15 November 2008

Pre-Trip: Murder, Mayhem and Mapmaking

. . . and that's only partially the story in Robert Whitaker's historical biography entitled The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon. Whitaker was selected by the American Library Association for writing one of the best biographies of 2004. Having read the book, I can certainly see why.

The story begins in 1735 when a party of ten French Enlightenment scientists journey from Europe to the Viceroyalty of Peru, a Spanish colonial territory of modern-day Equador. Their task: to measure the circumference of the earth. The team of men included Charles-Marie de La Condamine, Louis Godin and Pierre Bouguer, all important members of the French Academy of Sciences.

Whitaker's descriptions of the men, their personal rivalries and public foibles are compelling, but the story really gets good when their research reaches its conclusion in 1743 and the expedition makes plans to head back to France. Prior to their departure, one of the team members - Jean Godin, the cousin of Louis Godin - met and married a local woman. Actually, it would be a misnomer to call Isabel Grameson a woman on her wedding day; she was a month short of 14 years when she married Jean Godin in an elaborate ceremony on 29 December 1741. But child brides were common in colonial South America and Isabel's father approved of the match.

What follows their wedding is the stuff of legend. When the expedition pulls out of the region in 1743, Godin is "barred from departing because of his debts . . . and take[s] a position as professor of mathematics at the University of San Marcos in Lima" (Whitaker 198). But the political climate for colonial elites in the Viceroyalty of Peru is changing and so by 1749, Godin sets out toward the Amazon basin without his four month pregnant wife Isabel. Godin's goal is to reach the Portuguese city of Para where it meets the Atlantic ocean -- a journey of 3,000 miles -- and obtain the necessary paperwork for their passage to France, then turn around and go back up the Amazon to retrieve Isabel -- another 3,000 mile trip--, take her (and their newborn child) through the Amazon to Para in Portuguese territory (yet another 3,000 mile excursion) before catching a ship back to Europe. Perhaps by now the reader can see how this is turning out: Not well. For starters, only about five Europeans have ever made this trek down the Amazon even once and Godin wants to do it three times. Add to that the complicated world of diplomacy between colonial Spain, France and Portugal and one can clearly see how unlikely Godin's plan might be.

Needless to say, Jean Godin gets stuck in Para and its environs for the next 20 years. That's not a typo from a thick fingered blogger. Isabel, however, never stops waiting to be reunited with her husband, and in 1769 she takes it upon herself to leave her hometown of Riobamba in search of her long lost husband. Without hyperbole, a colonial elite woman traveling down the Amazon searching for a husband she had not seen in 20 years is about as inconcievable as her husband's plans had been in 1749.
Isabel is accompanied by 40 other people, including two of her brothers and a nephew, along with several servants. The latter are justified because a woman of status and culture surely can not trek the Amazon without others to do her hair in the morning.

Along the way, Whitaker exposes the reader to the dangers of the Amazon. From vipers to leeches, from head-shrinking indigenous tribes to vampire bats, Isabel braves it all as she traverses 3,000 miles of Amazon jungle in search of her beloved. Early in the journey, as the reader might imagine, the updo loses its import. Many of her companions, however, lose their lives. In short, Isabel is the sole survivor when the expedition goes awry. Everyone else dies or disappears. Isabel alone crawls out of jungle near-death and, finally, in 1770, reunites with Jean Godin.

There is more to the story, including how the couple finally arrive in France in 1773 but I will leave that for the reader to uncover. In short: Jean had been away from France for 38 years and Isabel never saw South America again.

For more information, maps and links go to http://www.themapmakerswife.com/Mapmaker%27s%20Wife/Home.html. Be sure to click on the link entitled "Following Isabel" for a slide show of photographs by Robert Whitaker. These were obtained by the author during the course of his research of the territory and the route Isabel took. Enjoy!


L K said...

What happened to Isabel's child? The one she was pregnant with when her husband left?

Maureen Moore said...

Good question! Isabel had several children, all of whom died young with diseases. The girl child Isabel was carrying lived to be a young woman named Carmen. Unfortunately she died in April 1768 before Isabel left in search of her husband. In fact, Carmen's death was probably motivation for Isabel to find her husband.