Text: Lope de Aguirre’s Letter to King Philip of Spain (1561)

It’s interesting that this panel included Lope de Aguirre’s letter to King Philip II.  Unlike Raleigh’s and Vespucci’s texts, which embrace discovery and invention, Aguirre’s letter rejects discovery and the invention of America as the object of European mythical aspirations. For those of you not familiar with this text, it was written in 1561 at the end of Aguirre’s failed expedition along the Amazon. Aguirre’s small piece of protest is the most radical of the reports, dispatches, and chronicles sent to Spain from the colonies.  It is a blatant break with the traditional letters of complaints to the King as well as a highly critical representation of the American enterprise.

Aguirre explicitly accuses the King of abandoning him and not respecting the old pacts of mutual service. According to Aguirre, the King’s priests and judges have taken over the hard-won marvelous space of the New World -- and their friends and relatives are benefiting from the unpaid loyalty of the good vassals. The wonder is gone and, along with it, the ethnographic discourse. Indeed, native otherness is almost absent from this text. Natives are mentioned twice, in reference to the corrupt priests who cannot inspire faith in them and the friars who “do not want to bury poor Indians.” (3)[1] In my view, these comments suggest an implicit, if only partial, identification between conquerors and Indians due to the evil treatment they received and their status as outcasts. It is even possible to infer from this text that the conqueror himself has become the Other as seen from the hegemonic perspective of the colonial elite.  As Beatriz Pastor asserts, Aguirre is truly aware that he is part of the “unburdening of the land,” a project designed to send off the disruptive men -- mostly idle conquistadors and troublemakers -- on a variety of exploratory expeditions.[2]

The vision of South America as a dystopic space is another important element of Aguirre’s letter. His text is a “disinvention” of America which leads to an inversion of wonder. For him, Amazonia is a terrestrial inferno, a “fearsome lake” and “ill-fated river” (4) to which no more fleets should be sent “because in Christian faith I swear, King and lord, that if a hundred thousand men come none will escape, because the stories are false and in this river there is nothing but despair, especially for those newly arrived from Spain.” (4) Harsh living conditions and disillusionment, which Aguirre alludes to in this quote, provoked Aguirre’s rebellion and many other uprisings from the time of the civil wars in Peru. As a consequence of this disillusionment, Aguirre invents a form of rebellion that articulates a new goal: independence from Spain and personal sovereignty in Peru.

From a pedagogical point of view, Aguirre’s letter serves as an excellent illustration of the fact that the process of conquest was not monolithic and cannot be studied homogeneously as a heroic narrative or a genocidal take-over. The conquerors were a very heterogeneous group and I think Aguirre’s letter helps us understand the complexity of the period of discovery and conquest.

In my view, the letter invites readings from a double perspective. First, it needs to be read in the context of the chronicles in which it is embedded and, secondly, it should be read separately from them. In the context of the many chronicles that focus on Aguirre’s adventure, among which Vázquez is considered fundamental, the letter appears self-incriminating. It is the final proof of Aguirre’s madness and betrayal in the accusatory accounts which systematically denounce and demonize Aguirre. However, when it is read independently of these chronicles, the subversive nature of the text emerges and the letter opens itself to many different interpretations and appropriations.

For instance, Pastor reads it as an anachronistic attempt to restore a Medieval form of political hierarchy, while Bolívar read it as a prelude to the struggle for independence. Aguirre’s letter refuses to be contained by the frame of the chronicle, though order is restored upon the death of the tyrant. It keeps resonating, opposing the workings of ideology which try to solve the crisis of the new political order.

The subversive nature of Aguirre’s letter is based on two polemical topics: the conflicts between groups of Peninsulars struggling to produce a new social arrangement that would fit their economic interest and the transition into a social order in which social mobility is no longer attainable through conquest and war. It is evident that the power of the conqueror is being replaced by the power of the Crown’s functionaries.

               Finally, although the geopolitical conflicts between European empires do not explicitly motivate Aguirre’s letter, Aguirre criticizes Philip II’s lack of concern for America and his father’s involvement with Germany -- because the Crown’s enterprise drew funds from the conquerors’ coffers. Aguirre also aggrandizes himself and his companions by claiming they are the real defenders of  the “Holy Mother Church,” (3) unlike the King, whose promises have, according to Aguirre, “less credence than the books of Martin Luther.” (1) It is made clear that Aguirre shapes his identity in opposition to the emerging Protestant power.  

