Balkan, Evan L. The Wrath of God: Lope de Aguirre, Revolutionary of the Americas. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2011. ix + 225 pages. Cloth, $39.95.
Few sixteenth-century Spanish explorers in the Americas achieved the infamy of Lope de Aguirre, whose story has captivated numerous chroniclers and novelists over the last four centuries. History's most notorious seeker of E1 Dorado, Aguirre, realized early what historians would later confirm, that Spain's search for the mythical city would become a costly, protracted, and futile colonial escapade. In 1559, the Spanish viceroy in Peru authorized Pedro de Ursua to lead an expedition in search of El Dorado, alleged to be located in the upper Amazon basin. Ursua assembled an enormous party of 600 Indian porters and slaves, 370 Europeans, and a small number of black slaves. Lame in one leg as a result of battle wounds, Aguirre, a fifty-year-old Basque soldier and horse trainer, enlisted in the quest for the kingdom of gold and its gilded ruler.
Literary scholar Evan L. Balkan presents a provocative and absorbing account of the life of this legendary rebel who, accompanied by his mestiza daughter, joined in Ursfia's expedition of brigantines, canoes, flatboats, and rafts that set off into the Amazon jungle. Ursua encountered discontent among the Europeans from the beginning. Hard work, dangerous terrain, disease, biting insects, scorching heat, and a lack of food produced mutiny. Aguirre supported a plot that led to the murder of Ursua. His first open break with Spain came when those responsible for Ursua's death composed a document justifying their vicious deed as a sign of loyalty to the Spanish Crown. Aguirre, in contrast, signed the document followed by the word "traitor." He saw beyond the cynical claims of his fellow soldiers' loyalty to the unequivocal rebellion that loomed on the horizon. The mutineers named Fernando de Guzman to be their leader, but Aguirre quickly emerged as the expedition's undisputed boss.
Abandoning the search for E1 Dorado, Aguirre hatched an astonishing plan to overthrow Spain's viceroy and take Peru for failed Spanish conquistadors like himself. The apprehensive Guzman stood by while Aguirre rid the expedition of men who opposed his plan, especially priests and those claiming to be of noble blood. In their place, he promoted men of humbler origins like himself to posts of greater authority. After announcing that he had denaturalized himself from Spain, Aguirre elected Guzman to be "Prince and King of all Tierra Firme." Highlighting this "extraordinary moment" when "not only had the men agreed to undertake a revolt against the king, but Aguirre suggested that they foreswear their very citizenship as well," Balkan asserts that, "this action could be viewed as the earliest call for total revolution in the Americas." Had Aguirre succeeded, he and his followers "might very well have been lauded through history as the first brave souls of the free New World to throw off the oppressive colonial yoke" (p. …