This enthralling book brilliantly describes the passionate struggles that have taken place in order to utilize, protect and understand the wonder that is the Amazon. Hemmings riveting account recalls the adventures and misadventures down the centuries of the explorers, missionaries, indigenous Indians, naturalists, rubber barons, scientists, anthropologists, archaeologists, political extremists, prospectors and many more, who have been in thrall to the Amazon, the largest river in the world, with the greatest expanse of tropical rain forest and most luxuriant biological diversity on earth.
After Oxford (History at Magdalen College) and learning magazine publishing in Toronto, I spent a year travelling all over Peru. Then my Oxford friend Richard Mason had the idea of being the first to descend and survey the Iriri river in central Brazil, which we thought was the longest unexplored river in the world. The Braziian government liked this, sent three surveyors, and gave us permission to name small things like waterfalls or streams. (We blew this by naming places after our then Brazilian girlfriends.) After four months of cutting and carrying into completely unexplored forests, our Brazilian woodsmen had built two dugout canoes and we were ready to descend the Iriri. But an unknown tribe found our trail, laid an ambush, and killed the first of our 11 men to walk into it - the leader, Richard Mason. The tribe was contacted 12 years later and proved to be one of the most warlike indigenous peoples in Amazonia - for whom 'stranger' and 'enemy' were the same word.
These experiences led to a love of South America and various books.
These included, about Peru 'The Conquest of the Incas' and later 'Monuments of the Incas', 'The Search for El Dorado' about the conquest of northern South America, and what became a trilogy about the exploration of Brazil and its indigenous peoples: 'Red Gold' (covering 1500-1760); 'Amazon Frontier' (1760-1910); and 'Die If You Must' (1910 to present). During the 1960s and early '70s I built up an exhibition-organising company, Brintex, while researching and writing books in spare time.
During two years I visited some 45 Indian tribes all over Brazil, four of them at the time of their first contact. These are wonderful and fascinating people, and some of the Brazilian Indian-service experts who contacted them were outstanding. I became a friend of the great humanitarians, Orlando and Claudio Villas Boas - and was the only non-Brazilian to be invited to the kuarup funerary ceremonies that the Indians held for both of them (in 1998 and 2003)- and also of the last great sertanista, Sydney Possuelo.
All this led to my getting the job of Director of the Royal Geographical Society. This was hard work but great fun. During 21 years as Director (1975-96), I revived that venerable place, turning round its dire finances, doubling the membership, making it more friendly for thousands of users, boosting its academic side, and personally running a lively lecture programme (from which I got to know all the great explorers). These were decades when the world was interested in environment and adventurous research, so we supported hundreds of researchers and organised eleven large projects all over the world for the RGS.
I myself led one of these projects, the Maraca Rainforest Project in northern Brazil (1987-88), which eventually had 150 scientists and 50 scientific technicians, mostly Brazilians, and yielded much knowledge about how forests function, over a hundred books (including three by me) and papers, and some 200 species new to science. It was the largest project ever organised in Amazonia by any European country, and a magical experience for all us participants.
Now I still manage to visit Peru and Brazil almost every year, am active in several charities, and chairman of Hemming Group Ltd. which publishes trade magazines and organises trade exhibitions and conferences. I am pleased that 'The Conquest of the Incas' is still in print for 42 years and I have just given it a second revision. A shorter history, 'Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon' (2009), and two of the Brazilian Indian histories have just been translated in that country. I am also proud that the Peruvians awarded me their two highest civilian orders: 'El Sol del Peru' and the grand cross of the Order of Merit; Brazil gave me the Cruzeiro do Sul (Order of the Southern Cross); and the UK the CMG (St Michael and St George).