Rivers and Whirlpools

Rivers and Whirlpools: a spatial and historical interpretation of La Vorágine

The initial scene of the 1972 film, Aguirre, the Wrath of Good, depicts a sixteenth-century expedition descending from the Andeans highlands into the Amazonian lowlands. The expedition led by Francisco Pizarro is in search of the mythical city of El Dorado. The movie, directed by Werner Herzog, is a hodge-podge of different exploratory travels of sixteenth-century conquistadores, from Francisco de Orellana’s upriver Amazonian voyage to Lope de Aguirre’s downriver tale of folly and treason. But more important than historical accuracy, or the lack thereof, is the route traveled by the characters in the movie, which mimics the actual spatial descent performed by the film crew in the process of shooting Aguirre. After descending the misty eastern Andean slopes, Spaniards and Andean Natives find themselves trapped in an environment that renders their technology useless. Spanish horses, steel armor, crossbows, firearms, llamas, corn — most of the Spanish and Andean artifacts are of no aid in the claustrophobic and swampy Amazon. Unable to advance overland through the jungle, Pizarro decides to return, but not before selecting a small group of conquistadores to continue the search for El Dorado. Lope de Aguirre is the second in command in this splinter group. Their only hope for moving forward is to build rafts to drift downriver on the raging Andean streams. This land-to-water move is marked by a long blurred shot of tumultuous muddy waters anticipating the task ahead of both contingents — the fictional one depicted in the movie picture and the actual film crew. This moment also marks a change in the landscape; now, what the viewer sees is no longer the closed-canopied labyrinth of vines and trees. Rather, it is the wide river, with its open sky and its treacherous margins, that becomes the background of the expedition. The film evolves from a jungle epic into a river tragedy full of riverine-expedition tropes — rapids, whirlpools, attacks from the banks of the river, and dangerous overnight camping. During their river descent, their number is decreased by Indian attacks and internal disputes. Many want to come back, but through treason, manipulation, and the threat of physical violence, Lope de Aguirre prevents the group from returning as he forces his way into the position of supreme leader of what is left of the expedition. He promises his men the land and riches of El Dorado but delivers hunger and death. As they progress in their descent, the river becomes wider and stagnant. Now, it is impossible to get ashore because the jungle is flooded for miles inland. At this point, the stillness and silence of the river contrasts with the increasing madness and hallucinations of the travelers. The final scene ends the film in typical Herzogian fashion, showing a hallucinating Lope de Aguirre wandering in the limited space of a stranded raft, stumbling upon monkeys and corpses, and claiming to be the “wrath of God” and the future conquer of South America.[1]

As a film whose shooting obliged its filmmakers to do the actual land-and-river traveling from the Andes to the Amazon, Aguirre has many similarities with another work of fiction that depicts a trans-Andean river descent into the jungle — La Vorágine (“The Vortex” in the English translation), written in the 1920s by Colombian author José Eustasio Rivera. Both works are heavily influenced by the actual spatial movements performed by their authors. Coming from Andean Bogotá, Rivera finished his book after traveling through the Amazon and Orinoco basins as a member of the Colombo-Venezuelan Border Commission. Although they are commonly thought as jungle-based representation of wilderness, the two works also reveal the central place of rivers in the region. Both are tales of spatial, social and psychological descents, where Andean characters navigate into the heart of jungle country in search of actual riches (gold, rubber), or other metaphorical treasures (a stranded lover, the bones of a late son). The characters in both stories find themselves stranded in an intermediary no-man’s land, never able to reach the final destination of downriver voyages — the sea. Another common trait is the progressive role of madness in shaping the protagonists’ minds in both novel and film. Although delusion and paranoia gradually turn into insanity as they distance themselves from the Sierras, folly is already present at the onset of their expeditions and it is a crucial element in their decision of going into the wilderness. Aguirre and La Vorágine are examples of a particular Andean view of the Amazon, one in which geography plays an essential role in framing the perceptions and expectations of those traveling from the ordered world of the sierras into alien and unknown jungle country.[2]


A waterborne novel

La Vorágine is a novel set in two different landscapes; the tropical rainforests of the Amazon and Orinoco basins, sometimes respectively called Amazonia and Orinoquia, and the savanna-like, tropical grassland plains called Llanos, which stands as a buffer region between the Colombian Andes and the rainforest. The passage from the Llanos to the jungle divides the novel in two discrete parts. The Llanos section can be read as a typical romanticizing of the frontier, with its rough cowboys, freedom in open spaces, violence, and crude justice. The rainforest section, on the other hand, presents a diverse picture. Here the main themes are corruption, disease, servitude, and folly. The rainforest is a jail, a place of moral and physical decaying. What are the reasons behind this contrast?

