My history hero: Ella Al-Shamahi chooses Cândido Rondon (1865–1958)

Ella Al-Shamahi, explorer and evolutionary biologist, chooses army engineer Colonel Cândido Rondon as her history hero

Former US president Theodore Roosevelt stands on a boat with Cândido Rondon

Cândido Rondon: in profile

Colonel Cândido Rondon was an army engineer who laid more than 4,000 miles of telegraph line through the jungles of Brazil. His expeditions into the Amazon included exploring the Western Amazon Basin, but his most famous was the Roosevelt–Rondon scientific expedition in 1913–14. In 1910, he was appointed the director of the Indian Protection Service (SPI). He encouraged the later creation of the Xingu National Park, a territory where both indigenous people and the environment are protected. In Brazil, Rondon is a national hero, and the state of Rondônia is named after him.

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How did you first hear about Cândido Rondon?

It was through reading about different explorers. What jumped out about Rondon was that he was part-indigenous – technically, mostly indigenous – and an explorer. That combination was seen as so unusual.

What kind of person was he?

He was a naturalist, he was a scientist, he was an anthropologist. He was the Amazon explorer. He once got shot with an arrow and forbade anyone from returning fire because his belief, which was a paradigm shift at the time, was that you approach indigenous people peacefully. It’s mad to think that an army colonel was essentially a pacifist! His motto was, “die if necessary but never kill”.

What made him a hero?

Some people have said that, in the last century, there were three key nonviolent activists. One was Martin Luther King, Jr; one was Gandhi; and Rondon was the third. Yet nobody outside Brazil really knows about him. I think one of the reasons is that he does not fulfil the [white explorer] narrative for us westerners.

Cândido Rondon was as important as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. But nobody outside of Brazil really knows about him

His most famous expedition was one that he did with Teddy Roosevelt [surveying the path of the Rio da Dúvida]. In the American press, it was described as Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition. But this was part of a multi-decade project that Rondon was heading up, where he was placing thousands of miles of telegraph in the Amazon. Roosevelt almost died multiple times. At the end, Rondon literally dropped Roosevelt and his American colleagues off, like a bunch of celebrities, turned around and went back into the Amazon.

What was Rondon’s finest hour?

It was when he served as the first director of the Indian Protection Service (SPI) [Serviço de Proteção aos Índios]. This was the predecessor to FUNAI [Fundação Nacional do Índio], the governmental organisation that protects the rights of indigenous people in Brazil.

Is there anything about him that you find difficult?

There is the question of whether he should have communicated with uncontacted people at all. Certainly today, we would not do that as it would be potentially disastrous for them.

If you could ask him one question, what would it be?

How do you solve what we’re looking at right now? Indigenous people are often the best protectors of their lands, and yet the Amazon is being trashed, people are being killed and trees cut down. I wonder if his ideas and compromises would actually be more workable than other people’s.

Ella Al-Shamahi presents Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon, available via All4. Her new book, The Handshake: A Gripping History, was published by Profile Books in March 2021. She was talking to Jonathan Wright

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This article was first published in the April 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine