In 1744, a young geographer living in Spanish-colonial Peru with his wife and children decided the time had come to move the family back to his native France. Jean Godin des Odonais had come to Peru in 1735 as a part of a small scientific expedition and had ended up staying much longer than expected. He’d married a young woman from a local aristocratic family and now the couple had two children and a third on the way. But news from France eventually brought word of Godin’s father’s death, meaning that there was an inheritance to sort out. It was time to return.
Making travel arrangements from such a distance, however, was going to be a challenge. Perhaps, Godin reasoned, he and his family could travel to the colony of French Guiana at the other end of the Amazon River, then find places on a ship back to France. In order to establish whether this was plausible, Godin decided to travel ahead to French Guiana and make inquiries.
From its headwaters in Peru, the Amazon goes downhill. From this point, virtually everything for Jean and Isabel Godin did the same. Left behind, Isabel spent years waiting for word from her husband. Eventually, due to an improbable series of mishaps and misery, Isabel ended up stranded alone in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest, hopelessly lost and so far into starvation that her chances of survival were vanishingly small.
Jean Godin des Odonais had arrived in Peru in 1735 as a young apprentice to a small team of French scientists who had been given the rare privilege of travelling through Spanish and Portuguese colonial lands in South America. Their goal was to travel to Peru and perform measurements close to the equator that, when compared with similar calculations being done in the Arctic, would settle a pedantic debate regarding what type of spheroid our planet happened to be.
The expedition was led by Charles-Marie de la Condamine, a multitalented and endlessly curious scientist/soldier/adventurer who had previously teamed up with his friend Voltaire to outwit the French lottery. La Condamine's group was only supposed to be in Peru for a year or two, but they got caught up in transportation issues and local politics. Four years into their stint in South America, they had only just started their equatorial calculations when they heard that the Arctic team’s data was enough to make the Peru effort completely unnecessary. The figures from the far north had been precise enough that even a comparison with Paris was sufficient to establish that the Earth was flatter at the poles and more distended around the equator. Geologists were officially aware that the Earth was an oblate spheroid.
Amidst this anticlimactic ending, La Condamine’s expedition broke apart. Several members of the party met with unfortunate ends: one died young of illness and another was murdered. For Jean Godin des Odonais, however, Peru brought a happy turn of events: in 1741, around the age of 29, he announced his intention to marry. On the 27th of December, La Condamine was in attendance as his former apprentice married 13-year-old Isabel Grandmaison (or 'Isabela de Casa Mayor' in Spanish). She was the oldest of four children from a prominent and wealthy family in the town of Riobamba; her father was a local administrator of mixed Spanish/French descent. Isabel had been very well educated throughout her childhood; she spoke fluent Spanish and French, as well as Quechua, the language of the local natives.
Jean remained behind when La Condamine himself departed for France; by that point, his new wife was pregnant. However, by 1744, Jean was becoming quite anxious to get back to France himself. He had only recently learned that his father had died eight years earlier; there would be property for him to inherit. There was also some gossip going around Riobamba that the young Frenchman had fathered an extramarital child, and Jean was eager to escape the rumours.
Earlier he had travelled overland to Cartagena, and it had been an arduous journey. Instead of repeating the exhausting trek northwards, Jean proposed to Isabel that they might be able to travel downriver all the way to the mouth of the Amazon, then secure passage to France. Attempting to do this spontaneously as a group would be too risky; Jean suggested that he pre-scout the route along the Amazon all the way to French Guiana, where he would look into the options and then return for Isabel and their children when he had sorted it all out. In March 1749, Jean departed, leaving behind two children and Isabel in her third pregnancy.
Travel and communication in the Spanish- and Portuguese-controlled Amazon region in the mid-18th century were not at all straightforward, so it was unsurprising that Isabel heard nothing from Jean for a year. But one year turned into two, and then three—then ten. In the meantime, tragedy had struck the family in the form of smallpox: one by one, Isabel's three children contracted the illness and died. Last to fall was the young daughter who had never met her absent father. Isabel had her father, two brothers, a sister, and at least two nephews to help console her, but she did not have the man she loved.
