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.
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.
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.
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 to 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 1550's
By the late 1550's, 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.