Preferred Citation: Leonard, Irving A. Books of the Brave: Being an Account of Books and of Men in the Spanish Conquest and Settlement of the Sixteenth-Century New World. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.

IV Amazons, Books and Conquerors—Mexico

Amazons, Books and Conquerors—Mexico

Many were the myths which haunted the minds of the Spanish conquerors and their contemporaries as they adventured in the New World so recently revealed by the epochal voyages of Columbus, but the one which perhaps most persistently possessed these heroes was the legend of the warlike Amazon women.[1] Wherever expeditions moved among the myriad islands or in the vast reaches of the mainland the quest of these legendary viragoes was pursued. The instructions issued to the Spanish leaders and the contractual agreements between the conquistadors and their financial backers—for the conquest of the New World was largely a private enterprise, capitalistic in character[2] —frequently included clauses requiring a search for these mythical women. Again and again the chronicles and documents of the period contain references to the alleged existence or actual discovery of such female tribes, and similar reports continued well into the eighteenth century. Beginning with Columbus' account of his voyages and in the writings of Peter Martyr, the first of the historians of the New World, and of his successors, Oviedo and Herrera, as well as in those of firsthand chroniclers such as Pigafetta of Magellan's voyage, and particularly Carvajal, who recorded the famous Odyssey of Orellana through the heart of South America, the widely advertised legend appears conspicuously. Many other explorers and adventurers of the sixteenth century and later, including Sir Walter Raleigh,[3] have left testimony of their varying shades of conviction concerning the existence of the Amazons.

The myth of a tribe of warlike women goes back to ancient times when the Greeks reported them in Asia Minor, giving this


strange tribe the name of Amazons, apparently because of their alleged practice of removing one breast to permit the freer use of the bow and arrow, their chief weapon. The story persisted throughout the Middle Ages, gaining force as such travelers as Marco Polo, Sir John Mandeville, and Pedro Tafur, publicized their journeyings into remote parts. These female warriors were also reputed to be found in Africa, their island home lying in a marsh not far from the boundaries of the inhabited world, and also on the west coast near Sierra Leone.[4] But in all accounts the location of the Amazons is exceedingly vague. The older writers placed them anywhere between Finland and India, with Asia Minor, however, continuing to receive the most votes. It was probably inevitable that the discovery of an unsuspected continent in the western seas should open to the credulous new and likely possibilities of locating at last these elusive females. It was Columbus himself who first aroused such hopes by asserting that a number of these Amazons hid in caves on some islands of the Caribbean to which strong winds prevented his approach. And he was certain that still others of this race could be reached on the continental mainland by passing through cannibal country. Subsequent Spanish expeditions always seemed somehow to just miss discovering the realms of these strange tribes. Orellana, to be sure, was convinced that he had not only encountered some of these women but actually experienced their combative prowess, and for the mighty river of South America, which he was the first European to navigate, descending from the Andes to its mouth, the name of the Amazons in time replaced his own.[5]

Although the legend was of long standing, as already indicated, its strong revival in the early sixteenth century, and the universal belief in its validity among the Spanish conquerors roaming the New World, suggest that some recent and particularly vivid reminder had brought the subject sharply to mind. The fantastic rumors, including those concerning the Amazons, which flooded Spain and Europe soon after the fateful voyages of Columbus, found some confirmation in the apparently sober and trustworthy Decades of Peter Martyr, which appeared in 1516. Still further currency to the belief in the warlike women was afforded by a Spanish translation, first published in 1521, of Sir John Mandeville's Travels ;


this was the very year in which Cortés was achieving his spectacular conquest of the Aztec capital. Two years later there came from the press the official account of the circumnavigation of the globe by Magellan's expedition, written by its chronicler and eyewitness, Pigafetta, who stated in the course of his narrative that, after touching Java,

our oldest pilot told us that there is an island called Acoloro which lies below Java Major where there are not persons but women, and that the latter become mothers by the wind. When they give birth, if the offspring is male, they kill it, but if it is female, they rear it. If men go to that island, they kill them if they are able to do so.[6]

But it is doubtful whether these historical works alone can account for the almost passionate conviction of early sixteenth-century conquistadors in the reality and the proximity of the Amazon women. Such respectable books were hardly read by the ordinary soldier if, indeed, he knew of them at all; the more literate of these adventurers were likely to be addicted to other forms of reading from which they derived no less fantastic notions. The more popular literature was, of course, the so-called romances of chivalry, and to them it is logical to turn as a possible source of inspiration for the renewed interest in the classical myth.[7] This quest quickly brings one to the sequel to Amadis of Gaul, written by Garci-Rodríguez de Montalvo and entitled Sergas de Esplandián .

