Surviving both the Andes Mountains and the Amazon River isn’t an easy task even in modern times. Isabel Godin des Odonais did it in 1769. She began her journey with all her worldly possessions and 39 other people; she ended up finishing it alone, with nothing. This is quite a story.
It began with a French expedition to measure the size of the earth, led by Charles-Marie de La Condamine, which began in 1736 and ended in 1744. The expedition spent most of its time in northern Peru (today’s Ecuador), on the equator.
One of the members of the expedition was Jean Godin, While in Ecuador, he met and married Isabel des Odonais, the wealthy daughter of an aristocratic Spanish official. Jean wasn’t a good businessman, and all of his efforts at making money were failures. A few years after the expedition ended, he decided that he and Isabel should go back to France, where his family lived.
Jean’s plan was to go down the Amazon to the eastern coast, to French Guiana, to check out the route, and then come back for Isabel, who was pregnant at the time. (I know, this sounds crazy to me too. As you’ll see, Jean was lacking in judgment and drive.)
Jean left Peru in March 1749. When he reached Cayenne, French Guiana, on the east coast of Africa, he found it impossible to get back to Ecuador. The Spanish didn’t like the French, and they kept denying him a passport. He tried various money-making schemes, felt that someone “owed him a living.” The years passed, and he kept trying to get a passport, sending letters to everyone he knew. (Letters back and forth to France at the time could take years; Jean in Ecuador got a letter announcing his death – 8 years later!)
Finally 18 years after he arrived, he was able to persuade the French to send a ship up the Amazon to pick up Isabel. (Jean was supposed to travel with the boat, but he refused, thinking it was a plot by the Portuguese to kill him. Strange man.) The ship got as far as it could and waited….
Isabel, still waiting after all these years, had lost several children to disease, and she was eager to get to her husband. When rumors of the boat were confirmed, she left Riobamba, Ecuador to journey through the Andes and along the Amazon.
When she married Jean, Isabel was 14, and beautiful. She was “quite fetching,” petite with delicate features, milk-white skin, and black hair. She was obviously intelligent and strong-willed. When she left on her journey in 1769, she was middle-aged, plump, with a little gray in her hair. She had been kept in seclusion most of her life. Peruvian women didn’t go outside without a male escort or a servant and then only briefly.
To make this journey, she would have to travel over massive mountain peaks and through steaming tropical rain forests. At first, her father and brothers refused to let her go, but her strong will prevailed, and they agreed to go with her. Her father would go ahead of the party and arrange for canoes, and her two brothers and a nephew would go with her. They insisted she couldn’t walk, so she rode in a sedan chair.
Imagine the sight of this party of 40 people, including Isabel’s maid and slaves and all her worldly possessions, setting out over the Andes. I have a picture of my mind of the Amerian pioneers setting out on their journeys across the plains, taking their pianos and rockers and all their furniture. And we know what happened to all that lovely stuff; it ended up strewn across the prairies.
A journey from the west to east coast of South America, near the equator, involved first traveling about 350 miles over the Andes to the headwaters of the Amazon. This part of the Amazon was treacherous and difficult because there were many rapids and tributaries and the jungle was impenetrable. At some point, though, the Amazon became a large broad river and was much easier to navigate. So, the trick was getting from Ecuador to this point, where the ship was awaiting them.
The first hint of disaster came when they approached the Indian village of Canelos, where they hoped to get supplies. They found it abandoned because of smallpox. Two Indians were hiding the woods, and they agreed to take them down the Bobanaza, a tributary of the Amazon. When the party got lost on the river, the guides and all the other Indians abandoned them (Isabel had made the mistake of paying them in full at the beginning).
Now 40 people were down to 7; they didn’t know where they were or how to get anywhere. They were stranded on a sandbank and were afraid to go into the rainforest (think: poisonous snakes, anacondas, biting ants, sandflies, mosquitoes, savage tribes, etc.). There was little to eat in the rainforest; most of the edible plants were in the canopy and many plants were toxic. After several weeks they were starving, so a doctor on the trip suggested he and a couple of others go downriver and get help.
They tried to make a raft to go downriver, but it collapsed, and Isabel in her heavy dress almost drowned.
Isabel and her brothers and a few others were still on the sandbar, which was shrinking as the river rose. They decided to leave by following the river. This plan was doomed to fail; the river had too many twists and turns, so they would be going many more miles than the crow flies and they had no way to find direction. The brothers and nephew grew weaker, and they all died. Now she was alone.
Isabel walked, staggered, and stumbled on, deranged and distraught, for maybe a week (no way to know), with no set destination, until she met some Indians, including two women. They gave her food and nursed her until she was able to go on to a Jesuit mission. After resting a while, she was able to go to the boat that was waiting and go downriver in a “triumphal procession.” In a tearful reunion, he called her “my cherished wife.” This was July 1770, ten months from the start of her journey.
In 1773, they went to Saint-Amand-Montrond, France, where they lived together for almost 19 years. Jean died in 1792 at age 79, and Isabel, who had never really recovered her health after the journey, died six months later, at age 65.
Why Was Isabel So Extraordinary?
The Amazonian rainforest Isabel traveled through was deemed “utterly intolerable” by experienced explorers. In 200 years of exploration, no one had been lost in the rainforest this long and survived. What made her different?
- She was a woman, and plump. Women carry more body fat than men anyway, and she had some extra.
- She had a strong faith. As recounted by one biographer, she recited Hail Marys and prayed as she walked alone.
- She was determined, with a goal. In Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, he says that a purpose, someone waiting at the other end, can make the difference between giving up and going on to the end.
One of Isabel’s biographers, Jessica Shattuck, says,
“What seems to count most is an inner psychological strength, which is nurtured by purpose, hope, and spiritual belief….Survivors of long ordeals regularly report that their will to live was sustained by the thought of a specific goal or task they needed to achieve – with such unfinished business, they don’t allow themselves to die.”
I believe Isabel’s strong will, the same will that made her start on the journey in the first place, and her strong belief propelled her forward. What an amazing lady!
Tributes to Isabel Godin
The public library in Saint-Amand-Montrond, France, is named the Bibliothèque Municipale Isabel Godin.
A South American fish Champelix godina is named after her, and there is a statue of her in Cajabama (formerly Riobamba), Ecuador.
Read More about Isabel Godin and Her Journey
The Mapmaker’s Wife by Jessica Shattuck is an overall story of the La Condomine expedition and, at the end, details on Isabel’s journey.
The Lost Lady of the Amazon by Anthony Smith is more specifically about Isabel’s journey.
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