Cervantes: a life in the Golden Age

By Archivos Estatales

Alfredo Alvar - Archivos Estatales

Miguel de Cervantes spent five years in captivity in Algiers. That half decade full of heroic actions left him scarred for life in his conceptions of "the other". After his release his being a "man of frontiers" and his human contradictions are accentuated, while Miguel de Cervantes is becoming a brilliant author and defender of freedom.

Plan of Alger. (1601) by Consejo de Estado. (Archivo General de Simancas.)Archivos Estatales

Captivity in Algiers (1575-1580)

When they are finally about to set foot in Spain, the galley "Sol" on which Miguel and Rodrigo de Cervantes are voyaging is attacked by three Barbary corsair galleys. The brothers are transferred to Algiers where Miguel will spend five years suffering the hardships of the loss of his own freedom, trying to escape four times or talking about human and literary virtues with other writers captive there. Meanwhile, the family is ruined in an attempt to collect the ransom money for the two brothers. Join us, "free reader", in this his eventful life:

Information about the captivity of Miguel de Cervantes.Archivos Estatales

On 26 September 1575 between Cadaqués and Palamós, three Turkish galleys commanded by Dali Mami, alias "The Cripple", fall upon the galley Sol which is carrying Rodrigo and Miguel de Cervantes. They are captured and taken to Algiers, where they will spend the next few years as "rescue captives", i.e., kidnapped -poorly cared for and with limited freedom of movements- pending the collection of a ransom for their person.

Plan of Alger. (1563) by Consejo de Estado. (Archivo General de Simancas.)Archivos Estatales

Cervantes is the author of this most painful description of Algiers:

- "This, gentlemen, that you see depicted here, is the city of Algiers, devourer and scourge of all shores of the Mediterranean Sea, universal post of corsairs, and shelter and refuge for thieves, who, from this one little port depicted here, depart with their vessels to unsettle the world, because they dare to pass the plus ultra of the pillars of Hercules, and to attack and raid the isles, which, being surrounded by the immense ocean, were thought to be safe, at least from Turkish vessels. This vessel that you see here..." (Persiles, III, x)

Information about the captivity of Miguel de Cervantes.Archivos Estatales

To learn of the daily life of the captive Miguel de Cervantes in Algiers, we have several texts. Such as that of Persiles, or his comedies... One of paramount importance is the responses of the testifiers to the fourth question of the "Algiers Inquiry" that was conducted at the request of the recently released Cervantes: "Dali Mami, the destructive Greek renegade, rather than a principal knight and as such he had locked and burdened with fetters and chains..."

It was also included in another "Inquiry" that "he did not give food or clothing to the Moor that he had taken captive" (and he had to buy them).

Plan of Alger. (1603) by Consejo de Estado. (Archivo General de Simancas.)Archivos Estatales

Hopefully today it will cost to imagine what the life of the "rescue captive" would be like! Cervantes narrates it in details (and autobiographically) in Don Quixote I,40. The loss of the essence of freedom was absolute. The captive had a written horizon: or a ransom was paid or he would die.

"In this way I lived on immured in a building or prison called by the Turks a "bath", in which they confine the Christian captives, as well those that are the king's as those belonging to private individuals; and also what they call those of the Almacen, which is as much as to say the slaves of the municipality...; but captives of this kind recover their liberty with great difficulty..."

Christians redeemed from slavery in Alger. (1577-09-08) by Consejo y Comisaría de Cruzada (Archivo General de Simancas.)Archivos Estatales

According to the latest research-based on the records of the royal archives and those of the Trinitarian and Mercedarian orders-, the number of captives rescued since the mid-sixteenth century to the mid-eighteenth century was approximately 15,500; i.e., about six per month. The number of captives was much higher (noting the dead, renegades or escapees).

Printers were used and joined the festive hubbub with which the return of the sons home was celebrated.

Mentioned in the third column, line 23: "Rodrigo Servantes, from Alcalá de Henares"

Royal cédula to help in the Cervantes' ransom. Royal cédula to help in the Cervantes' ransom. (1576-12-05) by Consejo y Comisaría de Cruzada (Archivo General de Simancas.)Archivos Estatales

Leonor de Cortinas, mother of Cervantes, went through all the offices that she had to go through to raise the ransom money for her two sons. She even posed as a widow to move the consciences of those who listened.

In this document (from 5-Dec-1576) it states how 60 gold escudos are delivered to Leonor to help rescue Michael and Rodrigo.

