of Conquistador Pedro de Mérida:


A date known to most in the Western World is 1492, when the discovery of the Americas by Columbus closed out the Middle Ages and set the stage for the modern history of the New World. As a result, the people of Spain felt themselves a chosen nation and one destined for momentous events. The new lands offered an outlet for the ambitions of men frustrated by the exhaustion of their country and the endemic poverty that had plagued it for generations. The enthusiasm of these adventure seekers soon became focused upon the discovery, conquest, and settlement of the new, unknown lands. Many military expeditions of but a few hundred men sent forth by the King left Spain for the new territories and swept to the farthest-most borders of two continents in only several decades. Like most adventurers, many of these men sought large returns on the investment of their time and money in such risky undertakings. Gold most of them desired, of course, but equally important were landed estates worked by peasant natives who would extract the soil's bounty for them. These new lords wished to enjoy their possessions, like the manor lords at home in their olden land, and pass them on to their heirs in future generations. During these momentous times, one of these adventurers became a conquistador and chronicler of the New World, one who would leave a vibrant record of his travels in Chile for us and the only participant to do so.

For our historical enjoyment, he gave us his work: THE ADVENTURE CHRONICLES OF CONQUISTADOR PEDRO DE MÉRIDA: TRAVELS TO ANCIENT CHILE IN THE YEARS OF OUR LORD, 1535-1537, WITH DIEGO DE ALMAGRO (VOLUME I), AND 1540-1553, WITH PEDRO DE VALDIVIA (VOLUME II); BEING ACCOUNTS OF THOSE JOURNEYS TO THE FARTHEST MOST REGIONS OF THE INCA EMPIRE; AS RELATED TO HIS MOST CATHOLIC MAJESTY, KING DON PHILIP II, OUR MOST SOVEREIGN RULER. He tells his story in six letters to the King, historical narratives here broken into two volumes. In the first three of Volume I, de Mérida tells of the Diego de Almagro Expedition to Chile in 1535 to 1537 and the return to Peru, a distance of more than 3,500 miles. In the fourth, fifth, and sixth letters of Volume II, he recounts his adventures with the Pedro de Valdivia Expedition to conquer Chile during the years 1540 to 1554. He wrote all six letters between 1565 and 1568, when he was in his early sixties. De Mérida's correspondences comprise the only formal record of the Almagro and Valdivia journeys composed by a member of the expeditions, and they help fill the historical void. In addition, historians through the later centuries have identified some of the principal Spanish and Indian participants, the dates of several events, and numerous undated incidents that serve to corroborate the stories de Mérida tells.

Also, the old soldier offers the reader thirty-three memorable portraits of the major participants on these two important expeditions, with the explanation, ". . . . so that Your Grace knows more of those men and women on these adventures and their motivations, their strengths, and their weaknesses." But he gives surprisingly few details concerning his own life. For example, he says nothing of his parents. But we may assume that they were surely of at least the middle class, for he had the somewhat uncommon ability to read and write. Moreover, he often reveals a moral sense of character, a good amount of learning, and an education in horse riding and the use of the sword. All of these indicate some level of education. As for the man himself, he tells us that he was born in Mérida, Spain, in 1505. We know little of his early years, except that he tried the life of a Franciscan monk for an unknown period of time before succumbing to the beckoning of a life of epic adventures of grand proportions in the land of Nuevo Extremo. We do know why he wrote the letters, however, for he tells the King early on: "Now, at the age of sixty years, I have taken up my stylus to relate the matters I witnessed, the only member of either expedition to do so. I must assure Your Highness that I am making these statements to avoid eternal damnation by declaring myself guilty of participating in the destruction of a people so well governed as these natives and so free from transgressions and excesses, men as well as women. They need Your protection, Sire, and I make mention of this that it might be seen fit that they be taken under Your care."

As for the times he lived in, life was exciting in the sixteenth century Spanish domain, since it appeared to hold more possibilities for European man than ever before in its history. It was now apparent that the inhabitable earth was a larger place than previously understood. This abrupt extension of horizons to unheard of physical dimensions was now paired with a sense of destiny that Spain was the designated representative of God to Christianize the globe. Were not the discoveries of Columbus obvious proofs of the special approval of Divine Providence? Every Spaniard must have thought himself exceptional in the eyes of the Lord, and thus felt his people to be the chosen race of the Almighty. This thinking unleashed a vibrant national energy and vigorously inspired the fervent imagination of young men. And to be young during this period in Spain was to believe in the heretofore impossible. An enlarged world brimmed with probabilities of adventure and riches in which the most improbable dreams and hopes of fame and fortune might come true.

Alluding to his arrival in the New World, de Mérida says: "I joined the expedition of Francisco Pizarro at twenty-seven years of age. In 1532, we landed on the shores of the fabled land of Peru, where we established the first settlement, San Miguel de Piura, named for Our Sovereign, Carlos V." This confirms his date of birth, but he tells us nothing of the Spanish battles with the Inca and the eventual conquest of their sacred city, Cusco. That is a pity, as his telling of things would have provided valuable insights into those great struggles that shook a continent and the Inca Nation. Rather, he maintains a strict concentration upon the new land of Chile and rarely wavers from relating his travels there. And this focus fuses the life of de Mérida with the stunning epic of the Conquest of Chile. Fortunately for the reader, on both expeditions he is often present when dramatic events take place, is close to the leaders when they make decisions, and shares their successes and failures. With a realism and intensity born of one who actually lived what he tells of, he transmits to his pages descriptions of the swathes of land never before seen by European man and the many happenings, including numerous detailed battle scenes that occurred during both expeditions.

