George Monbiot has a story to tell about life in the jungles of Brazil. The Guardian published it here and I urge my gentle reader to read his story before they read my thoughts, because it is a good story.
While as an ancient historian I should perhaps deny all knowledge of everything between Romulus Augustus and Napoleon Bonaparte, I have heard a version of this story before: Chaucer’s Pardoner tells it (a Modern English rendition is available here). The theme of the discoverers of treasure murdering each other for it is a popular one, with a famous cinematic version in Humphrey Bogart’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This puts me in ancipiti.
One basic principle for interpreting historical sources is that a story which closely follows fictional patterns is also likely to be fictional. One can observe that the stories about the humble childhood of Cyrus the Great resemble stories about Sargon of Akkad, Moses, Romulus and Remus, and a number of Greek gods, and that therefore they are likely to be invented. It is certainly possible that a medieval English story crossed 600 years, the Atlantic and a language barrier to be retold amongst Brazilian miners. Monbiot’s informants could not have known everything which they told him, although a bit of inquiry at the nearest airstrip would have let them piece together the outline. Yet many details are different, and the similarities are the sort of thing which the situation demands. The recipients of a windfall often quarrel over it, those determined to commit murder often use rat poison, and the killers would have had no way to know that their food was poisoned. While the principle that too good a story should be doubted makes me uncertain, I can’t claim to know that Monbiot’s story did not happen in the jungles of Brazil. Let Robert Service have the last words on another gold rush:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold