I N A village in the mountains of León my family had its origins. Our family was favored more by nature than by fortune, although, since those villages were so poor, my father was still thought to be rich, and he truly would have been, if he’d been as skilled in holding on to his fortune as he was in spending it. This tendency of his to be generous and wasteful came from his having been a soldier in his youth, for being a soldier is a school where the stingy person becomes generous, and the generous person becomes a squanderer; and if some soldiers are stingy they’re like monsters that are rarely seen. My father went past the level of liberality and flirted with extravagance, something that is not good for a married man with children to succeed him in name and position. The children my father had were three, all male, and all of the age when they could choose a career. My father, seeing that he couldn’t resist his propensity, wanted to abandon the instrument and cause that made him a spendthrift and generous person, and that was to deprive himself of his wealth, without which Alexander himself would have been considered miserly.
And so, one day he called the three of us together in a room, and with no one else present, he said words to us similar to the ones I’ll say now: “My sons, to tell you that I love you, it’s enough to know and say that you’re my children; and to convince you that I don’t love you, it’s enough to know that I can’t restrain myself in what concerns your inheritance. So you’ll understand that from now on I love you as a father and don’t want to ruin you like a step-father, I propose to do something with you I’ve thought about for many days, and deliberated with mature consideration. You’re now old enough to choose a profession, or at least to choose a calling such that when you’re older will bring you honor and profit. What I’ve decided is to divide my estate into four parts—three of them I’ll give an equal amount to the three of you, and the fourth part I’ll keep for myself to live on and sustain myself the days that heaven sees fit to allot me. But I want, once you have your part of the estate, each one to choose one of the paths I’ll name. There is a saying in our Spain, which in my opinion is very true, as they all are, since they’re short maxims taken from long and practical experience. The one I’ll tell you is this: «Church, or sea, or the royal house», or, to say it more clearly: whoever wants to flourish and become rich should go into the Church; go to sea, exercising the art of commerce; or serve the king and queen in their household. They also say: «A crumb from the king is worth more than a favor of a lord». I say all this because I’d like, and it’s my will, for one of you go into letters, the second into business, and the third into the king’s service in his wars, since it’s hard to serve him in his household, and even though wars don’t give many riches, they do give great distinction and fame. One week hence, I’ll give you your shares in cash, without cheating you out of an ardite, as you’ll plainly see. Tell me now if you wish to go along with my idea and advice in what I’ve proposed to you.
He called on me as the eldest to answer, and after I told him not to disburse his fortune, but rather to spend it any way he wanted, since we were young men capable of earning our own living. But I finally complied with his wish; and mine was to serve in the practice of arms, thereby serving God and my king. The second brother made the same proposal, and chose to go to the Indies, investing the part of the estate that belonged to him. The youngest, and who I think was the wisest, said that he wanted to go into the Church or to finish his already-begun studies at Salamanca. As soon as we agreed and chose our professions, my father embraced us all, and in the short time he stipulated, he put into effect everything he’d promised us, and, giving each of us our share, which, the way I remember it, was three thousand ducados in cash—because our uncle had bought the whole estate right away to keep it in the family—on that same day the three of us bade farewell to our good father. It seemed to me on that day that it was inhuman to leave him with so little for his old age, so I induced him to take back two thousand ducados of my three thousand, because the rest was more than enough to provide me with all a soldier needed.
My two brothers, moved by my example, also gave him back one thousand ducados each. So my father kept four thousand in cash and three thousand more, which, it seems, was what his portion of the estate was worth; he didn’t want to sell his part, but rather keep it as land. So, finally, we bade farewell to him and to our uncle whom I mentioned, not without great emotion and tears on everyone’s part. They charged us to keep in touch whenever we could, telling them about our fortunes, good or bad. We promised to do so, and embracing us and giving us his blessing, one took the road to Salamanca, the other to Seville, and I to Alicante, where I had news that there was a Genoese ship that was loading wool for Genoa.
It has been twenty-two years since I left my father’s house, and during that time, although I’ve written some letters, I’ve had no news of him or of my brothers. I’ll tell you briefly what happened during this time. I embarked in Alicante, and I arrived in Genoa after an auspicious voyage, and then I went to Milan where I equipped myself with arms and soldier’s uniforms. I wanted to begin my service in Piedmont, and when I was on the way to Alessandria della Paglia, I heard that the great Duque de Alba was going to Flanders. I changed my plan and went with him, to serve him in the campaigns that he was undertaking; I was present at the death of the Counts of Egmont and Hoorn, and rose to the rank of lieutenant under the famous captain from Guadalajara named Diego de Urbina. After I’d been in Flanders for some time, we got news of the confederation that his Holiness Pope Pius V —of happy memory—had put together with Venice and Spain against the common enemy, the Turks. At that time the Turks had won with their armada the famous Island of Cyprus, which had been under the control of Venice, and was an unfortunate and lamentable loss.
