the great ruler machiparo -- 7/27/21

Today's selection -- from River of Darkness by Buddy Levy. The South American ruler Machiparo was overlord of a territory that spanned hundreds of miles, which was rich with turtle farms, crops of manioc, maize, beans, yams, peppers, pineapples, avocados, sweet potatoes, and peanuts, as well as the hides and meat of the manatee. 16th-century Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana encountered his army along the banks of the Amazon:

"Before we had come within two leagues of this village, we saw the villages glimmering white, and we had not proceeded far when we saw coming up the river a great many canoes, all equipped for fighting, gaily colored, and the men with their shields on, which are made out of the shell-like skins of lizards and the hides of manatees and of tapirs, as tall as a man, because they cover them entirely.

"Orellana had cause for great concern, for Machiparo was rumored to be a tremendously powerful overlord with numerous tribes under him. Within his chiefdom, which extended some 200 to 300 miles downriver and was heavily populated, there was scarcely a space between settle­ments, with the largest group of villages, according to the reports, pos­sessing a full twenty consecutive miles of houses. Most daunting of all, Machiparo, who ruled from headquarters on an elevated bluff just off the river, had the capacity to organize huge armies quickly -- many thousands of warriors young and old. And now, large numbers of these warriors came straight at the Spaniards, paddling furiously in well-organized squadrons, screaming battle cries and accompanied by the menacing pounding of war drums and the high-pitched wail of wooden trumpets, 'threatening as if they were going to devour' Orellana's entire party.

"Orellana had only moments to organize his defensive tactics. He called for the San Pedro and the Victoria to join together, rowing abreast to present effectively one large, wide craft, so that each vessel might sup­port and defend the other.

"The attackers closed on the Spanish boats, holding their tight and orderly formations and surrounding the brigs in a pincer movement. Orellana bellowed for the crossbowmen and harquebusiers to make ready, but he soon discovered devastating news: the gunpowder in the harquebuses had gotten damp, rendering the guns temporarily useless. It would be up to the crossbowmen to repel the attack, and they imme­diately rallied to fire away on the Indians, who were right upon them.

"These men wore thin, dark mustaches, different from any the Spaniards had seen previously. The crossbowmen sent their bolts whirring at these warriors, killing some and wounding others, and reloading with their customary celerity. Although the damage they inflicted momentarily stunned and halted the first waves of canoes, countless reinforcements were right behind in support, attacking the Spaniards so violently and at such close range that 'it seemed as if they wanted to seize hold of the brigantines with their hands.' 

"This floating fight raged on, Orellana and his men leaning over the gunwales to deliver blows with their swords and lances while the cross­bowmen reloaded, the Indians swinging hack with wooden clubs and slinging spears from deadly handheld throwers. The combined flotilla drifted into close proximity of the village, where the ferocious attack continued. More Indian warriors poured into the water from the shore, their canoes surging toward the Spanish boats from all quarters. Orellana noted later, with some understatement: 'There were a great number of men stationed on the high banks to defend their homes; here we engaged in a perilous battle.' 

"Despite the dangers involved, Orellana determined to change tactics: they must try to land. The crossbowmen fired, furiously reloaded, and fired again, and Orellana charged the oarsmen to dig with everything they had. As the two boats powered into the shallows, half of the Spaniards leaped overboard, landing waist-deep in the river and charg­ing violently with their swords flying, scattering many of the Indians into the trees and behind the houses of the village. Meanwhile, the rest of the Spaniards remained on hoard the beached brigantines, defending the boats from Indians still attacking from their canoes.

"The uppermost portion of the village now momentarily under con­trol, Orellana dispatched Lieutenant Alonso de Robles and twenty-five men to race through the settlement, driving out any lingering Indians and searching for food -- for if they might hold here for at least a few days, he hoped to reprovision and rest. Robles drove his small force into the village, fighting all the way, for though the Indians appeared to be retreating, they still defended their homes.

"Robles could see that the vil­lage went on and on -- it was enormous, impressively organized, and well stocked with food. He thus decided, rather than pressing forward, to return to Orellana at the landing site and explain 'the great extent of the settlement and its population ... and tell the Captain what the situation was.' 

"Robles returned to the landing area and found Captain Orellana and some of the other men temporarily ensconced in a few of the houses, though the attacks from the Indians on the water persisted. Other than tending to various wounds, there was no rest. Robles took Orellana aside and told him what he had seen as he had raced through the village:

'There was a great quantity of food, such as turtles in pens and pools of water, and a great deal of fish and biscuit, and all this in such great abun­dance that there was enough to feed an expeditionary force of one thousand men for one year.'

"Robles's account of Machiparo's land of plenty appears not to have been an exaggeration, for these people were highly sophisticated and industrious, raising a variety of crops including manioc, maize, beans, yams, peppers, pineapples, avocados, sweet potatoes, and peanuts. They kept 'large quantities of honey from bees' and fished successfully for manatees, using the hides for shield covers and drying the meat on racks for storing. The manatee was not only a delicious delicacy, but highly nutritious. Noted one Spanish chronicler, 'with a small amount [of manatee] a person is more satisfied and more energetic than if he had eaten twice the amount of mutton.' 

"Their turtle farms were extensive and elaborate: controlled corrals or tanks surrounded by wooden fences, the nutrient-rich waters holding thousands of turtles, whose high-protein meat was delicious and much prized by the natives. The turtle farming technique was highly devel­oped and well orchestrated. During breeding season, the Machiparo people released females into the sandbanks along the river, where they would lay their eggs. When the baby turtles hatched and began moving along on foot, the Machiparo tossed them on their backs, drilled small holes in their shells, strung them through with long lianas, then towed the strings of young live turtles behind their canoes, taking them back to their holding ponds at the village. Here they would be fed and fattened with leaves and other forest vegetation for later consumption. Each turtle was said to be 'larger than a good sized wheel,' and one turtle could feed an entire family." 


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author:

Buddy Levy

title:

River of Darkness

publisher:

Bantam

date:

Copyright 2011 by Buddy Levy

pages:

115-119
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