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The Legend of the Handless Warrior who Replaced his Limbs with Knives

Katie Vernon

Many of the native groups in South America, particularly in the Patagonia region, were exterminated by invaders.

First, the conquistadors contributed to the loss of many human lives and cultural groups. But it was during the gold rush in Patagonia in the late 19th and early 20th century that the majority of indigenous people were wiped out, along with their history, tradition, and language.

Familia Mapuche, by Claudio Gay, 1848.

Familia Mapuche, by Claudio Gay, 1848.

Fortunately, there are a few surviving groups of native people in Chile and Argentina, such as the Mapuche.

Most of them have kept their traditions and tend to live in accordance with their customs.

Mapuchita (Mapuche) woman, Chile. Photo by Raul Urzua (REUS) CC BY 2.0

Mapuchita (Mapuche) woman, Chile. Photo by Raul Urzua (REUS) CC BY 2.0

While not completely wiped out, these people’s ancestors suffered a lot. Their history and present-day politics considering their land are rather sad and discriminatory.

Beginning in 1536, and spanning a period of almost three centuries, there was a bloody conflict between the Mapuches and the Spaniards, known as the Arauco War.

Illustration of the Arauco War in Jerónimo de Vivar’s book Crónica y relación copiosa y verdadera de los reynos de Chile (1558).

Illustration of the Arauco War in Jerónimo de Vivar’s book Crónica y relación copiosa y verdadera de los reynos de Chile (1558).

On November 8, 1557, the Spanish conquistadors routed several thousand Mapuche in the Battle of Lagunillas, near the Bio Bio River in South-Central Chile.

Some 150 Mapuche prisoners were captured, among whom was the famous Galvarino who led a division of Mapuche soldiers.

El joven Lautaro by Pedro Subercaseaux.

El joven Lautaro by Pedro Subercaseaux.

The captives were marched to the Spanish encampment where after an abrupt trial the Spanish leader, Governor Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza, ordered his troops to severe the right hand and nose of each warrior, and to cut off both hands of the leaders such as Galvarino.

In some versions of the legend, Galvarino willingly offered his left hand under the axe after emotionlessly watching his right hand get chopped off.

Galvarino.

Galvarino.

The gruesome act was supposed to send a message to the Mapuche general Caupolican to simply surrender without further bloodshed. All the Mapuche captives, crippled, were set free to leave the Spanish encampment and to return to their general.

But letting Galvarino go free was a huge mistake. First, he didn’t transmit the message to surrender to Caupolican — instead, he implored the Mapuche war council to continue fighting, assuring his general that he would help even without hands.

Depiction of Galvarino’s amputation.

Depiction of Galvarino’s amputation.

And so it was. Galvarino had knives fastened to the stubs of his wrists so that he would be able to fight effectively, and was placed in command of a squadron of men.

Just a few weeks later, on the last day of November, Galvarino led an army of 3,000 Mapuche soldiers in the Battle of Millarapue.

There were only 1,500 Spanish soldiers ambushed by the Mapuche, but even though the Spaniards were outnumbered, the Mapuche were outmatched. The Mapuche were heroically brave and fought to defend their homeland, but the Spaniards were professional soldiers with rifles, steel armor, and crossbows, and managed to win the battle very easily.

Governor Mendoza.

Governor Mendoza.

The Mapuche legend states that Galvarino went up against Mendoza’s squadron and managed to cut down the general’s second in command. However, the battle was lost for the Mapuche with more than 3,000 of them killed, and 800 captured.

Among the later was Galvarino whose fate is unknown. One thing is certain; he never got another chance against the Spaniards. While all the captives were hanged, there is debate whether he was as well, or if Mendoza ordered for him to be thrown to the dogs. The most optimistic version of the story has it that Galvarino managed to kill himself.

According to some versions of the story of Galvarino, when he was offered mercy, he said: “I would rather die than live like you, and I’m only sorry that my death will keep me from tearing you to pieces with my teeth.”

Read another story from us: The Legendary Chief Who Almost Unified All Native Americans

Galvarino is a very popular Mapuche hero, turned into a comic book hero. Some fans claim that he was the original inspiration for the Marvel hero Wolverine.