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Lope de Aguirre

Lope de Aguirre (c. 1510 – 27 October 1561) was a Basque Spanish conquistador in South America. Nicknamed El Loco, 'the Madman', Aguirre is best known for his final expedition, down the Amazon river, in search of the mythical El Dorado. At the beginning he was a minor official of the expedition, but he mutinied and gained control of it, and then rebelled against and defied the Spanish monarch Philip II. By the end of the expedition, Aguirre was defeated and killed. From then on, he was considered a symbol of cruelty and treachery in colonial Spanish America,[1][2] and has become an antihero in literature, cinema and other arts.[3]

In Spain

Aguirre was born around 1510 in the Araotz Valley (a valley and hamlet belonging to Oñati), close to Arantzazu in the province of Gipuzkoa, northern Spain. He was the son of a nobleman, possibly from a family of court clerks. Aguirre was in his twenties and living in Seville when Hernando 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, Aguirre was responsible for the training of stallions, among other activities. 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. Aguirre, however, took part in the plot with Melchor Verdugo to free the viceroy (who had been imprisoned on the island of San Lorenzo), and thus turned against Gonzalo Pizarro (the leader of the anti-viceroy/New Laws faction). 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, 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 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.

Aguirre and Melchor Verdugo (a converso Jew) had gone to Nicaragua sailing to Trujillo with 33 men. 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, 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. 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 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 Spaniards and hundreds of natives; the actual goal of Ursúa was to send veterans from the former Peruvian civil wars away, to keep them from troublemaking, using the Eldorado myth as a lure. 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. On 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 the governor and 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 shot to death. Aguirre's body was cut into quarters and sent to various cities across Venezuela.

Popular culture

Aguirre has been represented in film twice: by Klaus Kinski in the allegorical film Aguirre, the Wrath of God in 1972, and by Omero Antonutti in El Dorado in 1988.

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

Aguirre was also featured in the educational video game The Amazon Trail.


  1. "Lope de Aguirre". (2010). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved October 08, 2010, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online:
  2. Lewis, Bart L. (2003). The Miraculous Lie: Lope de Aguirre and the Search for El Dorado in the Latin American Historical Novel. Lexington Books. ISBN 0-7391-0787-9. 
  3. Thomas Gómez (2009). "Génesis de un antihéroe: Lope de Aguirre entre crónicas, literatura, cine y otras artes". In Guillermo Serés, Mercedes Serna Arnáiz. Los límites del océano: estudios filológicos de crónica y épica en el nuevo mundo. Centro para la Edición de los Clásicos Españoles. pp. 65–74. ISBN 978-84-936665-2-1. 


  • Galster, Ingrid (1996). Aguirre oder Die Willkür der Nachwelt. Die Rebellion des baskischen Konquistadors Lope de Aguirre in Historiographie und Geschichtsfiktion (1561–1992). Frankfurt am Main: Vervuert Verlag, ISBN 3-89354-075-X
  • Galster, Ingrid (2011). Aguirre o La posteridad arbitraria. La rebelión del conquistador vasco Lope de Aguirre en historiografía y ficción histórica (1561-1992). Bogotá: Ed. Universidad del Rosario and Ed. Universidad Javeriana, ISBN 978-958-738-204-4 (also available as eBook).

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