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Films >> Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes) (1972) >>

See the bibliography (divided into print, video/audio, and online resources) below the essay by Haydn Galloway

[1] Lope de Aguirre was born to a nobleman and his wife in Onate in Biscay circa 1510 and spent much of his life as a horse trainer in Peru. His unruly and often violent ways caused him to receive the death sentence numerous times, only to be pardoned and exiled from place to place. Once arrested for beating two natives, Aguirre was so angered by the judge who sentenced him to a lashing that he stalked him for some time before murdering him in his sleep. When Aguirre was in his late twenties, an expedition led by Hernando Cortes returned to Seville, where Aguirre was living, with treasures from Peru. Aguirre’s imagination was sparked by the chance of finding gold and that eventually led to him becoming part of Pedro de Ursua’s expedition to El Dorado.

[2] Ursua’s expedition started in 1560 and followed a trail down the Maranon and the Amazon rivers in search of the infamous El Dorado, “The Lost City of Gold,” which was said to be located at the mouth of the Amazon. Since Aguirre was a very capable soldier, he was given a high ranking position on this expedition composed of about 370 Spanish soldiers and a few hundred natives. Only one year later Aguirre participated in the killing of Ursua and his successor, Fernando de Guzman. Aguirre, then around fifty years old and struggling with a limp from an old war wound, resented the much younger Ursua. In Aguirre’s eyes, Ursua was far less capable, having received the position because of his family’s wealth and connections rather than his hard work. After the murder of Ursua, Aguirre controlled his successor, Guzman, like a puppet, till once having gained the respect of his comrades, he murdered Guzman and solidified his power as leader, continuing the expedition through the Amazon rivers.

[3] Aguirre’s expedition, however, took on a rather destructive and violent path compared to his generally peaceful predecessors, with most of his invasions ending in bloodshed. Aguirre decided that his expedition could take on a bigger and better plan. Aguirre now wanted to claim his own Empire so he rebelled against King Phillip II and named his own Kingdom of Peru. Aguirre then changed course to Panama, which he would attempt to attack and claim as his own. Towards the start of his new expedition to Panama, Aguirre invaded Margarita Island in Venezuela. While in Margarita, Aguirre sent his most trusted right-hand man Monguia to the Panamanian Isthmus to get rid of a rival ship under the command of a crusading Dominican Friar. When his ship did not return after a week at sea, Aguirre vowed to kill the entire population of Margarita, even women and children to avenge his lost ship. The ship was eventually found, and the threat was not carried out, but while Aguirre was there over fifty men and women were hanged and the small settlement was looted to show Aguirre’s power. His violent attitude was repeated with every step Aguirre took. When Aguirre took his expedition through to Valencia, despite staying for a mere twelve days, Aguirre and his troops left it in state of disrepair, setting the entire town alight.

[4] During his expedition, Aguirre was paranoid that his own men would turn against him. Aguirre was described as “small and spare in figure, ugly . . . with a black beard and an eagle eye which he turned straight upon others who angered him.” His small stature meant that he seemed weaker than those around him, so when Aguirre was worried that his power was in jeopardy, he would kill numerous members of his expedition, as examples of his strength. It is estimated that Aguirre killed thirty nine of his men, with another fifty seven abandoning him towards the beginning of his trip. His paranoia got the better of him when he reached Borburata, a small costal town in Venezuela. Here, Aguirre became a recluse, separating himself from his soldiers, giving orders through his personal bodyguard. Despite his apparent weakness, when Aguirre left Borburata on an epic, mountainous journey to Valencia, many men half his age collapsed and died on the journey, but Aguirre made it through. Many said he should have died in Valencia, but he pulled through to cling on to his power.

[5] What Aguirre lacked in physicality, he made up in his speaking abilities, and once he arrived in Valencia, Aguirre dictated a letter to King Phillip II of Spain in July of 1561. Aguirre tells the King the reasons why he rebelled against the crown and declared his independence. Although being against the Royals, the letter has a loyalist tone to it as he defends his actions and emphasizes the hard work he has put into serving the king over the twenty years he spent in Peru. However, he also sharply attacks the King, stating that a King’s lust for bloodshed is worse than that of Satan. The main thesis of his letter is to attack the politics of King Phillip’s reign, which is one that keeps the “motherland” rich and leaves its colonies stricken by poverty.

[6] After sending his letter, Aguirre moved his troops from Valencia to Barquisimeto, where Royal troops surrounded him. There was no way out except to go back to Borburata, but with dilapidated resources and few men willing to follow him, his plan of attack failed. The troops finally closed in on him, and there was no escape. It was now nearing the end of October in 1561. As he realized his fate, Aguirre decided to take matters into his own hands by turning to his own daughter, Elvira. Her mother was an anonymous Indian woman, and Aguirre held Elvira as his one true possession. She accompanied him on his journey all the way from Peru and was now around fourteen, which was the marriageable age of the time. Aguirre, foreseeing that she would be probably taken advantage of sexually, being a young pretty girl, after his death, realized sacrificing Elvira would save her from this awful fate. Aguirre prepared her by telling her it would be better for her to die than to live on as the daughter of a traitor and ensured her that God would take care of her. After Elvira begged for her life, Aguirre took a dagger and stabbed her to death. He could not bear the thought of her becoming a “mattress for the unworthy.”

[7] After the killing of his daughter, Aguirre made little attempt to fight off his attackers. At first, he refused to surrender but then gave in under the pretences that he should meet with the king. His captor, Royalist Garcia de Paredes, however, decided amongst his men that Aguirre should be killed, and he was shot twice. After his death, he was decapitated, and his head was put on display, along with a sash from his daughter’s clothing, in Tocuyo. His body was then drawn and quartered and thrown into the streets. After his death many of his men were rounded up, and a few of them were also killed for acting against the King.

[8] After his death, Aguirre was remembered as “the most evil and wicked man that was ever born on earth.”

Print Resources

Bandelier, A. F. The Gilded Man. New York: Appleton, 1893.
Chapters on the search for gold in South American from Columbus through three previous expeditions to find El Dorado to the Ursua/Aguirre expedition.
Bodmer, Beatriz Pastor. "The Models in Crisis." The Armature of Conquest. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1992. 153-204.
Bodmer analyzes the accounts of Pedro de Ursua's expedition to El Dorado in order to show how the previously upheld myths have failed and how a narrative discourse of rebellion starts to replace the discourse of mythification. This new discourse points out "a qualitative change of perception" that questions the established values, ideology, and the societal order (178). In the last part of the chapter, Bodmer critically reassesses the characterization of Lope de Aguirre as a historical and literary figure. Bodmer first presents Aguirre's multiple representations as "a rebel, a pilgrim, [and] a prince of freedom" (194). Although Aguirre was known to his contemporaries as "Aguirre the madman," Bodmer claims that Aguirre was not a madman -- he was "an anguished, anachronistic rebel" (203) who suffered from a "desperate nostalgia for a mythical lost world" (204).
Bollaert, William. The Expedition of Pedro de Ursua & Lope de Aguirre in Search of El Dorado and Omagua in 1560-61. 1861. New York: Burt Franklin, 1971.
This is the version by Fray Pedro Simon (b. 1574), not a contemporary of Aguirre. In his introduction, Clements Markham says that Simon copies largely from a manuscript by Francisco Vasquez, a companion of Aguirre, though "it is possible that he may have conversed with other followers of Aguirre, or with men who were engaged in the campaign which ended in the traitor's death." Markham says that "page after page of Simon is transcribed word for word from the manuscript of Vasquez. No source of information could be more authentic." Markham's long introduction provides a wealth of information about the body of El Dorado quests.
Grann, David. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. New York : Doubleday, 2009.
Publisher's description: After stumbling upon a hidden trove of diaries, New Yorker writer David Grann set out to solve "the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century": what happened to British explorer Percy Fawcett. In 1925 Fawcett ventured into the Amazon to find an ancient civilization. For centuries Europeans believed the world's largest jungle concealed the glittering El Dorado. Thousands had died looking for it, leaving many convinced that the Amazon was truly inimical to humankind. But Fawcett had spent years building his scientific case. Captivating the imagination of millions, he embarked with his 21-year-old son, determined to prove that this ancient civilization--which he dubbed "Z"--existed. Then he and his expedition vanished. Fawcett's fate--and the clues he left behind--became an obsession for hundreds who followed him. As Grann delved deeper into Fawcett's mystery, and the greater mystery of the Amazon, he found himself irresistibly drawn into the "green hell."
Hemming, John. The Search for El Dorado. London: Phoenix, 2001.
Popularly written and quite detailed, this book charts the various searches for gold in South America from the beginning through Raleigh. The specific El Dorado quest begins in chapter six, and the story of Aguirre can be found in chapter eight.
Jay, Felix. Sin, Crimes and Retribution in Early Latin America: A Translation and Critique of Sources -- Lope de Aguirre, Francisco de Carvajal, Juan Rodriguez Freyle. Lewiston: Edward Mellon Press, 1999.
Useful for its selection of primary sources, broken down into "Eyewitness Reports" and "Second-hand Materials." Contains, for instance, Aguirre's scathing letter to King Phillip.
Lowry, Walker. Lope Aguirre: The Wanderer. New York: Bookman, 1952.
Short, concise, easy-to-read account of Aguirre's life in the New World -- can be read with profit in one sitting.
Minta, Stephen. Aguirre: The Re-Creation of a Sixteenth-Century Journey across South America. New York: Holt, 1994.
Travelogue format -- information about and reflection on Aguirre as Minta traces the route of his life in South America.
Silver, John. "The Myth of El Dorado." History Workshop 34 (Autumn, 1992): 1-15.
"The story of British involvement in Latin America could fill several volumes, but very little is known of it outside separate specialist circles. This article will briefly outline one strand in the story from the period between the Wars of Independence and the end of the nineteenth century, focusing on the relatively unknown region stretching southward from the Orinoco river to the jungles and waterways of the Amazon valley. This is the region most prominently associated with searches for El Dorado, and the history sketched out below is of the British Victorian version of this enduring myth of a rich 'promised land' lying hidden in the unmapped heartlands of South America."