Retracing the author’s actual voyages through these two regions enables the understanding of the striking differences between the Llanos and the rainforest in La Vorágine. Rivera visited the Llanos for the first time while he was a college student at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá, in 1916. After graduating with a law degree, Rivera returned to the Llanos, this time moving to the Casanare department where he worked as a litigation lawyer for cattle ranchers.[3] The case moved slowly and Rivera stayed for months in the region living amidst the locals, where he hunted, engaged in deals to buy and sell cattle, learned about the geography and customs of the region, and collected tales of local folklore and stories of frontier incidents. As Jane M. Rausch puts it, “little by little, he penetrated the local culture, getting to know the people and sharing with them their pleasures and adversities.”[4] Rivera started to write La Vorágine in 1922, before his first visit to Amazonia and Orinoquia. In the beginning the novel was meant to be set exclusively in the Llanos, as it was a way for Rivera to present the stories he had gathered and the characters he had met while living in the region. The initial version of the novel, which would become the first part of the final edition, dealt with the traditional vision of the Llanos as the romantic, unpopulated, and wild frontier counterpoised to the densely populated Andean Colombia. Citing geographer Isaiah Bowman, Rausch suggests that in colonial times the Spaniards, after placing themselves at the top of the political hierarchy of Andean societies, quickly controlled a considerable portion of the high sierras and of the Pacific coast, but when they reached the distinct environments of the Amazon basin, their advanced came to a halt. Despite their claims over those regions, the Spaniards had their advance barred by the resistance of the native peoples, the deadlier environment, and the geographical obstacles. In Nueva Granada a permanent frontier region was established before the jungle, at the tropical plains of the Llanos. The Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries of the late twentieth century attest for the continuing history of failed attempts to control the region. The Casanare department, the location of Rivera’s sojourn in the 1920s, is a good example of how the Llanos come to be identified as the Colombian frontier. In the nineteenth century governments in Bogotá sporadically attempted to develop Casanare and other Llanos departments without success. By the time Rivera visited the region, these policies had had little impact on Casanare, which, according to Rausch, “remained as isolated geographically, economically, and politically as in colonial times.” These recurrent colonizing attempts created the vision shared by most of the Andeans and Coastal Colombians of the Llanos as the frontier that defined the national Colombian life.[5]

Rivera’s sole experience in the Amazon and Orinoco basins contrasts sharply with his sojourn in the Llanos, a difference that surely results in part from the distinct Colombian expectations for each region. Whereas the Llanos might have been conceived in the national discourse as a romantic frontier — Bolívar only succeeds in liberating Gran Colombia after he formed an army of llaneros —, the jungle probably stayed completely absent from colonial and national narratives. That might be because, until the 1950s, the Colombian Amazon was practically inaccessible by land from Bogotá.[6] Travelers heading to the region usually traveled by boat to Venezuela or Brazil, and from there upriver to Colombian territory. Today this is a route that one may consider absurd, given the long deviation it requires, but in the early twentieth century it was the most feasible. And indeed, this was the route taken by Rivera in the early 1920s. Figure 1 on page 4 shows Rivera’s route from Bogotá to the Colombian borderland. After been appointed to the committee in charge of the demarcation of the border between Colombia and Venezuela in 1922, Rivera left the town of Sogamoso, in the Andes, where he had been writing his novel since he had left the Llanos. He went southwestward to Bogotá from where he reached the Magdalena River, which flows northward to the sea of ​​the Antilles. After reaching the sea, Rivera’s expedition followed the coastline westward along the northern coast of South America, passing by Port of Spain, Trinidad, and reaching the mouth of the Orinoco River, in Venezuela. Then, they penetrated the continent traveling upriver to reach the confluence of the Orinoco and the Meta River, situated on the border between Colombia and Venezuela. From there they continued southward on the Orinoco, which there serves as the border between the two countries, passing by the village of San Fernando de Atabapo on a river island at the Venezuelan side. By April 1923 Rivera’s health was fragile due to bouts of malarial fever, and he decided to leave the expedition while exploring the Irínida River, one of the tributaries of the Orinoco and the location of the famous scene of the whirlpool in La Vorágine. To return home, Rivera chose a different route, this time through the Amazon basin; it was the time of the year when the seasonal flood cycles imposed hurdles for the navigation of the upper Orinoco. Rivera traveled downriver to the Cassiquiare, a natural canal connecting the Orinoco and Amazon basins, from where he reached the Rio Negro, a major tributary of the Brazilian section of the Amazon River. Then, he traveled downriver to Belém, where he reached the Atlantic Ocean to follow the reverse route through the Caribbean Sea and up the Magdalena River to the capital of Colombia. During this voyage Rivera discovered both the beauty of the jungle and the brutal exploitation of the rubber workers, which he regarded as a national crime. His experiences at the frontier and the information he collected about the painful circumstances surrounding the lives of rubber tappers served as the material for the last two sections of his then unfinished novel.[7]

