Biography of Lope de Aguirre

Aguirre's most visible legacy may be in the world of film. The best by far is the 1972 German effort Aguirre, Wrath of God.
Aguirre's most visible legacy may be in the world of literature and film.

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Lope de Aguirre was a Spanish conquistador present during much of the infighting among the Spanish in and around Peru in the mid-sixteenth century. He is best known for his final expedition, the search for El Dorado, on which he mutinied against the leader of the expedition. Once he was in control, he went mad with paranoia, ordering the summary executions of many of his companions. He and his men declared themselves independent from Spain and captured Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela from colonial authorities. Aguirre was later arrested and executed.

Origins of Lope de Aguirre

Aguirre was born sometime between 1510 and 1515 (records are poor) in the tiny Basque province of Guipúzcoa, in northern Spain on the border with France. By his own account, his parents were not rich but did have some noble blood in them. He was not the eldest brother, which meant that even the modest inheritance of his family would be denied to him. Like many young men, he traveled to the New World in search of fame and fortune, seeking to follow in the footsteps of Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, men who had overthrown empires and gained vast wealth.

Lope de Aguirre in Peru

It is thought that Aguirre departed Spain for the New World around 1534. He arrived too late for the vast wealth that accompanied the conquest of the Inca Empire, but just in time to become embroiled in the many violent civil wars that had broken out among the surviving members of Pizarro's band. A capable soldier, Aguirre was in high demand by the various factions, although he tended to pick royalist causes. In 1544, he defended the regime of Viceroy Blasco Núñez Vela, who had been tasked with the implementation of extremely unpopular new laws which provided greater protection for natives.

Judge Esquivel and Aguirre

In 1551, Aguirre surfaced in Potosí, the wealthy mining town in present-day Bolivia. He was arrested for abusing Indians and sentenced by Judge Francisco de Esquivel to a lashing. It is unknown what he did to merit this, as Indians were routinely abused and even murdered and punishment for abusing them was rare. According to legend, Aguirre was so incensed at his sentence that he stalked the judge for the next three years, following him from Lima to Quito o Cusco before finally catching up with him and murdering him in his sleep. The legend says that Aguirre did not have a horse and thus followed the judge on foot the entire time.

The Battle of Chuquinga

Aguirre spent a few more years participating in more uprisings, serving with both rebels and royalists at different times. He was sentenced to death for the murder of a governor but later pardoned as his services were needed to put down the uprising of Francisco Hernández Girón. It was about this time that his erratic, violent behavior earned him the nickname "Aguirre the Madman." The Hernández Girón rebellion was put down at the battle of Chuquinga in 1554, and Aguirre was badly wounded: his right foot and leg were crippled and he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life.

Aguirre in the 1550s

By the late 1550s, Aguirre was a bitter, unstable man. He had fought in countless uprisings and skirmishes and had been badly wounded, but he had nothing to show for it. Close to fifty years old, he was as poor as he had been when he left Spain, and his dreams of glory in the conquest of rich native kingdoms had eluded him. All he had was a daughter, Elvira, whose mother is unknown. He was known as a tough fighting man but had a well-earned reputation for violence and instability. He felt that the Spanish crown had ignored men like him and he was getting desperate.

The Search for El Dorado

By 1550 or so, much of the New World had been explored, but there were still huge gaps in what was known of the geography of Central and South America. Many believed in the myth of El Dorado, "the Golden Man," who was supposedly a king who covered his body with gold dust and who ruled over a fabulously wealthy city. In 1559, the Viceroy of Peru approved an expedition to search for the legendary El Dorado, and about 370 Spanish soldiers and a few hundred Indians were put under the command of young nobleman Pedro de Ursúa. Aguirre was allowed to join up and was made a high-level officer based on his experience.

Aguirre Takes Over

Pedro de Ursúa was just the sort of person Aguirre resented. He was ten or fifteen years younger than Aguirre and had important family connections. Ursúa had brought along his mistress, a privilege denied to the men. Ursúa had some fighting experience in the Civil Wars, but not nearly as much as Aguirre. The expedition set out and began exploring the Amazon and other rivers in the dense rainforests of eastern South America. The endeavor was a fiasco from the start. There were no wealthy cities to be found, only hostile natives, disease and not much food. Before long, Aguirre was the informal leader of a group of men who wanted to return to Peru. Aguirre forced the issue and the men murdered Ursúa. Fernando de Guzmán, a puppet of Aguirre, was put in command of the expedition.

