While men like Ned Low went looking for victims by deciding to sail under a black flag, others were simply born bad and got the opportunity to create misery afloat for all those who had the misfortune to come aboard them. Such was the case with Dona Ysabel Mendana de Neyra y Barreto, a reputedly lovely but cold as ice noblewoman from Madrid, Spain.
Born Ysabel Maria Soledad de Barreto around 1572, the small framed beauty was known for her flashing black eyes. Her father was named Governor of Callao, Peru when Ysabel was a toddler and she grew up in the New World. Her confessor, Padre del Norte, noticed early on that Ysabel took pleasure in disciplining her Native Inca servants and her delight in human suffering only increased as she grew to womanhood.
When Ysabel was approximately 20 she was married to a conquistador captain named Alvaro Mendana de Neyra. De Neyra was no stranger to inflicting misery and he seemed to appreciate his young bride not only for her beauty but for her capacity for cruelty. When I read through some of Padre del Norte’s notes on the couple, I was brought to mind of none other than Elisabet Bathory, the famous Hungarian sadist com vampire and her husband, Count Nadazdy. Which is saying quite a bit.
In the summer of 1595, de Neyra was given a mission to the Maquesas Islands and the Philippines by the then Viceroy of Peru, Juan de Mendoza. Ysabel eagerly agreed to accompany her husband on his voyage of conquest and the couple lavishly decked out the Admiral’s cabin on their flagship, San Jeronimo. The ship was equipped with fine foods, wines, barrel upon barrel of fresh water and Native servants for Ysabel to bully and beat. There was also Ysabel’s old Duena, Melia, who may very well have been her partner in crime.
Three other ships, Santa Catalina, San Felipe and the self-aggrandizingly named Santa Ysabel, completed the flotilla. These hauled men, arms, and more supplies along with 380 colonists including men, women and children. Ysabel’s three brothers were also along as attachés and assistants to Don Mendana de Neyra.
The voyage started out well. Sailing from Callao the four ships made the Marquesas in good time. De Neyra claimed the islands for Spain, naming them as the Viceroy Marquesas de Mendoza after his boss in Peru. The group held a communal Mass after de Neyra and his men cut down some 200 or so natives who refused to get on board with his program. Leaving a seed group of colonists and one of Ysabel’s brothers as Governor, de Neyra and his party sailed away.
As the flotilla continued into the great South Sea, Ysabel began to chide her husband on points of leadership. One of the ships, Santa Ysabel, strayed from the fleet and was never seen again. The bickering increased. The remaining three ships arrived at the Island of Santa Cruz and de Neyra decided this would be the spot that he would personally colonize. His men had other ideas and his wife may have agreed with them. At some point a confrontation occurred and de Neyra killed his Captain of the Guard with a cutlass, putting a stop to his men’s opposition. It was a temporary fix however; two days later de Neyra himself collapsed and died of fever before the sun rose the next day.
At this point, Dona Ysabel took over the expedition. She ordered an immediate withdrawal and her three ships set out in November of 1595. While en route the San Felipe was lost at sea and issues began to arise with supplies, Ysabel having apparently neglected to water and provision at Santa Cruz. Water was rationed, then scarce, then almost non-existent and colonists began to die, one or two succumbing each day. Dona Ysabel, meanwhile, was hold up in her state room drinking her wine while Melia washed her mistress’ small clothes in their abundant supply of fresh water. When things grew truly horrific for the colonists, San Jeronimo’s quartermaster asked that those still alive be transferred from Santa Catalina and given some of the Dona’s food and water. Ysabel flatly refused and her husband’s men as well as her brothers backed her up with their weapons.
Not long after that atrocity, Santa Catalina and the unfortunates still aboard her were also lost at sea. San Jeronimo dropped anchor in Manila harbor on February 11, 1596. Fifty men were dead and others close to it. Dona Ysabel and her coterie of servants and strongmen were hale and hearty, however. Even a little dog she kept was well fed and unharmed. She was welcomed at the home of the Viceroy and given mourning clothes and jewelry for the unfortunate loss of her dear husband. A year later she married again, to another conquistador, and made a trip with him to Central America where she doubtless wrecked yet more havoc.
The story of Dona Ysabel Mendana de Neyra y Barreto is a surprising one. Not because of the brutality shown by the Spanish noblewoman who was born into a class and culture of brutality, but because it is so easily forgotten by history at large. Perhaps for the Dona with her flashing eyes as for so many others, what happens at sea stays at sea.
Header: Portrait of a Lady With Lapdog by Lavinia Fontana, 1590