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
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
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.