Writer and researcher Rosa Santizo called our attention to an exhibit currently on display in the Spanish city of Madrid on a hitherto little known aspect of colonial enterprise: the considerable presence of women explorers as active partners in adventure and settlement. The exhibit bears the title “No fueron solos” (They Didn’t Go Alone) and can be seen at the Madrid Naval Museum from 21 May to 30 September, 2012.
An article by Tereixa Constenla provides some fascinating details on these forgotten characters. She focuses initially on the figure of Isabel Barreto, born in Pontevedra, Galicia in 1567, is the only “lady admiral” ever appointed by King Phillip II (of Spanish Armada fame). Well-educated and the daughter of a noble family, Isabel followed her father to Perú in 1580. She met Alvaro de Mendaña six years later, and learned that he had found small quantities of gold and ivory in the Solomons, believing that there must be considerable quantities in the area.
Barreto and her husband, Don Alvaro de Mendaña, 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, decimating the would-be conquerors of legendary Ophir. 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 either side.
Her crew was no less hostile than before, 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’s journeys to the New World – the 1493 and 1497 sorties. Another academic, Mar Langa Pizarro, puts forth the figure of nearly fourteen thousand female passengers during the colonization period. Some of them held important titles, such as María de Toledo, wife to Columbus’s 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.
Other Spanish ladies were luckier, despite lacking viceregal trappings: Francisca Ponce de Leon in Seville outfitted a merchantman, the San Telmo, for regular crossings to Santo Doming less than twenty years after its discovery, 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. In an age where the Crown demanded the purchase of a permit to sail off to the Americas, brokers could also be found. Francisca Brava was one such agent.
The article by Tereixa Constenla features a quote by Carolina Aguado, in charge of the Naval Museum exposition. The single uniting factor among all these women, she says, “is that they were women 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.”
Aguado illustrates her point with a fascinating 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 would take six years for the journey to be completed Following shipwreck and an attack by pirates and hostile natives.
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 fighter against the Araucan tribes, beheading their chieftains without hesitation, and Ana de Ayala, who sailed along the Amazon River with Francisco de Orellana, in an expedition searching for El Dorado, of which she was the sole survivor, along with a few dozen others.