It was a known fact that the most serene don Juan de Austria, natural brother of our King don Felipe II, was the general of this League. Rumors of the great preparations for war were being spread. All of this incited and moved my spirit and desire to be in the coming campaign. Although I suspected, and even had sure promises, that in the next confrontation in Flanders that came up I’d be promoted to captain, I wanted to forsake everything and go, as I did, to Italy. And it was my good fortune that señor don Juan de Austria had just arrived in Genoa, on his way to Naples, to join the armada of Venice, as he later did at Messina.
So, finally, I took part in that glorious campaign, promoted by that time to captain of infantry, which I came into more by my good luck than by my merits. And that day, which was so fortunate for Christendom, since the world and all its nations were disabused of the error that the Turks were invincible on the sea. On that day, I say, where Ottoman pride and arrogance were dashed, among all those who were happy—because the Christians who died there were more blessed than those who survived and triumphed. I alone was miserable, because instead of what I could have expected in Roman times—a Naval Crown —I found myself with chains on my feet and manacles on my wrists that night after the battle.
It happened this way: Uchalí, king of Algiers, a daring and successful corsair, having attacked and taken the flagship of Malta (where only three knights survived the attack, and they were badly wounded), went to rescue the flagship of Juan Andrea (with me and my company on board), and doing what you’re supposed to do in such cases, I leapt onto the enemy galley, which immediately slid away from the one that had attacked it and prevented my soldiers from following me, so I found myself alone among my enemies, whom I couldn’t resist because they were so many. In short, I was taken prisoner, covered with wounds. As you doubtless have heard, señores, Uchalí got away safely with his whole squadron, and I remained captive in his power, being the only sad one among so many happy people, and a prisoner among so many free men, because fifteen thousand Christians—all of them rowers for the Turkish fleet—regained their longed-for freedom that day.
They took me to Constantinople, where the Grand Turk Selim made my master General of the Seas because he’d done his duty in the battle, having taken, as a proof of his bravery, the banner of the flagship of the Order of Malta. I found myself in my second year, which was seventy-two, in Navarino, rowing in the flagship with the three lanterns. I saw and noted the opportunity that was lost in not taking the whole Turkish fleet in the port, because all the Turkish marines and the janissaries—the sultan’s personal guards—on board, were convinced that they would be attacked in that same port, and they had their clothing and pasamaques—which are their shoes—ready to flee to the shore immediately, without waiting for the attack—such was the fear they had of our armada. But heaven ordered it otherwise, not for any fault or carelessness on the part of the general who was commanding our side, but rather through the sins of Christendom, and because God permits us always to have scourges to chastise us.
In the end Uchalí took refuge in Modón, which is an island next to Navarino, where, putting his men ashore, he fortified the entry to the port, and lay quiet until señor don Juan went back. In this voyage he captured the galley named LA PRESA, «The Prize», whose captain was the son of that famous corsair Barbarossa. LA PRESA was taken by the flagship of the Neapolitan fleet, called LA LOBA, «The She Wolf», commanded by that lightning-bolt of a warrior, that father to his men, that successful and never-conquered captain, don Álvaro de Bazán, Marqués de Santa Cruz. And I don’t want to forget to mention what happened with the capture of LA PRESA. The son of Barbarossa was so cruel and treated his captives so badly that as soon as the rowers saw the galley LA LOBA closing in, they all dropped their oars at the same moment, and seized their captain who was at the captain’s station shouting at them to row all out, and they passed him from bench to bench, from poop to prow, and they bit him so much that he’d hardly gotten past the mast when his soul went off to hell. Such was the cruelty, as I’ve said, with which he treated them and the hatred they bore him.
We returned to Constantinople, and the following year, which was seventy-three, it was learned there that don Juan had won Tunis and taken that kingdom from the Turks and put it into the hands of Muley Hamet, thus putting an end to the hopes that his brother, Muley Hamida—the cruelest and bravest Moor the world has ever seen—had to rule there again. The Grand Turk was deeply sorry about this loss, and using the cunning that all those of his house have, made peace with the Venetians, which they wanted more than he did, and the following year, seventy-four, he attacked La Goleta and the fort that señor don Juan had left half-constructed.
