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Review of Aguirre: The Re-creation of a Sixteenth Century Across South America by Stephen Minta.

  Reviewed by Peter Winn
 Lope de Aguirre was one of the most notorious and fascinating figures in
 the conquest of America, a megalomaniac and paranoid Basque soldier of
 iron will who murdered the leaders of the largest Peruvian expedition to
 search for El Dorado, descended the Amazon and conquered the island of
 Margarita (off Venezuela) from the astonished Spanish settlers, and then
 set off to conquer Peru before he was finally defeated and then killed by
 his own men. His story is the subject of a celebrated film by Werner
 Herzog. Now Stephen Minta has re-created Aguirre's journey in a book
 that is part history, part travelogue, but always interesting and well
 written.
 A British scholar of Latin American literature, Minta retraced Aguirre's
 16th century journey across South America with the contemporary
 chronicles in hand, and then wrote a book that weaves together the epic
 story of the conquistador with Minta's own experiences and observations
 of the places and people he encountered. The result is a delightful and
 insightful account of the little-known areas of the Andes and the Amazon,
 which narrates their history, along with that of the characters associated
 with them in the Aguirre story.
 Minta begins, as Aguirre's expedition did, in Cuzco, the ancient Inca
 capital in the highlands of Peru, and ends in Onate, Aguirre's hometown
 in the mountains of Spain's Basque country. In between he descends the
 valleys of the Huallaga and Maranon rivers to the mighty Amazon,
 describing Iquitos and Manaus, the region's chief cities, as well as the
 smaller settlements he passes through along the way.
 Rebel unto death
 Yet, it is a measure of the power of Aguirre and his story that they
 increasingly dominate Minta's book. Through the eyes of contemporary
 chroniclers we see him murder his real or imagined enemies with a
 ruthlessness and sadism that still shocks centuries later, until there is no
 one left to kill but his beloved daughter, Elvira, whom he murders before
 he dies so that she would not become "a mere mattress for the unworthy."
 But Minta also shows that terror was not Aguirre's only hold over his
 men. The self styled "Wrath of God" was also the self-made "Prince of
 Freedom" who played on the resentment of soldiers who had conquered
 Peru only to see others appropriate the lion's share of the spoils. This is a
 duality that Aguirre maintained until the bitter end. When all hope was
 gone, he wrote an extraordinary letter to Philip II of Spain, the mightiest
 monarch of his day, in which he recounted and justified each of his crimes,
 and then signed it: "Son of faithful vassals from the Basque country, and
 rebel unto death because of your ingratitude, Lope de Aguirre, The
 Wanderer."
 Aguirre is history that is truly stranger than fiction!
 About the Author: STEPHEN MINTA is Senior Lecturer in Comparative
 Literature at the University of York.
 About the Reviewer: PETER WINN teaches Latin American history at
 Tufts University. He is the author of Americas: The Changing Face of
 Latin America and the Caribbean.
 This review was used with permission of Peter Winn and the History Book Club.

You can read about this and other topics in colonial Latin American history by buying and reading Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.

Click on the book cover or the title to go to Llumina Press.