Francisco de Orellana was a Spanish explorer and conquistador, best known for traversing the entire length of the Amazon River against all odds in the 1540s. On arrival to this distant, mystical land, he saw the impossible before his eyes. Advanced civilisations within the Amazon, sprawling with millions of people and technologies previously unseen by Europeans. On his return to Spain, he spoke of the wondrous sights that he had seen, only to be ridiculed when future expeditions to the Amazon found nothing apart from dense jungle. There was no evidence of any human settlements, let alone the metropolises that Orellana had described. We now know that the reason for this was the introduction of smallpox and other infectious diseases, which sadly killed off entire cities in a deadly epidemic. But to the Spanish powers at the time, these tales were fanciful at best, an embarrassment to the nation’s reputation at the worst. As a result of this, Orellana was humiliated and discredited, only for the unlikeliest of sources to corroborate what he had seen to be an accurate account to surface in the last two decades. The current mass deforestation of the Amazon has inadvertently paved the way for archaeological investigation, which has unveiled geoglyphs and terra preta soil as clear evidence of human settlements in a place previously deemed uninhabitable by anthropology scholars. Orellana had been right all along.
Orellana’s discovery of a new understanding of reality and his subsequent derision due to its incompatibly with existing tradition can teach us about the power of insisting on our vision. Most of us choose to tread on well-established paths because we believe that our fore-bearers did so purposefully. There must be a reason as to why it is important to follow tradition, most likely because it is tried and tested. We are told that an adherence to tradition underpins our society, through principles outlined through Judeo-Christian commandments and Enlightenment thinkers. The shunning or judgement we may face from others for our unconventional aspirations is not always coupled with malice intent, but for our own protection to prevent us descending down a road that is likely to bear little fruit.
But the truth is so much of what becomes collective wisdom begin as accidental discoveries. Humans are a notoriously stubborn species and so it often takes a step in a miscalculated direction for us to stumble upon innovation. The most lucrative career trajectories today are very distinct from the historic avenues of accumulating wealth. The most widespread ideological beliefs today were incompatible in the civilised societies of yesteryear. Many students have found more productive ways of learning and building knowledge, despite being shackled within the confines of an archaic school system designed to produce coal miners and obedient labourers. The majority of those who dispel the potential of a new venture often lack the sense of adventure to broaden their horizons and their own expectations of what is possible. And Orellana was insistent on his vision, ultimately to his own detriment. The world he had discovered was suddenly vastly different to what he had known, all through his endeavour to carve out avenues where no one had previously explored. When the second set of Spanish expeditions saw only the overgrowth, their rational convictions meant that it was easier to believe that Orellana was a madman than visualise what he may have seen. What could have been here before? Where could these people have gone? These questions are difficult to pose for those who feel more comfortable living in stasis than exploring potential.
Orellana, amongst other Spanish conquistadors of the 16th Century, were determined to forge a new passage to the West to reap the rewards of a growing spice trade in the then-East Indies. His pioneering uncovered truths that were a challenge to the orthodoxy and gate-kept wisdom of the Spanish at the time, and so his name has drifted into relative anonymity. But even though he was not appreciated in his own era, he died knowing that he was right. There was more than what we are taught to believe. There are some visions that only we are able to see, where others are simply incapable of recognising how a forest could form part of the future. We must be pioneers journeying new lands, even if we are the only recipients of the secrets that they hold.