On the journey south with Almagro, he tells of the bloody ambush by hostile natives at Laguna Poopo; the first European crossing of the great Andes mountains on their way west to the town of Copayapu; the journey south in search of gold which ends in Papudo with no golden ore found; the great battle of Papudo; de Mérida's incredible interview of Apani, one of the Indians who climbed and built the huts on the top of the great mountain, Llullaillaco; the meeting in Calama with the ruler of several northern towns, Huamanpallpa, known as the Desert Cacique; the stroll through the Tacna market called the Great Qhatu; the journey north to the town of Arequipa and the stirring action at the Battle of Fortress Arequipa. During all of this, the figures of Almagro, Prince Paullu, Ancohualla, the Desert Cacique, Montesinos, Centeño, Castilla, de Valdéz, and many other protagonists of this engrossing epic are painted unforgettably in the simple, colorful language of a veteran recalling events that transpired several decades before.

Further action follows with the Pedro de Valdivia Expedition, for in de Mérida's three letters of Volume II we are treated to more depictions of lands never seen by a European as he tells of the transit of northern Chile over the Avenue of the Volcáns; Valdivia's meeting with Huaman, the Desert Cacique, and their instant bonding; the despicable Sancho de Hoz makes his first of several attempts to kill Valdivia; a great sickness affects many Christians and Indians while Doña Inés de Suárez and Pilca Huaca lead the medication and recovery efforts; the march inland from Papudo to the site for the new capital city reveals a new Indian threat, the Mapuche Indians commanded by their leader, Michimalongo, known as the Inca Toqui; the bloody Battle of the Huelén ends when the Mapuche claim to see the glorious Apostle Santo Iago descending upon them and surrender forthwith; Captain Valdivia is distracted by Indian maneuvers to the south of nascent Santiago and leaves the town to rescue de Benito; Michimalongo attacks the few men left behind, burns down the town, but suffers a humiliating defeat by the Christians led by Inés de Suárez; Michimalongo becomes a friend; Captain Pastene conducts a voyage of discovery along the southern shores in the San Pedro and records events in his journal; the Arauco War in the south against the Mapuche, often fought in "the dark" of its jungle-like landscape, begins with the battle of the killing fields of Quilacura; de Hoz finally meets his deserved fate. The adventures continue with clashes at Andalién and Penco; the founding of Concepción de Marίa Purίsima del Nuevo Extremo; a young Mapuche, Lautaro, becomes Valdivia's "page;" Lautaro escapes and is replaced by Agustinillo. De Mérida's narrative ends after the fated Battle of Tucapel and the slaughter of Valdivia and his men by Mapuche warriors led by Lautaro. His leg injury in the skirmish at Fortress Purén several days before Valdivia's death that resulted in a crippling wound required de Mérida to retire from the field at the age of 49, take up Santiago city council duties, and settle down into family life with his Indian wife, Pilca Huaca, and their two children, Vicente and Inés.

Through these goings on, we are introduced to more vibrant characters the likes of whom stir great interest: Captain Valdivia; his mujer, Inés de Suárez, an altogether unforgettable woman; the Cacica for Medical matters for the Indian contingent, Pilca Huaca, an Inca princess; Ancohualla; the Dominican Fathers Juan de Cabrera, Juan Lobo, Diego Perez, Bartolomé del Pozo, and Rodrigo Gonzáles Marmolejo; the faithful soldiers Montesinos, de Alderete, de Quiroga, de Monroy, de Vergara, Bohón, de Miranda, de Gamboa, de Benito, de Almagro, Villagran, Rodrigo Hidalgo, de Aguirre, the expedition guides, the Inca Toquis Michimalongo and Lautaro, the list could go on, but these must suffice.

We can only assume that de Mérida took thorough notes of his exploits and recorded the names of all those he associated with, the places he visited, and the things he saw. For how else to explain his letters written to King Philip several years after the events of which he tells? We must applaud his memory, for it surely was intact and functioning well at his age. His writing style is direct and without pretension. While he occasionally registers his personal reactions to an event or person, he ordinarily tells his stories without inserting his own value judgments. While the work has the feel of a novel with its spontaneous recitation of adventures, meticulous battlefield descriptions, energetic anecdotes, and the engrossing dialogues of the historical characters, it is still history as recounted by a horse soldier who suffered the pain of several wounds and was eventually crippled, endured hunger, the fear and tribulations of personal combat, the tension of campaigning in strange lands against antagonists of enormous numbers, and the continual confrontation of the unknown. But, one may surmise that our chronicler, a product of the Spanish desire for adventure, rather welcomed most of the discomfort, for he never complains or gives notice of his dissatisfaction. As he says on numerous occasions, he was wanting adventure. As it transpired, he found it, and in abundance.

The stories of de Mérida make for an unforgettable travel adventure back to a remote land and age, when the search for gold and the desire for power dominated men's actions, and they offer the modern reader a rare look into the historical events of long ago that shook the foundations of the mighty Inca Empire.

As a final note, I have traveled some seventy percent of the routes followed by both expeditions and am able therefore to convey my understanding of the terrain and people encountered in de Mérida's telling of things.

Bob Villarreal