Francisco de Orellana

gigatos | January 1, 2022


Francisco de Orellana (1511-near the Amazon River, November 1546), was a Spanish explorer, conquistador and adelantado at the time of the Spanish colonization of America. He participated in the conquest of the Inca Empire and, subsequently, was appointed governor of several towns. He was considered one of the richest conquistadors of the time.

In 1535 he participated in the pacification and foundation of Puerto Viejo where he held the positions of alderman, ordinary mayor as well as lieutenant governor and one of the first neighbors. In 1537 he re-founded the city of Guayaquil, which had been destroyed by the native Indians on several occasions and relocated by different Spanish colonizers. The following year he received the title of lieutenant governor of Guayaquil. After finishing the reconstruction of the city, he left for Quito and, together with Gonzalo Pizarro, organized an expedition that would end with the discovery of the Amazon River.

After surviving the journey through the Amazon, he returned to Spain where he was accused of treason on charges brought by Pizarro. After being acquitted, he organized another expedition, but did not have the necessary capital or approval. For this reason, he turned to piracy and headed back to the Amazon, where he and most of his crew perished with no specific location along the river.

Francisco de Orellana was born in Trujillo in 1511. He was an intimate of Francisco Pizarro”s family. He traveled to the New World very young (1527), serving in Nicaragua. He reinforced Pizarro”s army in Peru (1535) and served him in multiple campaigns, in one of which he lost an eye.

During the civil war between the conquistadors in Peru, he aligned himself with the Pizarros and was sent by Francisco Pizarro in command of a column from Lima to help Hernando Pizarro. In 1538 he was appointed governor of the province of La Culata, on the coast of present-day Ecuador, where he rebuilt and repopulated Santiago de Guayaquil, which had recently been destroyed by the Indians, previously founded by Pizarro and repopulated by Sebastián de Benalcázar.

In 1540, Gonzalo Pizarro arrived in Quito as governor and was commissioned by Francisco Pizarro to organize an expedition to the east, in search of the Cinnamon Country. Orellana learned of the expedition that Pizarro was organizing and joined it. In Quito, Pizarro gathered a force of 220 Spaniards and 4000 Indians, while Orellana, second in command, was sent to Guayaquil to enlist more troops and get horses. Pizarro left Quito in February 1541, just before Orellana, with 23 men and horses, joined him.

Orellana did not give up and hurried to join the main expedition, finally contacting it in the valley of Zumaco, near Quito in March 1541. He was the third Lieutenant Governor of Puerto Viejo after having assisted in its pacification and foundation where he lost an eye, in the vicinity of the current Ecuadorian coast, besides having been one of the first famous neighbors of Puerto Viejo. For this reason there are documents that merit the stay of Francisco de Orellana in the first colonial town councils of current Ecuadorian cities.

They crossed the Andes. After a year, in the absence of search results, Gonzalo Pizarro and Orellana built a brigantine, the San Pedro, to transport the wounded and supplies, and followed the courses of the Coca and Napo rivers to the confluence of the latter with the Aguarico and the Curaray, where they found themselves short of provisions. They had lost 140 of the 220 Spaniards and 3000 of the 4000 Indians that made up the expedition.

It was then agreed (February 22, 1542) that Orellana would continue on the boat in search of food downriver. He was accompanied by about fifty men. Unable to make it up the river, 0rellana waited for Pizarro. Finally, he made a last attempt to contact him by offering his men a reward for the six volunteers who agreed to go up the river and inform Pizarro of their situation. However, only three men volunteered to try to return upriver and so Orellana”s initiative could not be carried out. After a vote, it was decided to continue downriver in the hope of reaching the end of the river and saving their lives. In order to attempt the voyage with more guarantees of success, the construction of a new brigantine, the Victoria, was begun. Meanwhile, Pizarro had returned to Quito by a more northerly route, with only 80 men, those who remained alive.

Orellana continued downriver. After seven months and a journey of 4800 kilometers, in which he sailed down the Napo River, the Trinidad (Jurua River?), the Negro River (named by Orellana) and the Amazon, he arrived at its mouth (August 26, 1542), and from there he sailed along the coast to Nueva Cadiz on the island of Cubagua (present-day Venezuela). The Victoria, carrying Orellana and Carvajal, skirted the island of Trinidad to the south and was stranded in the Gulf of Paria for seven days, finally arriving at Cubagua on September 11, 1542.

It was on this voyage that the Amazon acquired its name. It is said that the expedition was attacked by fierce female warriors, similar to the Amazons of Greek mythology, but it is possible that they were simply fighting against long-haired indigenous warriors. However, the chronicles of Father Gaspar de Carvajal, chronicler of Orellana, make it very clear that the Indians who fought them were led by women.

