Personally, I find the title of this book to be a bit misleading. That didn’t prevent me from thoroughly enjoying it. I read The Mapmaker’s Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon, by Robert Whitaker in preparation for a trip we’ll be taking to the Upper Amazon next year.
Very little of the story is devoted to the mapmaker’s wife, Isabel Gramesón, the wife of Jean Godin. Rather, it is a story of physics, astronomy and geography, as well as of adventure and devotion.
In 1735, Jean Godin had traveled from France to Quito, Ecuador with a group of scientists whose goal was to precisely measure the distance of one degree of latitude at the equator. This expedition was undertaken to prove which of two theories about the shape of the world were correct, whether it bulges slightly at the equator, or whether it is shaped more like a football standing on end.
The only way to decide the argument was to get those precise measurements. If you are interested in physics and astronomy, this book explains how the scientists set out to take the measurements. During the expedition, they mapped much of the upper Amazon River, and also came to understand the effects of altitude on barometric pressure.
After their expedition was completed, Jean Godin married a woman of Spanish descent who was born in Riobamba, Peru. After about 8 years of marriage, Godin decided he wanted to return to his home in France. The normal route would involved a long trek over land to Cartegena, then boarding a ship to France. Godin wanted to go down the Amazon to the Atlantic, then board a ship. At this time, not many Europeans had ever navigated the entire length of the river, and there were no maps, so Godin decided to travel the river himself to see if it was possible. If so, he would return to his wife, again by river, and bring her back down.
Jean did make it to the Atlantic, but circumstances made his return impossible. After 20 years (years, not months), he learned that his father had died in France, and it was imperative that he go home soon. He sent a letter to Isabel, who decided to brave the Amazon to join her husband. She set out with two brothers, a nephew and several servants. Isabel and one of her slaves who had gone ahead were the only ones to complete the treacherous journey. Isabel survived a couple of weeks on her own in the Amazon, something that was unthinkable for anyone, let alone a woman.
The Amazon is not like the Mississippi. Yes, they both have mosquitoes, but the Amazon has anacondas, piranhas, vampire bats, jaguars, giant ants, and more. I hope we see them only from a distance when we are down there.