Thursday, September 6, 2012

Lady Pirates: La Conquistadora

When Hernan Cortes came to the New World he honestly had only one thing in mind: wealth. Obviously there was the lip service about conquering new lands for Spain and converting heathen souls to the salvation of the Church. But any time you make your recruits pay to join you, there can be no question that right up front your talking about an investment you expect to pay off big. And for Cortes it certainly did.

Hidden among the men in armor on horseback that Cortes led to new shores were a handful of Spanish women. In her book Warrior Women, historian Robin Cross sets the ratio exactly at 550 men to 12 women. These women were, for the most part, wives and sisters of the soldiers; again according to Cross, 8 were white and 4 were black. Only a few names of and stories about these women who plundered the Aztec kingdom shoulder to shoulder with their men have come down to us. Arguably the most information we have is about one Maria de Estrada.

Maria's origins are as shadowy as any buccaneers. Most sources agree that she was born in Seville and that, by the time of the Cortes expedition in 1519, she was married to a soldier named Pedro Sanchez Farfan. Spanish historian Luisa Campuzano claims that Maria's brother was among Columbus' crew on his first voyage to the New World. It was this brother, according to Campuzano, that brought Maria with him when he chose to settle there. Their ship was wrecked off Cuba and Maria was, for a time, a castaway. Campuzano is the only historian that I can find who makes this claim, so whether or  not this was actually the case seems to remain a point for further research.

It does appear certain that Maria was tough and perfectly capable as a horsewoman and with a variety of weapons. When Cortes informed the women in his army that they would be laundresses and cooks, Maria at first went along with the program. As the army marched inland, however, and the hardships began to grow, she is said to have led a protest against such gender bias.

When the army set up camp at Tlaxcala in 1520, Cortes informed the ladies that they would not be accompanying their men on the march to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Infuriated, Maria and her cohort Beatriz Bermudez approached Cortes directly. According to Cross, they were even more direct in their demands:

Castillian wives, rather than abandon their husbands in danger, would die with them.

Cortes allowed the women to join the march but continued stubbornly in assigning them the worst of the domestic duties to keep them in line. Cortes' initial successes, thanks in large part to his Aztec translator and mistress, Malinalli Tenepal known as Dona Marina, began to crumble quickly, however, and things went down hill for everyone.

When the Aztec army attacked the Spanish forces inside the walls of Tenochtitlan, Maria and Beatriz dawned armor, shouldered shields and took up arms to join the fight. The battle would rage on and off for a week, with particularly bloody fighting on what would come to be known to the Spanish as the Noche Triste, or sad night. Maria was in the middle of the fray, holding back Aztec warriors as the Spanish wounded tried to exit the city via a floating bridge. Even the Aztecs were impressed with Maria's courage, dubbing her the "great lady" when the battle was over.

Having evidently gotten a taste for hand-to-hand combat, Maria could thereafter not be held back even by Cortes. She rode at the front of the cavalry at the decisive Battle of Otumba where hundreds of Aztecs lost their lives. The victory gave Maria a reputation for her superior ability with a lance. Her counterpart, Beatriz Bermudez, joined the fighting on horseback as well. According to Cross she also chided the less aggressive men, telling them in no uncertain terms that she would "kill every man who attempts" to desert.

At the Battle of Morelos in 1522, Maria volunteered to lead a charge against the remaining Aztec forces. Cortes agreed, and she descended into battle screaming "Santiago (St. James), destroy them!" Her blood lust terrified many of her foes, who threw themselves bodily into a ravine rather than face her lance.

Like her male counterparts, Maria's entire goal was wealth and her valor - at least in the eyes of her commanding officers - was worth the reward. Cortes granted her specifically the newly colonized towns of Telala and Hueyapan. It probably goes without saying that all of the native peoples who had once occupied these lands became slaves to the "great lady." Those who did not die outright of unfamiliar infections brought by the Spanish were condemned to a living death toiling either on the land or under it in Hueyapan's silver mines.

Maria's husband was also given similar holdings and it appears that the couple remained married until Pedro Farfan's death. This event occurred in 1530, according to historian Robert Himmerich y Valencia. He also notes in his The Encomenderos of New Spain that Maria remarried shortly thereafter, but that neither marriage produced children that lived to adulthood.

Maria de Estrada seems to have ended her days in New Spain, never returning to her homeland in Seville. How and where she died is not recorded by any of the writers who mention her. The last unfortunate bit of information about her notes only that her second husband fell into a dispute over her lands with not only her first husband's relatives, but his own as well.

The draw of yet more wealth outweighed all ties of love and family and Maria, for the most part, was unfortunately left to the margins of history. Another lady who fought and plundered alongside more famous men is far less well known than she probably should be.

Header: Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, another New World lady from Spain, whom you can read about at F**k Yeah, History Crushes!


Undine said...

Fascinating story. And yet another woman of the past who deserved more extensive documentation.

This reminds me...I know I'm probably wrong about this, but does it seem that the 16th century produced a particularly notable crop of what my mother would call "tough babes?"

Pauline said...

I could not agree with you more, Undine. A lot of women from all over the world seemed to assert their authority during that particular period in history. Time for us modern ladies to learn from their example, perhaps...

Timmy! said...

Maria would be a good character to add to the story if they ever made a sequel to Dreamworks "El Dorado" movie... Everyone in that movie is pretty much in it for the money, so maybe it is more historically accurate than we thought, Pauline...

Pauline said...

Ha! That's a good point.

Given that misogyny is the last acceptable form of bigotry, I don't have any compunction about calling Maria de Estrada a kick-ass gal. As opposed to the reservations I would have about calling Cortes an ass-kicker, for instance.