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2 The (Mis)representation of Isabel Barreto: Woman, Governor and Admiral of the Isles of Solomon

2 The (Mis)representation of Isabel Barreto: Woman, Governor and Admiral of the Isles of Solomon

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2. Exploring the South Pacific


In spite of these considerations, Quirós’ words about Isabel

Barreto are not only taken as true, but are often exaggerated by critics

that see her as a ruthless tyrant unable to command the fleet

effectively. The monstrous Isabel Barreto that is construed with this

flimsy evidence can be contrasted with some of the acts recorded in

passing by Quirós himself and in other documents to which we have

access. These documents include her last Will and Testament and her

declarations before the Manila court regarding the voyage, both of

which have been translated and edited by Celsus Kelly (1973: 135-40

and 59-62 respectively).49

The perspective on Isabel as an authoritarian captain is not

exclusive to her contemporaries. Writing in the 1990s, historians

Catherine Delamarre and Bertrand Sallard assume Quirós’

affirmations to be true representations of her character without

question. Ironically, the subtitle of this book on “women in the time of

the conquistadors” (Las mujeres en tiempos de los conquistadores)

indicates that it is narrated from the perspective of the women

themselves. The subtitle reads “Everyday life at the time of the

conquest of America narrated from the women’s point of view” (“La

vida cotidiana en tiempos de la conquista de América, narrada desde

el punto de vista de las mujeres”).50 With little sympathy towards

Isabel’s predicament, these writers assume that she commanded the

fleet with an iron hand (“Dirigió la expedición con mano de hierro”

[1994: 318]). Delamarre and Bertrand likewise accept unquestioningly

the view of Isabel as a proud woman concerned with showing off and

maintaining her rank. They use unsubstantiated sources to assert that

“it is said” that Isabel used money destined for the expedition for her

own clothing, as, for example, in the following quotation: “It is said

that, before departing, Doña Isabel Barreto deviated towards her

luxurious wardrobe part of the money destined for the provision of

passengers. This great dame, preoccupied with the maintenance of her

rank in any circumstance, had prepared clothes for two years” (“Se

dice que, antes de la partida, da Isabel Barreto había desviado hacia

su lujoso guardarropa parte del dinero destinado al aprovisionamiento

de los pasajeros. Esta gran dama, preocupada por mantener su rango

en cualquier circunstancia, había previsto vestidos para dos años”

[1994: 317]).


2. Exploring the South Pacific

This biased view of Isabel can be contrasted with what can be

glimpsed from some neglected segments in Quirós’ narrative and from

contemporary letters. According to this information, Isabel Barreto

appears as a more complex human being than her historical

interpretation would have us believe. This does not mean that the

(in)famous events described by Quirós regarding her authoritarian

bent and, especially, her often-quoted reluctance to share her food and

water when everybody on board was close to starvation need to be

false statements (though they may be so). Nevertheless, even

assuming the facts to be true, we ought to take into account the

circumstances on the ship as well as what the behaviour of others in

Isabel’s place might have been. As will be seen below, the repetition

and exaggeration of the events and words attributed to her are

complemented by an arbitrary invention of other aspects of her life

that lead to absurd inferences. Together, these portrayals reveal the

biases and particular interests served by the misrepresentation of

Isabel’s motives and attitudes and result in the silencing and dismissal

of her important historical role.51

The analysis of Isabel’s presence and attitude further qualifies

the received wisdom that, by and large, conquest and discovery have

always been the province of men. A closer look at historical sources

reveals the presence of women not only as sponsors or settlers but also

as travellers in the first journeys across the oceans. In fact, according

to the study of historians Sallard and Delamarre one out of twenty

Spanish women were directly involved in the first decades of

exploration and settlement of the Americas in one way or another.52

Isabel Barreto, in other words, may have been an exceptional

character in having been a female admiral of a fleet but was part of a

cohort of women who played an active role in voyages of exploration.

