03 October 2008

Lope de Aguirre - The Mad Conquistador of the Amazon

Lope de Aguirre was a Spanish Basque conquistador in South America. He was born around 1510 in Araotz Valley, in the Basque region of Guipúzcoa, part of the Kingdom of Castile in present day Spain.

Wonderful news of the treasures of Peru were reaching Seville during the early 1530s.  Hernando Pizarro arrived with a fifth of the royal treasure of the uncrowned Inca chief Atahualpa: bars of gold and silver, diadems, sheets of precious metal, sacred vases, idols and plates. News spread across Spain and adventurers, Aguirre among them, flocked to Seville, where expeditions were put together.

Aguirre joined a team of 250 men selected by Rodrigo Buran, and they arrived in Peru in 1536 or 1537. He worked alongside Peru’s first viceroy, Blasco Núñez Vela, who arrived from Spain in 1544 with orders to put into practice the New Laws, stifle the Encomiendas (a system where conquistadors were granted trusteeship over the indigenous peoples they conquered), and release the natives.

The conquistadors did not like these laws, particularly because they barred them from taking advantage of the Indians. In 1551 the judge Francisco de Esquivel arrested Aguirre and charged him with violation of the laws for the protection of the Indians. The judge discounted Aguirre’s reasons and his claims of gentry and sentenced him to a public whipping.

Aguirre was so enraged with the punishment he publicly vowed to take revenge upon the judge.  The judge fled after his mandate ended, changing his residence constantly. Aguirre pursued him on foot to Lima, Quito, and then on to Cuzco. In three years he ran 6,000 km by foot, unshod, on the trail of Esquivel. Aguirre found him in Cuzco at last, in the house of the magistrate; while Esquivel was having a siesta in the library, wearing a coat of mail he always wore for fear of Aguirre. Aguirre cut his temples.

He took part in the civil wars among the Spanish conquistadors in Peru after Francisco Pizarro occupied that country in 1533. In 1559 he joined an expedition to search for the renowned El Dorado. The expedition was led by Pedro de Ursúa, a gentleman, who was charged with confirming Orellana´s discoveries and searching for the El Dorado and other riches such as cinnamon.  They initiated their mission down the Marañón and the Amazon river.  Aguirre put together a group of conspirators and ousted and murdered Ursúa along with his wife.  They initially placed Fernando de Guzmán as leader, but soon thereafter Guzman was also murdered by Aguirre. 

Their initial mission was to reach the Atlantic through the Amazon delta, yet Aguirre changed the mission to return as a rebellious group into Peru and take over its riches.  It is unknown whether Aguirre was able to take a shortcut back through the Casiquiare canal into the Orinoco river and present day Venezuela or if he actually completed the mission through the Amazon, following currents that led him back to the Caribbean.  Along the way, Aguirre and his men terrorized and destroyed native villages.

During the journey Aguirre relinquished allegiance to the king and sought to return to Peru to set up an empire there that would be independent of Spain.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is an independent 1972 German film written and directed by Werner Herzog about Aguirre. The story follows Aguirre’s travels as he leads a group of conquistadors down the Amazon River in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. This was the first of five film alliances between Herzog and the explosive lead actor Klaus Kinski. Aguirre opened to widespread critical acclaim, and rapidly developed a huge global cult following.

Noted film critic Roger Ebert describes the film as “one of the great haunting visions of the cinema.” The haunting, ecclesiastical music sets its tone. Herzog doesn’t rush the conquistadors’ voyage, or fill it with artificial episodes of suspense and action. Ebert compares the film to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Apocalypse Now, and describes Herzog as “the most visionary [of modern filmmakers] and the most obsessed with great themes.”

Lead Klaus Kinski was “made to play villains,” says Time Magazine. In this film, he depicts Aguirre’s madness as he tries to tame the wilds of Peru with almost frightening believability. Aguirre’s crew, under assault from the natives, had gone mad too. “That is no arrow,” one crewmember says in the film. “We only imagine the arrows because we fear them.”

The film follows the same journey that Aguirre takes, quiet at first, and pleasantly mysterious. The jungle grows increasingly hostile as the film progresses. We learn from a local Indian that this wilderness goes on forever. He cautions Aguirre, “God, in his anger, never finished this place.” This comes long after the opening narration informs us that El Dorado is and always has been a ruse invented by the Indians to drive Europeans, who the Indians now know are clearly not gods, deeper and deeper into the wilderness.

In 1561, at the end of his failed mission along the Amazon, Aguirre wrote a letter to King Philip II, which rejected the discovery and invention of America as the object of European mythical aspirations. This small piece of protest is considered the most radical of the reports, dispatches and chronicles sent to Spain from the colonies. Aguirre openly blames the king for deserting him and not respecting the old promises of mutual service.

The letter begins, “From Lope de Aguirre, your lesser vassal, old Christian, of middling parents but fortunately of noble blood, native of the Basque country of the kingdom of Spain, citizen of the town of Onate,” and continues, “I demand of you, King, that you do justice and right by the good vassals you have in this land, even though I and my companions (whose names I will give later), unable to suffer further the cruelties of your judges, viceroy, and governors, have resolved to obey you no longer.

“I am certain there are few kings in hell because there are few kings, but if there were many none would go to heaven. Even in hell you would be worse than Lucifer, because you all thirst after human blood. But I don't marvel nor make much of you. For certain, I and my 200 harquebus-bearing maranones, conquistadors and noble, swear solemnly to God that we will not leave a minister of yours alive, because I already know how far your clemency reaches.”

Aguirre seized Isla Margarita in 1561 and cruelly suppressed any resistance to his reign. His open mutiny against the Spanish crown came to an end when he crossed to the mainland in an attempt to take Panama. He killed his own daughter Elvira when he was surrounded at Barquisimeto, Venezuela, “because someone that I loved so much should not come to be bedded by uncouth people.”

Aguirre was eventually captured and shot, and his body was cut in quarters and sent to various cities across Venezuela.


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