Ten years turned into fifteen, with no word from Jean, but Isabel remained loyal to her long-vanished husband. Her patience was rewarded: in 1766 she began hearing rumours that a boat was waiting on a tributary of the Amazon to pick her up. However, others claimed that this was no more than a story. Only when the gossip persisted and became more detailed did Isabel pay attention. Yes, there was a boat, people said. A foreign one, waiting for the wife of a Frenchman who was stationed in the French Guianese capital of Cayenne. The crew's orders were to wait for her to meet them and then take her down the Amazon to her husband. And reportedly the orders were from very high up in Portugal, perhaps even from the King himself!
Some parts of the story were more plausible than others. But if there was a boat, Isabel was determined to make her way to it. She did not know which of the many tributaries of the Amazon the boat might have docked on, if it even existed; so she sent out her servant Joachim with a half-dozen indigenous people to conduct a reconnaissance mission.
Joachim was of African ancestry, and had been abused as a slave in Peru until Isabel purchased him. This did not release him from servitude, but it was such an improvement over his former life that Joachim was extremely loyal to Isabel and served her well. Now his task was to surmount the Andes Mountains and search the Amazon tributaries for the boat. His first attempt ended in failure, but the ongoing rumours inspired him to try again. The Portuguese boat had supposedly travelled as far west and up a side river as possible and docked at the base of a mountain.
Once again, Isabel was in for a lengthy wait: a year passed, and then another, as Joachim continued looking. However, his second return was triumphant. There was indeed a boat, he reported; it was waiting for Isabel at a Jesuit mission called Lagunas, about five hundred feet above sea level. The oarsmen and the Portuguese captain had spent about three years very patiently living at the mission while waiting for Isabel to receive word of their journey, and were pleased to find out from Joachim that she existed. After two decades of hearing nothing at all as to the fate of Jean, Isabel finally received an indirect update: four years earlier, at the time of the boat's departure from the eastern end of the Amazon, Jean Godin des Odonais had been alive but reportedly in poor health. There was no guarantee that he was still alive.
The decision of whether to go to French Guiana on the Portuguese boat was up to Isabel, and her answer was an emphatic ‘yes’. If there were any chance that Jean was alive, Isabel wanted to be reunited with her husband, decades of separation and silence be damned. She had never even considered the possibility of abandoning him or marrying again.
Isabel's father, Don Pedro, was apprehensive. No local noblewoman would ordinarily trek three hundred miles down through the mountains and across the jungle. Still, he saw that Isabel had made up her mind, so he resolved to do everything he could to facilitate her upcoming journey. Despite his advancing age, Don Pedro set out with Joachim and a party of indigenous people. They found a reasonable path down through the treacherous mountains and the jungle to Lagunas, establishing contact with missions along the way and ensuring that Isabel's party would have canoes, food, and native guides who knew the terrain. At Lagunas, Don Pedro stayed to wait for Isabel and sent Joachim back up into the mountains to Riobamba.
Isabel assembled a party. She would be accompanied by her two brothers, Antoine and Eugenio, both of whom wanted to travel to Europe, and her nephew Joaquín, who was about eleven years old. She would be assisted by her loyal Joachim, of course, and by three other servants: Rosa, Elvia, and Heloise. There would also be 31 people from various indigenous groups to help navigate and paddle the canoes once they reached the river. Then there was the last-minute addition of three mysterious Frenchmen who appeared suddenly, wanting to go back to France and spotting a chance to travel there via the Amazon. Isabel was not happy with their intrusion, but one of them, claiming to be a doctor, persuaded Isabel’s brothers that he would be useful on the trip. Thus it was that on 1 October 1769, over twenty years after Jean's departure, Isabel and 41 other people left Riobamba.
The first part of the journey—through the dramatic mountain range—was hazardous. The route was slippery and full of sudden cliffs, and most of the time it was pouring rain. Shelters kept the water off overnight, but during the day there was no choice but to walk through the downpour. On top of this, the flora in the region was particularly nasty; sharp leaves and thorns could easily cut skin. Ants and other insects were also eager to get in on the attacking. The party hurried along, following ravines from dried-up rivers. Isabel, though accustomed to an upscale life of leisure, was determined not to complain.