In all these battles I was at the oar, with no hope at all of being released. At least I didn’t expect it by ransom, because I decided not to write my father about my misfortune. La Goleta was finally lost along with the fort—there were seventy-five thousand paid Turkish soldiers, and four-hundred thousand Moorish soldiers from all over Africa, and along with this enormous number of men there were so many munitions and matériel, and so many diggers, that with their hands alone, they could have buried La Goleta and the fort.
La Goleta, thought until then to be impregnable, was the first to fall, but it wasn’t lost through any fault of the defenders, who did everything they could and should have done in its defense, but rather because it was easy to construct earthworks using desert sand. Normally you find water at two palms, but the Turks didn’t hit any until six feet, so they could make and stack sandbags so high that they were higher than the walls of the fort, and firing inside from above, no one could make a stand or put up a defense. It was commonly held that our soldiers shouldn’t have been shut up inside La Goleta, but rather should have fought against the disembarkation in the open, but those who say this speak with no first-hand knowledge, and with little experience in such cases, because in La Goleta and in the fort, there were scarcely seven thousand soldiers. How could so few, no matter how resolute they might be, go into the open and hold their own against so many enemies? And how could a fort not be lost when no reinforcements are sent, and more so when many fierce enemies surround them in their own country?
But many held the opinion, as I did, that it was a special favor and mercy that heaven did for Spain in permitting the destruction of that lair and hiding place of wicked things, that glutton or sponge and waster of an infinite amount of money that was spent there without any benefit, serving no purpose other than preserving the memory of having been won by Carlos V, as if those stones were needed to make his name eternal, as it is, and will always be. The fort was also lost, but the Turks had to win it inch by inch, because those who were defending it fought so valiantly and with such heart, that more than twenty-five thousand enemies were killed in the twenty-two general assaults that were made. Of the three hundred survivors they captured, no one was unwounded, a sure sign of their mettle and bravery, and how well they defended themselves and kept their positions.
A small fort or tower in the middle of the lagoon under the command of don Juan Zanoguera, a Valencian knight and famous soldier, surrendered unconditionally. They captured Pedro Puertocarrero, commandant of La Goleta, who had done everything he could to defend his fort, and was so depressed for having lost it that he died of a broken heart on the way to Constantinople, where they were taking him to be a prisoner. They captured the commandant of the fort, who was named Gabrio Cerbellón, a Milanese knight, a great engineer and a very brave soldier. Many important people died in these two forts, including Pagán Doria, a knight in the Order of San Juan, a generous man, as shown by his extreme liberality with his brother, the famous Giovanni Andrea Doria. And what made his death sadder was that he was killed by some Moors to whom he’d entrusted himself, realizing the fort was lost. They pretended to offer to take him disguised as a Moor to the Island of Tabarka, a small fort or station on the coast held by the Genoese who deal in collecting coral. Anyway, these Moors cut off his head and took it to the commandant of the Turkish armada, who made good on the Spanish proverb that says: «Though treason pleases, the traitor is hated» since they say the commandant had the men who brought the present to him hanged, because they hadn’t brought him alive.
Among the Christians who were captured at the fort, one of them was named Pedro de Aguilar, born in I don’t know which village in Andalusia, who had been a lieutenant at the fort, a soldier of great repute and of rare intelligence. He also had a particular gift for what they call poetry. I say it because his fate brought him to my galley and to my bench, and to be the slave of my own master, and before we left that port, the man wrote two sonnets in the style of epitaphs, one on La Goleta and the other on the fort. I may as well recite them because I have them memorized, and I think they’ll give more pleasure than annoyance.
As soon as the captive mentioned don Pedro of Aguilar, don Fernando looked at his companions, and all of them smiled, and when he was about to recite the sonnets, one of them said: “Before you continue, I’d like to know what happened to this Pedro of Aguilar that you mentioned.”
“All I know,” responded the captive, “ is that after he’d been in Constantinople for two years, he fled with a Greek spy in the garb of an Albanian, and I don’t know if he finally got free, but I suppose he did, because a year later I saw the Greek in Constantinople, but I couldn’t get to ask him about the outcome of their journey.”
“Well, it was successful,” responded the man, “because this don Pedro is my brother, and he’s in our village right now, in good health and rich, married and with three children.”
“Thanks be to God,” said the captive, “for all the mercies He’s shown him, because there is nothing on earth, in my opinion, that can equal that of recovering one’s lost freedom.”
“And what’s more,” said the man, “I know the sonnets that my brother wrote.”
“Recite them, then,” said the captive, “because you probably know them better than I do.”
“I’ll be pleased to,” said the man, “and the one about La Goleta goes like this: