Mirage de el Dorado – Lope de Aguirre

Mirage de el Dorado

Lope de Aguirre:

Traitor, Hero, Madman?

By Robert Drynan

 Lope de Aguirre


Lope de Aguirre was born into an impoverished family of petty Spanish nobility in the province of Oñate in 1511. When Pizarro arrived in Spain to obtain permission from Charles I to launch his third expedition, Aguirre got wind of the stories of the riches to be had. Six years later Aguirre landed in Perú. In 1538 he participated in the Battle of Salinas that led to the death of Diego Almagro.

In 1544 first viceroy of Peru, Blasco Núñez Vela arrived from Spain with orders to implement new laws to end the abuse and enslavement of the natives. Deeply resentful of the arrival of a bureaucrat of the Spanish court, Gonzalo Pizarro organized an army. Capturing Núñez in 1546 he abolished the new laws. Aguirre participated in the campaign that freed the imprisoned viceroy but failed to restore him to power. Aguirre and others fled back to Central America.

In 1551 Aguirre returned to Perú, but a magistrate, Francisco de Esquivel, ironically accused him of violating laws protecting the Indians. Arrested and by Esquivel’s order, publicly flogged, Aguirre swore vengeance. Legend has it that Aguirre pursued Esquivel on foot for three years and four months, finally confronting and killing the magistrate in his mansion in Cuzco.

Under sentence of death for the murder of Esquivel, Aguirre evaded the penalty for the next several years in uprisings against the rulers of Perú. He occasionally fought on the royalist side, but apparently the judgment was ignored in exchange for his military services. He was again accused of the murder of a provincial governor, but pardoned when he joined forces with royalists to put down another rebellion. At the battle of Chuquinga in 1554, Aguirre was badly wounded and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

By the late 1550’s bitter and unstable, close to fifty years old, Aguirre had fought in countless battles, been crippled and had nothing to show for it but a mestiza daughter, Elvira, and a reputation as a tough fighting man.  His erratic, violent behavior earned him the nickname Aguirre El Loco. He bore a deep sense of betrayal and resentment for the Spanish crown.

In 1559 Aguirre thought his moment had come. The Viceroy of Peru approved an expedition to search for El Dorado. He placed about 370 Spanish soldiers and a few hundred Indians under the command of a young nobleman, Pedro de Ursúa.  Aguirre’s reputation as a soldier secured him a senior position in the military leadership of the venture.

Aguirre resented Ursúa. A younger man, less qualified as a soldier than Aguirre, but with powerful family connections. Ursúa brought along his mistress, distracting him from his responsibility as leader of the expedition. Descending into the dense rainforest of the Amazon Basin, the endeavor soon foundered. They raided indigenous settlements for food and ransacked them for valuables, slaughtering the inhabitants without mercy.  They found no city of gold and little food. Word of their depredations preceded them and they were met only by hostile natives. Disease and malnutrition depleted their numbers.

Aguirre became the leader of disgruntled soldiers who survived the first stages of the expedition.  He overthrew Ursúa, and installed Fernando de Guzman, the second in command, as a puppet and stopping long enough to build two small vessels, continued eastward on the river.

Then in a gesture of defiance, Aguirre declared their independence from Spain, naming Guzman “Prince of Peru and Chile.” Becoming increasingly paranoid, Aguirre ordered the death of the priest accompanying the expedition, followed by Ursúa’s lover, Inés de Atienza, and then even murdered Guzman. Finally, Aguirre executed Pedro de Ursúa, who, though removed from command, had been under Guzman’s protection. 

There is some question whether Aguirre continued down the Amazon River to the Atlantic or somehow managed to cross the wilderness north of the great river and descend the Orinoco River to the Atlantic from Venezuela.  The latter course is suspect, because the expedition would have to ascend rivers traveling against their current to reach the Orinoco, an unlikely prospect. It is more probable that he followed the same route as Francisco de Orellana who arrived fifteen years earlier on the small island of Cubagua, not far from the later permanent Spanish settlement on the Island of Margarita, Aguirre’s landfall.

The inhabitants of Margarita Island welcomed the ragged survivors and offered them refuge. Aguirre instead attacked the settlement, looting it and hanging its governor and as many as fifty locals, including women. Aguirre and his badly decimated force remained for several months on Margarita recovering from their long journey.  On Margarita Aguirre wrote and sent his famous letter to Spanish King Philip II, who had replaced King Charles I in 1558.

