Ask people what they know about Miguel de Cervantes, and they’ll say he’s the bloke who wrote Don Quijote. Tick. Some will go on to say he and Shakespeare died on the same day, April 23, 1616, thereby depriving the world of two literary giants in one fell swoop. This is not strictly correct, but I’ll give them a tick in the box anyway. If we’re going to be precise, Cervantes died April 22 and was buried April 23. Besides, in 1616 Spain had already adopted the Gregorian calendar since some decades back, while England was still using the Julian calendar. This means that when Shakespeare cocked up his toes on April 23 in England, this was May 3 in Spain, so no, they did not die on the same day.
What few people know is that Miguel de Cervantes led a life exciting enough to qualify as a novel as fantastic as the story of the somewhat demented hidalgo (Spanish for “son of someone of means”) Don Quijote and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza. In fact, Miguel de Cervantes was a man of action, who through his adventures and their consequences ended up too damaged to continue being a man of action, and so instead he turned to accounting – and writing. Most fortunate, I would add, as a world without Don Quijote would have been a poorer world. After all, where would we be without this honourable old fool who charged windmills while astride his bony nag, so ineptly named Rocinante?
But let us start at the beginning, which in Miguel’s case would mean going back to 1547. To be quite honest, we don’t know on what day he was born, but he was baptised on October 9, and as he was given the name Miguel it is assumed he was born on September 29, the day of St Michael.
At the time, Spain was growing into an impressive empire. Pizarro and Cortez had conquered the vast native empires of the Incas and the Aztecs, and further to that the present king of Spain, Carlos V & I, was also the Holy Roman Emperor, thereby controlling a sizeable chunk of Europe outside of Spain. The Spanish were destined to be the most influential people in Europe – or so they thought – buoyed not only be the gold that flowed in from the colonies, but also by their faith in God. Spain at the time was a nation afflicted with religious fervour – the relatively recent efforts to regain control from the Muslim Moors had left the Spanish somewhat more fanatic when it came to matters of faith than their European brethren.
Not that little Miguel cared one way or the other: as the second son of seven children born to a rather impoverished and deaf surgeon, Miguel seems to have spent most of his childhood on the move as his father attempted to avoid his creditors and find new employment. Miguel’s education was thereby sketchy at best, but it is thought he spent some time with the Jesuits. And then, in 1569, Miguel hastily left Spain. Very hastily.
Some say this is due to the fact that there was a warrant for his arrest. A Miguel de Cervantes had seriously wounded a certain Antonio Sigura – this we know, based on a legal document dated 1569. What we don’t know is whether this Miguel is our Miguel, but the dates match, and given Miguel’s future career it is not unlikely he knew how to handle a sword already as a youth. Whatever the case, Miguel ended up in Rome, kicked his heels and gawked at Renaissance art for a while, and then – driven, I imagine, by a shrinking purse – he showed up in Naples and joined the Spanish Navy.
At the time, Spain was at war. To be correct, Spain was almost always at war – a consequence of being a big empire is that your borders are extremely long and volatile. Ask the Romans… By 1570, the Spanish King was Philip II, and he was “only” the King of Spain as Charles V chose to bequeath the Holy Roman Empire part of his patrimony to his brother rather than his son. Mind you, there was more than enough of Spain as it was, what with Portugal, the American colonies, Flanders, Naples, and an assortment of little Spanish enclaves here and there.
In 1570, Spain’s major headache was the Ottoman Empire. Under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire had gone from being a disturbance in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, to being a force to be reckoned with, Ottoman ships controlling most of the Mediterranean. By 1570, Suleiman was dead since some years back, and his successor, Selim II, was neither as capable nor as determined as his father. Selim is often accused of leaving most of the actual governing in the hands of his Grand Vizier, but this may rather reflect the fact that Selim was less inclined to take part personally in battle than his father was.
Whether at Selim’s direct orders or thos of his Gran Vizier, In 1571, the Ottomans invaded Cyprus. At the time, Cyprus was on a downward slope, the previously so rich – and Christian – kingdom reduced to a couple of Christian enclaves. The little Venetian colony of Famagusta held out bravely against the besieging Turks, but ultimately they stood no chance. Despite having been promised leniency if they surrendered, the unfortunate leaders of the Famagusta colony were flayed alive and then hanged from one of the Ottoman’s galleys so as to send the Christians a clear eff-off message. Didn’t work, one could say…
When news of the fall of Famagusta reached Italy, various European countries had already decided enough was enough. The time had come to teach the Ottomans a lesson, and under the leadership of Spain, the various nations who made up the Holy League prepared to strike back.
A huge Christian fleet was put together, led by the dashing Juan de Austria, Philip II’s illegitimate half-brother, and sailing under a banner blessed by the pope. Upon hearing of the atrocities at Famagusta, the gigantic navy set off, and on one of those ships sailed Miguel de Cervantes, together with his brother, Rodrigo.