Thus La Vorágine was first conceived as a novel about Colombia’s traditional frontier, the Llanos, and it was only after visiting Amazonia and Orinoquia that the idea of including these unknown regions emerged in Rivera’s mind. His view of the jungle is a Colombian one. Prior to the publishing of La Vorágine, the jungle was not present in Colombian culture. By being a frontier beyond the traditional frontier, the jungle ended up being conceived by Rivera in different terms. The jungle in La Vorágine is the locus of a real, anti-pastoral wilderness, one whose anti-romantic nature leads to corruption and death. Instead of being an environment that liberates men from its civilized restraints, the closed environment of the jungle, its pesadumbre, can only contaminate humans, dragging them into a downward spiral of destruction. Rivera’s representation of the jungle is informed by his own position as a Colombian and an Andean. Departing from Bogotá, Rivera was unable to reach the Colombian border by land or river straight from the Andes. The lack of pathways connecting Llanos and jungle forced Rivera to a circumventing route through the sea and foreign countries. He penetrated into the jungle through its “front doors” — the mouths of the Orinoco and the Amazon. Thus Rivera’s travel was very different from that presented in in his novel, as the author’s was a classic upriver voyage. Rivera never penetrated the forest coming from the Llanos, as his main character, Arturo Cova, does in the book. In contrast, to reach the border areas claimed by Colombia, the author had to cross foreign territory. Prior to La Vorágine, this part of the Colombian territory was nothing more than lines on a map, completely isolated and disconnected from the national life; a limbo, devoid of meaning to the rest of the nation. By transforming his actual upriver voyage into a fictitious direct descent from the Andes, Rivera tries to frame the exploration story into the classic Andean tropes of downriver expeditions. Also, by connecting this distant region with the center of national power in the Andes, he tried to incorporate it into the territorial and cultural body of the nation.

Unnavigable rivers

Construing La Vorágine through its spatial elements highlights the role of Rivera’s own position as a Colombian in charge of mapping the border in framing his depiction of the frontier. Would an author writing from the other side of the border depict the jungle in terms of a national tragedy as Rivera does in his book? Would it be possible for a Venezuelan or a Brazilian author to have written La Vorágine? Given the centrality of space, territory, and movement in the making of the novel, the answer seems no. As members of the polities that controlled the estuaries of the two major basins of northern South America, Brazilians and Venezuelans had direct access to upriver regions. From the standpoint of Brazilians and Venezuelans geography presented no major impediments for upriver colonization.

The history of the Luso-Brazilian Amazon sheds light on these differences. Already in the seventeenth century the Portuguese Amazon was dotted with a network of riverine settlements founded by religious orders in places where pre-Columbian settlements existed before. The rivers provided a waterway for the establishment of a dense social network connecting these different populations. As Heather F. Roller puts it, “the missions were connected to each other and to the smattering of non-mission settlements via the main rivers, but also by an elaborate network of canals, igarapés (streams, or ‘canoe paths’), and forest trails.” By mid eighteenth century, a network of sixty-two missions stretched from the border with Peru to the Atlantic coast. In the context of the Pombaline reforms and the ban of the Jesuit from Portuguese America these missions were converted into secular settlements under direct control of the colonial authority.[8] Although many historians argue that, by the time of Brazilian independence in the 1820s, the hold of Rio de Janeiro over its far-flung northern territories was weak, when compared to the presence of neighboring Amazon countries Brazil had an old and strong presence in the region. That allowed Brazilian government to open the region to foreign commercial and scientific endeavors in 1850, what led to the establishment of a British owned steamboat company in the Amazon River. [9] Brazil already had established a network of integrated settlements in the region a century before the late nineteenth-century rubber boom. In 1910, rubber accounted for over 25 percent of Brazil’s exports, and thousands of immigrants from other Brazilian regions flooded the Amazon to become rubber tappers (known as seringueiros in Brazil).[10] Unlike Colombians, Brazilians workers pursuing the rubber dream encountered in the Amazon old settlements with considerable ties to national life. That did not prevent cases of debt bondage or other types of workers’ exploitation. But the Brazilian denunciations of worker’s conditions were never framed into a narrative of loss national sovereignty and identity. Indeed, it was quite the opposite; the rubber boom served to extend even further the Brazilian political and economic ties to the region as attested by the 1899-1903 rebellion of illegal Brazilian seringueiros in the Bolivian Amazon that led to the Brazilian annexation of a territory the size of the American state of Georgia (about 150,000 km 2). This area would eventually become the Brazilian territory of Acre. Although Venezuelan rubber production was marginal in comparison to the Brazilian one — the most valuable species of rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, grew predominantly in Brazilian territory —, the Caribbean country also was in a better situation in terms of territorial control of frontier regions when compared to neighboring Colombia. It was true that local rubber tyrants like Colonel Funes and corrupt governor General Pulido controlled the Venezuelan territory of Amazonas. But at least these tyrants were not foreigners, and there was a direct waterway (the Orinoco) connecting such upriver regions with the seat of power in Caracas.

In contrast to her neighbors, the Colombian hold onto the sections of Amazonia and Orinoquia claimed by Bogotá in the 1920s was weak. Colombia’s main obstacle was the lack of navigable waterways connecting the eastern slopes of the Andes to the border regions with Venezuela and Brazil. In the Colombian Amazon most rivers are unfit for the navigation of anything but canoes. Large rivers such as the Caquetá-Japurá and the Vaupés run on the rocky surface Guiana peneplain in eastern Colombia, and they present tortuous courses full of falls, rapids, and narrow passages, which renders navigation unpractical and uneconomic.[11] The region started to attract interest and immigrants in the first decades of the twentieth century as an offshoot of the Brazilian rubber industry emerged in the border between Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil. However, this region remained marginal to the rubber boom because the types of rubber trees found in Colombian territory, Castilla ulei, known as black caucho, and Sepium verum, the white caucho, were less valued in external markets. This situation changed with the second rubber boom generated by American investments in the Colombian Amazon as part of the American war effort in the 1940s. At this point the Colombian state was able to improve its presence in the region. Financed by American money, Bogotá created a network of “airport-towns” (Pueblos-Aeropuertos) that, acting as political-administrative enclaves in the region, enabled the Colombian government to strengthen control over their side of the border. Between 1941 and 1945 the United States built several small runways that served to transport the rubber production directly to American soil. A majority of these runways became permanent settlements establishing the network of riverine runway villages that integrated such borderlands into national society later on.[12]

In sum, although La Vorágine is traditionally read as a jungle novel, and as such it has a Universalist, Western appeal, we believe that it also allows for a spatial interpretation as a river novel. Such approach enables the capture of those elements that are specifically Andean and Colombian in Rivera’s work. In the novel, these aspects become salient after the protagonist and his entourage penetrate into the forest.


