Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon stood five feet, three inches tall, weighed about a buck twenty soaking wet and holding onto a set of steel barbells, and took an oath never to kill another human being, even in self-defense. He was also one of the most daring and intrepid explorers to ever live, a terrifyingly-intimidating little motherfucker, and one the most badass men to ever set foot in the Amazon River Basin and emerge alive on the other side.
One of Brazil's most revered heroes was born in May of 1865 in a ridiculously-gigantic province in western Brazil known as Mato Grasso, a name that literally translates just to "Great Wilderness", because, fuck it, let's call a spade a spade here. His father was a Brazilian dude of Portuguese descent and his mother was some mishmashed cocktail of various native Amazon Indian tribal populations, but pretty much all those two folks ever did for little Candido was donate their genetic material, because by the time this kid was two years old he was already an orphan. Raised in extreme poverty by his dirt-poor uncle, Rondon grew up catching his own food, eating freshly-carved monkey meat (awesome), pimp-slapping piranhas, and learning everything he could about the Amazon and all the crazy shit that lives there. When he was 16 Rondon left the uncharted expanses of Great Wilderness, traveled five weeks down the Amazon River in a canoe he Bear Grylls'ed out of a tree he'd chopped down with his own two hands, arrived in Rio de Janeiro, and promptly enlisted in the National Military Academy there. Despite basically not having enough money to afford food or clothing (he no shit had to take a leave of absence during his Sophomore year so he could be hospitalized for starvation) Rondon willed himself through the grueling Academy (showing up a bunch of entitled punks from prestigious douchey families in the process), and graduated with a degree in Engineering and a healthy respect for a hard fucking day's work.
The Great Wilderness
As a young Lieutenant Rondon sort of participated in the national revolution that overthrew Pedro II, the second (and last) Emperor of Brazil (seriously, who the hell knew Brazil had Emperors?!), but where he really got a chance to flex his badass engineering nuts was when he was called on to head up the Rondon Commission – an ambitious national project aimed at installing telegraph poles and establishing a reliable comms line between the major Brazilian coastal cities and those little backwater townships way the fuck in the interior of the gigantic country. The impetus for this project happened back in the late 19th century, when Paraguay or Uraguay or one of those other –aguay countries decided they were going to launch a sneak-attack invasion of Brazil for some reason that isn't important right now, and by the time the Brazilian government realized they were even at war there were already Praguayan troops marching around the Matto Grasso like they owned the fucking place. The Brazilian government understandably wanted to avoid shit like "not knowing we're at war" in the future, so they called in Colonel Candido Rondon, gave him a couple hundred men, sent him out into the uncharted expanses of one of the most treacherous and dangerous locales on earth – the fucking Amazon Rainforest, and told him to build the largest telecommunications relay in the Southern Hemisphere out of a fat spool of wire and whatever trees he managed to cut down while he was in the forest.
Rondon didn't give a shit. He just grabbed a sweet-looking helmet, a hunting rifle, and his favorite pet dogs and marched his battalion out into a place that had previously been labeled "Whatever" and/or "El Dorado?" on official Brazilian maps.
Yeah, have fun installing telephone poles and running wires through this shit.
For the next twenty-four years, Rondon went on hundreds of expeditions across 14,000 miles of wilderness – filling in maps, setting up telephone poles, building bridges, taking measurements, founding cities and towns, and basically Lewis and Clark'ing his way through the goddamned Amazon like he didn't give a shit. Thanks to a steady diet of starvation, disease, waterfalls, poisonous and/or man-eating wildlife, and surprise ambushes by pissed-off spear-hucking natives, Rondon would routinely enter the forest with 80 or 100 men and come back out a year later with 30 half-dead, horribly-sunburned, mostly-naked guys crawling out on their hands and knees begging for potable water. As you can probably imagine, it was more-or-less considered a punishment for any soldier to be assigned to Rondon's Vattalion and, what's worse, when the Colonel's ultra-deadly work had basically killed off all of the worst soldiers the Brazilian military had to offer the high command essentially started just shipping him a bunch of convicts – most of whom wouldn't have hesitated to shank Rondon in the kidneys with a fork and steal his wallet if it meant they no longer had to chop town trees and whittle them into telephone poles in the torrential rain and stifling humidity of the Amazon rainforest. Nevertheless, the tough-as-hell, 5'3" tall Colonel refused to take their bullshit for any reason, and somehow whipped his rag-tag group of misfits and violent criminals into a telecommunications machine that laid out 1,100 miles of telegraph poles at a rate of 11 poles per mile over the course of a quarter-century.
Of course, it's worth noting that the men followed Rondon mostly because he was fucking tough as shit and wouldn't put up with anything even remotely resembling dick behavior. This was a guy who refused special treatment, got down in the muck with the men hauling shit around, and he expected every asshole in his command to pull his weight or die face-first in the dirt trying. During his adventures across the rainforest Rondon hunted jaguars, survived being mauled by piranhas twice (the second time cost him a toe), fought a puma while armed only with a large stick, and once killed a 15-foot anaconda with a brick of TNT while he was dynamite fishing for lunch for his troops. On one occasion, some of his men decided they were going to mutiny, kick Rondon's ass, and go AWOL, so when the Colonel got wind of the plot he had the would-be conspirators dragged out in front of the battalion and beaten with bamboo rods for an hour while everyone watched and laughed. Another time some of his troops got way too drunk and started wreaking havoc in some little border town, so the Colonel personally rode his horse into every saloon in town until he'd rounded them all up.