In this prolix account of the adventures of the handsome son of the great Amadis is intercalated the episode of Calafia, Queen of the Amazons, who resided with her followers on a craggy island significantly named "California." In the course of the first 122 chapters the narrative of Esplandián's exploits is carried forward to the time when the King of Persia, named Armato in the novel, invites all the pagan princes to unite with him to capture Constantinople from the Christian allies of its Emperor. The response is highly gratifying to the Persian monarch, for a mighty horde is assembled to pit its strength against the outnumbered Christians rallying about the Emperor. Conspicuous among the latter are Amadis and Esplandián. Strangest of the heathen cohorts of the Persian Armato is the tribe of Amazon women under Queen Calafia who came with their man-eating griffins from the "islands of Cali-


The Spanish Conquistadors and American Treasure


The Amazons


fornia" to fight for the Turks. Chapters 157 to 178 are devoted largely to the intervention of the Amazons in the ensuing struggle, particularly the personal encounters of the female leaders with the Christian knights, who fare badly at the hands of the so-called gentler sex. This success emboldens "Calafia, mistress of the great island of California, celebrated for its great abundance of gold and jewels" to challenge both Amadis and Esplandián to personal combat. As might be expected, the Amazon queen is overwhelmingly vanquished by Amadis' skill and Esplandián's beauty, and falls captive to these Christian heroes. Though enamored of Esplandián she philosophically acquiesces to his marriage to another and accepts Christianity, marrying a husband generously bestowed upon her by the ever-considerate Esplandián. Thus the hateful Turk is deprived of a formidable ally and Constantinople is saved for Christendom.

The fact that the main story of Esplandián is resumed after this incident and, save for the brief reference at the end, Queen Calafia and the Amazons do not reappear, has a certain significance. It suggests that Montalvo, the author, may have deviated from the original plan of the book and decided to capitalize on a recently renewed interest in an ancient legend. While he was engaged in writing this tale it is possible that there reached his ears an echo of Columbus' report of Amazon-like women on some islands past which he had cruised and of their alleged proximity to the Earthly Paradise. The revival of this scarcely dormant legend in the guise of an item of news possibly offered the storyteller, alert to the latest sensation, a theme for an exciting episode which he embroidered elaborately in his sequel to Amadis of Gaul . Later, his readers doubtless believed that they had found confirmation of a long-standing belief when they read the following passage in chapter 157 of the Sergas de Esplandián .

Now I wish you to learn of one of the strangest matters that has ever been found in writing or in the memory of mankind.... Know ye that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very close to the Earthly Paradise, and inhabited by black women without a single man among them, for they live almost in the manner of Amazons. They are robust in body with stout, passionate hearts and great strength. The island itself is the most rugged with craggy rocks in the world. Their weapons are all of


gold as well as the trappings of the wild beasts which they ride after taming, for there is no other metal on the whole island. They dwelled in well-formed caves.

The novelist continues with further details on the manner of living and fighting of Queen Calafia's warriors.

Some details offered in this quoted passage are worthy of note. For the first time the shifting locale of these battling viragoes is identified with the new-found lands of the Indies, though the hazy geography of the novel places Calafia's islands within reach of Constantinople and Asia Minor by sea. When Montalvo was writing the belief was probably still held that Columbus had actually found a new route to the Asiatic mainland, the existence of the intervening continents being still unsuspected. That Queen Calafia's subjects "dwelled in well-formed caves" and that their island home was "on the right hand of the Indies and close to the Earthly Paradise" are further indications that the novelist may have derived inspiration from the great Discoverer's reports of his voyages. From the meager details of the latter Montalvo perhaps fashioned his heavily embroidered episode, changing the name of the Amazons' island abode from the ugly Matinino of Columbus' journal to the more glamorous and euphonious "California".[8] As the existence of a new hemisphere, to which the designation Indies adhered, dawned upon the readers of Montalvo's popular work, the fugitive Amazons now seemed tracked to their lair. Moreover, the positive assurance that "their weapons are all of gold ... for there is no other metal on the whole island" made it certain that the physical discovery of their insular realm would bring to the lucky finder a fabulous fortune. Thus the imagination of Montalvo elaborated the "facts" that Columbus had reported and for the Conquistador the New World, Amazons, and wealth became inseparable.

