Alonso de Contreras, The Life of Capitán Alonso de Contreras. By himself.


Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1961


Who were these men with whom the Spanish built their Empire? What is the nature of someone who sails into the unknown, to capture gold and silver in the New World for the Spanish King? Anyone looking for an answer to this question will find it in the autobiography of Captain Alonso de Contreras. He recounts his own life unflatteringly and with a great deal of humor.


It offers more material and surprising twists and turns than any novel. Born to a poor family as the eldest of 16 children, he abandons his apprenticeship with a silversmith to enlist as a soldier at the mature age of 13. He develops a mastery of this craft. He ascends while fighting in Flanders, Sicily and North Africa. He marries, only to kill his wife as soon as he realizes that she is cheating on him. He also becomes a hermit for some time, lives on alms and might have died as a Christian eremite if he had not had the brilliant idea of establishing his own small principality between Aragon and Castile, in no man’s land as it were. For that, he is remanded. But he is not sentenced, for he would have to confess first and this is something he does not do, even under torture. So the Spanish Crown reinstates him back in her service, sends him to Flanders, the Caribbean and North Africa, where he leads his ships so successfully that Philip III appoints him Admiral of the Fleet, which accompanies the ships that transport the silver from the New World to Spain every year.


By that, we have not even told you half of the life of Alonso de Contreras. You believe this to be exaggerated? Well, historians have confirmed that at least the facts and figures are accurate. Contreras tells the truth, or at least what he considers the truth, and is thus one of the figures who inspired a whole genre of literature in Spain, the novela picaresca. What is insufficiently translated as “Schelmenroman” in German, deals with the men who have made Spain great. They may be daring, but they are not saints, quite the opposite. Do not look for morality. It is about success; the success that must be achieved, whatever it may take. How many enemies do you have to kill first? Who cares! You cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs.


We are outright stunned by these descriptions. Alonso de Contreras kills without thinking twice. And he endures both injuries and torture just as stoically. Death? Hazard of the profession! Who wants to think about tomorrow anyway?


Anyone who has ever wondered what makes a man climb a ship without knowing whether he will have enough provisions and water until he sees land again should read Alonso de Contreras’ autobiography. It reduces our concepts of security and predictability to absurdity. But perhaps you need exactly men like these if you want to discover new continents and exploit them.


Ursula Kampmann

Translated by Annika Backe

Signet Sunflower Foundation