Francisco de Orellana

Francisco de Orellana (ca. 1511-1546) was a Spanish conquistador and explorer of the Amazon whose name remains somewhat tainted because of the suspicion that he deserted Gonzalo Pizarro in a desperate situation.

Francisco de Orellana a relative of the Pizarros, was born in Trujillo, Estremadura. He evidently reached the New World as a teen-age boy and took part in the Pizarro conquest of Peru, where he lost an eye in battle. In 1538 he fought under Hernando Pizarro at the battle of Las Salinas, where Hernando captured Diego de Almagro, whom he executed. Orellana next went north and founded Guayaquil in late 1538 or early 1539.

He was now immediately subordinate to his kinsman Gonzalo Pizarro, governor of Quito. Gonzalo had orders from his brother Francisco to seek the reported Cinnamon Forests east of the Andes, and Orellana went as second-in-command of the large expedition in 1541. The explorers marched in good order until reaching the Napo River, an Amazon tributary, where food ran low. Orellana either volunteered or was ordered by Pizarro to go farther down the river with a hastily constructed boat and about 60 men to bring back food from a place where friendly Indians reported it to be plentiful. Orellana did obtain food and then, whether by his own decision or compelled by subordinates, decided to follow the main Amazon, now close at hand, to the Atlantic. No one had traversed the river before, but its size convinced the Spaniards that it must emerge at the ocean. Controversy has long gone on as to Orellana's guilt, but the general verdict is that he had intended to desert from the time of leaving Gonzalo.

The adventurers proceeded to the Amazon mouth and then to the Spanish island of Cubagua, which they reached early in September 1542. Many of them then went to Peru, but Orellana traveled to Spain by way of Trinidad, Santo Domingo, and Portugal.

During their descent of the Amazon, Orellana's Spaniards underwent frequent attacks by Indians, and in one region women fought and surpassed males in valor. Gaspar de Carvajal, chaplain of the expedition, describes the women as being very white and tall and doing as much fighting as 10 Indian men. Such formidable strength brought to mind the Amazons of Greek mythology, and the Spaniards gave this name to their land; only afterward was "Amazon" gradually applied to the river.

In Spain, Orellana sought and obtained a concession to explore and govern New Andalusia, meaning roughly the land south of the great river. He sailed from Sanlúcar on May 11, 1545, with a poorly equipped fleet and accompanied by his wife, Ana de Ayala, whom he had married in Spain. But Orellana died of sickness and fatigue about November 1546, and the fleet went to pieces. Some survivors, including Ana, were rescued later at the island of Margarita.


Further Reading on Francisco de Orellana

José Toribio Medina, ed., The Discovery of the Amazon according to the Account of Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, translated by Bertram T. Lee and edited by H. C. Keaton (1934), prints the original documents regarding Orellana's expedition and completely absolves him of treachery to Gonzalo Pizarro. Hoffman Birney, Brothers of Doom: The Story of the Pizarros of Peru (1942), declares Orellana a traitor. Walker Chapman, The Golden Dream (1968), is more lenient. William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Peru (2 vols., 1848; later editions), considers Orellana a criminal.