As already noted, the phenomenal popularity of the first romances promptly produced a formidable crop of sequels, carrying the account through successive descendants of Amadis and Esplandián. The Seventh book of this series bore the title Lisuarte de Grecia and is here mentioned because Queen Calafia again emerges from her California isle and wanders through its pages, forming further coalitions in the vicinity of Constantinople, though now always on the side of the Christian knights. Thus, any readers who


may have missed acquaintance with the Amazon queen in the Sergas de Esplandián had an opportunity to meet her and receive assurance of the existence of her tribe.

At this juncture it is well to recall the dates of the various editions of these novels which revived the old legend in such a fascinating manner, in order to appraise the possible influence of these tales on the Spanish conquerors in the New World. Present bibliographic knowledge is insufficient to establish definitely the year of the princeps of the earlier romances of the Amadis cycle. For Amadis of Gaul the 1508 edition is usually cited as the first, though it is likely that there were earlier ones. Similar uncertainty surrounds the Sergas de Esplandián to which the year 1510 is ascribed as the date of the first edition.[9] This was printed by the Crombergers at Seville, a significant fact since it was from this river port that most of the conquerors embarked for their adventures in the Spanish Indies. It is apparent, therefore, that Montalvo's novel with its episode of the Amazons was available long enough before the spectacular conquests on the mainland for the Spanish soldiery to have read or heard of it. It is likely that various other editions appeared soon after 1510, though no data on them have yet come to light; however, there are clear indications of at least four new editions of the Sergas that were published during a spectacular five-year period of the Conquest: one in Toledo in May, 1521, one in Salamanca in 1525, one in Burgos in 1526 and another in Seville the same year.[10] This was a fairly rapid succession of reprintings for its time—and probably there were others unrecorded—but more important is the fact that this five-year period coincides with that in which Cortés was conquering and overrunning the broad realms of Mexico; in all directions his lieutenants, as well as he himself, were heading expeditions with instructions to locate the Amazons and other oddities, along with gold and silver mines. And it was during this period that Cortés was reporting to his emperor, Charles V, in his famous letter-reports, rumors of the existence in New Spain of tribes of warlike women.

The Lisuarte de Grecia, which again reminds readers of Queen Calafia and California, was evidently less popular than the earlier Sergas or, at least, fewer editions of it are known. The princeps appeared in 1514—also in ample time to influence the minds of the


Conquistador—and others probably followed, though only that of 1525, likewise printed by the Crombergers at Seville, is definitely recorded. While the references to the Amazons in numerous documents of this time, and particularly the bestowing of the name "California" on the peninsula to the west of the mainland of New Spain, point to the probable influence of these and other romances of chivalry, more detailed evidence is necessary before accepting this conclusion.

Most critics dealing with the chivalric novels have commented on the tremendous hold of these fictional works on sixteenth-century readers, though few have attempted any detailed analysis of this literary phenomenon. Occasionally one manifests a belief in some connection between these books and the deeds of the conquerors. One authority, for example, states that "the books of chivalry had their part in suggesting the heroic delirium of the Conquest" and elsewhere asserts that "it is well known that at that time the ballads of chivalry and novels of knight-errantry were on the lips and in the hands of the conquerors".[11] Benedetto Croce avers from abundant documentation that Amadis of Gaul and similar novels were favorite reading of the Spanish soldiers fighting in the Italian Peninsula,[12] which fact leaves little doubt that their companions-in-arms in contemporary America were also familiar with the same literature. As if to support this statement one of the foremost commentators of Cervantes' writings inserted an interesting footnote to the effect that twelve of Cortés' lieutenants banded together like the "Twelve Peers" of chivalry, solemnly pledging themselves with the vows of knights-errant "to defend the Holy Catholic Faith, to right wrongs, and to aid Spaniards and friendly natives"![13]

But much more direct evidence of the reading of the romances of chivalry by the conquistadors is supplied by that prince of chroniclers, a soldier in the conquering ranks of Cortés' army—Bernal Díaz del Castillo. In his famous True history of the conquest of New Spain, which is a firsthand account of the Spanish campaigns though written many years after the events, and which, in some passages, itself reads like a novel of chivalry, the soldier-author records the profound impression that the first glimpse of the


Aztec capital in the beautiful valley of Mexico produced on the approaching Spanish troops.