Aguirre’s letter to King Philip explained his reasons for declaring independence. He felt betrayed by Spain. After so many hard years in service to the crown, he had nothing to show for it. He complained of judges who had executed many loyal men for false “crimes.” He railed about priests and colonial bureaucrats who came after the conquest to strip the explorers and soldiers of the fruits of their services.  He described himself as a loyal subject, driven to rebel by royal indifference.  The reaction of Philip II to this histrionic document is unknown, although Aguirre was almost certainly dead by the time he received it.

Royalist forces from the mainland attempted to undermine Aguirre by urging his men to desert, offering them royal pardon. Several did, even before their leader made his assault on the mainland. Landing in the small coastal town of Borburata, (near present day Puerto Cabello) Aguirre marched to the larger settlement of Barquisimeto, where pursuing Spanish forces loyal to the king cornered him. His remaining men deserted, leaving him alone with his daughter Elvira.

Surrounded and facing capture, Aguirre killed his daughter, to spare her the horrors that awaited her as the daughter of a penniless traitor. Aguirre’s own men shot him before Spanish troops could capture him. Spanish soldiers dismembered Aguirre’s body and distributed his parts among the surrounding towns.

Lope de Aguirre’s revolt was but a footnote to Spanish rule in the Americas, but he did leave an interesting legacy. Aguirre was neither the first nor the only conquistador to go rogue and attempt to escape rule of the Spanish crown in the New World.  Cristóbal de Olid had nearly carved out a kingdom for himself in Honduras in 1523-1524.

Most modern narratives have preferred to characterize Lope de Aguirre a paranoid madman or a megalomaniac. Nevertheless, a few researchers have reached a different conclusion. The few records that remain, apart from Aguirre’s letter to the king, were written by participants in his abortive rebellion. Scholars such as Hernán Neira, Institute of Philosophy and Educational Studies, Universidad Austral de Chile; Juan Manuel Fierro, Department of Languages, Literature and Communications, Universidad de la Frontera: and Fernando Viveros, doctoral candidate of Humanity Sciences, Universidad Austral de Chile, have argued that Aguirre was unfairly maligned by contemporaries who accompanied the expedition and published memoirs intended to save their own skins.

They argue persuasively that Aguirre was driven to his acts of defiance by the oppression of the late arriving bureaucrats into the Americas representing the Spanish crown and imposing an oligarchy that dispossessed the soldiers and explorers who had earned a share of the wealth they had discovered and extracted with their own blood and sweat. Lope de Aguirre they assert was one of the earliest voices to speak out on behalf of the liberation of Hispano-America from Spanish oppression.

NOTE:  And what of the indigenous peoples who were dispossessed of their lands, wealth and freedom? How can we inhabitants of the twenty-first century possibly understand the natives’ perception of the events that fell so catastrophically upon them? Some welcomed the Spaniards as gods, at least until the acquaintance became more intimate. They fought back desperately and valiantly. And they saw their world end forever.

In 1938 Orson Welles aired on the radio a dramatization of H.G. Welles’ War of the Worlds. Many of the public who tuned in believed that the invasion of the earth by aliens was real and a national panic occurred. Those were more innocent days, but close enough to our own time, that we might appreciate a little better the sense of dismay of the Amerindian people who encountered the invading Europeans.

Since that time the imaginations of film makers and fantasy novelists have attempted to describe what might be the events if in fact an alien force of distinctly higher technical accomplishment were to invade our planet. Others have speculated that aliens’ may have already visited the Earth.     

Why wouldn’t the harquebus and musket, the crossbow, the metallurgy of armor, tempered steel swords, mounted men and horses have a similar impact upon indigenous populations? Wouldn’t the galleons under full sail seem to those simple folk, as space ships and UFOs might have to early twentieth century Americans?

And how to communicate: languages or other means? What would be the consequences to us of a twentieth century alien invasion . . . eradication . . . enslavement? Should we extend the hand of friendship or attack, fight back with all our strength and will?  The Amerindians must have puzzled over these issues. They were realities to them, not fantasies of novels or films.

If we were to face an alien invasion, should we hide our treasures? And what might be the real treasure the aliens would seek; the treasure that is most important to our civilization or something of unimagined importance to them? The indigenous peoples of the Americans didn’t place the kind value on gold and silver, or even gem stones, that their European invaders did. What was the real El Dorado?  What did the Amerindian peoples of the Amazon possess that might have transcended the value of gold, silver and gem stones the Spanish invaders sought?


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