 In summary, Aguirre’s letter is the only text that registers so openly the protest of the disillusioned soldiers. It is relevant because it introduces many of the themes that will be an integral part of the political space in Latin America in the following centuries  and it is provocative because it inaugurates a new discursive invention of America.   







Primary sources

Mampel González, Elena and Neus Escandell Tur, eds.  Lope de Aguirre.

Crónicas.  Barcelona: Editorial 7½; Ediciones Universidad de Barcelona, 1981. 

Ortiguera, Toribio de.  Jornada del río Marañón.  Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores

Españoles, 1968.

Simón, Pedro.  Historial de la expedición de Pedro de Ursúa al Marañón y de las
             aventuras de Lope de Aguirre
.  Lima: Sanmartí, 1942.

Vázquez, Francisco.  El Dorado. Crónica de la expedición de Pedro de Ursúa y Lope de

Aguirre.  Madrid: Alianza, 1987.


Secondary sources

Arciniega, Rosa.  Dos rebeldes en el Perú.  Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1946.

Armas, Ingrid de, François Delprat and Amadeo López.  “Lope de Aguirre: La imagen de                                                                                                                                                 

la transgresión, de las crónicas a la novela contemporánea.”  Les représentations de l’autre dans l’espace ibérique et ibéro-américain. II: Perspective diachroniqueEd. Augustín Redondo.  Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1993.  123-35.

Barrientos, Juan José.  “Aguirre y la rebelión de los marañones.”  Cuadernos americanos

2.2 (1988): 92-115. 


Brading, David A.  The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and
Liberal State, 1492-1867.  Cambridge; New York: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Burmester, Luis Germán.  Lope de Aguirre y la Jornada de los Marañones.  Buenos

Aires: La Cumbre Social Anónima, 1941.

Caro Baroja, Julio.  El Señor Inquisidor y otras vidas por oficio.  Madrid: Alianza , 1988.

Castro Arenas, Mario.  “Lope de Aguirre o el punto de vista del soldado.”  Homenaje a                            

Luis Alberto Sánchez.  Madrid: Insula, 1983.  143-162.

Drufovka-Restrepo, Ivan.  “La manipulación discursiva sobre Lope de Aguirre en el siglo XVI.”  Diss. Temple University, 1993.  Dissertation Abstracts International 54.7 (1994): 2596A.

Duhalde, Eduardo Luis.  Espejos rotos: El Che y Lope de Aguirre. La ética y los
             presupuestos de la violencia
.  Buenos Aires: De la Aldaba, 1997.

Galster, Ingrid.  Aguirre, oder, Die Willkur der Nachwelt: die Rebellion des
 baskischen Konquistadors Lope de Aguirre in Historiographie und  Geschichtsfiktion (1561-1992)
.  Frankfurt a. Main: Vervuert, 1996.

Gandía, Enrique de.  Prologue.  Jornada de Omagua y Dorado (Historia de Lope de

Aguirre, sus crímenes y locuras).  By Francisco Vázquez.  Buenos Aires: Espasa-Calpe, 1945.  9-25.

Gnutzmann, Rita.  “Un ejemplo de recepción literaria: Lope de Aguirre creado por

Ramón J. Sender y M. Otero Silva.”  Revista de literatura 50.99 (Jan-June 1988): 111-128.

Ispizúa, Segundo de.  Los vascos en América.  Biblioteca de Autores Vascos 1.  San

Sebastián: Ediciones Vascas, 1979.

Jay, Felix.  Sin, Crimes, and Retribution in Early Latin America: A Translation  and

Critique of Sources -- Lope de Aguirre, Francisco de Carvajal, Juan Rodríguez FreyleLewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1999.

Jos, Emiliano.  La expedición de Ursúa al Dorado, la rebelión de Lope de Aguirre y el

itinerario de los “Marañones,” según los documentos del Archivo de Indias y

varios documentos inéditos.  Huesca: Imprenta V. Campo, 1927.

---.       Ciencia y osadía sobre Lope de Aguirre el Peregrino. Con documentos

inéditos.  Sevilla: Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos, 1950.

Kirschner, Teresa J. and Enrique Manchón.  “Lope de Aguirre como signo político

polivalente.”  Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos 18.3 (Spring 1994): 405-416.

Lastres, Juan B. and Carlos Alberto Seguín.  Lope de Aguirre, el rebelde: Un ensayo de   psicohistoria.  Lima: Universidad de Lima, 1993.

Marcus, Raymond.  “El mito literario de Lope de Aguirre en España e Hispanoamérica.” 

Actas del Tercer Congreso Internacional de Hispanistas, August 26-31, 1968, México, D.F.  Eds. Carlos H. Magis et al.  México: Colegio de México, 1970.  581-592.

Matamoro, Blas.  Lope de Aguirre: La aventura de El Dorado.  Madrid: Historia 16,


Pastor, Beatriz.  Discurso narrativo de la Conquista de América.  La Habana: Casa de las

Américas, 1983.

---.       “Lope de Aguirre el loco: La voz de la soledad.”  Revista de Crítica Literaria

Latinoamericana XIV.28 (Spring 1988): 159-173.

Poupeney-Hart, Catherine.  “Aguirre: Lettre ouverte au roi.”   Questionnement des

formes. Questionnement des sens.  Comp. Monique Carcaud-Macaire.  Montpellier: CERS, 1997.  619-629.

Romero, Rolando J.  “La revisión histórica de Lope de Aguirre.”  Confluencia-Revista

Hispánica de Cultura y Literatura 12.1 (Autumn 1996): 17-27.   


Novels, Plays and Films on Lope de Aguirre

Acosta Montoro, José.  Peregrino de la ira.  San Sebastián: Auñamendi, 1967.

Amézaga, Elías.  Yo, demonio.  San Sebastián: Ediciones Vascas, 1977.

Baroja, Pío.  Las inquietudes de Shantí Andía.  Ed. Julio Caro Baroja.  Madrid:

Cátedra, 1978.

Britto García, Luis.  El tirano Aguirre o la conquista de El Dorado.  Cuadernos de

Difusión 6.  Caracas: Ediciones de la Dirección General de Cultura de la Gobernación del Distrito Federal, 1976.

Funes, Jorge Ernesto.  Una lanza por Lope de Aguirre.  Buenos Aires: Platero, 1984.

Gerbasi, Vicente.  “Tirano de sombra y fuego.”  Obra Poética.  Caracas: Ayacucho,


Herzog, Werner, dir.  Aguirre: Der Zorn Gottes.  Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, 1972. 

Lacarta, Manuel.  Lope de Aguirre: El loco del Amazonas.  Madrid: Alderaban, 1998.

Lope de Aguirre, odisea de un Asesino.  Santiago de Chile: Empresa Periodística “La

Nación,” 1994.

López, Casto Fulgencio.  Lope de Aguirre, el peregrino: appellidado el tirano, primer
            caudillo libertario de América: historia de su vida hazañosa y cruel y de su                                 

            Muerte traydora.  Caracas: s.n., 1947.

Minta, Stephen.  Aguirre: The Re-Creation of a Sixteenth-Century Journey Across
South America.  London: Jonathan Cape, 1993.

Moreno Echevarría, José María.  Los marañones.  Barcelona: Marte, 1968.

Otero Silva, Miguel.  Lope de Aguirre. Príncipe de la libertad.  Barcelona: Seix Barral,


Posse, Abel.  Daimón.  Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1989.

Sanchis Sinisterra, José.  Trilogía americana: El retablo de El Dorado. Lope de Aguirre,

traidor. Naufragios de Alvar Núñez.  Madrid: El Público; Centro de Documentación Teatral, 1992.

Saura, Carlos, dir.  El Dorado.  Prod. Andrés Vicente Gómez, 1987.

Sender, Ramón J.  La aventura equinoccial de Lope de Aguirre.  3rd ed.  Madrid: Magisterio Español; Casals, 1998.

Uslar Pietri, Arturo.  El camino de El Dorado.  3rd ed.  Buenos Aires: Losada, 1954.





[1] The English translation is by Tom Holloway, from the version published in A. Arellano Moreno (org.), Documentos para la historia económica de Venezuela  (Caracas: Universidad Central, 1961).

< http://www.mith2.umd.edu/summit/anthology1/aguirre.html >.


[2] See Beatriz Pastor, The Armature of Conquest  (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1992), p.173.