When we saw so many cities and villages built in the waters [of the lake] and other large towns on dry land, and that straight, level causeway leading into Mexico City, we were amazed and we said that it was like the enchanted things related in the book of Amadis because of the huge towers, temples, and buildings rising from the water and all of masonry. And some of the soldiers even asked whether the things we saw were not a dream. It is not to be wondered that I write it down in this manner, for there is so much to think of that I do not know how to describe it, seeing as we did things never heard of or witnessed before.[14]

The mixed use of the first personal pronouns in this passage is of particular note. Where the plural we is employed it clearly indicates that Bernal Díaz, in alluding to the comparison of the scene before the Spaniards with descriptions found in Amadis of Gaul and its successors, did not express himself in terms of his own reading alone, but was conveying an impression shared by his companions who were also familiar with these novels. As they pushed inland on their spectacular conquest these bold adventurers doubtless talked of Amadis and Esplandián, and as they marched along they reminded one another of incidents and scenes described in the romances read or listened to. And thus they eagerly projected from their own minds into the exotic landscape about them the images evoked by their acquaintance with this literature of fantasy. And elsewhere the soldier-chronicler refers to a character in Amadis of Gaul, Agrajes, a name which became in Spanish slang the synonym for a braggart. These allusions to this romance of chivalry were plainly no literary affectation on the part of Bernal Díaz, whose entire narrative is characterized by its forthright and unvarnished style. Rather, they are the spontaneous and almost involuntary exclamations of one who is suddenly reminded of what he and his comrades had so often talked about. Either before embarking for the New World or after their arrival, he and many of his companions-in-arms had undoubtedly read more than one of the chivalric novels then available, and it is altogether likely that copies


of these fantastic tales, probably much the worse for wear, lay about the soldiers' camps and served to divert the more literate in the lulls between campaigns. In the famous chapter of Don Quixote in which the luckless Sancho Panza is tossed in a blanket by the roustabouts at an inn, Cervantes offers a realistic picture of the reading of romances of chivalry in the sixteenth century by those of a social status similar to that of many of Cortés' soldiers. In the mouth of the innkeeper the great novelist puts the following passage testifying to the universal enjoyment of this form of fiction.

I cannot understand how that can be for, in truth, to my mind there is no better reading in the world, and I have here two or three of them [novels of chivalry] with other writings that are the very life, not only of myself but of plenty more; for when it is harvest time the reapers flock here on holidays, and there is always one among them who can read and who takes up one of these books; and we gather around him, thirty or more of us, and continue listening to him with a delight that makes our grey hairs grow young again. At least I can say for myself that when I hear of what furious and terrible blows the knights deliver, I am seized with the longing to do the same, and I would like to be hearing about them night and day.[15]

It requires little effort of the imagination to translate this picture from its rural, peasant setting to the camp of the doughty warriors of Cortés and Pizarro where "there was always some one of them who knew how to read." Surrounded by his comrades, "thirty or more," and by the flickering campfire or in daylight, this literate soldier read aloud the adventures of Amadis, Esplandián, and other ideal heroes. If the innkeeper heard with special delight of the "furious and terrible blows the knights deliver," the conquerors doubtless found their enthusiasm stirred even more by the glowing descriptions of the wealth of the fabled cities and mythical races inhabiting strange lands. The marvelous exploits and fantastic accounts of persons and places thus brought to the eyes and ears of the conquerors now encamped in the midst of an unknown continent could not fail to stimulate their already fevered imaginations and easily prepared their minds to accept avidly the wildest rumors of riches which were forever luring them on. Absurd notions thus


generated were eagerly projected into the dim, remote regions lying ahead in this mysterious, new-found world, and anything was possible, even probable.

