- The Wrath of God: Lope de Aguirre, Revolutionary of the Americas
It seems likely that far more people know the Lope de Aguirre of the 1972 Werner Herzog film Aguirre, the Wrath of God than know the complex and compelling historical figure who inspired that visually rich filmic fantasy. Evan Balkan’s book does much to put the Lope de Aguirre of history, the head of the fateful 1560–1561 expedition in search of El Dorado in the Amazon jungle, in the broader context his biography deserves. In retelling the Aguirre story Balkan draws on a wide range of published literature, including modern editions of several eyewitness chronicles, nineteenth-century ruminations, and the recent proliferation of essays on the topic, especially those by literary scholars whose focus, in turn, is on fictionalized versions of the outlandish tale of rebellion and murderous rampage and the inexorable fate of violent death.
The events of Aguirre’s 25-year career in postconquest Peru, so far as they are known, provide a useful backdrop to his actions and statements during the Amazon expedition. And Balkan puts appropriate emphasis on the period following the drift down the vast river, when the fate of the survivors was sealed in confrontations with the Spanish colonists on Margarita Island and the adjacent Venezuelan mainland. In the end, Aguirre was abandoned by nearly all of his former comrades, who had hoped for amnesty in return for returning to the royal fold; after his execution, there was no one to defend him and the survivors had every reason to invest his memory with the full responsibility for the death and destruction during the trip. Subsequent commentators, who were clearly neither rebels nor apostates, had every reason to make his fate the supreme example of what happens to those who wantonly violate the laws of God and King.
Thus, all extant accounts are biased, none more so than the self-exculpatory narratives of the eyewitness chronicles that all writers since have relied on for both descriptive detail and normative judgments. It is no surprise, then, that Lope de Aguirre emerges from the past as gratuitously and viciously cruel, murderous, traitorous, blasphemous, bloodthirsty, immoral, deceitful, and ultimately insane. In its subtitle and the interpretive summary it offers, this book revives such characterizations uncritically, but it also brings forward more recent appropriations, of the story, anachronistic perhaps, suggesting that Aguirre might somehow be considered a forerunner of the Latin American independence movements of the nineteenth century, or the social revolutions of the twentieth.
It turns out that Aguirre left extensive documentation of his own actions and his positions with regard to the precepts, both religious and secular, that he admitted to violating. Most famously, in the letter Aguirre addressed not long before his downfall to King Philip II (transcribed verbatim by Balkan on pp. 147–152 from a translation produced by the writer of this review in the early 1990s, complete with typographical errors), there is little to suggest that Aguirre’s project was political independence, the taking of Spanish Peru by conquest, or any of the grand schemes others have accused [End Page 139] him of plotting. It is, rather, a statement full of officious bluster thinly covering bemused resignation, the lament of an aging soldier who felt betrayed by the system he had served long and loyally. Aguirre denied none of the accusations against him, and called on his monarch to rectify his grievances. It is a final statement by an admitted rebel, but it is not the voice of a madman, nor of a revolutionary in any sense that term is understood today.
The book includes many long quotations translated from primary documents, frequently with no documentation at all and thus no path for the interested reader who might want to verify their accuracy or context, or to check translations against original language. The apparently random pattern of source citation is especially problematic in view of the self-serving perspectives that permeate...