Nine days into the journey, the group neared a mission at a place called Canelos, where they would retrieve canoes and supplies. As they approached, members of the party observed that the mission was strangely quiet. Then, very abruptly, every single one of the 31 indigenous people raced into the forest and disappeared. Closer to the mission, the other eleven members of the party realised what had given the natives such a fright that they had bailed on the journey: in the relatively short time since Don Pedro had visited, the mission had been ravaged by smallpox. In fact, it may have been someone in Don Pedro's group who had brought the virus along. Not everyone at Canelos had died, but the survivors had set the place on fire to stop the virus in its tracks, then fled in the very canoes that were meant for Isabel and company. The result was that Canelos was now abruptly a deserted shell of a mission, and there was nothing waiting to assist Isabel and her ten companions on the river segment of their journey.
Isabel took the lead of the abruptly-downsized party. They had made it this far, and come all this way through the perilous mountains; they were going to continue. After an uncomfortable night at the ruins of the mission, Isabel sent out several men from the group to seek help. They brought back two natives who had previously lived at Canelos, who told them the story of the vicious smallpox outbreak. These two also located an old forty-foot canoe needing some repair, patched it up, and even offered to paddle for the group. Travelling was much easier on the downhill-flowing river, and there was plenty of food to go around; the party's spirits rose appreciably over the first two days of canoe travel.
On the third day, the eleven woke to discover that their two native paddlers had vanished. The purported doctor suggested turning around and going back to Riobamba, but Isabel refused. Hiking back up through the mountains would surely not be easier than continuing downriver. So the group pressed onwards. They had a bit of extra luck in that a native man in a canoe joined their effort and helped steer them downriver. However, once again things took a bad turn for the worse. A breeze picked up the hat of one of the Frenchmen and deposited it on the water; the indigenous man—who was steering from the back—reached for it, missed, lost his balance, fell overboard, and drowned. The canoe continued downriver automatically, hindering rescue efforts; there was nothing that any of the eleven could do for the helpful man they had only just met. Furthermore, the canoe was suddenly starting to show its age; leaks were quickly appearing.
Isabel and her ten travel companions managed to get the canoe to shore, then built a shelter and discussed what they could possibly do next. They were still at least a week's journey by river from the settlement of Andoas, near Lagunas where the Portuguese boat was waiting.
The supposed doctor proposed that he and the other two Frenchmen take the canoe on their own to Andoas—it would be less likely to sink with fewer passengers—and send help back to the rest of Isabel's party. Isabel was unreceptive to this suggestion; she did not trust the Frenchmen who had pushed their way into the group back in Riobamba. She finally agreed to let two of them go in the canoe provided that Joachim accompanied them.
Morale dropped at the camp after three of the eleven had left and the canoe was out of sight. The food supply was dwindling quickly. Days turned into weeks, and there was no sight of Joachim or anyone else coming to assist the party. The jungle right behind them was still a hopeless maze, and the insects were nearly intolerable. When little Joaquín fell ill with what was probably malaria, Isabel ordered that the party construct a raft and make an attempt to steer it down the river to Andoas. With unnerving speed the raft carried them down the river—until it got lodged on a fallen tree underwater. The currents pushed it forward regardless, and the raft strained, then broke apart in the waves, tossing all eight people into the water. Everyone made it back to shore, but discovered they had travelled so little distance that they could easily walk back to their camp. Isabel and company were stranded still; and overnight, Joaquín died in Isabel's arms.
No one had the strength to dig a grave. Leaving Joaquín’s body behind, the others made an attempt at walking along the densely foliated shoreline, but this proved to be difficult enough that they ended up returning to their camp. Their next plan was to set off into the jungle in an attempt to take a shorter land route to Andoas. However, not only did the seven get lost immediately, but they had so little food and so little remaining stamina that everyone ended up collapsing to the ground and staying there.
Disoriented and weak, the party acknowledged to one another that they were near the end. One night Heloise managed to get to her feet, but she wandered off into the jungle in a stupor and was never seen again. Rosa died in her sleep. Antoine, a monk, was in the middle of praying when he passed away. The Frenchman was next, and then Elvia. Isabel and Eugenio lay there, barely aware of anything.
