Sunday, 9 March 2014

Pedro de Mendoza - the syphilitic Conquistador

After several tumultuous weeks on the high seas, the flotilla of thirteen vessels, under the command of Pedro de Mendoza, made its slow progress up the Rio de la Plata in South America. It was early February 1536, and the conquistador made land on the west side of the great river and constructed a fort, which he baptised Nuestra Señora Santa Maria del Buen Ayre, the future Buenos Aires. 

The good-natured natives, called Querandies, came to greet the new arrivals. But who were they, these strangers with their pale and hairy faces? Could they be gods come down from the firmament? Whoever they were, they were hungry, and the Indians graciously provisioned them with tasty game birds.   

Gods, however, the intruders most certainly were not. Pedro de Mendoza was a desperate mortal from the Spanish city of Guadix, Granada. He had lots of pride but very little money, but had heard of the profit-making exploits of Cortes and of Pizarro, and wanted some himself. 

So in 1529, at the already advanced age of 42, he petitioned Charles Quint, also called Charles V, the grandly-titled Holy Roman Emperor, for a command in the emerging economy of Eldorado. But Charles was too occupied with his wars against the hated Francis I of France to pay any attention to Pedro’s grovelling. It was only after five years of obstinate persistence by his dear mother that he finally got what he was after.

He set sail towards the end of 1535 with his 13 ships and 2,000 men. He carried with him a letter from Charles permitting him to keep for himself half of the treasures of any Indian chiefs that he killed, and 90 per cent of their ransoms. 

But things did not go well for Pedro. First a storm dispersed his fleet, then his chief lieutenant was murdered, probably on Pedro’s orders, as he suspected him of treason. But worst of all was the syphilis he was carrying in his body, and which was so debilitating that he was forced to command the fleet from his sick bed. But what the hell! For soon he would be one of the richest men in the world. 

But bad luck on the high seas was compounded by arrogant stupidity in the new fort on the Rio de la Plata. Pedro and his men took the kind offerings of the natives as if they were tributes that were their right and due, and gave nothing back in return. Fed up with the hairy-faces’ ingratitude, the natives decided they had had enough, and so left the intruders to their own devices.

Pedro was livid! ‘Is this how they repay us for bringing them civilisation, Holy Roman Catholicism, and Olde Worlde etiquette?’ 

He dispatched his brother to bring the ungrateful savages back! Ambushes and skirmishes ensued with many killed on both sides, including Pedro’s brother. The remainder of the party returned empty handed. 

Suddenly Pedro’s South American gig was not cool any more. Reduced to famine, the invaders were forced to live on rats, mice, lizards, and even the flesh of their dead comrades. Then the natives began raiding their settlement and even setting fire to huts. The syphilitic Mendoza was incapable of leading his men, so his chief officer went in search of help and in the process founded another settlement which he named Muy Noble y Leal Ciudad de Nuestro Señora Maria de la Asunción, later the capital of Paraguay.

For Pedro there was now only one solution - he must get more men from Spain. So in 1537, leaving the fort to the protection of his men, with a promise to return with reinforcements as soon as possible, he set sail. But after several days his syphilis got the better of him, and Pedro de Mendoza, the not-so-cool Conquistador, breathed his last.

The remaining colonists waited until 1541 for their errant leader to return, and then abandoned the fort and made their way to the new settlement in Paraguay. But for the Indians it was only a reprieve, as the invaders returned forty years later, and this time they stayed.

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