Fluvial Poetics in the Amazon 

Displacement, Infrastructure, Modernization

By Javier Uriarte

Haga clic aquí para leer en español.

Hammocks on a boat trip on the Amazon River. Photo by Javier Uriarte

We were in the hands of the river. 

I had been told that the boat for Manaus, in the Brazilian Amazon, would depart from Santarém at noon. Instead, we set sail at 2 pm. The arrival was even more difficult to determine. The guy who sold me the tickets assured me that the boat would arrive at Manaus on Wednesday morning (we left on a Monday) but Caroline, who lived in Manaus—and whom I met on the boat—, explained that it was simply impossible to predict the arrival time: it could very well be Wednesday morning, but also in the afternoon, in the evening, or maybe on Thursday. I had not considered the possibility of such a long delay. My admittedly unadventurous travel agenda was suddenly imperiled. 

Caroline also told me about other effects of that displacement that I was experiencing for the first time and which I could not fully understand: “You know, when we arrive in our destination the feeling is really weird, it is as if you were still moving in this same ‘boat rhythm’ while walking, as if a very particular rhythm stayed in your body.” 

In this 2015 trip, my first one to the Amazon in which I took most of the photographs that accompany this essay, I learned that the forms and times of displacement in Amazonia can greatly differ from the most common ones in places we consider modern. That’s especially so when they have to do with the rivers, as still today a huge part of all travel in the region takes place through its immense waterways. So, how to tell the stories of rivers? And how to listen to the stories that rivers tell? How to narrate the displacement typical of fluvial cultures and regions? The aquatic imaginary is an essential part of Amazonian peoples, but it has also intrigued intellectuals, travelers and statemen who have written about the region, trying to understand and/or transform it. These are some of the questions that traverse my current research project on the Amazon, which might end up becoming a book with this essay’s title. 

Arriving in Manaus. Photo by Javier Urarte

Rivers have been central in the cultural dynamics of the Amazon region, as Brazilian writer Leandro Tocantins so astutely observes in his 1952 book O rio comanda a vida: uma interpretação da Amazônia (The River Governs Life: An Interpretation of Amazonia). They have played a pivotal role in shaping the ways in which indigenous societies have found food, traveled, traded, engaged in war, celebrated rites and established various kind of exchanges with each other. At the same time, they have also molded the daily lives of ribeirinhos (people of mixed race living close to the rivers) who constitute the great majority of the region’s population. For example, throughout the Amazon basin, different communities have believed—and still do today—in the existence of underwater beings, cities, worlds (my friend Caroline also mentioned that her father would tell her stories about the “monsters” and worlds existing in the depth of the rivers) that play different roles in everyday lives. 

Candace Slater’s Dance of the Dolphin studies—among other folk elements—the sexual connotations of the centuries-old popular tales of an important riverine creature: the pink dolphin (o boto rosa in Portuguese, bufeo in Spanish). Slater, a Brazilian specialist who is a professor at the University of California Berkeley, describes these beings thus: “Dolphins in the Amazon are often encantados, supernatural entities in the guise of aquatic animals who turn into men and women in order to carry off the objects of their desire to an underwater city or Encante, from which few ever return” (4). Slater gathers stories through interviews with several inhabitants of the Brazilian Amazon, exploring the various forms and connotations that these beings adopt in the region’s popular culture. This metamorphic quality is perhaps these beings’ most interesting one as it has to do with a certain protean element strongly present in the fluvial imaginary and which I particularly seek to explore. As suggested, also stories of indigenous communities often reveal a fluid and constant preoccupation with a sense of merger between humans and non-humans. 

But not only native Amazonians have had an intimate relationship with the rhythms of the rivers, with the forms of understanding spaces and times typical of riverine life. These “fluvial poetics,” and their role in the everyday lives of the region’s inhabitants, have also been central to the state’s modernization and infrastructure projects of production and exploitation of the soil, as they tried to impose new ways of conceiving of travel (and, in more general terms, displacement) and have sought to “read” rivers in new ways. I am interested, then, in studying the presence, roles and connotations of rivers in the writings of various intellectuals during the first decades of the 20th century. I will compare their perspectives with those present in the indigenous stories (mostly from the Taulipang and Arekuna peoples) collected, during roughly the same years, by the German anthropologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872-1924), and published in his work From Roraima to the Orinoco (1917). 

