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Lope de Aguirre

Lope de Aguirre (c. 1510 – 27 October 1561) was a Spanish Basque conquistador in South America. Nicknamed El Loco, 'the Madman', Aguirre was renowned for his treacherous and brutal exploits. He participated and eventually led an expedition down the Amazon river in search of the mythical El Dorado. He rebelled against and defied the Spanish monarch Philip II, before being defeated and slain.

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In Spain

Aguirre was born circa 1510 in Araotz Valley, in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa, former part of the kingdom of Pamplona. (Today, Araotz belongs to the near municipality of Oñati, in northern Spain.) He was the son of a nobleman, with some culture, possibly from a family of court clerks. Aguirre was in his twenties and living in Seville when Hernándo Pizarro returned from Peru and brought back the treasures of the Incas, inspiring Aguirre to follow in his footsteps.

In the New World

Aguirre probably enlisted himself in an expedition of 250 men chosen under Rodrigo Buran. He arrived in Peru in 1536 or 1537. In Cuzco, among other activities, Aguirre was responsible for the training of stallions. As a conquistador, however, he soon became infamous for his violence, cruelty, and sedition.

In 1544, Aguirre was at the side of Peru's first viceroy, Blasco Núñez Vela, who had arrived from Spain with orders to implement the New Laws, suppress the Encomiendas, and liberate the natives. Many of the conquistadors refused to implement these laws, which prohibited them from exploiting the Indians. Lope de Aguirre, however, took part in the plot with Melchor Verdugo to free the viceroy, and thus turned against Gonzalo Pizarro. After the failed attempt, they escaped from Lima to Cajamarca, and started to gather men to help the viceroy. In the meantime, the viceroy had escaped, thanks to oidor Alvarez, by sea to Tumbes and had formed a little army thinking that all the country was going to awaken under the royal flag. The viceroy's resistance to Gonzalo Pizarro and his deputy Francisco de Carvajal, the infamous "demon of the Andes," would last for two years until he was defeated in Añaquito on January 18, 1546.

Melchor Verdugo and Lope de Aguirre had gone to Nicaragua sailing to Trujillo with thirty-three men. Melchor Verdugo had conferred captain's rank on Rodrigo de Esquivel and Nuño de Guzmán, sergeant major rank on Aguirre and contador status to P. Henao. Henao would later participate in the expedition of Pedro de Ursúa to Omagua and El Dorado. However, in 1551, Lope de Aguirre returned to Potosí (then still part of Peru and now part of Bolivia). The judge Francisco de Esquivel arrested him and charged him with infraction 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 flogging. His pride wounded, Aguirre waited until the end of the judge's mandate. Fearing Aguirre's vengeance, the judge fled, changing his residence constantly.

Aguirre pursued Esquivel by 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. The soldiers followed this obstinate pursuit with interest. Finally, Aguirre found him in Cuzco, in the mansion of the magistrate; while Esquivel was taking a nap in the library, wearing a coat of mail he always wore on for fear of Aguirre. Aguirre cut his temples. (Supposedly Aguirre later returned to search for a sombrero he had left behind.) Protected by friends who had hidden him, he fled from Cuzco, taking refuge with a relative in Guamanga.

In 1554, needing to put down the rebellion of Hernández Girón, Alonzo de Alvarado secured a pardon for everyone who enlisted in his army and had been affiliated with Lope de Aguirre. Aguirre fought and was wounded at the battle of Chuquinga against Girón, resulting in an incurable limp that would ostracise him from his peers.

Search for El Dorado

Together with his daughter he joined the 1560 expedition of Pedro de Ursúa down the Marañón and Amazon Rivers with 300 men and hundreds of natives. A year later, he participated in the overthrow and killing of Ursúa and his successor, Fernando de Guzmán, whom he ultimately succeeded. He and his men reached the Atlantic (probably by the Orinoco River), destroying native villages on the way. In March 23, 1561, Aguirre urged 186 captains and soldiers to sign an act which would proclaim him as prince of Peru, Tierra Firma and Chile.

He is reputed to have said in 1561:

I am the Wrath of God,
the Prince of Freedom,
Lord of Tierra Firme and the Provinces of Chile

In 1561, he seized Isla Margarita and brutally suppressed any opposition to his reign, killing many innocent people. When he crossed to the mainland in an attempt to take Panama, his open rebellion against the Spanish crown came to an end. He was surrounded at Barquisimeto, Venezuela, where he murdered his own daughter Elvira "because someone that I loved so much should not come to be bedded by uncouth people". He also killed several followers who intended to capture him. He was eventually captured and killed. Aguirre's body was cut into quarters and sent to various cities across Venezuela.

Popular culture

Aguirre has three times been represented in the movies: first by Klaus Kinski in the allegorical film Aguirre, the Wrath of God in 1972, secondly by Omero Antonutti in El Dorado in 1988, and more recently in Tears of God. He also makes an appearance in the Amazon Trail II and Amazon Trail 3rd Edition video game.

Aguirre's expedition was mentioned in Daniel Kehlmann's novel "Measuring the World" (2005).

It is the topic of Stephen Minta's book, Aguirre: The Re-Creation of a Sixteenth-Century Journey Across South America (1995) in which Minta retraces the expedition.

External links

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