MADAME ISABELA GODIN DES ODONNAIS
The heroine of the terrible saga of the Amazon
By Emmanouil Lalaios, FRGS
A Peruvian noblewoman, married to Frenchman
Jean Godin des Odonnais.
Madam Isabela Godin took a journey in the Amazon territory to search for her husband Jean Godin. In this journey, all of the members of her party were killed as a result of accidents, malaria, and even attacks by vampire bats.
She was found by local Indians while, dazed and delirious, continued trekking through the rainforest by herself and they took her to Church Mission, from where she was able to continue her journey to eventually be reunited with her husband.
The photo is courtesy of Marjorie Lucas, a descendant of Isabel Godin taken from a fascimile of the portrait painted for the Godin Family.
Jean Godin, a French adventurer who was a member of a scientific team, and his wife Madame Isabel Godin were separately having an epic journey in the Amazon which really caught the public’s attention. Jean Godin had been a chain-bearer (official measurer) on La Contamine’s expedition when it was based in Quito in 1735 to determine the circumference of the earth at the equator. It was here that he met and married Isabela.
the time came for Godin to return to France he traveled down the Amazon
by himself, in order to make arrangements for a second journey in which he would
bring his Peruvian wife with him because Isabela was pregnant at the time (and was not in a
good condition to travel). He set out from Rio
Bamba, near Quito,
in March 1749 – arriving in Cayenne,
in April 1750.
Unfortunately, the Spanish and Portuguese
authorities refused him permission to return upriver to Quito to fetch his wife.
There was a long period during which he unsuccessfully tried to convince the
authorities to grant permission, also using influential contacts in the French
government to put pressure on the Spanish and Portuguese authorities who they
were not letting foreigners travel through their territories in the Americas in
spite of the fact that Godin had originally been granted a special exemption
because he was part of a very special scientific expedition.
The chance to return and collect Isabela
was very limited and the couple was left stranded on opposite ends of the Amazon
for nearly 20 years.
In 1765, a
Portuguese galley (a ship powered by oarsmen) arrived, with orders from the King
of Portugal to pick up Godin, take him to his wife and bring her back. But
unfortunately, Godin's fear that the Portuguese had somehow intercepted his
letter to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs overwhelmed him – he
suspected that the sudden appearance of the ship was an elaborate trap to
capture him. He pretended to be ill, while the Portuguese ship remained in the
harbor waiting for him for almost a year until the French authorities finally
ordered the ship to leave with or without Godin.
In his place, Godin agreed to
send a friend who he provided with money and letters to help him bring his wife
back. The ship began the eight months voyage up the Amazon. However, somewhere
along the way, Godin's friend absconded with all the money, and the ship reached
its destination and its men had to wait again for three more years!
On the other side, Isabela
found out about it through rumors that were circulating around the country. She
sent a servant off to investigate, but it was two years before he finally
returned with confirmation of the rumor. It was 1769, and Isabela had now been
separated from her husband for twenty years!
A Journey Through
When Isabela finally began the journey to find her
husband, all of the members of her party were killed as a result of accidents,
malaria, and even attacks by vampire bats. Dazed and delirious, Isabela
continued trekking through the Amazon rainforest by herself until she was found
by local Indians. They took her to a Church Mission, from where she was able to continue her
journey to eventually be reunited with her husband.
Here is a report
of one of her team that joined her journey through the Amazon to help her find
"I am part of an expedition, with the leader Madame Isabel Godin des Odinnais. She is searching for her husband, whom she has not seen in numerous years. They were a happy couple, ready to have a child, when Jean Godin was called for an expedition down the Amazon. He refused to allow Isabel to go with him, for the accommodations would be very unpleasant. He set off on his journey but never returned. Madam Isabel awaited his return for many years and began to give up hope. but I returned one day to let her know of news I had heard. I am part of a tribe in the Amazon, but I had a meeting with Isabel years before, when our tribe ventured north into Rio Bamba, Ecuador.
Her son was sick, and I was to help save him, after all, I am the medicine woman. I tried various herbs and remedies to cure his ailments, but there was nothing I could do. When I heard news that a ship was awaiting her arrival, I felt it my duty to let her know this information. When I finally reached her home, and told her that she was supposed to journey across the Andes and a ship would be there to take her to her husband in Cayenne, French Guyana, she was so content.
She went into
another room for a few minutes, and then came back. She told me that one of her
servants was to go see if the rumor was true, and if it was, she would go find
her husband. She offered me a place to live until her servant's return, but I
gratefully declined, and said that I would come back and join her expedition if
she were to leave. So, I went back to my tribe, for that was where I belonged,
and waited for a very long time before I was contacted about the journey. It
turned out the rumor was true, so I went back to Rio
Bamba, and got everyone prepared for the trip.
started on our journey as soon as we found out that it was not a rumor, but was
actual news. Unfortunately, none of the Godin's children had survived the years
– the youngest, aged nineteen had recently died of malaria, so Isabela,
together with her two brothers, her young nephew, four servants, thirty-one
Indians, and a trio of French travelers set out for Lagunas where the ship was
waiting. Isabela's father had also set out on the journey several months before
Isabela to make sure that accommodation and other arrangements could be prepared
in advance for her.