Therefore, I pay special attention to the moments when rivers—their rhythms, their logic—adopt a central importance in these writings. The body of work includes a variety of texts, from novels to travelogues, from private diaries to essays, from official reports to short stories. This comparative approach will show not only when and how the different works were intensely citing each other, but also that they shared obsessions and views related to the Amazon as a modern frontier and to its role in various ways of understanding the state, nature and the dynamics between the local and the global. As I analyze an heterogenous corpus, I question some of the frequent assumptions about the Amazon, namely its deserted, “wild” or abandoned character, by bringing to the foreground the strong network of incessant and productive intellectual, material and cultural contacts that characterize it. 

Igarapé near Alter do Chão, on the Tapajós River. Photo by Javier Uriarte

The works studied were published between 1907-1917, during the most intense—and final—years of the period known as the rubber boom. Once Charles Goodyear achieved the vulcanization of rubber in 1839, making it suitable later on for automobile production, the Amazon turned into a cosmopolitan frontier and the world’s main producer of rubber. This export economy produced a new commercial and demographic growth in the region, transforming it into an economic center for various countries. 

Some cities in Amazonia such as Manaus, Belém or Iquitos underwent significant architectural and social transformations. However, in some parts of the Amazon, this boom—a savage exploitation of the region’s natural resources—was experienced more tragically than in others. For example, notably in the Putumayo region, close to the border between Colombia, Peru, and Brazil, this boom brought devastating consequences for several indigenous communities, which suffered systematic enslavement and torture at the hands of rubber impresarios and their overseers. 

This unprecedented penetration of global capital in the region transformed the uses and connotations of several waterways as they became the key arteries for commerce and for the displacement of workforce and merchandise. This new strong logic associated with water complicated the ways in which concurrent narratives of rivers played out in the region. I am interested, then, in exploring the intersections and borrowings between these diverse fluvial poetics, as well as their connections with the changing economic and social reality of Amazonia during the first years of the last century. 

Some of the intellectuals I study, such as the Brazilians Euclides da Cunha and Alberto Rangel (authors of À margem da história [At the Margins of History, 1909] and Inferno verde [Green Hell, 1908] respectively) or the Colombian Miguel Triana (author of Por el Sur de Colombia [Through Southern Colombia, 1907]), were engineers working for the state who imagined the Amazon as transformed by infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges or railways. Still today, this kind of projects, like the recently finished Belo Monte dam, continue to dramatically impact the Amazon’s environment as well as its cultural, economic and social dynamics. These projects—sometimes almost fantastic in their grandiosity—have been present in the state and lettered imaginaries about settling the region for more than a century and they have involved a rethinking of the uses and rhythms of waterways. 

Canoe on Rio Roosevelt, Mato Grosso, Brazil Image # 218634p. Photo courtesy of American Museum of Natural History Library

In more general terms, infrastructure projects have profound environmental consequences, offering us interesting perspectives for rethinking the relationships between humans and the non-human world. Looking at these elements from the perspective of infrastructure, reading the “language” of infrastructure, the traces that humans leave on it, can help us understand in a new light issues of modernization and exclusion; of environmental policies and crises; of landscape conceptualization and transformation; and of labor, working conditions, and uneven development.     

Rangel and da Cunha, for instance, see rivers as associated with disorder, with chaos, with barbarity. In his stories, Rangel specifically links the volubility of rivers with a violent and uncontrolled sexual behavior in some men who come from outside of the Amazonian space with the intent of taking advantage of its riches (the context of the rubber boom is key to his writings), something that he represents as sexual assault on local women (incidentally, I have found that issues of gender and sexuality have a lot to do with rivers in the Amazon). Da Cunha, referring to what he sees as the nomadic character of the rivers, suggests they cannot be appropriately looked at from a civilized perspective and also expresses a profound anxiety regarding the uncontrolled and unpredictable movement of the region’s rivers, as he seeks to propose ways to control or “tame” them, to make them “readable” from the perspective of the state. In order to do this, he makes use of a rhetoric of infrastructure that imagines the construction of bridges and dams, as he considers the effects that building highways or railroads would have in communications, national security and international relations. As suggested above, this section of the book will establish a strong dialogue with the emerging field of infrastructure studies, exploring in depth the links between infrastructure and water. 

A third intriguing example has to do with Theodore Roosevelt’s trip to Amazonia, narrated in his 1914 book Through the Brazilian Wilderness, in which he sails, for the first time, a river he baptizes as “The River of Doubt” (known today as the Roosevelt River, a tributary of the Aripuanã River) because it was not on contemporary maps. It was a river whose trajectory remained unknown, as it traversed uncharted territories (from the point of view of a white man, that is). Here, “discovering” the river has to do with Roosevelt’s ideas regarding the frontier, a notion so central to the U.S. national imaginary. Once the U.S. expansion provoked the closure of the frontier, the expresident decided to take with him the hypermasculine logic of adventure (his is profoundly gendered style), akin to that of war (another important element of Roosevelt’s thinking), to the world’s largest river basin. In this trip the river becomes an obstacle to be overcome—which in turn brings to the fore the physical strength needed to perform what Roosevelt understood as a feat never achieved before. There are numerous scenes of portage, of construction of canoes, and of navigations over unknown and dangerous waters. In the many photographs included in the book, the body of the traveler (posing after hunting or while sailing) becomes an unavoidable presence. 

Rio Duvida camp, on Rio Roosevelt, 1913-1914 - image # 218643p. Photo courtesy of American Museum of Natural History Library

These different logics of domination of the waters constitute a stark contrast to the indigenous stories that show a continuity between the worlds of land, water and sky, between which the characters move seemingly without difficulties. There is also no clear distinction between humans and non-humans, as interactions between, for example, men and fish are not described as involving any relevant distance: fish talk to humans, and sometimes help them or fight against them on an equal footing. River plants and animals adopt a crucial role in various stories regarding the origin of primordial or daily elements. 

Contained in these stories one can find numerous examples of all this: fish drink a special potion in order to be braver, just as natives do before war; rays were created from an aquatic plant; Pílumog, the great dragonfly, has the habit of flying above the water containers and throwing water outside of them by moving its body forward, and so in the sky the dragonfly empties a large lake; “Moto,” the earthworm, which drills the riverside sand of the sky rivers, penetrates into a rock. Also, in some occasions these stories explain that humans, falling into the river waters, are transformed into animals. Finally, just as many narratives of non-Amazonians (the example of Rangel’s stories is perhaps the clearest in my corpus), these stories about origins linked to rivers and waterways have a strongly sexualized content, and make the body—its transformations, its instincts, its fluids—one of its most visible thematic components. This bodily, sexualized or gendered element of rivers constitutes an additional aspect that I am curious about exploring. 

The uses and connotations of rivers have oblique and potentially productive points of contact in these quite different ways of telling aquatic stories, of conceiving of navigation, fluidity and displacement. In my trip I began to grasp the idea that the Amazon is a fragile and sometimes confusing or dissonant chorus of voices that speak through its waterways. Listening attentively to them in order to disentangle and dive into its various meanings and poetics is one of the objectives of this future book. 

Rio Roosevelt from hill below - Image # 315-054. Photo courtesy of American Museum of Natural History Library


Javier Uriarte is Associate Professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook University. He is the author of The Desertmakers: Travel, War, and the State in Latin America (Routledge 2020), and co-editor (together with Felipe Martínez-Pinzón) of Intimate Frontiers: A Literary Geography of the Amazon (Liverpool U. Press, 2019).