In The River of Doubt Candace Millard provides us with a supreme treat – an edge-of-the-seat account of one of the most harrowing and dangerous exploratory journeys of the past century; a revelation of the true character of men faced with life threatening choices and a grueling incredibly difficult journey–and a compendium of enduring lessons of effective leadership.
A Perilous Journey
In 1914 former President Theodore Roosevelt travelled down an unexplored river in the vast Amazon jungle with a small exploration party of Americans and Brazilians. The story that unfolds in this book’s 353 pages is astounding.
The two dozen men, including Roosevelt, his son Kermit, Col. Rondon, the Brazilian commander, a naturalist, a physician and a group of camaradas, Brazilian laborers who were chiefly responsible for much of the hardest physical work, traveled down a dark, mysterious river deep in the Amazon jungle for nearly three months. They lost contact with civilization on February 27, 1914. They would not find their way back until late April, when they came across rubber tappers who lived a hard and isolated life at the edge of the known wilderness.
The story details unimaginable hardships. One of their party drowned, one was killed by another of their own party, with the murderer doomed to die in the jungle by his own acts of cowardice. The rest of them came out of the jungle half-starved, weakened, suffering from malaria, dysentery and a score of other maladies.
The Ravaged Lion
Roosevelt, who was 55 years old when the trip began, lost a quarter of his body weight, suffered a severe injury to his right leg which became horribly infected and condemned him to ill health for the last few years of his life, and was stricken by dysentery and malaria. At least twice TR urged his son Kermit and the others to leave him behind. He had begun the trip a strong and vital man weighing 220 pounds, most of that solid muscle, with more strength and endurance than men half his age. He would emerge a physically broken man who could not even walk onto the boat that would take him down the Amazon to a seaport.
The Jungle Challenges–and Forges–Leaders
Throughout the book Millard masterfully interweaves lessons on the flora and fauna of the Amazon jungle, its complex and unique biodiversity and environment. So too she introduces us to isolated Indians who were hostile and fearful of these European intruders and though capable of killing them at any time chose to spare them. Throughout, there were conflicts and challenges faced by a group of men who are as different as night and day.
This is not merely a great story of exploration and survival in a wild jungle. This is a study of men who were experienced and effective leaders of other men. You learn how both Roosevelt and Candido Rondon, both accomplished leaders and survivors, led a group of men through this incredible journey where all their lives hung in the balance every day. You see how they prevented the mutiny that had occurred on similar journeys where the leaders are outnumbered by the men serving them.
Leadership Through Service
You learn how both Col. Rondon and Col. Roosevelt (as TR preferred to be addressed following his presidency) understood that they could lead these men through such an ordeal for weeks on end only by serving them unreservedly. This would include maintaining focus, discipline and order.
Rondon was the supreme guardian of military-like order and discipline which undoubtedly saved their lives. Roosevelt showed his devotion to these men by sharing his food with them when all rations were at a starvation level, and by his manifest willingness to give his life for all of theirs. He refused to be treated any better than Col. Rondon in an act of respect for Rondon. He even shared much of his cache of chocolate bars with other men, which they treasured. In recognition of his age, TR was favored with riding in a canoe for most of the trip. Nonetheless, in most respects he declined favored treatment over the other men.
Wise Leaders Learn as Well as Teach
So, too, the Brazilians earned the highest respect from Roosevelt. He had begun the trip with the view, then common among white Europeans and Americans, that non-white races were inferior to the white race. By the end this notion had been entirely dispelled. The men were of several races including mixed race, Indian, African and European. Their common courage and extraordinary hard work taught Roosevelt that the color of a man’s skin had nothing to do with is ability and his character.
The men learned from Roosevelt, a man twice their age, who was nearly dead with illness and injury, that sheer tenacity and strength of character leads to survival no matter how dim the odds appear. The came to love him as much as their own Brazilian commander. They rejoiced when Col. Rondon officially renamed the River of Doubt the River of Roosevelt.
This book is both highly entertaining and tremendously educational. It teaches about how men can work together to overcome the greatest hardships and how leaders can and should lead through service to others.
The Importance of Principles
The River of Doubt demonstrates that strong leaders must stick with the principles they believe in–especially when the going gets tough.
A memorable example: when one of the camaradas murdered a fellow Brazilian, Roosevelt demanded that the miscreant be executed on the spot. Col. Rondon steadfastly refused. It was contrary to Brazilian law. There was no death penalty in Brazil, and, besides, the man had to be returned to civilization to be tried in a court of law. Ultimately the murderer’s own cowardice resulted in his being lost in the jungle. Nonetheless, Rondon demonstrated adherence to principle in the most difficult circumstances.
Roosevelt was a larger than life figure. He was former President of the United States and a famous warrior. While he seemingly outranked everyone else on in the party he continually deferred to Col. Rondon who was the military authority in Brazil and Roosevelt demonstrated respect for the nation he visited thereby.
The River of Doubt is written like a novel. It showcases the experience and skill of author Millard, a former National Geographic writer and editor. It’s highly readable and yet full of detailed descriptions of the Amazon jungles, the people and animals that inhabit it and the challenges of the first Europeans to journey through parts of its most dangerous regions.
Most memorably, it adds yet another chapter to the remarkable leadership catalog that is the life of Theodore Roosevelt.
Daniel R Murphy | The River of Doubt by Candace Millard