Independence From Spain

His command complete, Aguirre did a most remarkable thing: he and his men declared themselves the new Kingdom of Peru, independent from Spain. He named Guzmán "Prince of Peru and Chile." Aguirre, however, became increasingly paranoid. He ordered the death of the priest that had accompanied the expedition, followed by Inés de Atienza (Ursúa's lover) and then even Guzmán. He eventually would order the execution of every member of the expedition with any noble blood whatsoever. He hatched a mad plan: he and his men would head to the coast, and find their way to Panama, which they would attack and capture. From there, they would strike out at Lima and claim their Empire.

Isla Margarita

The first part of Aguirre's plan went fairly well, especially considering it was devised by a madman and carried out by a ragged bunch of half-starved conquistadores. They made their way to the coast by following the Orinoco River. When they arrived, they were able to mount an assault on the small Spanish settlement at Isla Margarita and capture it. He ordered the death of the governor and as many as fifty locals, including women. His men looted the small settlement. They then went to the mainland, where they landed at Burburata before going to Valencia: both towns had been evacuated. It was In Valencia that Aguirre composed his famous letter to Spanish King Philip II.

Aguirre's Letter to Philip II

In July of 1561, Lope de Aguirre sent a formal letter to the King of Spain explaining his reasons for declaring independence. He felt betrayed by the King. After many hard years of service to the crown, he had nothing to show for it, and he also mentions having seen many loyal men executed for false "crimes." He singled out judges, priests and colonial bureaucrats for special scorn. The overall tone is that of a loyal subject who had been driven to rebel by royal indifference. Aguirre's paranoia is evident even in this letter. Upon reading recent dispatches from Spain concerning the counter-Reformation, he ordered the execution of a German soldier in his company. Philip II's reaction to this historic document is unknown, although Aguirre was almost certainly dead by the time he received it.

Assault on the Mainland

Royal forces attempted to undermine Aguirre by offering pardons to his men: all they had to do was desert. Several did, even before Aguirre's mad assault on the mainland, slipping off and stealing small boats to make their way to safety. Aguirre, by then down to about 150 men, moved on to the town of Barquisimeto, where he found himself surrounded by Spanish forces loyal to the King. His men, not surprisingly, deserted en masse, leaving him alone with his daughter Elvira.

The Death of Lope de Aguirre

Surrounded and facing capture, Aguirre decided to kill his daughter, so that she would be spared the horrors that awaited her as the daughter of a traitor to the crown. When another woman grappled with him for his harquebus, he dropped it and stabbed Elvira to death with a dagger. Spanish troops, reinforced by his own men, quickly cornered him. He was briefly captured before his execution was ordered: he was shot before being chopped into pieces. Different pieces of Aguirre were sent to surrounding towns.

Lope de Aguirre's Legacy

Although Ursúa's El Dorado expedition was destined to fail, it may not have been an utter fiasco if not for Aguirre and his madness. It is estimated that Lope either killed or ordered the death of 72 of the original Spanish explorers.

Lope de Aguirre did not manage to overthrow Spanish rule in the Americas, but he did leave an interesting legacy. Aguirre was neither the first nor the only conquistador to go rogue and attempt to deprive the Spanish crown of the royal fifth (one-fifth of all spoils from the New World was always reserved for the crown).

Lope de Aguirre's most visible legacy may be in the world of literature and film. Many writers and directors have found inspiration in the tale of a madman leading a troop of greedy, hungry men through dense jungles in an attempt to overthrow a king. There have been a handful of books written about Aguirre, among them Abel Posse's Daimón (1978) and Miguel Otero Silva's Lope de Aguirre, príncipe de la libertad (1979). There have been three attempts to make films about Aguirre's El Dorado expedition. The best by far is the 1972 German effort Aguirre, Wrath of God, starring Klaus Kinski as Lope de Aguirre and directed by Werner Hertzog. There is also the 1988 El Dorado, a Spanish film by Carlos Saura. More recently, the low budget Las Lágrimas de Dios (The Tears of God) was produced in 2007, directed by and starring Andy Rakich.


Silverberg, Robert. The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado. Athens: the Ohio University Press, 1985.

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Minster, Christopher. "Biography of Lope de Aguirre." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 28). Biography of Lope de Aguirre. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Biography of Lope de Aguirre." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).