The conquerors readily found confirmation of their fiction-nurtured dreams through the poorly interpreted languages of the Indians who vaguely understood the questions put to them. These frequently fearful and bewildered aborigines, usually only too eager to be rid of the strange white invaders and not wishing to displease them, customarily answered all inquiries in the affirmative. And some were shrewd enough to perceive that they could easily satisfy their interrogators by agreeing that, whatever the latter sought, whether gold, treasure, fabled cities, or Amazons, it could be had by going only a "little beyond." To the excited Spaniards all information that accorded with their preconceived notions and desires was reliable; thus, with imaginations inflamed by books of chivalry, and convinced by the apparent corroboration of the natives that the enchanted places described in their favorite fiction really existed in this newly found world, the hardened campaigners could whip up the flagging vigor of physical bodies and goad themselves on to deeds more stupendous than those of the gallant knights who offered them such fascinating models. To the quills of sedentary novelists in far off Spain, Portugal, and France the extraordinary epic of the conquests of Mexico, Peru, and other regions of the New World indeed owes no small part of its realization! But to return to the quest of Queen Calafia and her California Amazons.

Columbus' early references to Amazon-like natives in the Caribbean islands, later reiterated by Peter Martyr in his Decades, seems, on the whole, to have excited slight interest in the Spanish settlers on Hispaniola, preoccupied in extracting gold and labor from reluctant Indians. Presently, however, curiosity began to develop regarding the shadowy mainland to the west and maritime expeditions skirted those shores. It was about this time that the Sergas de Esplandián and Lisuarte de Grecia, with their episodes of Queen Calafia, began to establish a hold on their readers, reinvigorating the age-old myth of the Amazons. The Governor of Cuba, Diego Velásquez, looking for further conquests, turned his eyes westward, and organized several exploratory expeditions equipped at his own


expense. The first of these reconnoitered Yucatan in 1517 and brought back reports of a large town and considerable wealth. The following year and under the same auspices Grijalva coasted the shoreline from Yucatan to Pánuco, picking up a modest amount of treasure. Juan Díaz, a clergyman, has left a report of this expedition which includes a detail of immediate interest. Writing in May 1518, he states that "they turned back to the Island of Yucatan on the north side. We went along the coast where we found a beautiful tower on a point said to be inhabited by women who live without men. It is believed that they are a race of Amazons. Other towers were seen, seemingly in towns, but the Captain did not allow us to go ashore".[16]

The enterprising Governor of Cuba, moved by the long delay of Grijalva in returning and by his own impatience to learn the secret of the mainland, entered into an agreement with Hernando Cortés which was to result in the conquest of that vast region, though with little material advantage to Velásquez. Under date of October 23, 1518, Cortés received detailed orders for the important aims of the undertaking. Of particular interest is the twenty-sixth item which, after cautioning Cortés to exercise great care in taking formal possession of all islands discovered and in gathering all possible information regarding the land and its people, directed him,

because it is said that there are people with large, broad ears and others with faces like dogs [to find out about them], and also where and in what direction are the Amazons, who are nearby according to the Indians whom you are taking with you.[17]

Here it is apparent that, only a few years after the first publication of the Sergas de Esplandián and Lisuarte de Grecia, Cortés and his financial backer, the Governor of Cuba, were definitely counting on the possibility of discovering, among other curiosities, a realm similar to that of the California isle of Queen Calafia. That the Indians accompanying the expedition are cited as authority for this expectation need not be taken too seriously, for it is probable that the idea was merely a projection from the minds of Velásquez and Cortés resulting from recent reading or listening which they unconsciously imposed upon the half-comprehending and over-


awed Indians, who then returned it to the true authors. It could hardly be expected that two hard-headed businessmen such as the Governor and the future conqueror would acknowledge the real origin of their belief—quite possibly a popular work of fiction—in a legal contract, if, indeed, they were aware of its source. That Cortés himself at least had firsthand acquaintance with some of the chivalric literature is evident in an anecdote related by Bernal Díaz del Castillo. When the great Conqueror was looking for the first time from his ship toward the shore near San Juan de Ulúa, one of his associates remarked to him pointedly,

"I say that you are looking on rich lands. May you know how to govern them well!"