Prejudice about Isabel is not the prerogative of historians. In

his novel, The Isles of Unwisdom, Robert Graves presents Isabel as an

upper-crust, attractive and stern Victorian lady.53 While her husband,

Mendaña, directed the preparations for sailing, Graves tells us that

servants ware taking oil to “her private larder,” while Isabel “stood on

the half-deck watching the scene below her with impassive face, but

her blue eyes danced like stars under her crown of wheat-coloured

hair” (1950: 7). Isabel’s captivating skills are described early on in the

book when she tries to entice the handsome pilot, Quirós. In words

reminiscent of romantic paperbacks, Isabel is said to have “smiled

2. Exploring the South Pacific


pleasantly at the Chief Pilot, who was a fine-looking man, above the

usual height, slim but muscular, with clear grey eyes and a short, curly

beard” (1950: 10). Thereafter, Isabel continues working hard at

seducing Quirós. However, we find out at the book’s end that the selfserving Isabel has premeditated this approach as a way to have a

posthumous bastard in order to secure her own inheritance.

To date, the only biography of Isabel was written by Manuel

Bosch Barrett and was published in 1943. As Isabel Barreto’s selfappointed biographer, Bosch Barrett does not present a sympathetic

view of Isabel at all. Instead, he represents the masculinist view of the

events in her life as interpreted by Quirós and other writers thereafter.

His book provides some interesting information about what is known

of her life, which is also corroborated by the investigations of Celsus


According to these two writers, Isabel was probably born into

a Galician family from Pontevedra who had migrated to Peru when

she was a little girl. Her father, Don Francisco Barreto, was governor

in the Portuguese Indies at the time the poet Luis de Camoens was

exiled to Macao following a decree signed by Francisco Barreto

himself. According to Bosch Barrett, Isabel’s father was obsessed with

exploring the region of Monomotapa on the Abyssinian coast where, it

was believed, the famed Queen of Sheba collected the gold for King

Solomon. Francisco Barreto, however, died in an expedition to this

area in 1574. In one of history’s ironies, Isabel would be known as the

Queen of Sheba upon her arrival in the Philippines in 1596, returning

from the frustrated attempt to rediscover the Isles of Solomon.54

Álvaro de Mendaña, Isabel’s first husband, was previously

thought to have been a Galician, perhaps from Pontevedra, the same

town as Isabel, but is now believed to have been born in a village

close to Galicia but in northern Castile, in the province of León.55 He

was born in 1542 and was, therefore, approximately twice Isabel’s age

when they met. Mendaña went to Peru when he was 20, after his

uncle, Lope García de Castro, was named President of the Audiencia

(High Court) in Lima. There, in Peru, a distant relation of Mendaña,

Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, influenced Mendaña’s decision to solicit

support for an expedition to the fabled Southern Continent. This

southern landmass, Mendaña thought, could be found west of Peru,


2. Exploring the South Pacific

where King Solomon’s ships took the gold with which his famous

temple was built in Jerusalem.

As noted in the previous section of this chapter, when

Mendaña’s uncle, García de Castro, became viceroy of Peru, Menda

obtained permission and support to arm a fleet of two ships destined to

find the Solomonic land of Ophir in 1567. The fleet first arrived in

Santa Ysabel and then went on to Guadalcanal in what is now the

archipelago of the Solomons. Mendaña always thought that he would

find Ophir, the land of the Queen of Sheba. Hostility, however, broke

out with some of the indigenous population and this, together with the

malaria that was decimating the fleet, made them abandon their

voyage, not before leaving a cross in the burial grounds of those who

died there.56

Like Quirós after him, Mendaña was not deterred by the

failure of an enterprise that cost not just money but twenty-two

months and thirty-two lives. From his arrival back in Peru in 1568,

Mendaña dedicated much time and energy to canvassing support for a

further expedition to the Solomons. However, the new viceroy, Don

Francisco de Toledo, was not sympathetic towards Mendaña’s

aspirations and Mendaña appealed directly to the King, Philip II. After

four years of missives, Mendaña went to the court in person and was

received by the King in El Escorial. The King gave Mendaña the

capitulaciones (sailing contract) that allowed him, among other things,

to “conquer and pacify the isles of the Mar del Sur” and “found three

cities” in the said islands (Bosch Barrett 1943: 24). After this,

Mendaña returned to Panama in 1577 but once there, he again

encountered opposition from viceroy Toledo. Following upon

seemingly endless discussions, the expedition was finally approved

when Don García Hurtado de Mendoza, Marquis of Cete replaced

Toledo as new viceroy.