Account of Leonor de Guzmán of the money used to ransom her sons Rodrigo y Miguel de Cervantes. (1576-12-05) by Consejo y Comisaría de Cruzada (Archivo General de Simancas.)Archivos Estatales

As we see, in December 1576, she started to get money directly for the rescue of her two sons, but with one year to justify that the rescue had taken place.

Since she could not achieve the goal, she acts against her guarantor, Alonso Getino de Guzman, who was a renowned stagehand in Madrid. Leonor interceded for him so that he will implement the charity received on her assets.

This is just one example of the hardships which this woman went through to secure the release of her abducted sons.

Christians redeemed from slavery in Alger. (1577-09-08) by Consejo y Comisaría de Cruzada (Archivo General de Simancas.)Archivos Estatales

The two religious orders that channelled the rescues of the captive Christians were the Trinitarians and the Mercedarians. Their friars, expert collectors of Christian charity and negotiators for releases, even arrived to barter for his individual freedom for some people in need.

It was the case that the money that the Mercedarian friars had taken to rescue the Cervantes brothers was not enough, so Miguel heroically yielded to free his younger brother.

On 24 August 1577 Rodrigo de Cervantes left Algiers with 105 other captives.

Royal cédula with a licence to sell goods to help in the ransom of Cervantes. (1578-12-06) by Consejo de Guerra. (Archivo General de Simancas.)Archivos Estatales

Leonor de Cortinas, with her negotiating skills, had to adapt to the uses of the time: not everything that was received was in hard cold cash since the King could grant privileges in kind, after which the beneficiary had to know how to convert them into cash.

For example, from November 1578, a licence to export up to 2,000 ducats of illicit goods from Valencia to Algiers with which to cover the rescue of Miguel and more, is being processed for Leonor de Cortinas.

Note that there was legal traffic of goods from Spain to Algiers and vice versa. Trade, that everyone can...

Money for Cervantes' ransom. (1579-09-04) by Consejo y Comisaría de Cruzada (Archivo General de Simancas.)Archivos Estatales

In late July 1579, the Order of the Holy Trinity launches a rescue campaign: it takes out loans in his favour, asks for money everywhere, signs to receive from the King an amount of more than 500 ducats and others from the Cervantes family.

On 22 May 1580, Friar Juan Gil and Friar Antón de la Bella cross the Mediterranean from Valencia to Algiers on the galleys Santa María and Santa Olalla.

Information about the Miguel de Cervantes' services.Archivos Estatales

A little earlier, Rodrigo de Cervantes, the father, has requested a kind of service record of the merits of his son culminating with his own statement that, as he is poor, he will not be able to rescue him.

This "disclosure" would be made before a Magistrate of the Court through witness responses to questioning presented by Rodrigo de Cervantes.

At question No. 6, they should respond if they knew that "Rodrigo de Cervantes is a gentleman, and very poor, that he does not have any goods because having rescued another son who himself was captured at the same time as his brother was left without any goods".

Record about the liberation of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, September 19th, 1579.Archivos Estatales

For the ransom of Cervantes, they had asked for 200,000 maravedís (533 ducats, which is 500 gold escudos). Given the difficulties of collecting this amount and seeing how time passed, Miguel tried to escape four times, ever demonstrating his moral high ground, putting the lives of his fellow escapees before his integrity.

Finally, on 19 September 1580, in the midst of agonising incidents, Cervantes was rescued. 5 years had passed.

In the image, engrossed reader, you have the official record of the release of "Miguel de Cervantes, native of Alcalá de Henares, thirty-one years old [!], son of Rodrigo de Cervantes and Doña Leonor de Cortinas..."

Plan of Seville. (1620) by Consejo de Guerra. (Archivo General de Simancas.)Archivos Estatales

Back in Spain: Times of Loves and Figures (1560-1604)

As it is easy to imagine, the return to Spain was very complicated for Cervantes. The most significant of these years is his "unique" marriage to Catalina de Salazar, his debut as a writer, his life in the service of King Felipe II carrying the rod of justice. There are so many disappointments and frustrations when he twice asks to be posted to the Indies without success. At the same time, he has begun to publish, to write, to hire, to dream and his hopes have begun to fade away. But already in his sixties in 1604...

Letter from Miguel de Cervantes. Letter from Miguel de Cervantes. (1582-02-17) by Consejo de Guerra. (Archivo General de Simancas.)Archivos Estatales

Naturally, the first months of his stay in Spain were unstable. He went to Lisbon to seek help from the Court of Felipe II and was sent on a secret spy mission to Oran.

