16 July 2014

Unusual Journeys: Miguel de Cervantes’s Unexpectedly Prolonged Mediterranean Adventure

Miguel de Cervantes’s extraordinary qualities extended far beyond his writing. His biography reads like an adventure novel. Born the middle son of an itinerant barber-surgeon, travel came into his blood with his mother’s milk. But his most unusual journey was a routine trip on the galley Sol in 1575.

Cervantes was nearly 28 years old when he embarked. He would live another 30 years before Don Quijote de la Mancha would meet the public. (Cervantes should stand as an inspiration to late bloomers everywhere.) In 1569, the story goes, a nobleman had insulted his sister and Cervantes wounded him in a duel in the royal palace. The penalty would have been to lose his right hand and be exiled from the kingdom for ten years. There is disagreement about whether or not the dueler was our Miguel de Cervantes. In any case, right around this time, Miguel joined the Spanish navy marines in Italy, perhaps waiting for the law to forget his offense.

His brother Rodrigo joined him and together they participated in the Battle of Lepanto, a naval victory against the Turks much celebrated at the time. On the day of the battle, Miguel was sick with a fever and ordered to stay below, but his sense of duty held sway. He seems to have fought on deck in the midst of the thickest action. Two bullets lodged in his chest; a third resulted in the loss of the use of his left hand. This wound, though debilitating, served as a badge of honor for the rest of his life.

Battle of Lepanto, Andrea Vicentino
WIkiMedia Commons
He convalesced in Italy for six months. The world must remain forever grateful for this down time, because he finally had leisure to do the reading that would so heavily influence his thoughts and work. He participated in at least two more battles before he and Rodrigo were sent home to Spain.

It was September, 1575. It was a totally unremarkable trip from Naples to Barcelona. Miguel carried letters of recommendation addressed to the king and had high hopes for stable employment with the State. But, especially in the sixteenth century, there is no sure thing in life. Just when it seemed Sol was about to pull into safe harbor, North African pirates captured the ship, killing the captain and many crew members.

Miguel and his brother Rodrigo were sold at the slave market in Algiers. Suddenly Miguel’s papers of commendation became a liability. The Algerians, who were in the habit of holding the important Christians they captured for ransom, thought Miguel was one such important Christian, and they set his price unattainably high.

Miguel’s sisters gave up their dowries and his mother begged the government in futile efforts to bring the brothers home. Conditions in captivity were harsh. Most prisoners were chained in dark rooms and required to perform physical tasks under strict guard. Miguel’s apparent status as well as his injury may have spared him too much labor, and some biographers have surmised that he served as a notary or an interpreter for his master.

The conditions, or the mere fact of captivity, were harsh enough for Miguel to attempt to escape four times. No one knows why he didn’t receive the official punishment for fugitives: death by torture. The Algerian officials were noted for their cruelty, often lashing, impaling, and hanging offenders such like Cervantes by the feet until dead. However, they let him off every time with only a short prison sentence. Biographers suggest that they were impressed with Miguel’s courage. When questioned about the accomplices to his escape plans, he never betrayed his collaborators, but asked to be punished alone.

When his family miraculously gathered enough money to ransom one, but only one, of the brothers, Miguel allowed that brother to be Rodrigo. In the end, the family enlisted the help of Nuestra Señora de la Merced, a Trinitarian order that specialized in rescuing Christian captives in Africa.

Cervantes returned to his home country in 1580, five years after Sol was to have delivered him, and five years of unknown torment. As he later expressed in the voice of Don Quijote, “no treasure the Earth contains nor the sea conceals can be compared to” freedom after captivity.

He had left a criminal in danger of losing his right hand and being exiled for ten years, and returned, after twelve years away, an unemployed hero without the use of his left hand. A routine sail to Barcelona became a defining moment and the most unusual journey of Cervantes’s life.

And the most surreal, most artistically fruitful part of his life was yet to come.

Some great resources on Cervantes’s life:

Cervantes by Jean Canavaggio, Joseph R. Jones (Translator), 1990.
Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive’s Tale by Maria Antonia Garcés, 2005.
Miguel de Cervantes (Modern Critical Views), ed. by Harold Bloom, 2005.
The Cambridge Companion to Cervantes, ed. by Anthony J Cascardi, 2002.
Critical Essays on Cervantes ed. by Ruth S. El Saffar, 1986.

A driven fiction writer, Jessica Knauss has edited many fine historical novels and is currently a bilingual copyeditor at an educational publisher. Find out more about her historical novel, Seven Noble Knights, here, and her other writing and bookish activities here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too!