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A Book of Discovery by  M. B. Synge


 

 

EXPLORERS IN SOUTH AMERICA

[215] THE success of Cortes and his brilliant conquest of Mexico gave a new impulse to discovery in the New World. The spirit of exploration dominated every adventurous young Spaniard, and among those living in the West Indies there were many ready to give up all for the golden countries in the West, rumours of which were always reaching their ears.

No sooner had these rich lands been realised than the news of Magellan's great voyage revealed the breadth of the ocean between America and Asia, and destroyed for ever the idea that the Spice Islands were near. Spanish enterprise, therefore, lay in the same direction as heretofore, and we must relate the story of how Pizarro discovered Peru for the King of Spain. He had accompanied Balboa to Darien, and had with him gazed out on to the unknown waters of the Pacific Ocean below. With Balboa after crossing the isthmus of Darien he had reached Panama on the South Sea, where he heard of a great nation far to the south.. Like Mexico, it was spoken of as highly civilised and rich in mines of gold and silver. Many an explorer would have started off straightway for this new country, but there was a vast tract of dark forest and tangled underwood between Panama and Peru, which had damped the ardour of even the most ardent of Spanish explorers.

But Pizarro was a man of courage and dauntless resolution, and he was ready to do and dare the impossible. [216] He made a bad start. A single ship with some hundred men aboard left Panama under the command of Pizarro in 1526. He was ignorant of southern navigation, the Indians along the shore were hostile, his men died one by one, the rich land of Peru was more distant than they had thought, and, having at length reached the island of Gallo near the Equator, they awaited reinforcements from Panama. Great, then, was the disappointment of Pizarro when only one ship arrived and no soldiers. News of hardships and privations had spread through Panama, and none would volunteer to explore Peru. By this time the handful of wretched men who had remained with Pizarro, living on crabs picked up on the shore, begged to be taken home—they could endure no longer. Then came one of those tremendous moments that lifts the born leader of men above his fellows. Drawing his sword, Pizarro traced a line on the sand from east to west. "Friends," he cried, turning to the south, "on that side are toil, hunger, nakedness, the drenching storm, desertion, and death, and on this side ease and pleasure. There lies Peru with its riches, here Panama and its poverty. For my part, I go south."

So saying, he stepped across the line. Twelve stout-hearted men followed him. The rest turned wearily homewards. The reduced but resolute little party then sailed south, and a voyage of two days brought them within sight of the long-sought land of Peru. Communication with the natives assured them that here was wealth and fortune to be made, and they hurried back to Panama, whence Pizarro sailed for Spain, for permission to conquer the empire of Peru. It is interesting to find Cortes contributing some of his immense wealth from Mexico towards this new quest.

In February 1531 three small ships with one hundred and eighty soldiers and thirty-six horses sailed south under [217] Pizarro. It was not till the autumn of 1532 that he was ready to start on the great march to the interior. A city called Cuzco was the capital—the Holy City with its great Temple of the Sun, the most magnificent building in the New World, had never yet been seen by Europeans. But the residence of the King was at Caxamalea, and this was the goal of the Spaniards for the present.


[Illustration]

PIZARRO.

Already the news was spreading through the land that "white and bearded strangers were coming up from the sea, clad in shining panoply, riding upon unearthly monsters, and wielding deadly thunderbolts."

Pizarro's march to the heart of Peru with a mere handful of men was not unlike that of Cortes' expedition to Mexico. Both coveted the rich empire of unknown monarchs and dared all—to possess. Between Pizarro and his goal lay the stupendous mountain range of the Andes or South American Cordilleras, rock piled upon rock, their crests of everlasting snow glittering high in the heavens. Across these and over narrow mountain passes the troops had now to pass. So steep were the sides that the horsemen had to dismount and scramble up, leading their horses as best they might. Frightful chasms yawned below them, terrific peaks rose above, and at any moment they might be utterly destroyed by bodies of Peruvians in overwhelming numbers. It was bitterly cold as they mounted higher and higher up the dreary heights, till at last they reached the crest. Then [218] began the descent—precipitous and dangerous—until after seven days of this the valley of Caxamalea unrolled before their delighted eyes, and the little ancient city with its white houses lay glittering in the sun. But dismay filled the stoutest heart when, spread out below for the space of several miles, tents as thick as snowflakes covered the ground. It was the Peruvian army. And it was too late to turn back. "So, with as bold a countenance as we could, we prepared for our entrance into Caxamalea."

The Peruvians must already have seen the cavalcade of Spaniards, as with banners streaming and armour glistening in the rays of the evening sun Pizarro led them towards the city. As they drew near, the King, Atahualpa, covered with plumes of feathers and ornaments of gold and silver blazing in the sun, was carried forth on a throne followed by thirty thousand men to meet the strangers. It seemed to the Spanish leader that only one course was open. He must seize the person of this great ruler at once. He waved his white scarf. Immediately the cavalry charged and a terrible fight took place around the person of the ruler of Peru until he was captured and taken prisoner. Atahualpa tried to regain his liberty by the offer of gold, for he had discovered—amid all their outward show of religious zeal—a greed for wealth among these strange white men from over the stormy seas. He suggested that he should fill with gold the room in which he was confined as high as he could reach. Standing on tiptoe, he marked the wall with his hand. Pizarro accepted the offer, and the Spaniards greedily watched the arrival of their treasure from the roofs of palace and temple. They gained a sum of something like three million sterling and then put the King to death. Pizarro was the conqueror of Peru, and he had no difficulty in controlling the awestruck Peruvians, who regarded the relentless [220] Spaniards as supernatural—the Children of the Sun indeed.


