Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Orinoco I

The first time Europeans saw continental America, after the failed Viking attempt at establishing a permanent colony in Vinland, was in 1498, when Columbus made his third trip. The first part of continental America he and his sailors saw would become one day Venezuela.

He firstly arrived to what is now the island of Trinidad. He turned from there to the Paria Peninsula and then to the Orinoco Delta. He described how surprised he was to discover the ocean waters were sweet many miles away from the coast. This showed how strong the river flow was. It also signaled that could not be just an island. Still, Columbus tried to cling to his preconceived idea he had arrived to Asia and blinded by his religious fundamentalism, he thought he probably was close to Paradise. Furthermore, he conjectured, looking at the horizon, that the Earth was not round as Ptolomeus said, but

"que es de la forma de una pera que sea toda muy redonda, salvo allí donde tiene el pezón, que allí tiene más alto, o como quien tiene una pelota muy redonda y en un lugar de ella fuese como una teta de mujer allí puesta"
"that is form is as a pearl but all round, but there where it has its nipple, which is at a higher point, or as a very round ball and in its place it were as the tit of a woman placed there"

So, he thought the Earth was like a pear or a woman's breast. Go figure. He also wrote about the Indians, who "son todos de muy linda estatura, altos de cuerpo y de muy lindos gestos" ("are of very nice height, high of body and of very beautiful features"). He noticed many had gold and pearl ornaments on their chests. Columbus wanted that gold and those pearls. He "asked them" (one only wonders how as it was their first encounter ever) where he could find more gold. He thought he understood it was behind a mountain to the West and that he should not go there as there were people who eat people there. He also asked them where they found the pearls and they also pointed to the West and North.

This would be a theme Europeans would kept observing time after time. They were after quick wealth, gold and silver and pearls.

The area where Columbus landed was in what now is the Sucre State, just to the west of the Orinoco Delta. He called the Paria Península "Island of Grace". If you read Columbus' writings particularly about this third trip you may be tempted to think he was crazy. He was just the product of his society, still immersed in ignorance and preconceived ideas plus plus a great desire to discover.

The Orinoco would start receiving more visits in the following years. The Spanish emperor, highly in debt with the South-German Felser and Fuger merchant families, gave them Venezuela as administrative region for a couple of decades. Ambrosius Ehinger and his successors explored the Orinoco all the time in search of El Dorado. In 1531 Diego de Ordaz sailed from the main outlet of the delta up the river to the Meta. In 1545 Walter Raleigh,also explored the river in search of easy treasures. Several other expeditions by filibusteers followed.It was only in 1800 when Alexander von Humboldt explored the basin on a non-predatory basis. There he reported about the pink river dolphins and he went with Bonpland on a remarkable quest to find the connection between the Orinoco and the Amazon rivers, a connection native Americans very well knew.

Let's try to explore a little bit the Orinoco. It is a long way: 2,140 kilometers. It has an average discharge of 33,000 m3/s and its basin has a surface of about 880,000 km2.

We will start by visiting the Delta Amacuro state.

A couple of interesting historical books about the European "discovery" of the Americas from the XV century onwards:

Crónica de Indias

Urs Bitterli, Die Entdeckung Amerikas
TzvetanTodorov, La Conquête de l'Amérique

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