Hurtado de Mendoza and his wife, doña Teresa de Castro,

stimulated the social life of the town and were often surrounded by

many noble locals, among them Isabel de Barreto. Since Isabel was a

good friend of Teresa’s and Álvaro de Mendaña was close to the

viceroy, they met and, soon after, in May of 1586, they married. In

spite of the difference in age and the fact that Isabel’s dowry made a

decisive contribution towards financing Mendaña’s second expedition

to the South Pacific, their marriage is seen by Bosch Barrett to be the

2. Exploring the South Pacific


result of Mendaña’s fascination with the authoritarian bent of Isabel.

Bosch Barrett goes so far as to assume that Mendaña was emasculated

by Isabel’s phallic power and felt “submission” and “energy” from the

“penetrating” looks of Isabel: “Before the penetrating and

authoritarian look of Isabel Mendaña experienced a sort of submission

that gave him the energy he had always lacked” (“Mendaña

experimentaba ante la mirada penetrante y autoritaria de da Isabel

una especie de sumisión que le daba las energías que siempre le

habían faltado” [1943: 81]).

Isabel, however, gives a different, and eloquent, perspective

upon her wedding to Mendaña in her Last Will and Testament, which

was dictated in Castrovirreyna, Peru in 1612.57 In this document Isabel

clearly emphasizes that her parents married her off to Mendaña, who

bought the ship named Santa Isabel and other things for the journey

with the dowry:

My parents married me off to Alvaro de Mendaña, Governor of the

Islands of Solomon, for which they gave me the dowry that appears

in the deeds that were written for this reason […] with which dowry

the said Governor bought a ship called Santa Isabel, and some

provisions for war and other necessary things for the journey to the

said islands of Solomon.

(mis padres me casaron con Alvaro de Mendaña, Adelantado de las

Islas de Salomón, con el qual me dieron de dote lo que pareỗera por

las escrituras que en esta razon se hiỗieron [...] con la qual dicha

dote compro el dicho Adelantado un navio llamado Santa Isabel, y

algunos pertrechos de guerra y otras cosas necesarias para la jornada

de las dichas islas de Salomón. [Kelly 1973: 135])

Isabel’s words highlight her contribution to financing the voyage and

her parents’ role in her first marriage, indicating that they married her

to Mendaña. These words clearly contrast with her description of her

second marriage, where she indicates she is an agent in the contract by

using the words “I married.”58 Although Mendaña had married a

wealthy woman who was half his age, according to Bosch Barrett, the

reason for the marriage is to be found in the ambitious and dominant

personality of Isabel. Bosch Barrett affirms that Isabel’s “authority

and ambition” (“la ambición y dominio de doña Isabel” [1943: 32])

made her dream of taking part, alongside her three brothers, in

Mendaña’s expedition.


2. Exploring the South Pacific

Since Mendaña is often portrayed as a weak, incapable,

although humane, leader, Isabel’s personality compensated his

feminine traits with her masculine strength of character. Needless to

say, this interpretation is coloured by the censoring of women’s drive

as “ambition” and the assumption that a “strong” woman can only

remain so if she is married to a “weak” man. Thus, Mendaña’s

inability to dominate his wife is associated with his weakness as a

leader of hardened men. This view of a strong Isabel and a weak

Mendaña is carried over in Graves’ novel in which “Ysabel” wholly

controls Mendaña.59 Graves describes Ysabel not only as determined

and stubborn but also as evil and primitive; she “was a Galician

through and through … [belonging to] that bold, tenacious, clannish,

close-fisted, secretive people, who are three parts Suevian and one

part aboriginal devil” (1950: 10-11).60

Isabel took part in the second expedition to the Solomons,

which took place in 1595, some twenty-six years after the first one,

with a now mature Menda in command and the Portuguese, Quirós,

as pilot. Isabel’s brother, Lorenzo Barreto, was captain of the

expedition and Pedro Marino Manrique campmaster (maese de

campo). Manrique was then a mature man of around 60 years and had

a difficult character, described as “fiery and unruly” (“brioso y

arrebatado” [Bosch-Barrett 1943: 33]).

Before the expedition was ready, clashes between Manrique,

Quirós and Isabel started signaling the conflicts that were to come

thereafter. According to Bosch Barrett, Manrique was arguing with the

contramaestre of the Capitana when Quirós intervened and told

Manrique not to mistreat “sea people” (“gente de mar” [1943: 33]).

