The women who made America

Spain's conquest of the New World wasn't carried out by its men alone

Tereixa Constenla
A scene from the TV show Heart of the Sea, which tells the story of Mencía Calderón.
A scene from the TV show Heart of the Sea, which tells the story of Mencía Calderón.

An exhibition at the National Naval Museum in Madrid reveals a hitherto little-known aspect of Spain's colonial enterprise: the considerable presence of women explorers as active partners in adventure and settlement. No fueron solos (or, They Didn't Go Alone), which runs until September 30, provides a fascinating insight into these largely overlooked characters, perhaps the best known of whom is Isabel Barreto, born in Pontevedra, Galicia in 1567, and the country's first female admiral, appointed by King Phillip II (of Spanish Armada fame). The daughter of a noble family and well-educated, Isabel followed her father to Peruin in 1580. She met Álvaro de Mendaña six years later, and after learning from him that he had found small quantities of gold and ivory in the Solomons, she became determined to mount an expedition there, believing that it was the new El Dorado, Ophir.

Barreto and her husband shared a dream: they wanted to find Ophir, the legendary land of gold and precious stones, which they believed to be somewhere in Polynesia. Their expedition set out from El Callao in Perú toward the Solomon Islands in 1595, braving the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean: a total of four ships and nearly four hundred men, women and children who planned to settle in the Solomons. Disease and malnutrition did not take long to spread among the crew, rapidly reducing the numbers of the would-be conquerors. Isabel's husband was among the casualties, and his widow had no qualms about assuming command.

Barreto is described thus by Pedro Fernández de Quirós, the ship's pilot: "[A woman] of authoritarian, virile, and undaunted character, who imposed her will upon all those under her command, especially during the perilous voyage to Manila."

The galleon and its moribund crew reached the Marquesas seven thousand miles later, no closer to the mines of Ophir than they were at the port of El Callao. Natives in canoes turned out to greet the explorers, but the meeting between cultures ended in disaster, with deaths on both sides.

Her crew remained hostile, but none dared to contest her claims, much less her title of "adelantada [royal officer] of the Western Isles". Manila was reached without further misadventure, and the expedient Barreto did not delay in remarrying, this time to Fernando de Castro, who would become her new partner in the search for Ophir.

Juan Francisco Maura of the University of Vermont suggests that women were present in two of Christopher Columbus' journeys to the New World - the 1493 and 1497 sorties. "Much has been written about the role of men, of horses, and even dogs in the conquest of the New World. But very little has been said about women's participation in the project, and the very important contribution they made in all aspects of the discovery, the conquest, and the colonization of the Americas," says Maura in his book Españolas de ultramar en la historia y en la literature (or, Spanish women in history and literature).

The idea has always been to present Spaniards as a bunch of pirates"

Another academic, Mar Langa Pizarro, whose Mujeres de armas tomar (Women to be reckoned with) is about to be published in Paraguay, calculates from her research that nearly 14,000 female passengers made the trip across the Atlantic during the colonization period. She adds that the real figure is likely to be much higher, given that many women would have travelled anonymously, or illegally. Some of them held important titles, such as María de Toledo, wife to Columbus' son Diego, who held the title of Vicereine of the West Indies from 1515 to 1520, although she was denied permission to outfit new expeditions after her husband's passing. Among the "supplies" she mentions requiring in one letter during her brief tenure as Vicereine is "300 pieces of black slaves." Academics disagree over whether the first colonists can be called racist for their attitudes toward Africans and native Americans. Many have argued that the origins of racism are economic, and notably in slavery. The Church also played a role by bolstering the idea of heathen savages who were not fit for any other task.

In any event, says historian Carlos Martínez Shaw, none of the women involved in the colonial project, despite their own struggle for equality, had any moral qualms regarding slavery: "At that time there was no racial prejudice; Europeans simply saw the slavery of blacks as the most natural thing in the world."

Juan Francisco Maura blames Britain for the absence of Spain's female colonizers from the history books, while admitting that Spanish and Latin American scholars have also been lax in remembering the contribution of their female ancestors to the colonization of the Americas. "The idea has always been to present the Spaniards as a bunch of pirates in search of sex and gold. Women humanized the process. In general, the Anglo-Saxons are seen as colonizers, while the Spanish are simply rapists and pillagers only interested in getting rich quick," he continues, adding that thousands of Spanish women were active on the continent decades before the pilgrim fathers brought their wives on the Mayflower in 1620; "and not just in a secondary role, as many have mistakenly thought, but in the vanguard of an emerging society." He points to figures like Francisca Ponce León in Seville who outfitted a merchantman, the San Telmo, for regular crossings to Santo Domingo less than 20 years after Christopher Columbus came across it by accident, or María Escobar, the first importer and grower of wheat in the Americas. This business sense was also seen in Mencía Ortiz, who established her own import-export company to trade with the West Indies in 1549.

Then there were the warriors: Inés Suárez, a maid to Pedro de Valdivia, set off with him in 1537 to conquer Chile, became his mistress, and a formidable participant in liquidating the Araucan tribes fighting to hold onto their lands.

By 1550, many women were making the voyage alone"

Within 20 years of Columbus' arrival in the Americas, the Spanish Crown had decided on a mass colonization project, issuing a decree requiring all public officials headed to the New World to take their wives with them. "The women followed their husbands, fathers or brothers, or in service to some senior official, but this was often simply the only way to make the crossing legally; by 1550, many women were making the voyage alone, sometimes in search of their missing husbands, or in other capacities such as maids, friends, governesses... All of them, regardless of their position or title, went to America with the intention of improving their lot," says Pilar Pérez Canto, a Professor of History and coauthor with Asunción Lavrín of La historia de las mujeres en España y América Latina (or, The history of women in Spain and Latin America).