We knew what was to come would not be an easy task, but Isabela was certain she could find her husband. We had very few belongings, for it would be hard enough without carrying anything. Every ounce made the pack seem hundreds of pounds heavier. Our first few days were quite an easy journey, but as we reached the Andes, we saw what we had in store for our trip.
were towering above us, and we knew this would probably be the most difficult
part of our expedition, or so we thought at the time. That day, we made camp
below the mountain which we would conquer. When we woke up the next morning, the
sun was just coming over the horizon. It was one of the most beautiful sights I
had ever seen. We packed our belongings, and for the next few days, we trekked
through the never ending hill, taking it one step at a time. Finally, after many
days of this, we reached our next challenge. Something we never realized could
be so horrible and dangerous.
The rest of our group had expected nothing to be like it was in this tangled web of animals and plants all around us. The first day venturing though the rainforest was the toughest for everyone else, but I felt right at home. As we reached an opening in the trees, I decided that everyone had been through enough and suggested that we set up camp. They all agreed, and our night began.
was going to go hunting, but one of the servants insisted that they go instead
of me. Although hesitant, I agreed that they could go, while I started the fire.
I knew all the plants and animals around me, and everything seemed perfect until
I heard a dreadful scream, right as the first spark from the sticks hit the logs
surrounded by stones. Everyone jumped out of their seats, and panicking, they
tried to figure out who the scream had come from, but everyone was fine.
looked at my belongings, and seeing my gun was missing, I remembered one of Isabel's
servants had gone hunting. The ear piercing scream rang again, echoing through
the hollow trunks of rotted trees, and through the canopy, hundreds of feet
Everyone was looking around in a panic. I ran in the direction the servant had gone, hoping I'd be able to find him quickly. He screamed again and I knew I was headed in the general direction. Each time, I got closer and closer. I spotted an orange tail brush against the tree trunk right in front of me. I knew what it was as soon as I saw the face of the servant, who was backed against a tree.
looked like he was staring death in the face, and if I hadn't shown up, he may
have been. A jaguar was staring at the servant, with a hungry look in his eyes.
His sharp teeth glared as he sniffed the fresh catch the servant was holding. I
told him softly to slowly throw the meat on the ground, and quietly walk away.
He did as I said, and when he got over to me, he was shaking. He had scrapes and
bruises all over him, from the tree he was leaning against, so I went and found
some Dragon's Blood. This helps heal wounds, and acts as a natural bandage. This
would allow us to continue on our journey without the servant being in too much
next morning we continued on, heading for a town where we would meet up with
some people who would help us on our journey. When we got there, we expected
crowds of people, but no one was to be found. The town was abandoned. We found a
canoe, and headed on, hoping we'd find help along the way. When we reached the
river, we decided that two people would continue on the journey, and find help.
would all stay at the bank of the river. The first few days went smoothly, but
one night, one of the servants turned red, and started shivering. He had a very
high fever. All I could do was treat the symptoms, because I didn't know what
was causing this disease. Each day, a new person seemed to become ill, and I
knew it was only a matter of time before I would catch the disease, also.
I would never forget the day I woke up and felt like my head weighed a thousand pounds. It felt like a sweltering jungle, yet I could not stop shivering. It was as if the temperature was below freezing. I knew what was happening, and I also knew that there was nothing that could be done to stop the spread of this disease.
The previous day, the servant who had first contracted the illness had became one with the spirits. Soon I would, too. In the middle of the night, I woke up, and felt rain beating down on my face. I tried to move, but there was nothing I could do to get away from the harsh rain. It felt like shades of glass cutting my face, but there was nowhere I could go.
The sky lit up, and there was a roar, which made my head pound even more than usual. I shivered, and couldn't stop. I heard a crack and the tree behind me started to fall. As the tree got only inches away, it stopped, and everything was over. I looked at everyone else, sleeping soundly, and the sky, clear as could be. Suddenly, I felt cool water hit my face once more, but this time, it felt good. Madame Isabel was wiping my face.
She told me everything was all right, and I went back to sleep. I was just
delirious, there was no storm at all, no rain, no thunder, no tree... they were
just illusions. I never woke up.
Everyone had become one with the spirits, except for Isabel. Her will to find her husband got her through the tough times, and she wandered for nine days. She met up with some kind Indians, who took her to safety, and after a change of clothes, and some food, they sent her on her way. She then found authorities, who took her to a boat, which sailed to Cayenne, French Guyana. This was twenty years after her husband first left. Although not everyone survived, Isabel reunited with her waiting husband in Cayenne in mid-1770.
remained in Cayenne for several years
before returning to France, along with Isabela's father, in 1773. By now the
story of the Godin's long separation, and Isabela's extraordinary ordeal were
well-known throughout France – making them very famous. They settled on the
family estate which Jean had inherited in Saint-Amand Montrond, 150 miles south
of Paris, where the couple lived comfortably and worked for many years. Jean and
Isabela both died in 1792
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