Belfast Telegraph

Forget Neymar in World Cup, meet Brazil's real hero - Rondon of the Amazon

By Mike Gilson

Why don't we know more about Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon? After all, he is famous in Brazil and we are all over the place right now. You'd think we might have heard a snippet about him. I stumbled across his story this week. It's a page-turner.

Rondon is something of a hero in Brazil. There's a state named after him. Last century he was the country's prime protector of the Amazon's indigenous populations, although, through the prism of modern mores, that might now be a moot point.

Anyway, his most spectacular feat was the construction of telegraph lines. An unpromising start to a stirring tale you might think, but in 1907 Rondon erected thousands of miles of cable in a straight line through Mato Grosso, the densest of rainforest populated with undiscovered tribes of native peoples.

In fact, it was there years earlier that another madly driven explorer, Englishman Percy Fawcett, disappeared forever on a mission to find the gold-plated lost city of Eldorado. Who knows if he did or not?

Rondon's plan was more practical, but no less dramatic. He would open up the world of communication by linking Rio de Janiero with Bolivia via jungle settlements. It was the grandest of follies, but Rondon, a military officer of small stature and big, bushy moustache, ploughed on, driving the narrowest of channels through the virgin forest.

Malaria swept his team and morale hit the floor. To combat this, Rondon would lecture his workers on the wonders of Brazil and play the national anthem on a gramophone. There is no record of whether this worked.

Along the route, sometimes no wider than a table top, his team would erect telegraph stations, some of which exist today. They were no more than shacks with leather sofas and Morse Code machines. Many of the tribes they had encountered had never seen people from the outside world before. Rondon was a follower of Positivism, a secular religion that had it progress could only come through science and technology. He believed the natives could become assimilated Brazilians and invited them into his camps.

Many years later other explorers would come across the truly surreal sights of tribes practising Swedish gymnastics, boys tooting on trombones and young girls practising embroidery. Hardly what they expected to find, but Rondon had been there first.

But here's the tragic irony for Rondon. He had pursued with single-minded determination his idea of progress, gone to hell and back in suffocating heat, yet almost before he had finished his decades-long task, which costs the lives of hundreds of men, shortwave radio had made the telegraph poles redundant.

The service had never been that good anyway. All that was left were a few isolated workers in those shacks and in his wake, and using his trail, came missionaries with an altogether different view of the purpose of those native peoples.

It's hard now to see much in the way of success in his story. But I think there is something heroic about Rondon the frontiersman.

Even now I can see the little man urging his team on through the jungle, the crackling brass of the national anthem sounding at regular intervals, with the noble purpose of progress fuelling his mission. The journey, not the eventual failure, was his legacy to humanity.

I am indebted to Patrick Wilcken's excellent biography of Claude Levi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, for introducing me to Rondon.

  • Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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