Two days later, Isabel awoke abruptly. The terrible stench of death startled her and abruptly brought her to a place of strange clear-headedness and strength. Newly energised, she climbed to her feet, found a knife, and fashioned strong sandals for herself from the shoes that one of her brothers had died wearing. She armed herself with a machete and a large stick, and decided to keep going in spite of the fact that she had no supplies and no idea which way to go to find anything that might help her. There was very little food and she was intermittently hallucinating, but the burst of adrenaline kept her walking forward.
Down the river at Andoas, Joachim’s attempts to make arrangements to rescue Isabel and company had taken a frustratingly long time. As Isabel had suspected, the opportunistic Frenchmen turned out to have absolutely zero interest in going back to help the others. They wouldn't even help Joachim request assistance from the leaders of the mission. Only about a month after Joachim and the Frenchmen had appeared in Andoas did Joachim and a team of native paddlers with extra food make their way back up the river to the camp. This took so long that by the time they returned, they found everyone in and around the camp dead.
It is unclear whether Joachim observed that Isabel’s body was not present. However, the indigenous paddlers could not find any hints of anyone having walked farther than the site where five people had passed away in the jungle. Furthermore, Isabel had been the oldest member of the original 42-person party, and was not accustomed to any sort of physical exertion; she was not likely to have survived if her two younger, fitter brothers had not. Therefore, either way, Joachim was left to conclude that his rescue mission had come too late to save anyone. Devastated, he collected a few possessions from the camp and then returned to Andoas not only with terrible news, but with the looming burden of having to tell Don Pedro, then the patient Portuguese crew, and, eventually, Jean Godin des Odonais that Isabel had perished only two hundred miles upriver from the boat.
Isabel had not, in fact, perished only two hundred miles upriver from the boat, but that fate was looking increasingly likely. Days had passed since she had avoided dying alongside her co-travellers, but her prospects were not looking any more promising. By this point, Isabel was wearing only half a blouse and a couple of shawls. She was covered in insect bites. There were still no signs of anything that might provide her with help. And she was so deep into starvation that when she found a few berries and bird-eggs, her esophagus closed against the idea of food. But she clung to her sheer determination, along with her religious beliefs and a firm conviction that there was a reason why she had not met her end on the jungle ground with the others.
Nine days into her erratic solitary march, Isabel heard a voice—and then another. Two men from a native tribe were busy launching a canoe into a river estuary. Isabel briefly worried about whether she could trust them, but realised she had very little choice. Not quite strong enough to keep walking much farther, Isabel made just enough noise to attract attention. The two men stopped and looked up to see a barely clothed, starved, somewhat delusional woman of European descent emerging from the depths of the jungle.
Two women followed behind the men to meet her. Isabel's fluency in Quechua may have saved her life, and at any rate enabled her to explain what was going on. Not only were the four natives sympathetic, but they eagerly rushed to Isabel's aid. They affectionately took her in, provided her with enough nutrients to ward off starvation, and led her along the river in a canoe to Andoas. Isabel had survived.
It was not the final obstacle, however. The priest at Andoas was unpleasant, and the French pseudo-doctor reappeared, having continued to connive. Not only had he stolen some of Isabel’s jewelry from the camp, he’d recently combined forces with a slippery fellow named Tristan d'Oreasaval to have Joachim surreptitiously sent back to Riobamba. Fortunately, the overseer of the mission—a Dr. Romero—treated Isabel well. Under his supervision and medical advice, Isabel’s condition improved over the next six weeks. He asked her at one point whether she wanted him to take her back to Riobamba, but an amazed Isabel was having absolutely none of that. She had come this far, overcome an incredible number of obstacles, and was still going to do everything she could to attempt to reunite with her husband.
When Isabel was well enough to travel, Romero had a local governor take her to Lagunas, where her father was still waiting. Don Pedro was badly shaken from having lost his two sons, one of his grandsons, and very nearly a daughter. With few reasons for him to stay in Peru after all, Don Pedro decided to accompany Isabel to French Guiana. Now, at long last, they both boarded the Portuguese boat that was under the command of one Captain de Rebello, and enjoyed a comfortable journey down the Amazon. Most of the way to the destination, the boat docked at the town of Gurupá, where it took on an unexpected extra passenger: Jean Godin des Odonais.
