River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey

River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey

Audio CD(Abridged)



At once an incredible adventure narrative and a penetrating biographical portrait, The River of Doubt is the true story of Theodore Roosevelt's harrowing exploration of one of the most dangerous rivers on earth.

The River of Doubt-it is a black, uncharted tributary of the Amazon that snakes through one of the most treacherous jungles in the world. Indians armed with poison-tipped arrows haunt its shadows; piranhas glide through its waters; boulder-strewn rapids turn the river into a roiling cauldron.

After his humiliating election defeat in 1912, Roosevelt set his sights on the most punishing physical challenge he could find, the first descent of an unmapped, rapids-choked tributary of the Amazon. Together with his son Kermit and Brazil's most famous explorer, Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, Roosevelt accomplished a feat so great that many at the time refused to believe it. In the process, he changed the map of the western hemisphere forever.

Along the way, Roosevelt and his men faced an unbelievable series of hardships, losing their canoes and supplies to punishing whitewater rapids, and enduring starvation, Indian attack, disease, drowning, and a murder within their own ranks. Three men died, and Roosevelt was brought to the brink of suicide. The River of Doubt brings alive these extraordinary events in a powerful nonfiction narrative thriller that happens to feature one of the most famous Americans who ever lived.

From the soaring beauty of the Amazon rain forest to the darkest night of Theodore Roosevelt's life, here is Candice Millard's dazzling debut.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780739323038
Publisher: Random House Audio Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/25/2005
Edition description: Abridged
Product dimensions: 5.55(w) x 6.33(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

CANDICE MILLARD is a former writer and editor at National Geographic magazine and New York Times bestselling author. She lives in Kansas City.

Read an Excerpt

The Wide Belts

By roughly two million years ago, humans had spread out of Africa and into Europe and Asia. Hundreds of thousands of years later, they migrated to Australia and New Guinea, which were then connected as a single continent. Because they did not yet have boats and could not endure the cruel cold of Siberia, tens of thousands of years more passed before they crossed the Bering Land Bridge and made their way into the Americas. When they finally began to populate North America, however, human beings quickly dispersed throughout the continent and, by crossing the Panamanian Land Bridge, soon reached South America. Some twelve thousand years ago, they entered the Amazon.

In the eyes of the rest of the world, the humans who reached the Amazon Basin virtually disappeared. For thousands of years, there was no further contact with the Amazonians. Whereas most regions of the world continued to change and interact, to form new peoples and nations by fusing races and cultures, the inhabitants of the Amazon remained insular and isolated. Even in 1500, when European explorers began to land on the shores of South America, claiming the land for themselves and their kings and enslaving its aboriginal inhabitants, the continent’s vast interior remained untouched and its people unknown and unreachable.

After the Spanish explorer Orellana finally penetrated the Amazon Basin in 1542, he returned with startling tales of dense jungles, deadly poisons, and, most astonishing of all, a tribe of vicious women warriors.

The expedition’s chronicler, the Dominican friar Gaspar de Carvajal, described the women as going “about naked but with their privy parts covered, with their bows and arrows in their hands, doing as much fighting as ten Indian men.” Orellana named these women the Amazons, after the famed women warriors of Greek mythology, who were said to have removed their right breast so that they could more effectively shoot a bow and arrow. It is from the Greek word a-mazos, or “no breast,” that the word “Amazon” is derived.

After Orellana, few outsiders disturbed the Amazon’s native peoples for the next two hundred years, In the mid-eighteenth century, however, things changed dramatically and, for the Amazon’s human inhabitants, disastrously. While traveling down the Amazon River from Ecuador, the French naturalist and mathematician Charles- Marie de La Condamine saw natives extracting a milky substance from a tall tree. After the strange liquid, which the Indians called caoutchouc, had coagulated, it was used to make everything from boots to bottles. La Condamine saw potential in caoutchouc and brought a sample with him back to France. When the strange, pliable substance made its way across the channel, the British soon discovered that it worked extremely well as an eraser, and so began referring to it as “rubber.” By the end of the eighteenth century, rubber was well known and widely used throughout Europe and the New World. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Amazon was exporting more than 150 metric tons of it each year.

