In Todd Balf’s book The Darkest Jungle, he explains that by 1854, after the spectacular and expensive failure of the Franklin expedition, the search for the Northwest Passage was sliding off the front pages. The new great hope was Panama. Could it be that in that slender isthmus, a way could be found for shipping to come across, and eliminate the losses of life and cargo that occurred every year in rounding Cape Horn?
But Panama was all but unknown. It was unmapped, full of wary indigenous tribes (wary for extremely good historical reasons), a virtually impenetrable jungle in a hostile climate. Men who had been there told mutually contradictory stories: there were mountains — plateaus — beautiful rivers — horrible ravines — they said you could climb a tree and see the Atlantic and the Pacific — they said you could do no such thing. So when American Navy lieutenant Isaac Strain led the Darien Exploring Expedition to try to discover a way to link the two oceans, it needed leadership, money, maps, equipment, food, guns, guides, and luck. Well, they had the leadership…
The expedition was a disaster of the kind that only those who like to sit in cozy armchairs and read about other people’s misfortunes could enjoy. (I count myself among that number; travel and exploration narratives are one of my favorite genres.) Strain was an excellent leader, without the loony ego that fuels most explorers’ trips to, say, get penguins’ eggs at the Pole or find ancient civilizations in the Amazon, so that particular piece of the trip was all right. But he was working on a government budget, not a privately-funded one, and he didn’t have all the equipment he should have (markedly missing: quinine and extra dry shoes.) He didn’t have native guides, or anyone who could talk to the local tribes. And perhaps worst of all, he had maps that were completely, totally, laughably wrong.
Strain and his men went into the jungle. For the next three months, they traveled. They found themselves bitten by poisonous insects and plants, infested by parasites, infected by diseases they had no antidotes to, drained by vampire bats at night. They marched themselves to exhaustion and starved in the middle of the luxurious jungle, living for weeks on nothing but palm nuts, which etched away their tooth enamel. Time after time, they thought they were near the ocean, only to find they were dozens of miles away. They made heart-wrenching decisions: left behind the sick and dying, wept, split up their party so the rest could have a chance to live. Only a few survived. The story was eclipsed, afterward, by the successful completion of the canal: built on the bones of dead men, we are reminded.
Todd Balf searched for the group’s own journals and logs, but was never able to find them. He worked second-hand, through the then-best-selling historian Joel Tyler Headley, with whom Strain and others apparently shared their writings. In this way, and through other period sources, he reconstructs a vivid account of what it could have been like in that terrible jungle. Balf does a fair amount of I-was-there biography, something I hate: he puts himself into the mind of Strain and the others, reconstructing their thoughts and emotions. That’s no way to write history (he is not a historian, he is a journalist.) The piece is a bit overwritten for that reason, with some embellishment of a story that is already so dramatic it needs no embellishment. I will also recommend to you David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, which actually takes the trouble to research and explain the jungle ecosystem, so that you know why Strain and his men found nothing to eat, and what bugs and plants they likely died of. Balf doesn’t do any of this.
However, the book tells a truly gripping story that I’d never known existed. It conjures up that dark jungle, and tells a story of misery, fraud, bad luck, leadership, and courage that rivals anything you could tell about the poles. If you, like me, enjoy sitting comfortably with no parasites at hand, and reading about adventure, this will be the sort of thing you will like.