Since all hope of reuniting with Gonzalo Pizarro, the real leader of the expedition, vanished, Orellana was unanimously elected captain of the group. It was decided to build a new brigantine, which was named Victoria, and to continue down the river to the open sea. Along the way, the heroic explorers faced a thousand dangers, were attacked several times by the natives and showed extraordinary courage.

The trip prepared continuous surprises for them: immense trees, jungles of luxuriant vegetation and a river that seemed more like a sea of fresh water and whose tributaries were larger than the most abundant in Spain. When they could no longer see the banks of that grandiose river, Orellana ordered them to navigate in zigzag to observe both banks.

On the morning of June 24, St. John”s Day, they were attacked by a group of Amerindians led by the mythical Amazons. The Spaniards, before those tall and vigorous women who shot their bows with dexterity, thought they were dreaming. In the fray, they managed to take prisoner one of the men who accompanied the brave ladies, who told them that the Amazons had a queen named Conori and possessed great wealth. Marveled by the encounter, the navigators named the river in honor of such fabulous women.

On August 24, Orellana and his party reached the mouth of that impressive body of water. For two days they fought against the waves that formed when the river current collided with the ocean and finally managed to get out to the open sea. On September 11, they reached the island of Cubagua, in the Caribbean Sea, culminating one of the most exciting voyages in the history of discovery.

From Cubagua, 0rellana embarked for Spain. However, after a difficult crossing, he arrived first in Portugal, where the king offered him hospitality and even received offers to return to the Amazon with an abundantly supplied expedition under the Portuguese flag.

The Treaty of Tordesillas had placed the entire length of the Amazon under Castilian sovereignty, while the Portuguese considered the Brazilian coast to be their entire property. However, Orellana continued on to Valladolid (May 1543) in the hope of securing Castilian claims to the entire Amazon basin.

Once at court, and after nine months of negotiations, Charles I named him governor of the lands he had discovered, baptized New Andalusia (February 18, 1544). The capitulations allowed him to explore and colonize New Andalusia with no less than 200 infantrymen, 100 cavalry and the material to build two river ships.

Upon his arrival in the Amazon, he was to build two cities, one of them right at the mouth of the river. However, preparations were delayed due to lack of funds. Finally, thanks to the financing of Cosmo de Chaves, Orellana”s stepfather, the expedition was able to leave. Shortly before Orellana married Ana de Ayala, a young woman of humble origins who would accompany him on his new voyage.

He sails from Cadiz, but is detained in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, due to the fact that a large part of his expedition was made up of non-Castilians. Finally (May 11, 1545), and hidden in one of his ships, he set sail surreptitiously from Sanlúcar with four ships. One was lost before reaching the Cape Verde Islands, another during the course of the voyage and a third was abandoned upon reaching the mouth of the Amazon.

The landing takes place shortly before Christmas 1545 and 0rellana goes some five hundred kilometers into the Amazon delta after building a river boat. Fifty-seven men starve to death and the rest camp on an island in the delta among friendly Indians. 0rellana sets off in a boat to find food and the main branch of the Amazon.

On his return, he found the camp deserted, as the men had built a second boat and set off in search of Orellana. They finally abandoned and set sail for Margarita Island in the Caribbean Sea.

Orellana and his party continued trying to locate the main channel, but were attacked by Carib natives. Seventeen were killed by poison arrows and Orellana himself died soon after, in November 1546.

When the survivors of the second boat reached Margarita Island, they met up with 25 shipmates, including Diego Garcia de Paredes and Ana de Ayala, who had arrived on the fourth ship of the original fleet. A total of 44 survivors (out of 300 who had departed) were eventually rescued by a Spanish ship. Many of them settled in Central America, Peru and Chile, while Ana de Ayala married another survivor, Juan de Peñalosa, with whom she lived until her death in Panama.

At present, a province of Ecuador is called Orellana. Likewise, in the district “Las Amazonas” (on the Napo River), province of Maynas in the department of Loreto, in Peru, there is a locality called “Francisco de Orellana”.

Francisco de Orellana appears as part of the thread of the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones saga, (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), although many of the facts stated in the film about Orellana are inaccurate, or outright false.

To begin with, Orellana did not go looking for the mythical city of El Dorado, as stated in the film. In addition, Indiana Jones states in the film that 0rellana never returned to Spain, which is false, since he was accused by Francisco Pizarro of high treason and tried in Spain, where he was exonerated.

On the other hand, Orellana disappeared in the Amazon, not in Peru, as stated in the film.

Secondary sources


  1. Francisco de Orellana
  2. Francisco de Orellana
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