The River of Doubt – Teddy Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard

Why this book: Selected by the SEAL reading group I’m a member of. I’d had a copy for years, which inspired me to finally read it. 

Summary in 3 Sentences: After dramatically losing his Bull Moose Party run for President to Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt accepted an invitation to do an exploratory first run down a tributary of the Amazon into unmapped, uncharted territory.  He did not know what he was getting himself into, hired the wrong people to organize it and almost paid for his negligence with his life.  It ended up being a fight for survival in the most hostile of jungle environments,  losing several men, and succeeding only by a narrow margin, and only because of the leadership of his Brazilian co-leader.

My Impressions:  An impressive book in so many ways.  Obviously, the story is compelling – an American Hero president takes on a huge physical/mental challenge after the prime of his life, suffers dramatically and almost dies, but becomes one of the heroes of Brazil and the world toward the end of the last great age of discovery.  In addition to  the amazing story of courage, heroism, and  discovery, Ms Millard adds a fascinating summary of  research she did into the natural history, ecology, and  anthropology of this remote and previously uncharted part of the Amazonian jungle and river network. 

She beautifully combines the adventure and suffering of exploration and discovery with the biographical picture of Teddy Roosevelt,  with the dynamics within a mixed culture team of characters, with a curious scientist’s-eye look at the many facets of the world they had entered.  Indeed, one of the main goals of the expedition was scientific, not simply geographic discovery.  It could be compared to an International team exploring a new planet, with some similar and many very different rules from the world we live in.  In retrospect their expedition is referred to as the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition.

She begins with a brief biography of Teddy Roosevelt and how throughout his life, when confronted with mental and emotional hardship, he broke off and took on a physically and mentally challenging adventure – he had done that many times and she gave examples.  In 1914, after he lost his Bull Moose run for president against William Howard Taft he accepted the challenge to lead this expedition of discovery down the uncharted Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt – later renamed Rio Roosevelt) – without doing much research or preparations for the rigors of living in the jungle. He delegated that to others,  and that was a serious mistake. 

MIllard outlines the poor preparations, poor selection of people to go on the trip, the disorganization that plagued the preparation for the early phases of the expedition.  Indeed it appeared that Roosevelt believed that this would not be much different than his rather comfortable expedition to Africa a few years earlier.  This assumption had significant costs to the expedition, and can be compared unfavorably to how well Shackleton prepared for his trip to Antarctica.  Eventually Roosevelt’s relieved and sent home two key organizers of the expedition before embarking on the river itself, because of their incompetence or unsuitability for the effort that would be required. 

Though Roosevelt was the titular leader of the expedition, the true leader and real hero of this expedition was Col Candido de Mariano de Silva Rondon of the Brazilian army.  The book provides a fascinating story of Rondon’s background and how he indeed was a highly experienced expedition leader and was one of the most knowledgeable men in Brazil about the area they were entering and challenges they would be facing. Most importantly, he was the strongest member of the expedition with regard to mental and physical resilience, and character, and indeed was the backbone of the expedition.  He was ahead of his time as a great proponent of the rights of indigenous tribes, and protecting their Amazonian world.  Roosevelt did not always agree with Rondon, but admired and respected him, usually acceded to his desires.  Eventually, Roosevelt became so weakened and debilitated during the expedition, that he delegated all decisions to Rondon.

One of the sub-stories of this expedition was Teddy Roosevelt’s relationship with his son Kermit who accompanied him on the expedition.  Kermit lived in Brazil at the time and spoke Portuguese,.  Roosevelt had taken Kermit with him on his big game hunting expedition in Africa, was impressed with his performance and wanted to give his son this opportunity as well.   Roosevelt’s wife wanted Kermit on the expedition to look after his father, who at the time was 55 years old, overweight, and she knew that he was no longer as strong and resilient as he believed himself to be.  Kermit turned out to be a strong and resilient team player, performed his role in the expedition well, and served admirably as his father’s keeper.

The only Americans on the expedition were Teddy and Kermit Roosevelt, and George Cherrie a renowned naturalist who would be taking samples to add to the body of knowledge. The others on the expedition were Rondon, his principle assistant Lyra, a doctor, and the sixteen young, strong men referred to as “camaradas” who did the most difficult physical work, and probably suffered the most. 

