Book Review: River of Doubt by Candice Millard

River of Doubt by Candice Millard (442 pages)

After leaving the American presidency in 1909, Teddy Roosevelt, led “scientific” expeditions in Africa. During his African trip, “Roosevelt and his companions killed or trapped approximately 11,400 animals, from insects and moles to hippopotamuses and elephants.” Probably the bored with this, he decided to run once again for presidency, but lost the nomination.

Looking for a new adventure, he decided to do a cruise on the Amazon river.

Stupidity follows. The expedition was planned by a priest who outsourced it to a store clerk, who had led a disastrous expedition to the North Pole. The clerk had never been to the Amazon. On reaching Brazil, Roosevelt is influenced to go down the uncharted River of Doubt.

The reason? Roosevelt writes: “No civilized man, no white man, had ever gone down or up this river, or seen the country through which we were passing.” Of course, many indigenous tribes lived there, but it did not matter. The statement accurately reflects the views of a man who once believed that the white race was superior to others.

What could go wrong here? At this time there were many known cases of people attempting this adventure and never returning back. “They have simply disappeared in the forest like stones in water. The jungle is jealous and voracious”

The expedition was launched without the right supplies, boats and knowledge. At this point, it is obvious that the expedition is doomed for failure. First, the river was uncharted. Second, there were deadly poisonous animals — snakes, insects, piranhas — which could wipe them out. Third, they could contract deadly diseases like malaria. Fourth, they were passing through the home of indigenous tribes, who could end them with poisonous arrows. But with arrogance, ignorance, and naïveté, the expedition plunged into the river.

Along the expedition, whatever can go wrong does. Roosevelt contracted malaria and faced death. The trip shortened his life. One of the Brazilians in the expedition killed another and fled into the forest. Another drowned. The survivors, almost starved to death. They also had to face infections, malaria and dysentery. They were shadowed by native tribes who could have easily killed them. Col. Rondon — the Brazilian leader — put peace offerings wherever possible. This could be why they did not end up as protein on a cannibal’s diet.

Teddy is an American darling. His face is on Mount Rushmore. He was an unapologetic imperialist, who also setup National Parks. It is hard to like him, especially regarding this trip. What makes the book interesting to read though is the wonderful writing of the author. You learn a lot about the animals, humans, diseases of the rain forest and the history of the region. It makes up an exciting outdoor adventure and a survival tale.

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