Robin Furneaux has written a good book for the general public on the history of the Amazon. It contains little that is new, but it is vrey readable, errors are at a minimum, and judgement is sound. The narration is woven around familiar personalities: Orellana, Ursúa and Aguirre, Father Samuel Fritz and other Jesuits, La Condamine, Humboldt and the naturalists, Theodore Roosevelt, and Colonel Fawcett. Other chapters describe the Amazon and its wildlife, and a section is given to the rubber boom, the Madeira-Mamoré Railway, and the Putumayo atrocities. However, the book is too brief, the region too large, to probe much beyond the highlights, and there is no connecting theme for what are essentially, independent essays.
This and other books on the Amazon covering similar ground serve to point up the lack of serious and detailed historical research on vast portions of the interior of South America. The rubber boom has never been adequately treated. The Franciscan and Jesuit penetrations, missions impact on native peoples, and political roles have been little studied except for Paraguay. Settlement history and demographic change have been all but ignored. Ethnohistory hardly exists. A wealth of interesting topics await examination, and a few young scholars are now pursuing some of them in the European archives.
In an epilogue, Fumeaux considers the future of Amazonia. He rejects the optimism of the past, but notes the great diversity of products taken out of the region today. However, most of the resources, including the better soils and timbers, are widely dispersed rather than concentrated, and he suggests that this spatial factor is critical in inhibiting economic development under present conditions. He is probably right. But distance is less of an obstacle to hungry peasants, and it seems likely that they will nibble away at the tropical forest, as they now are doing in ever increasing numbers, until the entire Amazon ecosystem has been greatly modified for the worse. The destruction of vegetation, soil, and wildlife where the many access roads now penetrate Amazonia suggests that it is becoming less and less true that “The story of the Amazon is one in which Nature is always dominant, and the affairs of mankind pitifully small in so vast a setting.”