The most feminine face of the Conquest of America to break with the Black Legend over Spain



War, trade, miscegenation, piracy, betrayal, glory … The journalist Daniel Arveras Alonso has managed to condense the entire history of the Conquest of America in two small Caribbean islands, Cubagua and Margarita, which starred in the first years of exploration and colony with an unexpected feminine accent. His essay ‘Of much more deserving honor. Mrs. Aldonza Manrique, the governor of the island of pearls’ (SND Ediciones) tells an almost unpublished history of the conquest, with women who were governors and entire families populating the New World, which breaks with the most sinister and simplistic image of the Black Legend. “The white, bearded male conqueror is the prototype that has remained, but there is much more behind that image,” says Arveras in an interview with ABC.

– What was the role of women in the conquest of America?

– Rather, one might wonder what role women did not play in the Conquest of America, since they were soldiers (María Estrada, Inés Suárez, Catalina de Erauso and others), nurses (Isabel Rodríguez), teachers (Catalina Bustamante), advanced (Mencía Calderón ), admirals (Isabel Barreto) and even governors like Beatriz de la Cueva “la sin ventura” in Guatemala or the protagonist of my latest book, Aldonza Manrique on Margarita Island. Of course, most had a more anonymous role, not reported by the chroniclers, but of great importance. I mean those who worked as innkeepers, seamstresses, shopkeepers … and even as “public women” in America. The list is endless, since there were women from the beginning – already in the second Columbian trip among those 1,500 pioneers who settled on the island of Hispaniola. But, above all, they were settlers, women of all conditions, married, single and widows, daughters, mothers, aunts, sisters, nieces who left their lives behind to start a new one in America.

– Why, instead, has only the image of the conquerors remained as bearded, violent gentlemen, all white and with a great thirst for rape?

– Well, it is obvious that at first the expeditions to the New World were mainly male. It could not be otherwise. The navies and companies of exploration, discovery and conquest made this so, because it was necessary to leave family and home, overcome the fear of the sea, suffer discomfort on board and then enter unexplored lands, facing multiple hardships and dangers, see the faces with hostile Indians … although there were always brave women who participated. The beard was very common in those times.

Whites? They were Castilian and Christian, although, very soon, they were a minority alongside the contingents of allied Indians made up of thousands of soldiers, guides and porters who were key in supporting the hosts of Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro to defeat the tyranny. Mexica and Inca respectively that kept them subjugated. Otherwise it would not have been possible for a few hundred Spaniards to emerge victorious against thousands and thousands of warriors on their land.

– The essay begins with the story of Isabel Manrique, who you define as “the first fundamental woman in this story.” What obstacles did you face?

– By remaining widow of the oidor Marcelo de Villalobos, Isabel Manrique skillfully played her tricks in the face of the situation of helplessness in which she remains and the enormous debts contracted by her husband. He obtained exemptions and postponements of payments and, above all, he claimed for his daughter Aldonza the right that assists her to inherit the government of Margarita Island from her father.The Crown recognized this on June 13, 1527 and she served as “Tutor or curator” of his daughter until she married at the age of 15. In those eight years (1527-1535) Isabel will try to fulfill the conditions of the capitulation to populate the island, although she will have many difficulties in this task: envies and claims of the powerful neighbors and merchants of Cubagua, economic difficulties and to enlist people that they would settle there, etc.

Despite all this, it was essential for his daughter Aldonza to be the titular governor of Margarita Island. His tenacity and pride are beyond question.

“Rather they should apologize López Obrador, Maduro, Castillo … for the constant Spanish philamas that they release from their mouths”

–Aldonza de Villalobos ruled from a girl until her death on a Caribbean island. Weren’t there men who tried to replace her?

– Of course there were, especially at the beginning, during his minority. The nearby island of Cubagua, a powerful pearl center, did not look favorably on a woman taking over the government of Isla Margarita, since they considered her as their own even though they had not exploited her conscientiously. In fact, the main merchants and authorities of Nueva Cádiz -Cubagua city- complained about the situation and denounced the little progress made by Isabel Manrique, getting the Crown to agree with them for a few years. In spite of everything, it is striking that Emperor Carlos never removed the title of Aldonza Manrique as governor, despite the pressure he received and the candidates who were surely running for that position. In fact, Aldonza regained his full authority over the island’s affairs shortly after, after his marriage to the conquistador Pedro Ortiz de Sandoval. She would be the perpetual governor of Margarita Island until her death in 1575.

– Should Spain apologize for what those men and women did?

– Rather, López Obrador, Maduro, Castillo … should apologize for the constant Spanish phobia that they release from their mouths -in perfect Spanish, yes- consciously manipulating history for ideological reasons and of gross populist political interest. Native Americans were especially massacred and marginalized in the 19th and 20th centuries, as a result of the rise and emancipation of Spain from the Spanish-American nations. I think it was the French Hispanist Joseph Pérez, recently deceased, who said that the anti-Spanish black legend consisted in emphasizing the smallest and darkest part of our history in America -that there was, especially in the first decades- and in extinguishing or ignoring the lights, which were many more and lasted for three centuries.

– What was the objective pursued by the conquerors?

-Those men and women who discovered, explored, conquered and populated the New World, did so seeking riches and glory, pursuing a better life for themselves and their loved ones. The Crown always sought to integrate its inhabitants, protecting the natives, promoting mixed marriages and expanding Western civilization (laws, religion, hospitals, universities, printing, language …). That mestizo Hispanidad was forged, the majority today in America.

– The Crown protected the indigenous people from slavery, but not the African blacks, why this double standard?

– The Indians were vassals of the Crown, subjects of Castile like one who had been born in Badajoz, Seville or Valladolid, enjoying the protection and rights that this entailed, African blacks, no. The laws and ordinances of the Crown to stop the abuses against the Indians occurred from the first times, and although at the beginning they were not fulfilled too much on the ground, little by little, thanks to the complaints of religious, the outrages were stopped and punished to the guilty.

Francisco Vázquez de Coronado's expedition to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.
Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s expedition to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.

-But then a large number of these black slaves arrived in America …

–The black African slaves were taken to America to supply the Indians in arduous work and alleviate the high mortality that they suffered when contracting diseases as a result of contact with Europeans. Slavery is as old as humanity and, in the 15th century, the Portuguese exploration of the African Atlantic façade established ports and coastal factories, bases of the slave trade towards Europe and, from the 16th century on, also towards America. It must also be remembered that the black slaves in Spanish America were far fewer than those that were later in the English or French colonies and, furthermore, they could win their freedom more easily than in the rest of the cases.

– An ancestor of Simón Bolívar played an important role in the history of these two islands.

–Simón Bolívar ‘el Viejo’ was one of the many Basques who sailed the ocean in the middle of the 16th century looking for a better life in America. He found her thanks to his skills as a registrar and notary, first in Santo Domingo and then in Venezuela. “He is a clever man, with a good pen and expedient, judicious and not greedy,” can be read in an official document of the time. In short, he was an effective official of the Indian administration, but he did not stay there and participated in different businesses such as the pearl fisheries of Isla Margarita along with his homonymous son ‘el Mozo’, whom he conveniently promoted thanks to his influences. .

– How did the family fortune evolve over the centuries?

The Bolívar family, generation after generation, became one of the most important in Venezuelan Creole society, with its plantations, black slaves and various investments in different businesses. From there comes the famous Simón Bolívar, wealthy landowner, Creole and heir to a succulent fortune. The Bolívars did very well under the Spanish Crown.

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