Francisco de Orellana was a 16th-century Spanish explorer. He was the first European to sail down the Amazon river. He was born around 1511 in Trujillo, Spain. At the time, the newly-discovered Americas were a beacon for Europeans seeking their fortune.
Orellana left for the New World when he was 16. In 1535, he went to Peru as part of Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca empire. In February 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro, Francisco’s brother, organized an expedition to explore the interior of the continent. The Spanish were searching for gold and cinnamon, then quite a valuable spice. Orellana joined a convoy of around 300 Spaniards and 4,000 indigenous people.
The journey was long and arduous. Crossing the Andes was especially difficult. Once past the mountains, the explorers continued their march, following the Coca and Napo rivers. Although they found cinnamon, the desire to find gold pushed them ever farther into a treacherous and unexplored jungle. After a year, they had completely run out of food and over half the men had died. They built a boat and Orellana was ordered sail down the Napo river to look for food. Orellana’s fifty-man team reached an enormous river in the heart of the jungle after just a few days. Orellana realized he would not be able to go back upstream to Pizarro. He decided to follow the river’s current, in hopes that it would reach the Atlantic. In June 1542, Orellana’s expedition was attacked by a group of skilled archers that he thought were women. Inspired by the warrior women from Greek mythology, he named the river “Amazon” after them. It’s likely, however, that the archers were actually longhaired, smooth-skinned men. The Spanish reached the mouth of the river on August 26, 1542, after a 5000 kilometres journey that had taken them seven months.
A year later, Orellana returned to Spain. The king gave the explorer permission to govern the land he discovered. Orellana called it New Andalusia. He left Spain with a flotilla of four ships. They reached the mouth of the Amazon in December 1545. The expedition, however, was unlucky. They lost two ships crossing the Atlantic and a third one ran aground at the mouth of the river.
In spite of all this, Orellana sailed down the river, looking for its main branch.
His expedition was challenged by more armed attacks and outbursts of tropical disease.
Orellana himself died from a tropical disease in November 1546.