[Illustration]

PERU AND SOUTH AMERICA
FROM THE MAP OF THE WORLD OF 1544, USUALLY ASCRIBED TO SEBASTIAN CABOT. AT THE TOP IS SHOWN THE RIVER AMAZON, DISCOVERED BY ORELLANA IN 1541.

A year later these Children of the Sun entered the old town of Cuzco—the capital of this rich empire—where they found a city of treasure surpassing all expectation. Meanwhile Almagro, one of the most prominent among the Spanish explorers, had been granted a couple of hundred miles along the coast of Chili, which country he now penetrated; but the cold was so intense that men and horses were frozen to death, while the Chilians, clad in skins, were difficult to subdue. Almagro decided that Cuzco belonged to him, and miserable disputes followed between him and Pizarro, ending in the tragic end of the veteran explorer, Almagro.

As the shiploads of gold reached the shores of Spain, more and more adventurers flocked over to the New World. They swarmed into "Golden Castile," about the city of Panama, and journeyed into the interior of the yet new and unknown world. There are terrible stories of their greed and cruelty to the native Indians. One story says that the Indians caught some of these Spaniards, tied their hands and feet together, threw them on the ground, and poured liquid gold into their mouths, crying, "Eat, eat gold, Christian!"

Amongst other adventurers into South America at this time was Orellana, who crossed the continent from ocean to ocean. He had accompanied one of Pizarro's brothers into the land of the cinnamon forests, and with him had crossed the Andes in search of another golden kingdom beyond Quito. The expedition under Pizarro, consisting of some three hundred and fifty Spaniards, half of whom were horsemen, and four thousand Indians, set forward in the year 1540 to penetrate to the remote regions in the Hinterland, on the far side of the Andes. Their sufferings were intense. Violent [221] thunderstorms and earthquakes terrified man and beast; the earth opened and swallowed up five hundred houses; rain fell in such torrents as to flood the land and cut off all communication between the explorers and cultivated regions; while crossing the lofty ridge of the Andes the cold was so intense that numbers of the party were literally frozen to death. At length they reached the land of the cinnamon trees, and, still pushing on, came to a river which must be crossed to reach the land of gold. They had finished their provisions, and had nothing to subsist on now save the wild fruit of the country. After following the course of the river for some way, Pizarro decided to build a little vessel to search for food along the river. All set to work, Pizarro and Orellana, one of his chief captains, working as hard as the men. They set up a forge for making nails, and burnt charcoal with endless trouble owing to the heavy rains which prevented the tinder from taking fire. They made nails from the shoes of the horses which had been killed to feed the sick. For tar they used the resin from the trees, for oakum they used blankets and old shirts. Then they launched the little home-made boat, thinking their troubles would be at an end. For some four hundred miles they followed the course of the river, but the supply of roots and berries grew scarcer and men perished daily from starvation. So Pizarro ordered Orellana to go quickly down the river with fifty men to some inhabited land of which they had heard, to fill the boat with provisions, and return.

Off started Orellana down the river, but no villages or cultivated lands appeared; nothing was to be seen save flooded plains and gloomy, impenetrable forests. The river turned out to be a tributary of a much larger river. It was, indeed, the great river Amazon. Orellana now decided to go on down this great river and to desert [222] Pizarro. True, his men were utterly weary, the current was too strong for them to row against, and they had no food to bring to their unhappy companions. There was likewise the possibility of reaching the kingdom of gold for which they were searching. There were some among his party who objected strongly to the course proposed by Orellana, to whom he responded by landing them on the edge of the dense forest and there leaving them to perish of hunger.

It was the last day of 1540 that, having eaten their shoes and saddles boiled with a few wild herbs, they set out to reach the kingdom of gold. It was truly one of the greatest adventures of the age, and historic, for here we get the word El Dorado, used for the first time in the history of discovery—the legendary land of gold which was never found, but which attracted all the Elizabethan sailors to this romantic country. It would take too long to tell how they had to fight Indian tribes in their progress down the fast-flowing river, how they had to build a new boat, making bellows of their leather buskins and manufacturing two thousand nails in twenty days, how they found women on the banks of the river fighting as valiantly as men, and named the new country the Amazon land, and how at long last, after incredible hardship, they reached the sea in August 1541. They had navigated some two thousand miles. They now made their rigging and ropes of grass and sails of blankets, and so sailed out into the open sea, reaching one of the West India islands a few days later.

And the deserted Pizarro? Tired of waiting for Orellana, he made his way sorrowfully home, arriving after two years' absence in Peru, with eighty men left out of four thousand three hundred and fifty, all the rest having perished in the disastrous expedition. And [223] so we must leave the Spanish conquerors for the present, exploring, still conquering, in these parts, ever adding glory and riches to Spain. Indeed, Spain and Portugal, as we have seen, entirely monopolise the horizon of geographical discovery till the middle of the sixteenth century, when other nations enter the arena.


[Illustration]

PERUVIAN WARRIORS OF THE INCA PERIOD.


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