermit, an engineer who spoke Portuguese, to go along. “I had to go,” his father later told a friend. “It was my last chance to be a boy.” The Americans do seem to have imagined a Boy Scout trip. One bemused spectator cataloged their supplies: “whole cases of olive oil, cases of mustard, malted milk, stuffed olives, prunes, applesauce…. Even Rhine wine.”
Rondon had something less touristy in mind. He agreed to lead the expedition only if the Americans were prepared to do the arduous work of exploring a hitherto unvisited territory. Roosevelt eagerly accepted, but he could have had little idea of what it meant to travel through uncharted regions of the Amazon. Already at the beginning of the journey, Rohter writes, the party came across
simple wooden crosses—surrounded by small, rudimentary fences to keep foraging animals away from the makeshift graves—[which] marked spots where members of earlier expeditions were interred, felled by dysentery or malaria, attacked by jaguars or caimans, struck by poison-tipped arrows, bitten by venomous snakes, or simply consumed by exhaustion.
The goal of the expedition was to map a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon—the poetically named River of Doubt, later renamed the Roosevelt River. But the terrain was harsh even by the standards of the Amazon, and the journey soon degenerated into a horror out of Lord of the Flies or Heart of Darkness. By the end, five terrifying months later, three members of the expedition were dead—one murdered and another, the murderer, abandoned in the jungle. The former president grew so ill from malaria and an infected leg wound that he began deliriously reciting “Kubla Khan” and begging his companions to save themselves by abandoning him; he was planning to commit suicide with drugs he had brought along for this possibility. Eventually, and without anesthesia, the expedition’s doctor operated on Roosevelt’s leg, enabling him to continue the journey. When in Rohter’s account the shattered party finally rejoins civilization, the queasy reader puts down the book in exhausted relief.
For Roosevelt, it was a premonition of the end. He never entirely recovered and died five years later, at the age of sixty. But for Rondon it was, in a sense, just another day at the office. He returned again and again to Brazil’s wild interior. When he was in his seventies he spent four years in a tiny border village in order to prevent the outbreak of war between Peru and Colombia. Rohter recounts so many harrowing near-death experiences that it is something of a miracle that Rondon managed to die in his own home, beachside in Rio, at the age of ninety-two.
Yet from the beginning, there was something tragic about Rondon’s efforts. By opening the Brazilian interior to telegraphs and railroads, he was also opening it to settlers and setting up a clash that the outgunned Indians, like indigenous peoples throughout the world, were bound to lose.
At his funeral in 1958, one of his most distinguished successors, the anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro, said that despite some victories, including the continued existence of the Indian Protection Service, the overall picture was grim. Ribeiro pointed out that in the half-century since the service’s founding, more than eighty tribes had been wiped off the map. “If a butchery of that dimension was possible while Rondon, the great hero of our people and the paladin of the indigenous cause, was still alive,” Ribeiro asked, “what will happen now, his vigilance extinguished, his energy exhausted, his voice stilled?”
We got one answer at the end of 2022, when photos revealed the dire condition of the Yanomami people, who live in the far north of Brazil, along the border with Venezuela. Under Bolsonaro—who once lamented that Brazilian Indians had not been sufficiently “decimated”—nearly all restrictions were lifted on the deforestation and settlement of the Amazon, and the images that emerged at the end of his presidency showed what the encounter with civilization had wrought. A Yanomami child is nearly 200 times more likely to die of malnutrition than an average Brazilian child.
Bolsonaro is to blame, of course. But to blame only Bolsonaro—sixty-five years after Ribeiro’s lament—is to forget how long this process has been going on and how powerful and impersonal the forces that propel it are. That is why Into the Amazon offers deeper discomforts than the anxiety with which we read of Rondon’s adventures. He seems almost spotlessly heroic, but he was nonetheless an agent of a force—call it civilization, capitalism, or colonialism; call it “the Brazilian nation”—that the Indians were powerless to resist. They could no more maintain their traditional cultures than the trees of the apparently eternal rainforest could resist chainsaws.
In his novel Nine Nights (2002), Rondon’s great-grandson Bernardo Carvalho includes a fragment of memoir. Carvalho was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1960, two years after Rondon’s death. His parents divorced, and when he spent time with his father, they sometimes traveled on a rickety plane into the Xingu region. In those years of the military dictatorship, vast tracts of the Amazon were available to anyone with the right connections, and this land was deliriously profitable. All you had to do was scrape away the original vegetation, plant some grass, and bring in some cattle. As a boy, Carvalho saw and heard what this meant in practice:
The road ended in a clearing before a wall of virgin forest. As we got closer, we were warned to fasten our collars, button our shirtsleeves, and stick the bottoms of our trouser-legs into our boots. Deforestation had the jungle in an uproar. Animals and birds were screaming everywhere, and swarms of black bees covered the men’s arms. My father had told me not to move, to try not to worry about them, and hope that they didn’t get inside my shirt or trousers. All I wanted was to get out of there. What were we doing in the middle of hell, on a shameful, useless mission, which would be swallowed up in only a few years?
Many years later, Carvalho reflects on the Amazon he had encountered:
Why are the Indians there? Because they were pushed and pursued and fled into the most inhospitable and inaccessible place, the most terrible place imaginable for their survival, and yet the only, and last, place they could survive. The Xingu was the only place left.
Today that last place is gone. The Xingu, like the state of Rondônia, has been almost entirely deforested. The forest won’t be coming back. If the consequences of the advance of our mechanical civilization have been terrible for the Indians of the Amazon, they are also, as we are now darkly aware, terrible for the rest of us, too. We are all heirs to its promises of progress and its intimations of doom.