Alive and well, Jean had been so excited when he heard that his wife was finally coming down the Amazon that he travelled upriver a little bit to meet her. After a twenty-year separation with no direct contact and extremely little news, the couple—neither of whom had ever seriously thought about deserting the other—were reunited.
Jean Godin des Odonais later wrote:
"Thus it was that after twenty years of absence, of alarms, of crossings, and mutual misfortunes, that I joined a darling wife I had never thought of seeing again. I forgot in our embraces the fruits of our marriage, and was even joyful that their early deaths had saved them from the fate which befell their uncles in the forest of Canelos. If they too had perished then in similar style their mother would never have survived that spectacle."
Jean had encountered hardships of his own. Upon arriving in French Guiana two decades earlier, he had assumed that it would be straightforward to get permission to sail to France with his family. In fact, this was a politically outrageous thing to suggest. Spain and Portugal were getting along with each other for the most part, but had a mutual suspicion of foreigners getting into their colonial lands, and they were not happy about this pesky holdover from that single French expedition they'd allowed in. Jean was therefore stuck in French Guiana, unable to find a way back to Peru or even send word to his family. He also had little to no money; he had proven to be terrible at farming, and had even managed to antagonise the governor of the colony with his somewhat entitled attitude. Jean’s old friend and mentor La Condamine kept writing letters from France on his behalf, but for years they came to nothing. Jean became sufficiently desperate that he offered to work as an agent of the French government and steal land from the Portuguese. When the letter met with no reply, Jean became convinced that the message had been intercepted and that a Portuguese hit-squad was now very much out to get him.
Only shortly thereafter, the King of Portugal personally sent orders to go round up the Frenchman left behind in the Amazon. When the Portuguese ship arrived to take Jean away, he was frightened enough that he made an attempt at hiding in bed, but the French Guianese governor was so sick of him that he forced Jean to get out of town and go with the Portuguese sailors. At the first port-of-call, Jean feigned an injury, and told everyone that he would have to stay behind.
Little did Jean know that there was absolutely nothing that he had needed to escape from. The Portuguese had no idea that this very Frenchman had once offered to backstab them. In all likelihood, Jean’s desperate letter had been safely received - and then quite reasonably laughed off - by the French. The involvement of the King of Portugal was no more than a coincidence; the King had taken notice of multiple important people writing to him requesting assistance with retrieving a stray Frenchman and his family in the Amazon region. The only ulterior motive that Portugal held in volunteering to go find Jean was directed at the Spanish: it would give Portugal a very good excuse to survey the extent of Spanish colonialisation in the New World.
Now in hiding, Jean sent an old friend of his to go along on the journey west to Peru, deliver letters on the other end, and escort Isabel and the children home. He also paid his friend well in advance for his help. This was none other than Tristan d'Oreasaval, who would later be the duplicitous henchman of the French non-doctor in Peru. Characteristically, d'Oreasaval did none of the things that Jean requested of him; once the boat arrived in Peru, he ran off with Jean’s money and tossed the pile of letters at a local priest, who did nothing but read them and share them with friends. Thus it was that only through a chain of gossip did Isabel end up hearing about the Portuguese boat. Very fortunately, the reunion eventually occurred.
After suing the breeches off Tristan d’Oreasaval - and winning - Jean and Isabel and Don Pedro finally set sail for France on 21 April 1773. When they reached Jean's hometown of Saint-Amand-Montrond, they were met by none other than the now-72-year-old Charles-Marie de la Condamine. The explorer and scientist was very frail by this point: he was half-paralysed, mostly deaf, and probably in no state whatsoever to be going out and greeting people. But he was darn well going to be there to welcome home the last member of his small scientific expedition from nearly forty years earlier. La Condamine died only six months later, but not before he had secured a generous government pension for Jean Godin des Odonais.
Even years later, Isabel’s health was not perfect. Her ordeal in the jungle had left her with ongoing skin problems, and she also struggled with a neurological tic and a "melancholy" that nowadays might add up to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, the couple received a warm welcome from Jean’s family in France, and lived together again after their reunion for a longer interval than they had spent apart. They died only a few months apart in 1792—Jean first, then Isabel—at the ages of 78 and 64. The story of their twenty-year separation and then reunion against all odds had made them celebrities both in their new home in Europe and back in South America, at both ends of the Amazon.