Redmond O’Hanlon

All in the name of science: three young naturalists go on an Amazonian killing-spree

A review of Naturalists in Paradise by John Hemming describes how the naturalist Russell Wallace helped solve the problem of the origin of the species

John Hemming is our greatest living scholar-explorer. He is best known for his extraordinary first book The Conquest of the Incas, published in 1970 when he was 35 — a work of vivid, monumental scholarship that is still unsurpassed. His love for the peoples of the Amazon produced a remarkable historical trilogy: Red Gold (1978), Amazon Frontier (1987) and Die If You Must (2004), which together cover the years from 1560 to the end of the 20th century. They are big, magisterial, powerful works, perhaps driven by one intense memory…

In 1961 with his friends from Oxford, Richard Mason and Kit Lambert, he mounted an expedition to map the course of the Iriri river. All went well for five months until tragedy struck, as Hemming writes in Die If You Must:

Richard Mason’s body was found, lying on the main supply trail a few kilometres from our camp. He was carrying a load (mostly sugar) up from Cachimbo and had walked into an Indian ambush. He had been hit by eight arrows, and his skull and thigh were smashed by club blows. Some 40 arrows and 17 heavy clubs were arranged around the body.

In 1996 Hemming visited the tribe that killed Mason, now known as the Panará. They had had no knowledge of clothes and the swish-swish of Mason’s jeans as he walked had unnerved them. Typical of Hemming, he had left a present of machetes at the place of death — which he found the Panará still possessed and valued (they’d had no metal tools).

After a lifetime spent travelling in the Amazons and documenting their tragic histories it is perhaps inevitable that Hemming should turn to three stories of earthly delights around the great rivers: the biographies of a group of immensely attractive young English naturalists.

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