From Columbus’ second voyage onwards, Spanish women also travelled to the New World. In the 16th century, of the 45,327 recorded travellers to America, 10,118 were women.
This image of a Hispanic America without European women, like many others surrounding the conquest of America, is false. From Columbus’ second voyage onwards, Spanish women also travelled to the New World. In the 16th century, of the 45,327 recorded travellers to America, 10,118 were women. In fact, they played an absolutely decisive role in the conquest of New Spain. Without the support of women such as “Malinche”, María Luisa Xicotencatl, Beatriz Bermúdez, Elvira Hermosilla, Beatriz de Palacios, Isabel Rodríguez and many others, Cortés would probably not have been able to achieve his goals. However, they were clearly marginalised in the chronicles of the time. As Gómez-Lucena wryly points out, “Bernal Díaz del Castillo included names and characteristics of up to 16 horses of the expedition, but barely names both the Castilian and allied women who participated”.
“We had no other woman like her in Castile”
In any case, among all these heroines, there is one who stands out very notably above the rest. She is María de Estrada, the best female soldier of those who took part in the conquest, one of the few to whom the chroniclers do make references and the Spaniard whom Cortés held in the highest esteem and admiration. However, even her name was forgotten with the passing of the centuries. Who was this remarkable woman, of whom Bernal even said that “we had no other woman of Castile like her”? Why did she play such a prominent role in the conquest?
There is no certain information about her origin and date of birth. It is possible that she was born in Seville, although her father, Juan de Estrada, was from the north, either from Cantabria or, as Father Feijoo points out, “the surname persuades us that she was from Asturias”. Other theories about a probable Jewish or even gypsy origin seem somewhat fanciful and lack any academic support. As for her age, she was somewhat older than the other Spaniards who took part in the conquest (hence some men called her “the old woman”), so it is estimated that she was born around 1485. The sister of Francisco de Estrada, she is said to have travelled with him in 1509 to Hispaniola, where she joined the service of Governor María Álvarez de Toledo, and later travelled to Cuba.
She was taken prisoner, but the Indian cacique, admiring her beauty, spared her life and took her as a concubine.
It is known that in a battle with the Taino Indians she was taken prisoner, along with other Castilians who were tortured and killed; however, the Indian chief, admiring her beauty, spared her life and took her as a concubine. This is how the next two years of her life passed until the Tainos were defeated and she was freed. In Cuba she began an affair with a Spaniard named Pedro Sánchez Farfán. (It is not clear, however, whether she would marry him in Cuba or in 1521 in New Spain).
Opinions also differ as to when she travelled to the mainland. For some historians she would have arrived on the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez to join her partner – personally I am with those who think she would have travelled on Cortés’ original expedition. It should be borne in mind that it was very unusual, at the time, for women to travel alone; in fact, all those who arrived on Narváez’s expedition did so as couples, apart from the fact that this expedition would have been in military confrontation with that of Cortés, which would have placed her and Farfán on opposite sides. Moreover, some authors, such as Raquel Gutiérrez Estupiñán, claim that he fought at Centla, a battle that preceded the second expedition. Incidentally, this Farfán became famous for being one of the soldiers who captured Narváez himself in the battle of Cempoala.
Bernal first mentions her in La noche triste (The Sad Night), where she is said to have fought bravely with sword and buckler in her flight along the road to Tlacopan. The chronicler Diego Muñoz Camargo wrote of her that she fought “with such fury and courage that she exceeded the effort of any man” and “as if she were one of the bravest men in the world”. In fact, her outstanding role in the battle of Otumba is recognised. According to the same chronicler, she was one of the horsemen who fought with lance in hand and on whom the greatest responsibility for the battle and even its outcome finally fell, and Javier Clavijero places her with a lance running among the enemies and “wounding and killing with a fearlessness quite foreign to her sex”.
She also famously replied to Cortés when he tried to leave her in Tlaxcala to avoid taking any risks. “It is not right, Captain, for Spanish women to leave their husbands to go to war; where they die we will die, and the Indians should understand that we Spaniards are so brave that even their wives know how to fight”.
According to Espino López, María saved the life of Diego Sánchez de Sopuerta in the vicinity of Tenochtitlan. Torquemada and Francisco de Cervantes also point out that in addition to being an excellent horsewoman and a fearsome warrior, “at times she devoted herself to caring for the wounded and sick”.
María Estrada was a woman who, despite the machismo inherent in her time, aroused enormous admiration and respect in all those who knew her.
There is ample evidence of Estrada’s importance to the man from Medellín. At the end of the conquest, Cortés was extremely generous with her (much more than with most of his soldiers), granting her encomiendas in three towns (Hueyapan, Nepupualco and Tetela) and making her a very rich woman. Cortés himself acknowledges, upon the death of her husband Sánchez Farfán, that “I am very much his wife’s friend…and I have her in place of a sister”. These somewhat disproportionate gestures towards her, and given her reputation as a ladies’ man, lead us to suspect that she may have been more of a possible lover than a sister. A romance that, for obvious reasons, both were interested in keeping secret.
After Farfán’s death, María married again to Alonso Martín Partidor, with whom she founded the city of Puebla, but far from leading a peaceful life as a landowner, she occasionally had to put on her armour again to defend her encomiendas from the warlike Tetelecas Indians, whom she defeated and incorporated into the viceroyalty.
María de Estrada died around 1535 of an epidemic disease. Her life has inspired some essays and historical novels, and in fact I believe she is the only Spaniard portrayed alongside Cortés in the Tlaxcala canvas. A woman who, despite the machismo inherent in her time, aroused enormous admiration and respect in all those who knew her.
On This Day
- 1108 Reconquista: The Christian troops of Alfonso VI are defeated in the Battle of Uclés (Cuenca) by the Almoravids of Granada, Valencia and Murcia, led by Yusuf ibn Tasufin.
- 1860 Pianist and composer Isaac Albéniz (d. 1909) is born in Campodrón (Gerona).
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