Miguel De Cervantes – A True Spanish Hero
Just near the Cathedral de Santiago De Campostella, in northern Spain, is a small plaza with a fountain that has a column with a head and torso statue of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) perched on the top of it. It’s interesting that they put it there as Miguel was born outside of Madrid, which is nowhere near Santiago. Yet, when you look on the back of Spanish small denomination euro coins you’ll see either a relief of Miguel or the cathedral. I guess the two are as quintessentially Spanish as paella and bullfighting, and 90% of tourists wouldn’t know any better.
Miguel is one of my favourite Spaniards. He’s also one of Spain’s favourites Spaniards—that’s why they put him on the coins and not Torquemada. Most of the world recognises Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. In fact they’re considered the two most well known and recognisable literary figures. I’m willing to dispute that as I consider Asterix and Obelix, along with Dogmatix, as the most recognisable literary creations, but I’ll leave the final judgement to you.
Born into the minor nobility, or middle class, Miguel led an interesting life. His family had no money to speak of so like many young Spaniards he enlisted—the pay was regular and the food was passable. When he was just 24 years old he fought at the Battle of Lepanto (1571). This was a major sea battle between the Spaniards and the Turks for the control of the Mediterranean. It was also the last sea battle where slave-rowers were used (by the Turks) while the Spanish relied on wind and sail. The Spanish fleet won the day, and the battle.
Before the battle Miguel was stricken by fever—an all to common occurrence on sailing ships of that era. Not wanting to miss out on anything our stalwart hero hops off the sick list to join the fray. While he’s on the deck shishkebabing Turks with his sword he manages to get shot twice in the chest and has most of his right hand blown away. (He might have been lethal with a blade but had yet to learn the fine art of dodging musketballs.)
If you thought that dancing lights and music above the bones of Saint James was miraculous that’s nothing compared to Miguel’s surviving the ministrations of the shipboard surgeons of the day. Due to his courage he received commendations and letters of recognition from the commander of the Spanish fleet, who was no doubt surprised he was still alive after the doctors were finished with him.
Life is pretty good for Miguel for the next four years. He’s now known as ‘Lefty’ and cruising around the Mediterranean looking every bit a Spaniard minor noble. That is until he’s captured by Barbary Pirates, along with his brother Rodrigo, and sold into slavery. In modern parlance this would be classified as the ‘real bummer period’ of his life.
It was the commendations and letters that saved Miguel’s neck. His new master, the Algerian Hasan Pasa could read and realised Cervante’s head was worth more on his neck than in a basket. Besides being lousy at dodging musketballs he was also a terrible escape artist. He tried it four times without success. (Most other slaves would have been tortured to death as an example to the others.) Rodrigo was ransomed first and Miguel had to wait three more years before his family could raise the money to free him (1580).
Being the ‘Jack the lad’ that he was Miguel must have been an inspiration to his fellows as he’s mentioned, by name, in contemporary records of Christian slaves. He was lucky the money came through when it did as Hasan Pasa left soon after his release to attack Constantinople, taking all his slaves with him.
On his return to Spain Miguel soon realised that the times had changed, his family was broke, and the commendations and letters meant little. His minor nobility carried little weight and the middle class that he thought he belonged to was no more. To survive he took on various administrative positions. It was around this time that he started writing. He actually wrote two plays about Algiers and slavery but neither was a commercial success.
Enter onto the stage Phillip ll: who had a bone to pick with Elizabeth l. Phil was preparing the Armada (the worst kept military secret in history) to invade England and needed a Commissary of Provisions. He gave the job to Miguel. Provisioning an Armada wasn’t an easy task. There were no guidebooks, nor instruction manuals, as it hadn’t been done before. With his usual aplomb, pluck, and numerical ineptitude Sigñore ‘Lefty’ Cervantes set off into the Adalusian countryside seeking, primarily, corn and oil.
Meeting the quotas was a thankless and mindless task that took years. The Armada took so long to build that corn stores would go rotten and Miguel would have to set off again to seek more. This brought him into conflict with the local authorities (who he could browbeat into submission, but they got their own back by claiming bodgey accounting on his part) and having the church excommunicating him twice! (That has to be some sort of record.)
The Armada sailed to its demise in 1588.
I’ve often thought that it was during his wanderings around Andalusia that Miguel would have reflected on his life and compared it to those he came into contact with. Later, after the disaster of the Armada, I think he would have had the idea for Don Quixote. Phil’s grandiose invasion plan had bankrupted the country. Spain had lost its glory. It still thought it had it and it was living on a notion that was no longer applicable. In many ways the fate of Spain paralleled his life. The first publication of Don Quixote wasn’t until 1605, which gave Miguel plenty of time to reflect, and write left-handed.