This guy was serious.
Screenshot from the biographical video game based on Rondon's life.
Despite being a totally intimidating little motherfucker, Rondon was also an avid believer in the social theory of Positivism, a philosophy that basically says, "Hey everybody is actually pretty cool so let's not fucking go around randomly killing each other with shovels". A man who hated violence in all its forms, Colonel Rondon applied his philosophy most efficiently when it came to dealing with the native tribes, constantly reminding his men that they were utterly forbidden to attack even the most ultra-violent Amazonian headhunters, even in self-defense. Like, seriously one time Rondon himself discovered a previously-unknown tribe of naked dudes and was immediately shot square in the chest by an arrow that had been dipped in the venom of a poison dart frog – a poison so deadly it can kill 100 men with one dose. Rondon didn't flinch. He just calmly turned around and rode away with the arrow still sticking out of him.
He came back a few days later. The natives, impressed by his mega balls, didn't attack him this time. Rondon walked up, played a phonograph recording of Wagner for them, and within a month this guy could speak their language pretty much fluently (Rondon spoke 10 Indian languages, as well as Portuguese and French) and had their permission to build telegraph poles on their land. Sure, his men weren't always super into just sitting there and having dudes shoot blowgun darts at them and Rondon's military career often resembled that scene at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy's running away from those thong-wearing spear-swinging dudes, but you can't argue with results.
Rondon making friends with the natives.
Rondon was in the middle of his rainforest adventures when he got a seriously weird text in 1914. Apparently, our boy Teddy Roosevelt was on his way to Brazil to have a fucking hardcore expedition into the middle of the Amazon wilderness, and the government of Brazil decided the only man badass enough to escort him on the mission was Colonel Candido Rondon. Faced with the possibility of escorting a former U.S. President on a journey down the Amazon River, Rondon simply said he wasn't a fucking babysitter and he didn't have time for that bullshit. When his commanders informed him that Roosevelt wasn't interested in some leisurely cruise and instead wanted to explore an uncharted tributary of the Amazon known as the River of Doubt, Rondon slammed down the phone and spent the next five weeks walking to Rio to meet T.R. personally.
The River of Doubt was pretty near and dear to Colonel Rondon's heart, mostly because he's the guy who discovered it. The Colonel had come across the waterway while he was in the middle of a 600-mile, 237-day expedition that had resulted in the death of almost every man and ox he'd taken with him, and since Rondon was half-dead of malaria at the time he discovered it he didn't bother the fuck around trying to measure it (note: Rondon is such a badass that he still walked out of the forest under his own power, refusing a stretcher because he wasn't about to show weakness in front of his men), and instead just called it the River of Doubt because he was like, "I doubt anybody can go down this shit and live." He knew the source, but not the length, the size, or any of the geographic details. It was uncharted, unknown, and ridiculously dangerous, so of course this crazy motherfucker was totally down to rock it.
The only catch this time was, you know, now he had to make sure that he got Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit Roosevelt out of there alive.
The Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition departed in February 1914, took a two month journey on boat and mule just to get to the source of the fucking river, then spent another three months navigating the terrifying rapids and dizzying waterfalls of the River of Doubt. For ten hellish weeks they battled clouds of stinging insects, torrential rain, ridiculously-deadly diseases, anacondas, jaguars, and 15-foot caimans, riding a set of hand-carved wood canoes through world-class rapids, schlepping them down 30-foot waterfalls, and stopping only to take surveying measurements or camp out in three inches of mud surrounded by poisonous vipers and malaria-infected mosquitoes. Roosevelt injured his leg, which got infected, and then almost died of malaria, but when the Prez was down Rondon stepped up, took charge, and made fucking damn sure he was going to get the American out of there alive, even if he had to put the big man on his 5-foot shoulders and carry him out of there step by step.
The journey was grueling, dangerous, and almost killed one of the most badass men in American history, but Rondon somehow pulled that shit out – putting a 1,000-mile tributary of the Amazon River on the map in the process and documenting a number of species of flora and fauna that had previously been unknown. Rondon, ever the modest one, decided after they were done to change the name of the river to the Rio Theodoro, after his buddy Teddy Roosevelt.
After this little adventure Rondon went on to create and become the first director of the Indian Protection Service, a government organization dedicated to preserving the customs and autonomy of Amazon Indian tribes. He ran the Service for over a decade, became a key figure trying to save indigenous populations of the Amazon, founded a few national parks, and eventually became Marshal of the Brazilian Army, which is like the highest rank there is. Roosevelt listed him as one of the four greatest explorers of his time, the Brazilians named a State after him, and these days he's featured not only in their geography but also on their currency. He died in 1958 at the age of 92.
Theodore Roosevelt Center
Diacon, Todd A. Stringing Together a Nation. Duke University Press, 2004.
Millard, Candice. The River of Doubt. Random House, 2006.
Page, Joseph A. The Brazilians. Da Capo, 1996.
Roosevelt, Theodore. Through the Brazilian Wilderness. C. Scribner's Sons, 1914.