This is the first post in the Age of Discovery Series lasting throughout March.
Lope de Aguirre is one of the more infamous conquistadors of the many thousands of men from all over Europe who set out in service of the Spanish Crown in search of adventure, fame and, most importantly, wealth. His biography ticks all the boxes for adventure and exploits. He went down in a blaze of glory after failing to achieve every conquistador’s dream of getting wealthy. His unstable nature, paranoia and numerous murders earned him the nickname “El Loco”, Spanish for the madman.
Aguirre was born in the early 1500’s in the Basque region of Oñati. Born of a minor noble family, but not being the firstborn son and, thus, not expecting much of an inheritance, Aguirre did what many men of that age did, he agreed to go to the New World. He would spend the rest of his life there.
His early days in Latin America were spent embroiled in the many civil wars and conflicts being waged by those who remained following the initial conquest of the Inca Empire by Francisco Pizarro. He was widely regarded as a capable soldier and his services were in demand. He would fight with various factions in the interminable squabbling that defined the middle part of the 16th century.
At one point he was reprimanded for abuses of an Indian and sentenced to a lashing, which was uncommon as the indigenous were regularly mistreated, beaten and abused with no consequences. Aguirre seems to have changed following this particular episode. A real distrust for bureaucracy and its functionaries set in. One legend has him stalking the judge who sentenced him to the lashing for three years before killing him in his sleep.
Aguirre was also becoming jaded and bitter that he was unable to secure any real fortune for himself, despite being a competent combatant, risking life and limb (he was maimed and would walk with a limp after one particular failed coup he was enlisted to help put down). In 1559, the Viceroy of Peru sanctioned an expedition to search for the lost city of El Dorado. Pedro de Ursúa was given the command. Aguirre joined and was given a leading position. He had been in the New World for some 25 years. By most accounts he was completely unstable at this point.
The expedition was doomed from the beginning. Hostile natives, disease and a lack of food put the troops in peril. Aguirre disliked Ursúa from the start and in a push for power, assassinated him, installing a close ally, Fernando de Guzmán as the commander.
What Aguirre did next is nothing short of insane. He began murdering anyone with any noble blood in the expedition, including the priest who accompanied them. He declared Guzmán the Prince of Peru before later killing him. This ragged band led by a madman followed the Orinoco to the sea and headed for Panama where they were to take over and begin their assault on the rest of South America. They attacked and sacked the Isla Margarita, off the coast of Venezuela, killing many in the process.
From there, Aguirre sent his now-famous letter to King Phillip, explaining his treason and declaration of independence. It more or less states that he’s been let down too many times. They held the island and soon began their assault on the mainland. His forces were quickly surrounded by Spanish forces. His men began to desert in droves, with an offer of a pardon to anyone who gave themselves up without fighting being too good an offer to refuse.
Surrounded, Aguirre sensed that the end was near. He was barricaded in with his daughter Elvira. Rather than see her captured he murdered her. He was soon overtaken and himself captured. He would be shot, then chopped into pieces, with the pieces being sent throughout Venezuela.
Aguirre would come to symbolize insanity and treachery in Latin America. His nickname, El Loco, was well-deserved. A soldier of fortune, he proved to be completely unstable after doing so much soldiering only to see no fortune. His complete letter to the king can be read below and is a great primary source with his trademark paranoia and madness tinging the impassioned document.
- Biography of Lope de Aguirre, Madman of El Dorado (Latin American History)
- Letter From Lope de Aguirre to King Philip of Spain, 1561 (Fordham.edu)