See Also

Chapman, Walker. The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado. Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1967.

Garcilaso de la Vega. Royal Commentaries of the Incas, and General History of Peru. Trans. Harold V. Livermore. Austin: U of Texas P, 1966.

Lockhart, James. Spanish Peru, 1532-1560. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1968.

Medina, Torbido. The Discovery of the Amazon According to the Account of Friar Gaspar de Carvajal and Other Documents. Ed. Bertram T. Lee. New York: American Geographical Society, 1934.

Neira, Hernan. "The Philosophical Underwriting of a Rebellion: Pedro de Ursua and Lope de Aguirre's Expedition in Search of El Dorado." Chasqui 37.2 (2008): 106-26.

Prescott, William H. History of the Conquest of Peru, 1524-1550. 1847. New York: Heritage Press, 1957.

Raleigh, Walter. The Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana, with a Relation of the Great and Golden City of Manoa (which the Spaniards call El Dorado) . . . in 1595. London, 1596.

Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.

Silverberg, Robert. The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado. Athens: Ohio UP, 1996.

Simon, Pedro. The Expedition of Pedro de Ursua and Lope de Aguirre in Search of El Dorado and Omague in 1560. London: Hakluyt Society, 1861.

Southey, Robert. The Expedition of Orsua; and the Crimes of Aguirre. London, 1821.

Online Resources

The Conquistadors
Web site accompanying a PBS series provides an interesting and efficient introduction to and overview of the Spanish conquest of Peru.
The Legend of "El Dorado"
Encyclopedia-type brief but useful history of the history surround Lake Guatavita, with quotes from contemporary sources.
Letter from Lope de Aguirre, rebel to King Philip of Spain, 1561
A way to hear the voice of the real Aguirre, here declaring his band seceding from and revolting against their native culture for perceived slights by the King: "Denaturalizing ourselves from our land, Spain, we make the most cruel war against you that our power can sustain and endure. Believe, King and lord, we have done this because we can no longer tolerate the great oppression and unjust punishments of your ministers who, to make places for their sons and dependents have usurped and robbed our fame, life, and honor. It is a pity, King, the bad treatment you have given us."