To which Cortés calmly replied,

"Let God give us the good fortune that He gave the Paladin Roldán and, with your Excellency and the other gentlemen for leaders, I shall know well how to manage it!"[18]

This idée fixe of the existence of a race of warlike women somewhere in the New World remained with Cortés and other conquerors all through their campaigns and explorations. Occasionally, even in the legal documents of the period, there are unmistakable indications of this fact. In a decree of June 1530, signed by the Queen of Spain, granting a coat of arms to the conquistador Gerónimo López, it was stated that, among the services for which he was thus rewarded, he "had taken part in the entrada and conquest made in the South Sea [Pacific] and in the north in search of the Amazons."[19] Of more importance as evidence in this respect are the famous dispatches of Cortés to Charles V reporting his activities in Mexico. The earlier cartas relaciones deal mainly with a recital of the stirring events associated with the capure of the Aztec capital. The stern necessities of war against a powerful and numerous foe, and the quick maneuvers to frustrate the efforts of rival Spaniards bent on supplanting him, preoccupied Cortés too greatly for a methodical investigation of the secrets of the vast realm that he was subduing, and it is not until his Fourth letter, dated October 15, 1524, that exploration tends to replace the swift campaigns of conquest and more detailed descriptions of Mexican civilization are offered. Now, with subordinates heading expeditions in many directions to consolidate and extend his territorial


gains, the old fables and legends claim greater attention. Perhaps by this time copies of the translation of Mandeville's Travels and of Pigafetta's report of the globe-girdling voyage begun by Magellan had reached the conqueror of Mexico, and these accounts seemed to offer their corroborative testimony to the reality of a California race of Amazons described in the novels of Montalvo and others familiar to him. At any rate, it is clear in the Fourth letter that Cortés was dispatching expeditions with instructions not only to search for the rumored treasure in the interior of New Spain, but to solve the mysteries of its hinterland. While the diligent quest of gold and precious stones thought to exist there in abundance continued unceasingly, the search for clues leading to the discovery of the fabulous kingdoms lying always a little beyond each horizon grew more intense. Chief among the latter objectives were the Amazon women, and again and again the proximity of their realm was reported. One of Cortés' ablest lieutenants, Cristóbal de Olid, with twenty-five horse and about eighty foot soldiers, had penetrated the rugged region of Zacatula and Colima near the west coast of Mexico, and they returned with a comparatively rich booty of pearls and an exciting report to the effect that only ten days' journey beyond where they had stopped was an island rich in treasure and inhabited by women only occasionally visited by men and who disposed of the resulting male offspring with distressing dispatch. This and other reports moved the Conqueror of Mexico to comment in his Fourth letter to the Emperor:

In his [Olid's] description of these provinces there was news of a very good port on that coast, which greatly pleased me since there are so few; he likewise brought me an account of the chiefs of the province of Ceguatan who affirm that there is an island inhabited only by women without any men, and that at given times men from the mainland visit them; if they conceive, they keep the female children to which they give birth, but the males they throw away. This island is ten days' journey from the province, and many went thither and saw it, and they told me also that it is very rich in pearls and gold. I shall strive to ascertain the truth and when I am able to do so, I shall make a full account to your Majesty.[20]

Elsewhere in the same Letter Cortés reports that his lieutenant had


seized "a woman whom all in those parts obeyed and everything quieted down because she sent to all the chiefs and commanded them to observe whatever was ordered in your Majesty's name, as she intended to do...."

Now, indeed, the Spanish explorers were pushing closer to the "right hand of the Indies" where Montalvo had located the California island home of Queen Calafia's Amazons and, geographically, they were approaching the peninsula, long mistaken for an island, and destined to bear the name which the Sergas de Esplandián had advertised so attractively. So much importance did Cortés attach to the news brought by Olid that he not only passed it on to Charles V, but set about organizing another expedition which should push the exploration of the region beyond Colima to where the Amazon realm apparently lay. This momentous mission he entrusted to one of his kinsmen, Francisco Cortés, to whom he issued very detailed and specific instructions in writing. With twenty or twenty-five horsemen and fifty or sixty foot soldiers, mostly bowmen and musketeers and two pieces of artillery, he should find out the truth of the reports received "because," so ran the Conqueror's command,

I am informed that along the coast adjacent to the towns of Colima there are numerous well-populated provinces where it is believed that there is much treasure; also, that in those parts there is a district inhabited by women without men. It is said that, in the matter of reproduction, these women follow the practices of the Amazons described in the "istorias antiguas ." To ascertain the truth of this and the rest related to that coast will be a great service to God, our Lord and their Majesties.[21]