The two young men were eager for battle and the opportunity to distinguish themselves, and at Lepanto the Christian ships finally encountered the Ottoman fleet. At the time, Miguel was suffering a fever, but he refused to stay below deck, hastening to join his comrades in the bloody battle. Miguel himself was badly wounded, suffering two chest wounds and a permanent maiming of his left hand.
While the two opposing navies were more or less of the same size, the Holy League had twice as many guns as did the Ottomans, and it was the guns -modern technology, no less – that would prove decisive. I suppose the fact that the Ottoman galleys were powered by slaves – most of them Christian – might also have worked in favour of the Holy League. Whatever the case, the battle of Lepanto was a rout. Of approximately 250 ships, the Ottomans lost close to 200, of which 50 were sunk. The Holy League lost 17 ships in total. And the true winners of the day were all those enslaved oarsmen, who suddenly – and happily – were freed.
The Battle of Lepanto is considered something of a watershed in European history, not because of any permanent damage inflicted on the Ottomans – there wasn’t any, they were back in good form some five years later – but because the Ottomans stopped their expansion along the northern Mediterranean cost. None of this would have mattered to poor, injured Miguel. Having your hand shot to pieces in 1571 was more or less a sentence of death what with how primitive medical science was, but somehow Miguel survived, and some months later he re-joined his ship, insisting a non-existent left hand was no problem. None.
Miguel went on to prove he could manage very well with only five fingers, and after several years of further service he decided to return home in 1575, together with his brother. They boarded a galley named Sol and settled down to a couple of weeks of sun, sea and the 16th century equivalent of piña colada, both of them eager to return home to their family. Unfortunately for them, the Sol was captured just off the Catalan coast, and Miguel and Rodrigo were carried off to Algiers were they were sold as slaves. Because Miguel had letters addressed to Philip II on his person, his new owner assumed he was a rich man and decided to keep him imprisoned while waiting for the demanded ransom.
Christians held for ransom were kept in the bagnios – slave prisons. During the day they were set to work, at night they were locked in. Conditions were not exactly pleasant, but compared to being a galley slave, it was something of a winning ticket. Miguel decided to escape. His first attempt failed due to the guide he’d hired abandoning them after a day. Cervantes had no option but to return to Algiers, and was there fitted with manacles and chains and thrown into a dark cell. The second attempt involved a hidden cavern, fifteen nervous Spanish prisoners, and a Spanish ship, but it all failed due to a snitch. Miguel assumed all responsibility and spent the coming five months in harsh conditions. The third attempt – Miguel was nothing if not persevering – involved sending a messenger to Oran. The messenger was discovered, and Miguel was condemned to two thousand lashes – a death sentence. However, so many interceded on his behalf that the sentence was commuted. The fourth attempt at escaping Algiers was betrayed by a Spanish monk who was given a jar of butter as a reward. This time, the bey had had enough, and Miguel was already aboard the galley that was to transport him to Constantinople when his ransom arrived.
In 1580, five years and more after he was captured, Miguel de Cervantes returned to Spain. His valour at Lepanto did him no favours: Juan de Austria was dead, and Philip II had little love for the men who had fought for his brother. Besides, Miguel was deeply in debt due to the ransom, and after some years doing this and that (including getting married, but that didn’t work out), he finally ended up working as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Navy. An insecure position, and soon enough Miguel was in jail, accused of taking bribes – or giving bribes – of tampering with the accounts, of short-changing the peasants – or the navy.
It is while he was in prison in the late 1590s that Miguel probably began writing El ingenioso hidaldo Don Quijote de la Mancha. By then, he’d already published the first book in a planned six-book series, La Galatea – and as the lot of authors has not changed overmuch, he did not become rich enough to quit his day-job. In fact, Miguel de Cervantes led a penurious existence until 1605, when, at long last, he published the first part of Don Quijote. In a matter of weeks, it was apparent the world had seen its first bestseller. People loved the story, loved the writing, loved the characters.
Those that knew something of Miguel’s own life, surely recognised the story of “the captive” told right at the end: a man, captured by Ottoman pirates and carried to Algiers, there to be held in dismal captivity – ring a bell, anyone? Of course, in difference to poor Miguel, “the captive” in Don Quijote receives some compensation for his suffering in the beautiful Lela Zoraida, the Moorish lady who falls in love with the Christian captive and subsequently organises his escape and flees with him. A Happily Ever After long before the term was coined…
Being the author of a bestseller does not make you automatically rich – it makes your publisher rich. Miguel de Cervantes was to live out the rest of his life on relatively small means, but attracted sufficient patrons to allow him to write full time. Fortunate, as otherwise Don Quijote Part II may never have seen the light of the day.
In 1616, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra died of diabetes. With him died one of the most original and gifted literary minds the world has known. And to this day, we don’t even know what he truly looked like. We do know, however, that he was immensely proud of the damage to his left hand, proof that he, Miguel, had taken part in the greatest naval conflict of his time. El manco de Lepanto, they called him – the one-handed man from Lepanto. How fortunate for us all it wasn’t his writing hand that got shot to pieces that October day of 1571!