La Condamine’s discovery meant great wealth for a few South Americans and Europeans, but nothing but sorrow and terror for Amazonian Indians. Settlers who had made their way to the Amazon in the hope of making their fortunes in rubber, quickly became frus- trated by the dearth of willing cheap labor and began to organize slaving expeditions. Already laid low by European diseases, many Indian tribes were nearly decimated by these expeditions. Those Indians who survived were perhaps even less fortunate than those who lost their lives. Rubber barons were notorious for treating their slave laborers with exceptional cruelty. Julio César Arana, the son of a Peruvian hatmaker who made millions of dollars harvesting and selling Amazonian rubber in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ordered his men to go into the rain forest with rifles to “recruit” Indians. The tens of thousands of men, women, and children whom they rounded up were shackled into chain gangs. If they did not make their quotas, Arana’s men would burn them alive, hang and quarter them, or shoot off their genitals. During the twelve years that Arana held his reign of terror along the banks of the Rio Putumayo, the native population plummeted from more than fifty thousand to less than eight thousand. Those who survived did so with horribly disabling and disfiguring wounds that became known as “la marca arana,” the mark of Arana.

The Indians’ only advocates were the missionaries who had already established themselves in the Amazon by the early seventeenth century, searching for souls to save. They made an effort to protect their charges, but they were powerless against wealthy and merciless settlers such as Arana. Their best hope came in offering the Indians as wage laborers instead of slaves. The settlers, however, reverted back to slavery when they found that they could not get as many laborers as they needed and did not have as much control over them as they had had over their slaves. Even the missionaries themselves wanted to force the Indians into reductions, or missions, in which they were made to wear clothing and worship the Christian God.

Before Rondon’s Indian Protection Service was established in 1910, and even after, the Indians’ best protector was the Amazon itself. So dense and dangerous was the rain forest that few white men were able to venture very far into it, even for the promise of rubber. Despite the intense search for Indians by the men who wanted their labor or their souls, several tribes had not yet had any contact with the outside world by the time Roosevelt reached South America in 1913. Even those who had had some limited contact with outsiders were so isolated by the jungle in which they lived that they did not have even the vaguest understanding of what the rest of the world looked like. “Such isolation makes it well nigh impossible for them to grasp the significance of large communities,” George Cherrie observed. “The distant villager is incapable of picturing a much larger group of human beings living together than that in his own tiny settlement. . . . They picture the rest of the world as one of jungles, great rivers, and vast seas; with here and there tiny pools of humanity no larger than their own. Thus it is that they look upon the stranger from afar as a traveller between villages.”

* * *

The mysterious Indians who surrounded Roosevelt and his men on the banks of the River of Doubt were so isolated that they had never seen a white man. The intersection of their world and that of Roosevelt and Rondon was not simply a clash of different cultures; it was a collision of the Industrial Age and the Stone Age, the modern world and the ancient. Known by modern anthropologists as the Cinta Larga, which is Portuguese for “wide belt” -- a reference to the strips of bark that they wrap around their waists -- this tribe had remained shrouded from the rest of the world not just by the impenetrable rain forest but by the very thing that had exposed most Amazonian Indians to settlers and missionaries: a river.

For European explorers, South America’s rivers had long been the only highways into the interior. It had been along the Amazon River and some of its thousands of tributaries that they had discovered the rain forest and its occupants, and the Indians had discovered another world beyond their own. Some Amazonian tributaries, however, were so rapids-choked that they were impossible to ascend and too dangerous to descend. The River of Doubt’s fierce rapids had dissuaded even the most determined settlers from exploring its course. The same rapids that had already cost the expedition the life of one man and had nearly robbed Roosevelt of his son had kept the Cinta Larga in a time capsule, which had been sealed for millennia.

While the world in which Roosevelt lived had undergone dramatic recent changes, including skyscrapers, automobiles, and even airplanes (Orville and Wilbur Wright had made their first successful flight over Kill Devil Hill eleven years earlier), the Indians in this region were still using the simplest of tools. Their axes were ground and polished stone, and their cutting tools sharp slivers of bamboo. They made their fires by drilling a hard stick of wood into a softer one. The men all carried their hard “drills” with them while they were out hunting so that they could start a fire.

So cut off from the outside world were the Cinta Larga that, when they first saw the expedition, they were not even certain that Roosevelt, Rondon, and their men were human. By this point in their journey, most of the men in the expedition had grown rough beards, which looked strange and animalistic to the Cinta Larga, who, like all native Amazonians, had little facial or body hair. After watching the men from the shadows of the forest, the Cinta Larga mothers warned their children to sleep close to the fire at night so that they would not grow a patchy layer of fur like these strange creatures.

The Cinta Larga must also have been curious about the expedition’s canoes. As simple and crudely made as they were, the dugouts represented a level of technological sophistication that was unknown to the Cinta Larga. Although they lived on both sides of the River of Doubt, fishing from it, drinking from it, bathing in it, and traveling long distances along its banks, the Cinta Larga had not yet conceived of boats, even those as simple as the expedition’s dugout canoes. The only means they had developed for crossing the river were simple rope-and-plank bridges. Nor, despite their dependence on the river, had they yet developed the means of fishing with a hook and line, relying instead on spears or arrows to kill the fish that were so central to their diet.

* * *

Despite these limitations and, in part, because of their isolation, the Cinta Larga were masters at surviving in the jungle. During their portages, the men of the expedition crashed through the underbrush, scaring off game and announcing their presence to the Indians. Even when they did not have to wrestle with their dugouts, the men found it nearly impossible to fight their way through the jungle. Long vines crisscrossed the forest. Sharp branches caught their loose clothing, snagging and ripping it and holding them hostage while they struggled to set themselves free.

In contrast to Roosevelt and his men, the Cinta Larga moved through the rain forest quickly and silently. They wore no clothing and so were able to slip through the tangle of vegetation unrestrained. The women, who wore their hair long and parted down the middle, had nothing on their bodies but necklaces of black vegetable beads, which they strung around their necks, wrists, waists, and ankles. But for a simple liana covering to protect their penises, the men were similarly naked.

The Cinta Larga were also fast and invisible in the jungle because they had blazed trails that an outsider could not possibly discern or follow. Even if Rondon, in his ardor to make contact with this unknown tribe, had started down the Cinta Larga trail that he had found near Lobo’s body, it would have been useless to him. The Cinta Larga’s trails zigzagged through the forest, cutting in and out of thickets, crisscrossing the river, and going over rather than around any obstacle they encountered.

The tribe’s trails were marked, but ingeniously so. Markers appeared only once every twelve or eighteen feet and were simply small branches that the blazer had half broken and then bent backward. To anyone but a Cinta Larga, these markers were indistinguishable from any of a million other broken and bent branches in the rain forest. A change of direction was indicated by nothing more than a slightly larger broken branch whose bent end vaguely pointed the way. Only the Cinta Larga knew, moreover, that the markers also showed the direction to and from their camp: In a system like that used in modern maritime navigation, markers were placed so that when approaching the tribe’s camp they appeared on the left side of the trail, and leading away from camp they appeared on the right.

The Cinta Larga were as skilled at hunting as they were at trailblazing. While the men of the expedition slowly starved, wandering through what seemed to them to be a lush but empty rain forest, the Indians saw, heard, and smelled game everywhere they turned. Their ability to move soundlessly through the forest also helped them to sneak up on their prey as the members of the expedition never could, and their skill with a bow and arrow was uncanny. These Indians were such expert hunters that they were even able to trick their game into coming to them. As Rondon had learned when they lured him with the whinny of the spider monkey, the Cinta Larga were talented mimics and could re-create nearly any animal call. In fact, so familiar were they with these calls that they used them not only to draw game within striking distance but even to express time. When referring to a time before sunrise, for example, they used the cry of the howler monkey.

One of the greatest frustrations that the men of the expedition faced on the River of Doubt was that they were descending a river crowded with fish that they could not catch. Those same fish, however, were easy prey for the Cinta Larga. The Indians made up for their lack of poles, lines, or hooks with the type of fishing basket that Rondon had found. More important, they had timbó. This milky liquid, which the Cinta Larga extracted from a vine by pounding it with a rock, stuns -- or, depending on the quantity, kills -- fish by paralyzing their gills. Used in slow-moving inlets and pools, timbó allowed the Indians to spear or scoop up the fish as they floated to the river’s surface. As well as being expert hunters and fishermen, the Cinta Larga had access to crops that Roosevelt and his men did not, and they were willing to consume a larger variety of protein sources. The Indians grew vegetables such as manioc, yams, and sweet potatoes, but even they struggled to do so. Clearing the land in the jungle was grueling work. It often took a man with a stone ax an entire day just to fell a single large tree. Then, while sowing his crops, he had to contend with the long tree roots that lay frustratingly near the surface of the soil. After only three or four years had passed, the cleared land -- scorched by the sun, robbed of its nutrients by the growing crops, and deprived of the cyclical nutrient exchange that had sustained it when it supported a forest -- would become depleted, and the Indians would be forced to find another patch of land to till.

Each Cinta Larga village, which had one or two large houses that each held three to five families, was almost completely autonomous from the larger tribe, and every one had its own chief. The chief had to exhibit strong leadership qualities, such as taking the initiative in building a house or clearing a garden, but he was not their commander in the traditional sense. The Cinta Larga would not allow their village chief to tell them how to live their lives. Instead, the chief’s job was to oversee the tribal ceremonies -- an important role, because the Cinta Larga did not have a written language. Their only ceremonial guides were their own memories and the stories that they had heard their parents and grandparents tell.

Not only did the chief not command the village as a whole, he did not have power over any family within it but his own. Each man was the chief of his own family, which consisted of as many wives as he could convince to marry him and as many children as his wives could bear. A Cinta Larga man usually chose a new wife as soon as his first wife began to age. Girls were considered to be ready for marriage when they were between eight and ten years old, and they often married their mother’s brother. In such small communities, a young man ready to take his first wife often found that there were no eligible girls left in his village. He was then allowed to take a wife from a man who had three or more, or, failing that, he had to look for a wife in a neighboring village. It was not unusual for villages to trade women. The women, however, usually consented to the switch.

Like women in most early cultures, the Cinta Larga women did not have a voice in tribal or even family decisions. However, the Indian women did have a surprising amount of control over their own lives. For instance, if a Cinta Larga woman was unsatisfied in her marriage, she was free to do something about it. She could dissolve the marriage. She could marry another man. Or she could even stay with her husband and take a lover. In such circumstances, a husband would usually look the other way, unless he became the object of derision within his village.

As important as children were to the future of a village, they were far from coddled, and they were expected to take on the role of an adult by the time they turned twelve years old. Also, although the Indians lived together in one or two large huts, they did not appear to feel any particular responsibility for anyone outside their own immediate family. Each family had its own corner of the hut and its own fire, and when a man had been out hunting and returned with game, his neighbors rarely benefited from his good fortune. The hunter ate first, then his wives, children, and other relatives -- in that order.

* * *

Although Roosevelt and Rondon did not realize it, the Cinta Larga’s strong independence was probably keeping the men of the expedition alive. Because the Indians did not have a traditional chief, they were forced to make all of their decisions by consensus. If it was time to move the village, for instance, they had to agree on the time and location of the move. When it came to dealing with the expedition, the Cinta Larga were divided. Some of them believed that they should remain invisible to the outsider. Others, however, argued that they should attack. These men had invaded their territory, and there was no reason to believe they did not mean the Indians harm. By attacking first, the Cinta Larga would have the upper hand. They would also be able to loot the expedition, which was carrying valuable provisions and tools -- especially those made of metal.

War was not a rare event for the Cinta Larga. The most common cause was the death of one of their own, from an earlier attack or even from natural causes. The Cinta Larga believed that death was brought about by witchcraft. If a man became ill and died, the others in his village never blamed their healer, a man who used plants and religion to cure the sick. Instead, they looked around their own village, and if they did not find anyone suspicious, they assumed that someone from another village must have performed the dark magic. The only response was to avenge the death by attacking the offending village.

The Cinta Larga also occasionally went to war if the population of their own village had become so depleted by disease, murder, or both that they needed to steal women and children. Such attacks took place at night. The men would camp near their victims’ village, and then, after the sun had set, they would slip inside their communal hut. As the male members of the other village slept in their hammocks, the warriors would club them to death before rounding up as many women and children as they could find.

Although the Cinta Larga rarely wore much adornment, when they went to war they dressed for the part. They would cut their hair very short, place hawk-feather headdresses over their shorn heads, paint their bodies with animal and plant extracts, and hang bead necklaces from their necks. The most important item in the Cinta Larga’s war dress, however, was the wide belt for which the Portuguese would later name them. These belts were made from the couratari tree, which was difficult to find. The men were sometimes forced to walk for several days in order to harvest the smooth, mahogany-colored bark of this tree. They wrapped an eight-inch-wide strip around their waists one and a half times and then tied it tightly with a fine liana. The stiff bark, which was a tenth of an inch thick, was uncomfortable and often cut their stomachs and backs, thus exposing them to infection, but the belt was ubiquitous among the warlike Cinta Larga because it covered the abdomen and so was useful as body armor.

Although skilled with both clubs and poison, the Cinta Larga’s most lethal weapons were bows and arrows. As Rondon learned when he examined the arrows that had killed Lobo, the Cinta Larga’s arrows were exquisitely made and deadly accurate. Made from bamboo, the shaft was adorned with braids of peccary hair and topped with a knife-shaped bamboo tip. The arrows were, on average, five feet long -- nearly as tall as the Cinta Larga men, and taller than many of the women -- and were adorned with hawk wings or curassow feathers, which stabilized them in flight. The tribesmen made several different types of arrows -- for shooting fish, birds, monkeys, large animals, and men -- but they used only one type of bow. About six feet long, the bows were made from the trunk of the peach-palm tree and were so stiff and difficult to pull that it is doubtful that any of the men in the expedition could have used a Cinta Larga bow had they found one.

* * *

The most striking fact about the Cinta Larga -- and one that would have alarmed the men of the expedition had they known it -- was that these Indians were cannibals. Unlike the type of cannibalism much of the world had come to know -- among desperate explorers, marooned sailors, and victims of famine -- the Cinta Larga’s consumption of human flesh was born not out of necessity but out of vengeance and an adherence to tribal traditions and ceremony. The tribe had very strict rules for cannibalism. They could eat another man only in celebration of a war victory, and that celebration had to take place in the early evening. The man who had done the killing could not grill the meat or distribute it, and children and adults with small children would not eat it. If they did, the Cinta Larga believed, they would go mad. The most important rule of cannibalism within the tribe was that one Cinta Larga could not eat another. The tribe drew a clear distinction between its own members and the rest of mankind, which they considered to be “other” -- and, thus, edible. An enemy killed during war, therefore, was ritually dismembered and eaten. While still on the battlefield, either in the enemy’s village or in the forest, the Cinta Larga would carve up the body just as they would a monkey that they had shot down from the canopy. First they would cut off and discard the man’s head and heart. Then they would section off the edible portions: the arms, legs, and a round of flesh over the stomach. They grilled this meat over an open fire and brought it home to their village for their wives to slice and cook with water in a ceramic pan. If Indians from other tribes were considered “other,” then the men of the expedition, who did not even look human to the Cinta Larga, certainly fell into that category. Moreover, should the Indians attack the expedition, Roosevelt would likely be one of their first targets.

After watching the expedition for several weeks, the Cinta Larga had surely figured out by now that Roosevelt and Rondon were its commanders. Not only did they give orders and do less physical work than the other men, but the camaradas and even the other officers clearly treated them with deference. Even if the Indians had only recently stumbled upon the expedition, they probably would have aimed for Roosevelt first -- simply because of his substantial girth. The Cinta Larga often tossed pieces of a slain enemy into the jungle if they thought that he was too lean. Although Roosevelt had already begun to lose much of his 220 pounds to illness and the intense physical work and meager diet of the past few months, he was still by far the heaviest man in the expedition. If the men were massacred, the former president would make the best ceremonial meal.

