By Rob Morgan
June 24th in the Year of Our Lord 1542 may possibly have been one of the most unusual in Spanish military history.
On that day, in a prolonged and lively skirmish, rather than a battle, the men of Francisco de Orellana’s ad hoc expedition along the world’s largest river defeated yet another group of tribal warriors. The native force was led by ‘pale warrior women with long plaited hair’ and these natives were armed with bows and arrows tipped with poison. The women ‘fought fearlessly, but were eventually overcome.’
de Orellana’s expedition carried on, after many more skirmishes and encounters with tribesmen, to reach the mouth of the river some two months later. He had left Pizarro late the previous year, sailing down the River Napo to find food and supplies, and finding instead a ‘vision’ of immense wealth somewhere close around him, he sailed into history in his own right. He died in 1545, without, needless to say, discovering the gold and silver he so fervently believed eluded him by only a day’s march … somewhere.
So the river voyage of Francisco de Orellana might well provide a very decent solo map and table-top wargames campaign, with a small Spanish and maybe an allied native force encountering tribe after tribe en route to the Atlantic. He and his soldiers fought at least one river action afloat, on May 12th 1542, when he took on a large canoe-borne force of natives, which caused much suffering to his hungry men.
Yet it’s the ‘Amazons’ which I find interesting.
Ignoring the Ancient Greek legends of the ‘girdle of Hippolyta’ and Achilles despatching Penthesilia in single combat, these Renaissance period Spaniards were hard-nosed Conquistadors, and had their eyes firmly fixed on ‘God, Gold and Glory,’ if not necessarily in that order. What an interesting ‘post-medieval’, but probably not ‘Renaissance’ force a bunch of well armed Amazons would make for a wargame.
Later on, fanciful tales abounded of them, that they worshipped the sun, they lived in stone villages far from the river, stealing men for breeding purposes. Yet Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, the expedition’s chronicler, was sufficiently impressed by the reports of the encounter with women warriors to name the great river ‘Amazonas’ which suggests something at least.
Francisco almost created the first two-way route across the continent, but he died in the attempt, and it wasn’t for another hundred years that the upstream route was conquered. But de Orellana’s last expedition was of course emulated by the rebel
Lope de Aguirre and his band of cut-throats in the 1560s; now that’s yet another ‘print the legend’ wargame just waiting to be played.
In terms of figures, well in 20mm, both Revell and Caesar make sets of Conquistadores, and those on foot are suitable, and there are a couple of war dogs too. Given the apparent hail of poisoned arrows, then the sword and buckler men would be crucial. As for the Amazons, and tribes-people generally, well, I suggest the old Airfix Indians set, and though it’s well over 50 years old, the seven bowmen and three spearmen would, with little effort, make for Amazonians. Much smaller than the Conquistadores, but does that matter? The Airfix Tarzan set has a small armed ‘boy’ figure to fit in, and a decent canoe; use the Peter Pig rowing boat for the Conquistadores, or give them a few pack mules. There are a couple of big cats and a crocodile in the Tarzan set, they’ll turn into additional opponents for the invaders quite easily.
Incidentally, back in the late ‘60s, Bob O’Brien made a dozen ancient armies from these little Airfix figures. Anyone remember that series?