I n t r o d u c t o r y St u d y
Kris Lane
I
t may be only fitting that the first manual of Spanish conquest was
published well after the death of the last conquistadors. It was per-
haps even more fitting that its author was Captain Bernardo de Var-
gas Machuca of Simancas, a hapless caballero so out of touch with his
times he may well have inspired Cervantes. As he was born too late to be
another Cortés or Pizarro, true fame was not Vargas Machuca’s destiny.
Neither was its opposite, infamy, a specialty of failed conquistadors such
as the Basque rebel Lope de Aguirre. Instead, the valiant and loyal Vargas
Machuca soldiered on for nearly five decades, unable to either locate a lost
empire or contemplate rebellion.
The next best thing was to participate in whatever fight was at hand,
be it against rebellious Amerindians, runaway slaves, heretic pirates, or
mutinous fellow Spaniards. In short, if he was going to war in the Spanish
Indies, Bernardo de Vargas Machuca was destined not for conquest, but
rather for “mopping up.” By the mid-1590s he had done enough of this,
and under sufficiently varied circumstances, to consider himself an expert;
hence Milicia Indiana. The title is ambiguous even in the original Span-
ish—hinting as much at Amerindian as at Spanish colonist, or indiano,
input and content—so we have chosen to translate it directly as The Indian
Militia. After a five-year wait in Madrid, Spain’s grudging Indies Council
at last responded to Vargas Machuca’s incessant requests for promotion
by granting him a minor post in 1602 as paymaster and magistrate of the
new fortress town of Portobelo, on the Caribbean coast of Panama.
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