Clemente Silva

Clemente Silva, the archetype of the rubber tapper in Eustasio Rivera’s ‘La Vorágine’ [The Vortex] / Source: http://www.bibliotecanacional.gov.co/index.php?idcategoria=38819

The transition from the first part to the second part of the novel presents the passage from the Llanos to the Jungle. After burning literally and metaphorically their connections with the Llanos, Cova and his companions abandon any hope of returning to Bogotá. From then on their path is downriver, along the margins of the Meta and Guanapalo. Crucial to their decision was the fact that, going downriver would mean to escape the arm of the law. Contrary to the Llanos where, despite its wild frontier environment, the presence of the government was still felt in the figure of the judiciary and the army, going downriver meant escaping from state authority. The same lack of state sovereignty in the frontier that is portrait as a problem at the end of the novel is what allows people like Franco to avoid punishment for desertion in this earlier moment.

Entering the forest means leaving horses behind to adopt the curiara, the Indian canoe — a decision analogous to that of the early modern conquistadores. Movement in space is no longer two-dimensionally free, as it was in the Llanos, because it is now conditioned by a network of waterways. Even when traveling on foot, they cannot wander away from the rivers, lest they get lost and perish in the jungle. It also mean they depend more on the native, especially during their introduction to the forest environment before they meet Clemente Silva, their second guide. Their interaction with the Indians is analogous to their interaction with the forest; the Guahiba Indians to whom they depend for their survival in the jungle are mute, part of the background. Their presence as paddlers in the canoes is only indicated by their silent shadows in the water surface. Mute was also the first river they navigate on, a presage for the dark path ahead of them.[13]

Although the rivers in the Colombian Amazon are navigable by small canoes, eventually it is necessary to travel on land to circumvent waterfalls and rapids. This adds to the inaccessibility of the region from the Colombian side. After traveling downriver and almost reaching the Orinoco and the Venezuelan border, Cova and his companions decide to turn westward and travel upriver along the Inírida. The task of navigating upriver is described in sisyphean terms as an endless succession of waterfalls to be overcome.

Las semanas seguientes las malgastamos en domeñar raudales tronitosos. Mas cuando creíamos escaladas todas las torrentesas, nos trajo el eco del monte el fragor de otro rápido turbulento, que batía a lo lejos su espuma brava como un gallardete sobre el peñascal.[14]

Their efforts end in tragedy, as two Maipureño Indians are engulfed by a whirlpool while trying to pull canoes up the rapids of the River. Cova perceives the vainness of his fellow mates’ desperate attempts to rescue the two Indians. Here is when the vortex appears in the novel, dividing it in two halves. Until now, their movement in space was fruit of Cova’s will. In the Llanos, horse riding allowed Cova to move freely through the plains. After entering the forest, Cova tried to escape the limitations of river traveling by choosing to navigate against the strong Andean streams, but then he perceived it is impossible. The vortex symbolizes their failures of traveling upriver — the river consumed two of them and from now on it is clear to Cova that it cannot be overmatched. Upriver travel is no longer a possibility. There is no way back from the jungle, all the paths lead to the border, all the waterways can only be traveled downriver. Trying otherwise brought punishment through drowning. Is the river, not the jungle, that what swallows people. The death of the two Maipureño Indians also mark the passage from the native world of mute Indians to the corrupt rubber tapper society. After the vortex incident, they continued traveling upriver for a few days, but this time on land, along the river margins. Their plan was to find another village of semi-sedentary Indians, but ultimately they find Clemente Silva, a cauchero (Colombian rubber tapper) who becomes their new guide — their old guide, Pipa, had abandoned their group after the vortex incident. Silva also brings another important change in the novel by guiding them from the Orinoco basin to the Amazon basin, and from then on their travel would be exclusively downriver. This also means a change of borders, from Venezuela to Brazil. Thus, Silva guides them, physically and culturally, into the borderlands where the cauchero society had developed. The vortex signalizes the beginning of their descent into the “green hell” of corrupting wilderness. It is also a descension into a very human hell, as the misery of the caucherias described by the different narrators (Cova, Silva) is one created by humans.[15]

