Vast and poorly charted beyond its main waterways, Amazonia remained a mysterious hinterland to metropolitan elites throughout the colonial era. Its immensity seemed to offer untold promise, and in the 18th century it became the repository for a series of grandiose colonisation schemes. In the 1760s, over twelve thousand French farmers, replete with clowns and musicians for entertainment, were resettled in French Guiana, where they had been promised abundant land and fertile soils; ten thousand died soon after arrival from malaria and yellow fever. Other schemes, such as American oceanographer Matthew Maury’s suggestion of transplanting freed slaves and cotton plantations from the Deep South to the Amazon, were mercifully never realised.
Beyond these fantasies, something more prosaic, but with far more enduring consequences, was happening. Joining a patchwork of indigenous communities, immigrants from the impoverished northeast, caboclos (mixed-race descendants of natives and Brazilian settlers) and quilombos (runaway slave communities) were already dotting the basin, setting up fishing villages, smallholdings and trading