A great story

Spain’s history is vast and grandiose, but how was it possible for it to achieve all that it did, especially when it had a small territory and a small population? How was it possible to achieve so much? Apart from the visionaries and the stroke of fortune that put Spain in the limelight for several centuries, it was men and women, women and men, who were the protagonists of an unparalleled adventure, of an exploration worthy of praise, of a spectacular trade route and of a road carved with effort, blood and miles of navigation.

And yes, many women, from Columbus’ third voyage onwards, contributed to the discovery and enlargement of the new world. Fundamental pieces of those lands, recently discovered, to form part of a whole, of a powerful kingdom that extended beyond the seas and oceans. Women like Isabel Barreto, Mencía Calderón, Inés Suárez, Isabel Rodríguez and so many other heroines who sowed enthusiasm, courage and bravery for posterity.

Today I would like to dwell on another great woman, one whose pulse did not tremble when she embarked into the unknown and who left everything to follow her husband on dangerous journeys, crossing an entire ocean and ready to explore the longest river in the world: the Amazon River. Today I want to focus on Ana de Ayala, Orellana’s wife.

Ana de Ayala, wife of 0rellana

Francisco de Orellana was a Spanish explorer, conquistador and adelantado, and the first to explore the immense and dangerous Amazon River. Whether or not it was by chance, the truth is that his adventures and hardships paid off and he managed to descend the Amazon stream to the Atlantic on an unparalleled voyage. And it all began on an expedition in search of cinnamon (and, on the way, El Dorado) from Peru, accompanying Gonzalo Pizarro, brother of the famous conquistador.

Early representation of Newfoundland, Lower California, the Amazon, and the Ladrones

Early representation of Newfoundland, Lower California, the Amazon, and the Ladrones

Lost, exhausted and out of livestock, they wandered into a maze of streams, currents and rough waters, with hostile tribes to harass them. The expedition split up and 0rellana, with his men, on a raft of their own making, entered the jungle, descending rapids and rushing torrents. The battered Gonzalo Pizarro stayed and waited for help, but 0rellana never returned because, as the story goes, the strong current pushed him onwards.

Having overcome the enormous obstacle, having endured very hard trials, once he reached the ocean he was emboldened and set himself a clear objective: to return to Spain, tell the story of his adventure and obtain the governorship of that vast territory. And with this firm purpose, with the intention of exploring and exploiting the area (supposedly rich in cinnamon) and settling there, he convinced the Spanish Crown. But before setting off on his new adventure, on his new mission, he wanted to marry in Seville. And he did so with the young Ana de Ayala, with whom he fell madly in love at first sight.

0rellana, Governor of New Andalusia

Orellana, as this paragraph of the royal capitulation states, was appointed Governor of New Andalusia:

Don Carlos and Doña Juana, because we have ordered ourselves to take a certain agreement and capitulation with you, Captain Francisco de Orellana, regarding the discovery and population of certain lands and provinces that we have ordered to be called and called New Andalusia, it is my majesty and my will that now and from now on for the rest of your lives you shall be my governor and captain general…

And, as we have said, he fell madly in love with the young Ana, apparently the daughter of a Sevillian shipowner. Convinced, he set about making her his wife, courted her and promised her a good life in the new lands of which he was to be governor. She, without hesitation, bet on him and embarked on an adventure into the unknown, full of danger and death. But destiny is capricious and even more so in those times full of storms, difficulties, hostile tribes and unknown territories. And this time, the mighty Amazon River awaited them with its untamed fury.

After arduous negotiations and intense efforts to gather crew, supplies and the necessary means, four ships and 450 people set sail from the port of Seville in May 1545. They did not have official approval, as it was forbidden to embark foreign crews, they had to be all Spaniards, and Orellana did not comply with this. So, without having the ships fully equipped, without permission and escaping surveillance, he set sail for the ocean. In the expedition, apart from Ana de Ayala, his wife, and a sister-in-law or two, there were more women on board, ready to seek their fortune, raise families and found cities in the new world, fulfilling the capitulations. Brave and daring women who sowed wills and reasons for miscegenation.

The Amazon River

But, in that time of adventure when any storm twisted the plans, in that time of crossing where the wooden shells were handled by the furious waves, the subsequent defeat became treacherous and nothing went as planned. They called at Tenerife, spending three months there, trying to complete the crew but failing to do so. They then went on to Cape Verde and the conditions of the ships were appalling. In fact, he had to leave one of them there, the nao Victoria, which was destroyed. It is curious that 98 men died there because of the bad water conditions and many others were left there because of their poor state of health. In the end, two ships arrived at the mouth of the Amazon, with barely a hundred men in a pitiful state.

Men from Francisco de Orellana's expedition building a small brigantine, the

Men from Francisco de Orellana’s expedition building a small brigantine, the “San Pedro”, to be used for searching for food.

But it was all a disaster, the mission was untenable. Just a handful of men, starving and ragged, ready to conquer and explore a vast and wild territory, with no food or material to reverse the situation. The wrecked ships, impossible chimeras, a fledgling city, hunger pressing, and 0rellana splitting the expedition and marching upriver to find food and another suitable site for a second settlement. There was little hope left. They were constantly attacked by indigenous tribes, suffered from starvation and want. They had failed before they had even begun, but Ana de Ayala was still with her husband, suffering and rowing against the impassive current.

No one escaped the wet jaws of that great river, of that enormous current that devoured everything. Everyone, little by little, succumbed to the great river, perished on its banks or lost themselves in ravings, under the lacerating humidity of the immense jungle. In fact, of the barely 100 people who reached the Amazon, including men and women, only 44 survived, and among them was the brave Doña Ana de Ayala.

Francisco de Guzmán, another of the survivors of that adventure, tells the story as follows:

…we sailed down the river until we came to Margarita where we met Orellana’s wife, who told us that her husband had not been able to take the main arm he was looking for and so, because he was ill, he was determined to come to the land of the Christians and at that time, as he was looking for food for the road, the Indians shot seventeen men; Orillana died in the river because of this distress and illness…. Orillana’s wife stayed with her husband the whole journey until he died and she went to La Margarita where this passenger met her, and told her what she said above.

Ana stayed with her husband, who apparently died of fever on that suicide mission. She buried him by a tree and took command of what little was left to seek salvation, to bring the few survivors to safety. Ana de Ayala survived the Amazon River, the terrible expedition that wreaked havoc. Little is known of her life, only that she reached Isla Margarita and from there went to Panama, where she settled and lived for many years. She may have claimed a pension from the crown, as her husband had encomiendas around Guayaquil.

A young Sevillian woman embarked for the unknown, hand in hand with her husband Orellana, crossing the waters of a huge river and watching her fellow travellers succumb, amidst hardship, arrows and famine. And she managed to survive, despite everything.


It is curious that, almost 30 years after the events, in 1572, the testimony of Ana de Ayala (“who promised to tell the truth”) appears in a document in the Archive of the Indies. It was the proof of merit presented by Juan de Peñalosa, one of Orellana’s capitals, an accountant who had fallen into disgrace and was applying to recover his job and assets. The testimony is heartbreaking and attests to the hardships they went through, the horrors they witnessed and the tragic end of the members of the same. It reads:

…the said famine was so great that the horses they were carrying and the dogs were eaten in the eleven months that they were lost in the river, in which most of the people died and together with them the said husband. And this witness knows that only the said forty-four men escaped, one of whom was Captain Juan de Peñalosa, and so this witness knows that they were all lost in general, and so, all of them separated, this witness goes to the island of Margarita in company.

What would Ana de Ayala not go through, what would she not discover or suffer in order to survive the Amazon? She saw companions die, even her sisters. She saw her husband die, she felt death close up and felt the lacerating hunger and need. An uncertain path towards the unknown, towards the mouth of wonder or towards the sunset. What would she not see? What thought would she have when comparing that river with the Guadalquivir? What loyalty or willpower would carry her forward to weather the storm?

Ana de Ayala, from Seville, another of the many women in Spanish history. And even if she did not fight with the Indians, even if she did not wield a sword or discover remote islands, she was another heroine ready to carve out a future for herself in the New World and who did her bit. Another brave woman who sailed the ocean in search of fortune, in search of a new life.

Orellana’s Amazon expedition deserves a separate article for its odyssey, for its great adventure.

Thanks to Daniel Arveras for his articles and books.

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