Isabel, who must have heard the dispute, came out of her chamber in

support of Quirós, asking Manrique to check his anger because her

husband, the Adelantado, would not like his people to be mistreated.61

Manrique answered with a phrase that Quirós thought best “not to be

transcribed” (“no es para transcrita”). The words were accompanied

by a gesture that the writer does not consider appropriate: “Supporting

the expression with a gesture that is not to be described either”

(“[A]poyándola con un gesto que tampoco es para descrito.” [1943:

34]). Quirós intervened and the discussion started to turn ugly, with

the sailors divided, three taking sides with Manrique and three with

Quirós. This dispute was defused by the timely intervention of

Mendaña, but no sooner had this scuffle been settled than a second

argument between Quirós and Manrique followed. This time,

2. Exploring the South Pacific


however, Isabel is not said to have taken any part whatsoever in the

events. The concluding words of Quirós indicate that “the devil is

loose among them,”62 which, as written, can refer either to Manrique

or to Isabel. Notwithstanding the ambiguity, Bosch Barrett does not

hesitate to infer that they allude to Isabel. Moreover, they demonstrate

Quirós’ awareness that the rules forbidding women from taking part in

shipping expeditions were right, even in cases when their husbands

were in command:

These words obviously contained the censorship of the dominion

exercised by Doña Isabel over her husband, and he nearly lamented,

even before leaving Peru, having taking part in that expedition,

because the difficulties presented by women on board had been

apparent from the first moment. And with good reason Quirós

thought how wise the ordinances that prevent women, including the

wives of officers, from boarding ships were, because, especially in

that case, this seemed to become the cause and origin of frequent


(Estas palabras encerraban, con toda evidencia, una censura al

predominio ejercido por doña Isabel sobre su marido; y casi

lamentaba, aún antes de salir del Perú, haber tomado parte en

aquella expedición, pues los inconvenientes que ofrecen las mujeres

a bordo se habían presentado desde el primer momento, y con razón

pensaba Quirós en cuán sabias son las ordenanzas que prohíben el

embarco incluso a las esposas de los jefes, que especialmente en

aquel caso parecía convertirse en causa y origen de frecuentes

incidentes. [1943: 37])

After Mendaña intervened in other squabbles related to the

provisioning of the four ships, the fleet finally sailed on 16th June

1595. On the Capitana, named San Jerónimo, Menda and Isabel

travelled with her brothers, the pilot, Quirós, the maese de campo,

Manrique, two priests and Mariana de Castro. Mariana was the wife of

the admiral Lope de Vega, who travelled in the Almiranta, named

Santa Isabel, where there were also two captains and a priest, as well

as soldiers and sailors. A third ship, a galeota, was called San Felipe

and was led by Felipe Corzo. Lastly, Alonso de Leiva commanded the

frigate, Santa Catalina.

The fleet travelled westwards in search of the Solomons, but

they first reached Fatu Hiva or Nouka Hiva in the Marquesas, named

after Hurtado de Mendoza, Marquis of Cañete. They called the island

Magdalena and sang Te Deum Laudamus upon arrival. While in Isla

Magdalena some bold natives arrived and went on board naked,


2. Exploring the South Pacific

jumping and shouting happily. However, when they started taking

knives and trying them out, a shot was fired and they left the ship.

After a cross was planted and mass said, some scuffles with the

“Indians” followed and three Marquesans were killed. As no Spaniard

wanted to remain on the island to work the land they left, reaching

another island, which they called San Bernardo.

During this part of the voyage, Isabel spent most of the time in

her chamber with Doña Mariana. However out of sight, according to

Quirós, she was already misusing the water, which was scarce (Bosch

Barrett 1943: 49). Bosch Barrett observes that she also opposed her

husband’s wish to transfer water to the Almiranta in case there should

not be enough for them, even though they had “four hundred

containers” (“cuatrocientas botijas” 50]). As will be seen below,

Isabel’s reluctance to share water and food is overly emphasized by

Quirós and has been taken as representative of Isabel’s personality.63

Examples of this type of misrepresentation of Isabel abound,

and are especially noticeable in the account of the conflicts created by

the campmaster, Manrique. In spite of the fact that the maese is

described by Bosch Barrett as having a difficult character, and being

always ready to pick a fight (“pendenciero”), when Isabel confronts

him, she is the one to be blamed for it. This happens in the

recollection of events surrounding a failed mutiny led by Manrique.

After the attempt had failed, Manrique said to Mendaña that he was

not involved, and Mendaña believed him but not so Isabel, who Bosch

Barrett believes to be more perverse than Mendaña: “but not Doña

Isabel, who was more twisted than her husband” (“mas no así a da

Isabel, que era mas taimada que su esposo ” [1943: 71]). Isabel,

instead, urged Mendaña to hang the maese and went towards him with

a machete: “Urging her husband to hang the maese, of whose

falsehood she was convinced, on the spot and, seeing the negation of

the governor, she got up and taking a machete that was there went

towards the maese ready to kill him” (“[I]nstando para que se ahorcase

en el acto al maese, de cuya falsedad estaba convencida; y ante la

negativa del adelantado levantóse y, asiendo un machete que allí

había, fue a arrojarse sobre el maese de campo” [71]). Mendaña’s

intervention saved Manrique who, the writer informs us, would

thereafter continue with the scheming that would lead to the

treacherous killing of Mendaña’s native friend, the innocent native

chief Malope: “Don Álvaro intervened quieting her and the maese,

2. Exploring the South Pacific


who managed to evade that danger, returned to the land so as to

continue his scheming and plotting” (“Se interpuso don Álvaro

apaciguándola, y el maese, que supo esquivarse de aquel peligro,

regresó a tierra para proseguir sus intrigas y maquinaciones” [71]).

Thus Isabel’s efforts to save her husband and his friend, Malope, and

to punish the maese are not only not commended but are condemned

without much ado.

This biased presentation of Isabel’s attitudes not only

disregards how she attempted to thwart the plans to murder Malope

but also how she tried to prevent the theft of the islanders’ property.

When Isabel knew this was being discussed, she told Mendaña, who,

in turn, warned the maese that whoever did something to Malope

would answer with their lives (Bosch Barrett 1943: 74). Following

upon the discovery of the mutinous plot of Manrique, a group led by

Mendaña, who was by then quite feverish with malaria, killed the

maese, Manrique, at dawn. Another death followed and a decree

forgiving everybody publicly ended the disputes for a short while.

Sadly, Malope’s life soon came to an end when, for no obvious

reason, a soldier shot him and was consequently put in the stocks.

Isabel, in this instance, pleaded with Mendaña to spare the soldier’s

life, arguing that too much blood had already been shed. In this, she

showed compassion, traditionally assumed to be a feminine trait or

virtue, and was warmly supported by Quirós. Both made Menda

relent and pardon the soldier’s life, showing the “Indians” the heads of

those already dead, as though they had been punished for the unjust

death of Mendaña’s friend, Malope.64

A victim of malaria, Mendaña dictated his will on 17th

October and named Isabel his sole heir and Governor of the fleet. He

died the following day, leaving her as leader of the expedition as well

as universal heir to his property. Her brother, Lorenzo, was named

captain, a title he only enjoyed a few days, for he also died of malaria

on 2nd November. Isabel then proposed to leave for San Cristobal in

search of the lost ship, the Almiranta, and thereafter for Manila. She

took this decision in consultation with the sailors, to whom she

“pleaded, persuaded and ordered” to give their opinion on the matter:

On that day, the governess proposed to the pilots to get out of that

island to look for San Cristobal to see if the ship Almiranta could be

found there. She did this in order to do whatever was best for the


2. Exploring the South Pacific

service of God and His Majesty. And, if they did not find the ship,

her resolution was to go the city of Manila in the Philippines to

bring priests and people to return to populate and finish the

discovery. And to this end she pleaded, persuaded and ordered each

one of those present to give her their opinion in the manner they

thought more convenient.

(Este día propuso la gobernadora á los pilotos que quería salir de

aquella isla, á buscar la de San Cristóbal, por ver si en ella hallaba la

nao almiranta, para hacer lo que fuese para más servicio de Dios y

de Su Majestad: y que si no la hallasen, su determinación era ir á la

ciudad de Manila en Filipinas, á traer sacerdotes y gente para volver

á la población, y acabar aquel descubrimento; y que para esto

rogaba, persuadía y mandaba á cada uno de los que allí estaban, le

diesen su parecer en la forma que entendiese ser más conveniente.

