Chapter 3 of Interference contains this paragraph:
“Long ago as a graduate student, I had researched a voyage embarked upon by Spanish conquistadors down the Amazon River in search of El Dorado. The travelers did not know that the purpose of the trip had been to gather together the most undesirable conquistadors — a ghastly lot, most notably Lope de Aguirre — beneath an incompetent captain and ship them off to the unexplored jungle, never to be heard from again. Most succumbed to malnutrition, mutiny, murder, and madness.”
You may have heard of the 1972 movie Aguirre, the Wrath of God by Klaus Kinski. I’ve seen it, and I recommend it. I’ve also read a few accounts of the voyage down the Amazon, including the book Lope de Aguirre: El loco del Amazonas by Manuel Lacarta, a history written with poetic intensity about the disastrous voyage. It started in Peru in September 1560 and ended in Venezuela in October 1561.
If you’ve seen the Kinski movie, you may wonder how much of what the film recounts is true. A lot of it is true. Most of all, it truly captures the madness. But it captures only half the horror. The real voyage went on a lot longer than the film version, suffering disaster after disaster.
Malnutrition: The conquistadors had planned to live off the land and steal from the natives. The people of the Amazon, however, when they heard what was headed their way, fled into the jungle, taking their food with them. The conquistadors couldn’t hunt for food because they would be hunted and killed by jaguars, and they couldn’t fish because piranhas would eat their catch along with anyone who fell overboard.
Mutiny: In January 1561, Aguirre killed the captain of the expedition as part of a mutiny, then in May he stabbed the new leader to death and took over the mutiny.
Murder: Aguirre himself killed or ordered to be killed 72 people. Many other people died of starvation, abuse, and battle.
Madness: In March 1561, Aguirre declared war against the Spanish Empire and had himself proclaimed a prince.
Even worse, the conquistadors didn’t all die in the Amazon jungle. Some of them survived and made it to the coast of Venezuela, plundering and murdering. Spanish troops finally arrived and executed Aguirre. The details are too hideous to recount here.
History teaches that something can always go wrong. Indeed, sometimes things that are meant to go wrong can go much, much worse. It’s a frightening lesson.
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