As news spread of the fabulous wealth in the Americas, growing numbers of Spaniards began to dream of a new life. Among them were women who, for whatever reason, had not married and saw the opportunity for a fresh start. Whether wealthy, poor, religious, prostitutes, or simply in search of adventure, they were nevertheless required to obtain a certificate of good conduct from the Church before they could make the voyage. Restrictions on freedom of movement were nothing new: an edict from 1549 forbade "Moors and Moorish converts, those reconciled with the Church, the children and grandchildren of those burned for heresy, foreigners born outside the territories of the Spanish empire, and both black and white slaves without a special license" from making the crossing.

In an age where the Crown demanded the purchase of a permit to sail off to the Americas, brokers could also be found. Francisco Brava was one such agent, as a document from the Indies Archive in Seville testifies: "Anybody looking to buy a license of passage to the Indies, go to the door between San Juan and Santiesteban, along the way toward Tudela, just off a stone bridge, go there and ask for Francisco Brava, who sells them."

Carolina Aguado, the curator responsible for the exhibition, says that she fails to understand how so many extraordinary women have been ignored by history for so long, citing, for example, the story of Mencía Calderón, who traveled to the New World with her three daughters as part of her husband Juan de Sanabria's expedition to resupply the city of Asunción in Paraguay with new settlers. "It took them six years to get to Asunción, they were repeatedly hit by storms, attacked by pirates, and then by Tupí indians. She lost a daughter, and when they got to Brazil, they weren't allowed to embark to leave, so she led a group through the Mato Grosso. Of the 50 or so women who set off, just 10 survived," says Aguado. Calderón's story was novelized by Elvira Menéndez in El corazón del oceano (or, The heart of the sea), which has since been televised.

After three months, one thousand were dead, and the scale of hunger was great"

Isabel de Guevara, one of the founders of the cities of Asunción and Buenos Aires, relates first hand in a letter to Princess Juana, the sister of Phillip II, dated July 2, 1556, and which is in Spain's National Archive. She tells the story of the 1,500 men and women who had earlier set out for the River Plate region. "After three months, one thousand were dead, and the scale of hunger was greater than that of Jerusalem, or any other. The men were so reduced that their clothes hung off them, and it was down to the women to wash their clothes, cure them of their ills, and to prepare them what little food was available, keep them clean, make the watch, keep the fires lit, and charge the guns when the Indians attacked... keep order among the troops... if it weren't for them, all would have been finished off; and if it weren't for protecting the honor of the men, I would write many more things based on the women's testimony."

Mar Langa says that De Guevara is probably referring to the several recorded incidents of cannibalism during the expedition through the River Plate region. Bavarian Ulrico Schmidt, who took part in the journey, writes in his Voyage to the River Plate, published in 1567: "Three Spaniards stole a pony and ate it. When the loss was discovered, they were tortured and confessed, and were then sentenced to be hanged. That night, other Spaniards crept up close to the three bodies left hanging and cut off pieces of flesh from their thighs to satisfy their hunger." Other references to cannibalism can be found in the archives.

Maura's exhaustive combing of the records, little of which has been digitalized, and much of which is deteriorating rapidly, also reveals when the first convent and brothel were founded. Four nuns who had travelled with Hernán Cortés, set up a convent in Mexico City in 1540, less than twenty years after the conquistador had sacked the Aztec capital. Two nieces of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma ended up there.

Ana de Ayala, who joined an expedition up the Amazon with her husband Francisco de Orellana in one of the many searches for El Dorado, has been described by some historians as a prostitute, says Alfonso Dávila, director of Spain's National Archive. He looked into the records, and discovered that she was likely the daughter of a tradesman who made good by marrying a nobleman, probably earning the enmity of her contemporaries. "She is one of the great unanswered questions in Spanish history; some convert her into a noblewoman, others a whore who lived a life of luxury in Seville while her husband prepared his second incursion into the Amazon," says Dávila.

Ana de Ayala is a great unanswered question in Spanish history

Orellana and Ayala set off in 1544 from Spain, disobeying a royal order to cancel their trip. The fleet, which started out with 400 men and four captains, was already in bad shape when it arrived at the Cape Verde islands, "possibly because of contaminated water and lack of supplies," says Dávila. When he finally arrived at the mouth of the Amazon, Orellana divided up his by now severely depleted numbers into two groups. They made their way up river over the next 11 months, gradually succumbing to disease, accident, and attacks by Indians. Orellana was among the victims. Ayala was among the 44 survivors and when she finally returned to Spain she openly criticized the king for failing to support the expedition.

Among the few women remembered for their exploits in the Americas during the first years of conquest is Catalina de Erauso, who might best be described as a warrior nun, and whose extraordinary life and adventures have been recorded in several books. She left for the Americas while still a novice nun, but soon shed her habit for a soldier's uniform, winning the grudging admiration of her fellow conquistadores. She made no bones about her sexual orientation, writing in her memoirs: "After a few days, it was made clear to me that I should marry his daughter, who was there with him: she was very dark, and as ugly as a devil, most contrary to my tastes, which have always inclined toward good faces."

Carolina Aguado says the single uniting factor among all these women "was that they were a force to be reckoned with. They left a country in the 16th century in which women had no participation to board ships on terrifying journeys, facing the threat of both piracy and shipwreck, to reach lands that were completely unknown to them."

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