Moving into the Amazon basin means entering the sphere of influence of Manaus, capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. The city concentrated enormous amounts of wealth during the Brazilian rubber boom (1880s-1920s), and according to Ordóñez, became a mythical place in the Colombian borderlands for the exuberance of her European architecture in the middle of the jungle. All the rivers lead to Manaus, and the production of the rubber tapping operations described by Cova and Silva had to pass through Manaus to achieve external markets; alternately, all manufactured good consumed at the rubber tapping sites, including newspapers, comes upriver from the Brazilian city. Zoraida Ayram, one of the rubber tapper entrepreneurs in Colombian territory, came from Manaus. Clemente Silva also had been there in the past. Cova resumes the network tying upriver regions in Colombia to Manaus with the mock story about him and his friends that he presents when he arrives at the warehouses of the Guaracú River,

Éramos barraqueros del río Vaupés y residíamos en una zona equidistante de Calamar y de la confluencia de Itilla y el Unilla. Trabajámos en mañoco, siringa y tagua. Teníamos en Manaos un cliente expléndido, la casa Rosas, en cuyo poder me quedaba un ahorro de unas mil libras, que representava mi trabajo de penosos meses como productor y comisionista.[16]

Foreign downriver cities like Manaus in Brazil and Ciudad Bolivar in Venezuela dominated most aspects of life in the Colombian Amazon. In Manaus harbors the only agent of the Colombian state that, in Cova’s opinion, would be capable of rescuing their countrymen from debt bondage: the Colombian Consul. The fact that Cova’s hopes are directed towards Manaus is symptomatic of the spatial features that are central to the novel and the actual history behind it. In the 1920s, the lack of connections between the Colombia’s central sierra and her Amazon regions made it impossible for Bogotá to exert sovereignty over those lands and populations.[17] Therefore, the only option available for Colombia was to claim a minimum hold by proxy through her diplomatic mission in Manaus. This creates a situation where the Colombian state was forced to exert sovereignty over a contiguous area not only as if it was an overseas territory, but as if it was an enclave inside a neighboring country.

Small tyrants coming upriver

According to Charles Maier, the twentieth century saw the maturation of an “overarching spatial imagination” centered on the idea of the border. In South America, several intellectuals concerned with the territorialization of the new nation-states centered the loci of struggles for national identity at spatial borders that reified environmental differences between center and periphery. The Argentina of Domingos Sarmiento’s Facundo: Civilización y Barbárie would only be a civilized nation after Buenos Aires had conquered the barbarian caudillos of the Puna and Monte western arid grasslands. In Brazil, another arid hinterland, the northeastern Caatinga, was the internal border where the conflict for territorial dominance took place in Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões.[18] In La Vorágine, the border where national identity was at stake not only coincides with the formal boundary lines of Bogotá’s claims, but it also reflects a geographical discourse that identifies in the Amazon the limits of the spatial dominance of the Andean centers of power.

In the 1920s a network of local tyrants dominates the Colombian borderland depicted in La Vorágine. Clemente Silva’s antagonist, el Cayeno, is the model for the rubber despot; he is a criminal himself (is a fugitive of the Devil’s Island, in French Guyana), a foreigner, and with great amount of violence he is able to subjugate rubber tappers and create his own micro upriver tyranny.[19] He is one of those man who arrive one day on the edge of a cliff at the shore of one the many rivers in the region and claim, simply, without any scruple, to be a “rubber entrepreneur.” In the border environment of Rivera’s novel, the absence of a sovereign state lends itself to the rule of local riverine dictators. If the jungle is, as Cova says, that what destroys men at the borderlands, rivers are what set the conditions for such destruction by simultaneously facilitating the penetration of outsiders and preventing the national government from imposing its sovereignty over those regions.

The dependence of rivers for communication, transportation, and economic activities in such landscapes is a testimony of an older type of territorial claim. As Lauren Bento puts it;

Empires did not cover space evenly but composed a fabric that was full of holes, stitched together out of pieces, a tangle of strings. Even in the most paradigmatic cases, an empire’s spaces were politically fragmented; legally differentiated; and encased in irregular, porous, and sometimes undefined borders. Although empires did lay claim to vats stretches of territory, the nature of such claims was tempered by control that was exercised mainly over narrow bands, or corridors, and over enclaves and irregular zones around them.[20]

In the initial period of European exploration of the New World, “rivers held a privileged place in these strategies of claim making.”[21] In tropical areas thinly populated by indigenous peoples, upriver traveling was what made possible formal possession of upriver inland regions. That was still true in the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth century, as attested by countless exploratory upriver expeditions that occurred from Patagonia to equatorial Africa. Rivers were still corridors that allowed the national or imperial control of narrow bands in areas where the building of railroad was impossible. But this kind of river-based control also represented the limitations of the new border-based, territorial claims of the early twentieth century polities. For a nation like Colombia, whose border regions where only accessible through Brazilian or Venezuelan territory, the old tales of upriver (or downriver) rebellion and madness seemed particularly true. By the twentieth century, the partial and uneven state sovereignty symbolized by the lack of control over the rubber tapper operations in the Colombian jungle had become unacceptable for an educated Colombian like Rivera. This created the conditions for a depiction of the border as environmentally and socially corrupt. Such anxiety towards the territorial and social character of the jungle borderland would have to wait for the introduction of airborne transportation in post World War II to be resolved.


Benton, Lauren A. A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography In European Empires, 1400-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Castro Caycedo, Germán. Perdido en el Amazonas. 1. ed. Bogotá: C. Valencia Editores, 1978.

Cunha, Euclides da. Os Sertões. São Paulo, SP: Brasiliense, 1985.

Dean, Warren. Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber: A Study In Environmental History. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Doman, Danion L. “Chaos as Ecological and Autochthonous Expression: An Ecocritical Study of La Vorágine.The Coastal Review 3, (2011). Accessed November 16, 2011. http://class.georgiasouthern.edu/fl/thecoastalreview/doman1sp11.html.

Domínguez, Camilo A. Amazonia Colombiana: Economía y Poblamiento. 1. ed. Bogotá, Colombia: Universidad Externado de Colombia, 2005.

Frank, Zephyr, and Aldo Musachio. “Brazil in the International Rubber Trade, 1870-1930.” In Steven Topik et al. From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2006.

Herzog, Werner, Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, and Del Negro. Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes. Troy, MI: Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2000, DVD.

Maier, Charles S. “Consigning the Twentieth Century to History: Alternative Narratives for the Modern Era,” The American Historical Review 105, No. 3 (Jun., 2000), pp. 807-831.

Moretti, Franco, Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900. London: Verso, 1998.

Neale-Silva, Eduardo. Horizonte Humano: Vida De José Eustasio Rivera. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.

Rausch, Jane M. The Llanos Frontier in Colombian History, 1830-1930. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993.

Rivera, José Eustasio, and Montserrat Ordóñez. La Vorágine. Madrid: Cátedra, 2006.

Roller, Heather Flynn. “Colonial routes: Spatial mobility and community formation in the Portuguese Amazon.” PhD diss., Stanford University, 2010.

Salisbury, David et al. “Transboundary Political Ecology in Amazonia: History, Culture, and Conflicts of the Borderland Asháninka.” Journal of Cultural Geography 28, No. 1, (February 2011), 147-177.

Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino. Facundo: Civilización y Barbárie. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Estrada, 1911.

Wikimedia, “SVG Map of South America with Labels, SVG vector file.” accessed on November 15, 2011. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:South_america.svg.

[1] Herzog, Werner, Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes, (Troy, MI: Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2000), DVD.

[2] José Eustasio Rivera, and Montserrat Ordóñez, La Vorágine (Madrid: Cátedra, 1990).

[3] Ordóñez, “Introducción” in La Vorágine, 12-13.

[4] Jane M. Rausch, The Llanos Frontier in Colombian History, 1830-1930, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993), 320.

[5] Rausch, The Llanos Frontier, ix-xi

[6] As late as the 1950s airplanes were uncommon in the region, and the connection between Colombia’s central regions and her Amazon settlements was still being done mainly through the Atlantic and the Brazilian section of the Amazon River. Castro Caycedo, a Colombian naval officer, described his travel in 1952 on a navy ship transporting building material from the port of Cartagena to Leticia, in the Colombian Amazon. The ship left Cartagena to Aruba, in the Southern Caribbean, and from there it went to Trinidad and Paramaribo, in the then Dutch Guyana. After Leaving Paramaribo, it traveled to the Brazilian city of Belém and entered the Amazon River. After days traveling upriver, it reached the border of Brazil and Colombia, where Leticia was located. The straight-line distance between Bogotá and Leticia is around 1,000 km, but the actual distance of the mandatory circumventing route through the Atlantic and the Amazon river is around 7,000 km. See Germán Castro Caycedo, Perdido En El Amazonas, (Bogotá: C. Valencia Editores, 1978), 59-62.

[7] Eduardo Neale-Silva, Horizonte Humano: Vida De José Eustasio Rivera. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960), 232-260. Rausch, The Llanos Frontier, 321.

[8] Heather Flynn Roller, “Colonial routes: Spatial mobility and community formation in the Portuguese Amazon,” (PhD diss., Stanford University, 2010), 2-36.

[9] Warren Dean, Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber: A Study In Environmental History, (Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 11.

[10] Zephyr Frank and Aldo Musachio, “Brazil in the International Rubber Trade, 1870-1930,” in Steven Topik et al. From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000, (Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2006), 271-273.

[11] There are only two rivers that allow the navigation of large boats: the Guaviare, which belongs to the closed system of the upper Orinoco, and the Putumayo-Içá, which offers the good southern waterway to the Amazon. See Camilo A. Domínguez, Amazonia Colombiana: Economía y Poblamiento, (Bogotá, Colombia: Universidad Externado de Colombia, 2005), 227.

[12] Domínguez, ibid., 218-219; 246.

[13] For Rivera indigenous peoples could not be counted in the building of a Colombian hold at the border. In contrast with the inhabitants of the Llano, the Indians in the jungle are not even barbarians (that could be civilized), but part of the nature. Cova updates the old trope of Indians without king, law, or faith to the early twentieth century absence of the key features of religion, history, and nationality. Their indigenous Shamanism makes them incapable of differentiate themselves from the animal kingdom, which prevents them from achieving the minimum standards required for peoples to act as agents in the universal history of nations. Rivera, La Vorágine, 189-195; 209.

[14] Rivera, La Vorágine, 232.

[15] As Doman puts it, whirlpools also denote “water, rapid motion, and the threat of death”, three fundamental aspects of many Neotropical forests. ‘La vorágine’, then, in addition to its important symbolic function in the text, also aptly describes the physical realities of the Amazonian forest portrayed in the novel, with respect to water, rapid motion, and physical danger. … Aided by the omnipresent water, change happens quickly in tropical land environments, particularly when compared to other terrestrial ecosystems of our planet.” Doman, Danion L., “Chaos as Ecological and Autochthonous Expression: An Ecocritical Study of La Vorágine,The Coastal Review 3, (2011).

[16] Rivera, La Vorágine, 319.

[17] This lack of sovereignty seems contradictory at first sight since Bogotá is actually closer to the Colombo-Brazilian border than Manaus. In fact, the straight-line distance between the border and Bogotá is about 400 miles, while the distance between the same border and Manaus is 300 miles greater, about 700 miles. Again, this is the effect of the lack of navigable waterways connecting Bogotá to the Colombian border.

[18] Charles S. Maier, “Consigning the Twentieth Century to History: Alternative Narratives for the Modern Era,” The American Historical Review 105, No. 3 (Jun., 2000), 818-9. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Facundo: Civilización y Barbárie, (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Estrada, 1911). Euclides da Cunha, Os Sertões. (São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1985).

[19] In the Amazonian borderlands, nationality is a crucial element in defining ones’ position in the narrative. Clemente Silva is Colombian, which is enough to make Cova trust him as a guide. He is also the example of the exploited cauchero, and the fact that his tale of oppression and misery in the jungle is a Colombian one adds to Rivera’s complain on the lack of national sovereignty at the border. On the other hand, most of the entrepreneurs involved with the rubber business are foreigners: el Cayeno is French (Corsican); Zoraida Ayram and Miguel Pezil are “Turkish” — a generic term for Turkish and Arab immigrants whose passports were issued by the Ottoman empire —; Colonel Funes is Venezuelan. The only exception is Barrera, who is Colombian. But he is as a traitor; a man who kidnaps fellow countrymen to sell as slaves in the rubber tapping fields.

[20] Lauren A Benton, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography In European Empires, 1400-1900, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 2.

[21] Benton, ibid., 54.

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