Reading Group Guide

The introduction, discussion questions, and author bio that follow are intended to enhance your group’s discussion about Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt. We hope that they will provide useful ways of thinking and talking about the book. For more information, visit BroadwayBooks.com.

For free supplementary materials including information on book groups, suggestions for further reading, chances to win books, phone-in author appearances, and much more, e-mail BroadwayReads@RandomHouse.com.

1. Chapter one, “Defeat,” depicts dramatic scenes from Roosevelt’s final election. What parallels exist between a risky political career and a risky Rain Forest expedition? What enabled him to survive both?

2. Compare Rondon’s and Roosevelt’s leadership styles. In what ways did these co-commanders complement each other? In what ways were they at odds?

3. Discuss the very concept of survival as it shapes The River of Doubt. In choosing provisions, what items did Roosevelt’s team consider necessary for survival? What aspects of survival (greater quantities of dry, mildew-free clothes, for example) did they overlook? What intangibles (especially in terms of emotions) are also necessary for such an expedition?

4. What aspects of humanity were represented by the various personalities in the group, ranging from exploitive Father Zahm and the rational Cherrie to the volatile Julio? Can such varied people coexist? How did you react to Roosevelt’s belief that it was necessary for Julio to be found and shot after he murdered one of the team members?

5. Do any contemporary American politicians possess Roosevelt’s public-speaking style? Why did he believe it was important to debate the former Chilean ambassador and deliver speeches refuting the protestors there?

6. Discuss the extraordinary medical history included in The River of Doubt. How was Roosevelt able to survive so much in his lifetime–from gunshot and disease to a train wreck–with only rudimentary medical care? What aspects of modern medicine would have made his expedition safer? Would safer conditions have undermined the thrill?

7. What did you discover about the intricate, sometimes surreal ecology and geography of the Rain Forest itself? What is the significance of the ancient history of South America’s formation, such as the plate tectonics that sculpted the Andes Mountains? What was it like to read descriptions of a region where few humans have adapted to the environment? Why is it important to preserve rather than develop these ecosystems?

8. In the end, what do you believe Roosevelt’s true missions were in this expedition? What was revealed about the nature of some geographic explorers when his success was met with deep skepticism? What motivates any explorer–from ancient nomads to NASA scientists? What separates Roosevelt’s brand of adventurousness from that of contestants on television shows such as “Survivor”?

9. Share your observations about the Cinta Larga, ranging from nutrition and family life to warfare. Does their self-sufficiency make them noble?

10. What did you discover about Roosevelt’s parenting style? Is his approach–particularly his insistence that his children learn to conquer rather than avoid obstacles–prevalent in many American schools today?

11. Do you believe that Kermit’s later despondency, which eventually drove him to suicide, was related more to genetics or to his life’s circumstances? Did his father expect too much of him? How did their relationship shift throughout this father-son expedition? How would you have fared on a similar mission with your mother or father?

12. How might Roosevelt respond to current concerns about the environment and climate change? How might he and his Progressive “Bull Moose” Party have fared in recent elections?

13. What separates The River of Doubt from other presidential narratives you have read? What writing techniques enabled the author to weave together science, travelogue, and history? What do the Notes and Acknowledgments sections reveal about her research techniques? If someone were to write a biography of you, what narratives could be constructed from your collection of letters and other memorabilia?

14. Discuss the historical context of Roosevelt’s trip, in terms not only of South American history but other aspects of world history from this time period, such as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912? Would World War I have unfolded differently if Roosevelt had defeated Wilson?

15. How were the first chapters of Roosevelt’s life, which were marked by poor health, resolved by this final South American chapter? Do his triumphs of endurance, from boxing at Harvard to valiant service during the Spanish-American War, form a timeline of progressively more dangerous challenges throughout his life? If so, did he finally meet his match with The River of Doubt? Why do you believe this expedition was, until now, less well known than his other triumphs?


The introduction, discussion questions, and author bio that follow are intended to enhance your group’s discussion about Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt. We hope that they will provide useful ways of thinking and talking about the book. For more information, visit BroadwayBooks.com.

For free supplementary materials including information on book groups, suggestions for further reading, chances to win books, phone-in author appearances, and much more, e-mail BroadwayReads@RandomHouse.com.

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