In preparation of following La Condamine’s footsteps:
Notes taken and translated from the Introduction by Hélène Minguet to the book “Voyage sur L’Amazone” by Charles-Marie de La Condamine.
Librairie F. Maspero, 1981. Paris. ISBN 2-7071-1219-4. The book is based on the lecture given by La Condamine for the French Academy of Sciences on November 7, 1745, entitled “Abridged Narrative of Travels through the Interior of South America, from the Shores of the Pacific Ocean to the coasts of Brazil and Guyana, descending the river of the Amazonas”.
La Condamine was born in Paris on 28-1-1701. He studied physics and geography, took part in an expedition to explore the northern coast of Africa (in 1731) and was chosen as a member of the expedition of Louis Godin to Peru. For his appointment by the French Academy of Sciences he was strongly supported by his friend Voltaire.
Task of the expedition was to solve the controversy on the shape of the earth between Newton in England (who thought that the earth was flattened at the Poles) and Cassini in Paris (who thought the earth to be flkattened at the Equator).
The expedition departed on May 16, 1735 with the battleship Portefaix. On board were the following members: Louis Godin (leader) and Pierre Bougueur (both mathematiciens), Joseph de Jussieu (naturalist and physician), Couplet, Hugot, Verguin, Morainville, Godin des Ordonnais (engineers and technicians), Seniergues (surgeon) and La Condamine. They arrived in Carthagena (Colombia) where two spanish lieutenants, don Jorge Juan y Santacilia and don Antonio de Ulloa, joined the expedition. By boat and on foot they transversed the Panama isthmus and sailed to Puerto de Manta (in present-day Ecuador).
On his way to Quito, La Condamine meets the carthographer Pedro Vicente de Maldonado. They become good friends and together they explore the Rio Esmeraldas, where they discover the metal platina and the elastic substance called cahuchuc (rubber). In the mean time they perform position measurements improving the previous maps of the region. Their friendship was of principal importance in their decision to descend the Amazon.
In Quito the expedition was not allowed to continue their work for some time as the Spanjards suspected them to look for inca treasures. Thanks to the older brother of Maldonado, La Condamine was allowed to see a secret map made in 1685 by the german jesuite “Father Fritz” and kept in the archives at Quito. With this information Maldonado and La Condamine depart from a place south of Cuenca (Tarqui), not without difficulties on 11 May 1743 (see map).
Notes from the book:
During the first part of their trip they have four “accidents” on the river in which all the instruments, books and papers became wet. They have to wait until the water becomes more quiet…..
On August 1, 1743 La Condamine reached Pebas, just downstream of the confluence with the Rio Napo. From the last spanish mission there to the first portugese mission at S.Paulo it took them 3 days and nights. During this trajectory, in which they must have passed present-day Leticia, they didn’t see any sign of inhabitants along the river shores, although in “ancient” times the islands must have been populated by the Omagua indians (“the most populous region encountered so far” as Carvajal noted during the Orellana-expedition that passed there in May 1542).
The river is broader here, giving rise to heavier storms. Thanks to the experience of the indian rowers they in time found shelter in one of the many little side rivers. When nearing S. Paulo a large “brigantin” with 14 rowers and a portugese guide came to meet them. They were sent by the missionary.
From here on La Condamine would travel in portugese canoe’s, which were larger and more comfortable than the indian boats. It takes them 5 days and nights to reach Coari.