The expedition was brutal. Given that they were in completely new territory, they had no idea how far down the river they were, or how far they still had to go – only that it eventually flowed into the Amazon.  The bugs, snakes, animals, piranhas, jaguars, caymans, the daily downpours and humidity, and the unpredictability of the river were daily challenges.  They faced numerous rapids and waterfalls, and often had to unload and portage their boats and all equipment through the jungles to the next navigable part of the river, sometimes thousands of yards through very rough terrain – when they were weak with malnutrition and fever.  They ran out of the food they brought – in part due to the poor preparations of Roosevelt’s team,  in part because of losses on the river of boats and cargo in the rapids.  Food in the jungle was scarce, and starvation was a distinct possibility, as they resorted to eating almost anything that could provide the least bit of nutrition. They simply didn’t know how to survive in the primeval jungles that extended on both sides of the river.  Weakness due to malnutrition was a serious problem – especially for the camaradas who were doing most of the paddling and the most arduous physical work.  Eventually all-hands, including Roosevelt had to pitch in with all tasks. .

They also knew that they were being watched by indigenous peoples – they saw signs, and abandoned villages, heard them occasionally, but never saw them. At one point a dog who was with them was killed by arrows, reinforcing their sense of vulnerability.  But the tribes knew how to move and hide without being detected – the expedition simply lived with their sense of vulnerability – which increased, the weaker they got.

The expedition lost several of the camaradas – one drowned in the rapids, one killed another over a dispute, and the expedition left the killer in the jungle – where he was either killed by the natives or died. It was said that the jungle consumes all that enter it. The expedition was struggling to get through it before it consumed them.  

Roosevelt himself became very ill, with malaria, dysentery, and a seriously infected cut, and in spite of all the doctor’s efforts, it appeared that he would die. Roosevelt himself expected to die, and when things became most dire, he requested that they leave him behind and save themselves. Rondon refused.   He almost did succumb, but he survived, barely, until they reached civilization and could get him good nutrition, medical care and a chance to recover.  When the expedition finally reached civilization,  all of of its members were malnourished and weak, Kermit was sick with malaria and half of the camaradas were so sick with fever and malaria, they couldn’t work.  In the epilogue, we learn that upon return to the US, Roosevelt got right back to work lecturing and campaigning passionately for his causes, but it appeared that in spite of his best efforts, he never fully recovered.  He was weaker,  and was never able to sustain that characteristic Roosevelt optimism and energy again.

MIllard concludes this amazing story with an epilogue which describes Roosevelts remaining years and what happened to the other key characters in the book after the expedition. Rondon went on to become one of the great heroes of Brazil, nominated by Albert Einstein for the Nobel Peace Prize, and who outlived everyone else on the expedition, dying at the age of 92 in 1958.   Roosevelt continued to be plagued by issues stemming from his time on the River of Doubt, lived another five years and died at the age of 61 in 1919. The saddest story was Kermit’s.  Though strong on the expedition, he never found his footing after his father died, was idealistic but not practical, and of a melancholic disposition. He became an alcoholic and eventually committed suicide at the age 53. 

 I was impressed with Millard’s research, which included being escorted into the jungle to meet with the descendants of the Cinta Larga indigenous tribes who live in the territories through which the River of Doubt flowed, to talk to them about Roosevelt’s expedition.  Indeed, that expedition and how the tribes responded to it over a century ago is still alive in their oral tradition – these were the first westerners to venture into their world.  We learn that Roosevelt and Rondon were more vulnerable than they knew. The tribes debated killing them all, and stealing their valuable supplies – which made complete sense in their world – since these were unknown and uninvited intruders into their territory.  But apparently there was dissension within and among the various tribes, and in their culture,  key decisions required consensus.  Since the expedition was moving through and not staying,  pretty soon it became irrelevant. The expedition survived in part because the indigenous tribes could not agree on what to do about them.   A future expedition into that area disappeared without a trace. 

I’d put Millard’s River of Doubt into the great literature of exploration and suffering, out-on-the-edge, along with among others, Shackleton’s expedition described in Endurance by Lansing, and the de Long expedition to the Arctic as chronicled in Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides.  Another review of this outstanding book that I would recommend is  Big Stick in the Jungle from the Washington Post. 

For those interested in this topic, PBS has an excellent documentary available on Amazon about this expedition entitled American Experience: Into the Amazon, just shy of two hours long, produced in 1988 before Candice Millard wrote River of Doubt.  It is an excellent representation, complete with photographs and even a few videos. The story is the same, well-depicted, and I highly recommend it.


About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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