(Zaragoza 2000: 231)

Considering the circumstances, including the rampant malaria

and the worsening relationship with the natives, they all agreed to

leave the island. As they left, Isabel announced publicly that she

intended to preserve her sovereignty over the discoveries and to return

to colonise the islands. Having failed to find the lost ship Almiranta

they headed towards the Philippines, some 900 miles away. On the

way there, another ship, the galeota, disappeared. Provisions were

scarce, and Quirós blamed Isabel for hoarding some things for her

own use, including water, wine and oil. In the passages that have

shaped Isabel’s personality for future generations, her selfishness is

shown by her reluctance to share her supplies with the rest of the

people on board. First, she is said to have hoarded wine, oil and

vinegar and, only following upon Quirós insistence, she “[f]inally

gave two oil containers” (“Al fin dió dos botijas de aceite” [Zaragoza

2000: 240-41]). Next, she is accused of using up the water for her own

purposes when people on the boat were dying of thirst. Quirós went to

ask her for a barrel:

Because the pilot had so much care about the water that was so

scarce, and because secretly there were great wasters of water, he

was always present when giving the ration. The governess was very

generous spending it, and she washed her clothes with it, and, to this

effect, she sent to ask for a pot. To which the pilot said that she

should look at the situation, because it did not seem to him to be just

to spend the existing water so wastefully, as it was very scarce.

(Como llevaba el piloto mayor la agua tan en cuidado por ser poca,

y haber por vias secretas grandes gastadores de ella, se hallaba

2. Exploring the South Pacific


presente al dar la racion. Era muy larga la gobernadora en gastarla, y

en lavar con ella la ropa, y para este efecto le envió á pedir una

botija, a que el piloto mayor dijo mirase el tiempo, y no parecia justo

gastar largo el agua que habia, pues era poca. [Zaragoza 2000: 242])

As told by Quirós, this often-repeated episode has become the main

ingredient for the historical caricature of Isabel. According to Quirós,

Isabel asked him whether she could not do whatever she liked with her

goods, her hacienda, and he answered grandly that the soldiers would

think that she was washing her clothes with their own lives, indicating

“that […] the obligation to restrict her usage was hers […] so that the

soldiers could not say that she was washing her clothes with their own

lives” (“que […] suya [era] la obligación de acortarse para que los

soldados no dijesen que lavaba su ropa con su vida de ellos”

[Zaragoza 2000: 242]). Not surprisingly, the same episode appears in

Graves’ Isles of Unwisdom, repeating the quasi-poetical words

attributed to Quirós in his account: “So she washes her soiled shifts in

our life’s blood” (1950: 372). Unlike the previous episode with the

maese, this time Isabel is criticised mostly for not complying with the

feminine model of self-sacrificing, as women should be.

Quirós’ prejudices are apparent in the words used to condemn

the fact that Isabel is a woman in charge of men. The resentment

people felt at having a woman in command is apparent when we hear

that Isabel gave the keys of the larder to one of her own servants and

“[t]here were some who said to the pilot that he [Quirós] should not let

himself be governed by a woman, and that they should vote to choose

a man. But the pilot answered that they should let her enjoy her title

by right for the little time she had left” (“No faltó quien dijo al piloto

mayor, que no se dejasen gobernar de una mujer, y que á más votos se

eligiese un hombre; mas el piloto mayor respondió, que la dejasen

gozar el breve espacio que le quedaba de su justo título” (Zaragoza

2000: 243). In advice that follows, the writer attributes to a wise man

(“un hombre de bien ver”) the notion that, with some notable

exceptions, women’s intellect is wholly unsuitable for command:

“because, as far as the brain is concerned, there are very few women

such as Dido, Zenobia and Semiramis” (“pues mujeres para cabezas

hay muy pocas Didos, Cenobias y Semíramis” (Zaragoza 2000: 244).

Quirós’ resentment at having to obey Isabel is apparent when

he affirms that “this lady [...] must understand that I was born with the

obligation of serving her and putting up with her” (“esta señora […]

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