Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Mapmaker’s Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon by Robert Whitaker

An odyssey of geodesy
In his 2004 nonfiction book The Mapmaker’s Wife, Robert Whitaker takes a refreshing new look at the eighteenth century experiment known as the French Geodesic Mission. This was the first scientific expedition (as opposed to military, commercial, or religious expeditions) by Europeans to explore the interior of South America. Under the leadership of three French scientists, the explorers departed France in 1735 for what is now Ecuador (what was then Peru). The primary purpose of the mission was to measure a degree of latitude at the equator in order to confirm Isaac Newton’s theories about the shape of the Earth. This is often known as the La Condamine expedition, because geographer Charles Marie de La Condamine wrote the most popular account of the journey. Whitaker informs us, however, that astronomer Louis Godin was actually the senior scientist of the team. Godin’s younger cousin, Jean Godin, served as an assistant cartographer to the expedition. It is he who married a Peruvian creole woman named Isabel Gramesón, the Mapmaker’s Wife of the book’s title.

The French Geodesic Mission was really a fascinating enterprise, and Whitaker does a great job of providing an abridged yet comprehensive account of the journey and its aftermath. Though the primary goals of the expedition were cartographic, the scientists involved also made important discoveries in zoology, botany, geology, and anthropology. Whitaker vividly describes the incredible hardships these explorers had to endure in order to measure a straight line across hundreds of miles of harsh terrain. The mission lasted about a decade, during which time team members had to take side jobs to generate income to keep going. Eventually the explorers split up and went their separate ways, allowing for several fascinating spin-off stories about what became of them.

After relating the history of the expedition, Whitaker then recounts the exploits of Isabel Gramesón, whose heart-wrenching story is little-known in the United States. Jean Godin, in the process of attempting to bring his wife home to France, ends up stranded thousands of miles away, and the couple are separated for years. Isabel determines to make a perilous voyage down the Amazon to reunite with her husband in French Guiana. Whitaker painstakingly describes the terrible hardships she faced and her almost saintly perseverance in overcoming them. Compared to the chapters on the geodesic expedition, which are based largely on the accounts of the explorers themselves, Whitaker seems to take more poetic license with Isabel’s story by elaborating on the sights and sounds she would have seen and heard, and the thoughts and feelings she would have experienced. She never wrote her own story, so some of what happened in the Amazonian jungle is open to speculation. Of course, the fact that there is any story to tell at all effectively gives away the ending, but that doesn’t make Isabel’s journey any less compelling

Though geodesic science may not be the most alluring subject for many general readers, Whitaker does a fine job of explaining complex scientific concepts and complicated historical context in lively and articulate prose that general readers will find engaging. At the same time, however, he doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence by dumbing down the content. On the down side, I’ve read hundreds of ebooks on my Kindle, but this is the first one I’ve ever come across where all the illustrations and almost all the maps are the size of postage stamps and can’t be enlarged, thus essentially rendering them useless.
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