Shortly after completing this mission, Cervantes insists to other royal secretaries (Valmaseda and Antonio de Eraso) asking for help to go to the Americas. At the same time he announced that he is finishing La Galatea, a pastoral novel that will be his first extensive work, and that he will send it to Eraso.

This is not the only document that remains of requests for posts in the Americas by Cervantes...

Statement of Miguel de Cervantes.Archivos Estatales

...because in 1590, he requests without ambiguity, four posts in the Indies which are: bookkeeping in the New Kingdom of Granada, the governorship of Soconusco, bookkeeping of the galleys of Cartagena de Indias or district of the city of La Paz.

Cartagena de Indias: city and bay. (1628) by Archivo General de Indias.Archivos Estatales

In the Indies, the process of conquest was providing civil, administrative and all kinds of opportunities to many Spaniards who emigrated at this time. What would have become of us if Cervantes had sailed to the Americas?

On 12 December 1584, Cervantes married Catalina de Salazar, a young girl from Esquivias (Toledo). The couple lived together for a short time because in April 1587, in the heat of the procession of the transfer of the relics of Santa Leocadia to Toledo, Cervantes made himself scarce and began his Andalusian journey.

Joint declaration of Miguel de Cervantes and his wife.Archivos Estatales

Years later, the couple will be reunited in Valladolid (although they had previously had reciprocal news) and they looked after each other over the following decades.

For example, on 28 April 1587 (from Toledo), Miguel de Cervantes gives broad powers to his wife; or, as shown in this document, on 21 August 1594 in Madrid, the spouses constituted a "commonwealth" for managing the collections of Cervantes in Andalusia.

The marriage never produced any children but Cervantes and his wife became responsible for Isabel, a natural daughter of Miguel.

Appointment of Miguel de Cervantes. (1588-01-22) by Contaduría Mayor de Hacienda - Contaduría de Relaciones (Archivo General de Simancas.)Archivos Estatales

And in September 1587, Cervantes begins his work at the service of the King which, as is known, consisted of collecting money and taxes in Andalusia for the royal armies.

For nearly three decades, Cervantes must not have known one day in which he did not argue with local, municipal or ecclesiastical authorities, about the quantities, qualities and rights of everything that he had to foreclose on behalf of the King.

This document is the appointment by the Minister of Finance Antonio de Guevara to Miguel de Cervantes as commissioner of the collection of royal property. In the commission he would go with the rod of Justice and assistants.

Instructions to Miguel de Cervantes.Archivos Estatales

In this other document, there are instructions given by Antonio de Guevara to Miguel de Cervantes, among other things that "your worship seeks to gather the entire amount possible, without rigour and without trying to get it out of whomsoever does not have wheat because this is not fair, so that it is done without any noise or complaint although the entire amount is not gathered".

Account of wheat collected by Cervantes.Archivos Estatales

Despite the good intentions, there were no commissions or single years. On two occasions, in Écija and Castro del Rio, ecclesiastical dignities excommunicated him for his zeal for the King. Also, due to accounting problems, he twice had to spend time in the Royal Prison of Seville.

It should be considered that the accounts are carried, as was usual and customary, scrupulously and in different registers such as in the image: "Charged to said Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra these 256 bushels of wheat."

Note that Roman numerals coexist with Arabic numerals.

Plan of Seville. (1620) by Consejo de Guerra. (Archivo General de Simancas.)Archivos Estatales

The culmination of this phase of his life, we can conclude by recalling the verses of Cervantes to the English Navy or even to the Burial Mound of Felipe II in Seville and, finally, his departure after the Court to Valladolid, and so much more.

In this hasty manner, we are ready to focus on Cervantes: genius of the muses.

Credits: Story

Scientific Director: Dr. Alfredo Alvar Ezquerra (CSIC).
Archival Management: Julia Rodríguez de Diego (General Archive of Simancas).

Drafting of texts and palaeographic transcriptions: Alfredo Alvar Ezquerra.

This work is part of the work carried out under the research project of the National R&D Plan funded by the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness of the Kingdom of Spain, which takes place at the Spanish National Council for Advanced Scientific Research (CSIC) under the direction of Dr. Alfredo Alvar Ezquerra, the title of which is "Tangible and intangible personal cultural exchanges (ss. XVI-XVII)” (ref. no. HAR2014-55233-P).

Credits: All media
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