Dona Isabel en Amazonie

Dona Isabel and the Amazon: a perilous journey

Dona Isabel and the Amazon: a perilous journey

The Amazon is, in the collective imagination, a dangerous forest, populated by natives, where the luxuriant fauna and flora represent so many dangers for those who dare to venture there. Dona Isabel's adventure in the Amazon bears witness to this. Born in 1728 in what is now Ecuador, Isabel Godin des Odonais, née Grameson, was the daughter of Don Pedro Grameson y Bruno, administrator of Riobamba, a colonial city in the Viceroyalty of Peru. At the age of 14, she married Jean Godin des Odonais, a French cartographer and naturalist who joined a geodetic mission in the Quito region, led by her brother Louis. Their union led them to settle in Riobamba, where Dona Isabel gave birth to four children, who tragically died in their childhood. In 1749, the young woman's life took a turn when Jean Godin learned of the death of his father, thus beginning a long period of separation which was to test their love and their resilience in the face of adversity....

Dona Isabel and Jean Godin: separated by the Amazon

While Isabel was pregnant again, Jean Godin began a perilous crossing of South America through the Amazon forest in March 1749 with the aim of reaching French Guiana. This expedition, which lasted a year, aimed to assess the feasibility of this journey with his family and to take the necessary administrative measures with the French authorities. In 1750, after reaching Cayenne, Jean sought to return for Dona Isabel and their newborn, but encountered the refusal of the Portuguese and Spanish colonial authorities to allow him to cross their territories again. Determined not to abandon his family, he remained in Cayenne and struggled to obtain the required authorizations to return to Riobamba. However, his efforts proved futile until 1765, when the King of Portugal, Joseph I, ordered a ship to finally bring John back to his wife. For unclear reasons, perhaps illness or fear of an ambush, Jean parted ways with this mission en route. For her part, Dona Isabel is still patient, looking for a sign from her husband to begin the great crossing of the Amazon.

Dona Isabel's Adventure through the Amazon

Two years after the departure of the Portuguese ship, the rumor of its presence on the other side of the Andes reached Dona Isabel's ears. Determined to find her husband, she decides to mount a daring expedition, made up of one of her faithful servants, Joachim, and a few natives. Despite the challenges and dangers that litter their path through the impenetrable Amazon, this small, persevering troop ultimately returns victorious. With unwavering determination, Dona Isabel then begins her own journey across the immensity of the Amazon, guided by the hope of finally finding the Portuguese ship which holds the key to their long-awaited reunion.

A group gradually decimated by the harshness of the Amazon

Dona Isabel, from a family of good local reputation, begins her expedition in relative comfort, being transported on a sedan chair and accompanied by an opulent retinue including doctors, servants and porters, with even a few members of her family joining adventure. However, the harsh conditions of the journey through the Andes and rainforest quickly become apparent. The group suffered losses in the first days, with many Native Americans fleeing into the forest. Arriving at Canelos, they discover nothing but desolation. Supposed to find a boat there to take them to Andoas, they only found a few natives ready to help them, while many others fled the expedition. Destitute and unable to navigate without a solid boat, they began building a raft after several days of walking. Unfortunately, it proved too heavy and immediately sank, the river taking with it the meager remaining provisions. Poor diet, infections and insect bites begin to decimate Dona Isabel's companions, leaving the group in a desperate struggle to survive in the unforgiving Amazon jungle.

Dona Isabel, alone in the heart of the Amazon

Probably endowed with a robust constitution, lost in the immensity of the Amazonian forest, Dona Isabel unfortunately finds herself the only survivor of the expedition. Plunged into a state of panic and madness, she wanders desperately in the jungle, totally isolated and devoid of resources. The immeasurable trauma she endured, from the heartbreaking loss of her four children to the tragic deaths of her family members during the expedition, plunged her into a state of extreme torpor. After ten days of lonely and desperate wandering, she was miraculously rescued by caring Native Americans who cared for and fed her. Thanks to their precious help, Dona Isabel manages to regain her strength and resume her journey towards Andoas, from where she can join the famous Portuguese ship which awaits them in Iquitos

The reunion of Dona Isabel and Jean

The second part of the journey is made on the Portuguese ship, in the company of his father in much more enviable conditions: food, drinks, bed... In around ten weeks, the Amazon River has descended. News of Dona Isabel's imminent arrival spread like wildfire, and on July 22, 1770, after 19 long years of separation, Isabel and Jean finally met again in the town of Oiapoque. Their reunion marks the end of a test of patience and determination that spanned two decades.

Map of Dona Isabel's journey through the Amazon

The journey of Dona Isabel in the Amazon
  • Departure from Riobamba in 1769 with a large team towards Canelos
  • After one or two months of travel, the expedition arrived at the Canelos mission, on the banks of the Rio Bobonaza. She was supposed to be expected there but an epidemic of smallpox decimated the village.
  • It is while trying to join Andoas' mission that things become complicated and Dona Isabel gets lost alone, in the Amazon forest.
  • Rescued by Native Americans, she was taken to Andoas where she was cared for and fed.
  • Then, she is taken to Iquitos where the Portuguese ship is waiting for her, with her father.
  • From there, the journey is much more peaceful until Oiapoque where she finds Jean

Do not hesitate to discover my old maps of the Amazonian regions crossed by Dona Isabel in my old maps of South America.

The posterity of Dona Isabel's journey through the Amazon

Dona Isabel's journey through the Amazon had a profound impact on people's minds and inscribed her name in History but also among feminist icons. Her strength of character and courage are recounted in her husband's writings. Many books have been written about her such as “Dona Isabel” by Christel Mouchard and podcasts, don't hesitate to search, the stories are fascinating!
If the journey of Dona Isabel in the Amazon and, more generally, adventure stories interest you, also discover the story of Alexander Selkirk or the journey of Marco Polo.
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