Isabel Bruno Godin des Odinais (1728 - September 28, 1792) was an 18th-century woman who became separated from her husband in South America by colonial politics, and was not reunited with him until more than 20 years later. Her long journey, from western Peru to the mouth of the Amazon River, is without equal in the history of South America. Her story has been often repeated and inspired popular misconceptions of the dangers of the tropical rain forest.
Born in Riobamba, Viceroy of Peru (now in Ecuador), she was the daughter of Don Pedro Gramesón y Bruno, an administrator there. Isabel was well-educated and spoke fluent Spanish, French and Quechua, as well as knowing Quipus, the Inca method of communicating information using colored strings and knots.
Jean Godin des Odonais was a French cartographer and naturalist who had joined the world's first geodesy expedition to the equator. The team worked in the Quito region from 1735 to 1744, during which time Jean and Isabel met. They married on December 27, 1741 when Isabel was fourteen years old.
At first Jean decided to remain in Riobamba with his new wife, but in 1743 he offered to accompany La Condamine on his next expedition. He stayed behind to see Isabel through her pregnancy. But, when he heard of his father's death in March 1749, Jean decided to return to France with his family. He planned to travel alone to Cayenne, French Guiana via the Amazon to test whether the journey would be safe for them to take, and to make the necessary arrangements with the French authorities.
Upon arriving in Cayenne, Jean found the Portuguese and Spanish colonial authorities would not let him — a Frenchman of no importance — return through their territory. Unwilling to return to France without his family, he became a reluctant resident of French Guiana, constantly writing pleas to Europe to allow for his return to Riobamba. Eventually, La Condamine wrote on Jean’s behalf to the Portuguese king who, due to changing political circumstances, was eager to befriend the French. In 1765 he ordered a galiot, crewed by thirty oarsmen, to take Jean back to his wife. However, as Jean had written some incendiary letters against the Portuguese, he was suspicious of the offer of passage up the Amazon, and abandoned the ship at its first port. The captain of the galiot continued upriver without him, to fetch the Frenchman's wife as ordered.
For most of their 20-year separation, Isabel received no news of her husband, while enduring the death of her children from smallpox. She moved to the smaller community of Guzman. When she heard rumors that a ship was waiting to take her down the Amazon, she sent her servant Joachim and a handful of Indians to investigate. The party returned two years after having discovered the waiting ship, four years after its initial departure. Isabel's father, Don Pedro, went ahead to the ship to make arrangements and to wait for Isabel.
On October 1, 1769 a 42-person party set out for the ship: Isabel, her grown son Joachim, Isabel’s two brothers Antoine and Eugenio Gramesón, Isabel’s ten-year-old nephew Joaquin, three servants: Rosa, Elvia, and Heloise, thirty-one Indians, and three Frenchman. The route across the Andes mountains and Amazon Basin was an arduous one, made worse by the recent devastation by smallpox of the mission station at Canelos (in the present-day Pastaza Province), depriving the party of valuable support nine days into their journey. They found two Indian survivors who agreed to repair a forty-foot canoe, in which they continued down the Amazon.
The river journey proved difficult, with the canoe unmanageable, the Indians from Canelos deserting them, and one of the party drowned while trying recover the hat of one of the Frenchmen. With the canoe weighed down by supplies, the party set up camp and sent Joachim and one of the Frenchmen ahead in the canoe, so they could return with extra transport. Waiting for Joachim to return, the others began to suffer from infected insect bites. Infection killed Joaquin, then Rosa and Elvia, the remaining Frenchmen and Isabel's brothers. Heloise wandered off in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. With the others dead, Isabel was left wandering alone in the jungle.
When Joachim arrived back at the camp, he found only the bodies of the deceased travelers. Unable to identify Isabel's body, he sent word of her death to Don Pedro — news which later reached Jean. Isabel wandered, alone and starving, for nine days. Half-crazed, she met four Indians who offered her help in reaching Cayenne. With their help, she was able to reach the waiting ship. The story of her incredible journey soon spread, and she was treated to an increasingly grand reception as she made her way downriver.
On July 22, 1770, Isabel and Jean were reunited in the town of Oyapock after more than 20 years of separation. They remained in Cayenne for a few years. On April 21, 1773, Isabel, her husband and her father decided to leave Guiana and make their way to France. Don Pedro, having been severely disturbed by the events leading up to their arrival in France, died on November 28, 1780. Jean died in their home on the Rue de l’Hotel-Dieu, Paris on March 1, 1792. Isabel died in Cher on September 28 that same year.