Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born in 1547 to a poor Spanish doctor. He joined the army at twenty-one and fought against Turkey at sea and Italy on land. In 1575, pirates kidnapped Cervantes and his brother and sold them as slaves to the Moors, the longtime Muslim adversaries of Catholic Spain. Cervantes ended up in Algiers. He attempted to escape his enslavement three times and was eventually ransomed in 1580 and returned to Spain.
Only with the publication of the first volume of Don Quixote, in 1605, did Cervantes achieve financial success and renown. Don Quixote became an instant success, and its popularity even spawned an unauthorized sequel by a writer who used the name Avellaneda. This sequel appeared several years after the original volume, and it inspired Cervantes to hurry along his own second volume, which he published in 1615. Cervantes died in Madrid of type 2 diabetes, resulting from cirrhosis of the liver, in 1616.
Many of Don Quixote’s recurring elements are drawn from the author’s life—the presence of Algerian pirates on the Spanish coast, the exile of the enemy Moors, the frustrated prisoners whose failed escape attempts cost them dearly, the disheartening battles displaying Spanish courage in the face of plain defeat, and even the ruthless ruler of Algiers. Cervantes’ biases pervade the novel as well, most notably in the form of a mistrust of foreigners.
Funded by silver and gold pouring in from its American colonies, Spain was at the height of its European domination during Cervantes’ life. But the Spanish also suffered some of their most crippling setbacks during this period, including the crushing defeat of its seemingly invincible armada by the English in 1588. The tale of the captive, which begins in Chapter XXXIX of the first part of Don Quixote, recounts in detail many of the historical battles in which Cervantes himself participated. In this sense, Don Quixote is very much a historical novel.