Born in 1865 in the remote Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon lived an early life filled with poverty, struggle, and loss. His father died six months before his birth and his mother passed away two years later after being displaced by a war between Brazil and Paraguay. Rondon then lived with his grandparents until their death and ultimately reached adulthood under the tutelage of his uncle who adopted him and bestowed the surname by which history would remember him, Rondon. At sixteen, he entered a military school in Rio de Janeiro. Rondon excelled scholastically and entered the military in 1881 where he would serve as a military engineer and professor of mathematics.
The turning point of his life came in 1890 when he was chosen to lead the Strategic Telegraph Commission back in Mato Grosso. Much of Amazonia remained isolated from the outside world, and Rondon would develop a deep affinity for the flora, fauna, and people of the region. Besides building telegraph lines and roads, Rondon sought to protect and integrate the indigenous people into Brazilian society. He convinced the Brazilian government to create the National Service for Protection of the Indians which he led from its creation in 1909 until 1940. Rondon’s twenty-five years of experience in the Amazonian wilderness, and the fact that he had initially discovered and named the River of Doubt, made him the perfect co-commander of what would become the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition of 1913-1914
After accepting his assignment to the expedition, on the condition that it was going to be a serious scientific effort, Rondon actually proposed the journey down the River of Doubt, which remained unmapped. The suggestion was snapped up by Roosevelt, who was looking for more of a challenge, and the chance to be a real explorer, then his original staid, by Roosevelt standards, itinerary could provide. It is likely that Roosevelt didn’t fully comprehend the dangers he was accepting. The river was so inaccessible and the terrain so rugged that the local indigenous people, the Cinta Larga, were not officially contacted by the Brazilian government until the late 1960s.
Map of Brazil, 1914. From the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site collection. This map shows the entire route of the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition.
The expedition’s co-commanders developed a rapid admiration and respect for one another; even though the only language they shared was French. The expedition proved to be arduous in the extreme; hampered by difficult rapids, hunger, and tropical fevers that weakened everyone. Roosevelt was likely the worst off, tormented by a leg wound and fevers that left him sidelined and delusional. Rondon remained remarkably healthy and created tension within the expedition by attempting to maintain a thorough survey of the river that slowed progress. However, their trials and tribulations were ultimately overcome and a blank area on the map was filled in with the course of a river renamed the Rio Roosevelt. The river they traversed retained its air of mystery and the expedition’s findings were not confirmed until the river was once again descended in 1926.
After the expedition, Rondon continued his work in the wilds of Brazil and added further achievements to his impressive resume. The telegraph line he had worked on for many years was completed in 1915 and covered 800 miles of Brazil’s harsh interior. He also led an expedition from 1927 to 1930 that covered the entire land border of Brazil. A celebrated hero to his countrymen, a special law, passed on his 90th birthday, raised Rondon to the rank of marshal, the highest rank in Brazil’s military, in 1955. Ninety-four thousand square miles of Brazil still attest to Rondon’s labors; he was honored with a namesake territory, Rondonia, in 1956. Rondon is also remembered for his work with indigenous peoples. His National Service for Protection of the Indians was the model for Brazil’s current National Indian Foundation. The two organizations share a motto created by Rondon, “Die if necessary, but never kill.” Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon’s long life came to an end on January 19, 1958.
“Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 13. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. Print.
Millard, Candice. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey. New York: Broadway Books, 2005. Print.