Particularly significant in this passage is the clear indication of the Conqueror's interest in the Amazons and the fact that his knowledge of them was derived from his reading. It will be remembered that he was a man of considerable education, having been a student in the University of Salamanca for two years. Despite his preference for action he had found time then and later for reading some of the "istorias antiguas " to which he refers in his instructions. The expression used was broad enough in his time to include the novels of chivalry as well as the allegedly more his-


torical chronicles. As has been observed, the romances frequently contained the words historia or crónica in their titles and the looseness with which these terms were applied to both fictional and factual accounts produced confusion in the minds of general readers as to the nature of what they were reading; consequently, the more interesting they found a book, the more inclined they were to believe in its veracity. The sense of time as well as geography was exceedingly vague in the tales of chivalry and usually the action was placed "sometime after the passion of our Lord," hence sufficiently remote for these self-styled chronicles to be thought of as "istorias antiguas ". Since, as we know, the recognized histories contained scarcely less of the marvelous than the acknowledged romances, both were readily confused by the uncritical reader. Hence in this reference in Cortés' instructions one may find confirmation of the assumption that the Conqueror of Mexico, like most of his literate contemporaries, was acquainted with the popular literature of the day; and in his allusion to the Amazons and their habits, which both Montalvo, the novelist, and Cortés' own lieutenants reported as existing in this vicinity, it is fair to surmise that he, too, had dipped into the pages of the Sergas de Esplandián, one of the more fascinating "istorias antiguas ".

Like most other attempts to track down the elusive Amazons, Francisco Cortés' odyssey hardly measured up to the hopes of his illustrious kinsman. One incident of this expedition, however, suggests that he had encountered a situation with some points of similarity to that of Queen Calafia. Beyond Jalisco he had found an attractive district governed by a native woman during the minority of her son. The female chieftain hastened to invite the white warriors to her realm, welcoming them with ceremonial acts which included the erection of an arch bedecked with flowers and a hunting exhibition by her followers, who bestowed their game upon the visitors. The Spaniards were then permitted to witness some of the religious rites of the tribe at a pyramidal temple. After this function they were comfortably lodged in the queen's palace where their accommodating host thoughtfully provided women for the entertainment of the soldiers. Apparently, this feminine company did not enjoy the degree of pulchritude desired by the Spaniards and Francisco Cortés reported that he had sent these females away


after due inspection and ordered his men to conduct themselves properly.[22]

What further interest Hernando Cortés may have taken in the solution of the vexing Amazon problem is not clear, though it is likely that he did not abandon his quest at once. Soon after dispatching his Fourth letter he set off on the ill-advised march to Honduras, absenting himself from Mexico City for two years during which his affairs there suffered severely from the machinations of his enemies. One of his most bitter foes was a certain Nuño de Guzmán, a partisan of Governor Velásquez with whom Cortés had been on bad terms since the founding of Vera Cruz in 15 19. Guzmán had received jurisdiction over a broad strip of land called Pánuco, northeast of Mexico City and extending indefinitely inland. Overlapping and conflicting territorial claims soon brought friction between adherents of the two leaders, particularly during Cortés' long absence in Central America. Guzmán, too, had heard much concerning gold, jewels and rumors of Amazon tribes existing somewhere to the west, and he set out to penetrate the mystery. Cruel and unscrupulous by nature, he cut a swath of terror and barbarism as he swept through Michoacán and northwestward toward "the right hand of the Indies." From Omitlán, in the west, he dispatched a letter, dated July 8, 1530, reporting:

The next day I made a procession with a Te Deum. Thence I crossed the great river of the Trinitie, and the River was full of Crocodiles, and there are many venemous Scorpions. Here was erected a Church and two Crosses. Azatlán is three days journey hence, where they prepared to give me battell. From thence ten days further I shall go to finde the Amazons, which some say dwell in the Sea, and some in an arme of the Sea, and that they are rich and accounted of the people for Goddesses, and whiter than other women. They use Bowes, Arrows and Targets; have many and great Towns; at certain times they admit males to accompany them, which bring up the males, and these the female issue.[23]

Nuño de Guzmán had also tried to track down the Amazons in the vicinity of Ceguatan reported by Cristóbal Olid and mentioned by Cortés in his Fourth letter to the Emperor. Concerning this


effort he declared that he had sent out two mounted detachments, who came upon eight native villages of varying sizes along the Ceguatan river, inhabited by

some warriors and a good many women quite different from those seen to date in both their garb and the manner in which they were treated. There were a few men, some well be-decked in war gear with large plumes, bows, arrows and clubs. These warriors stated that they were from neighboring villages and had come to protect the señoras Amazonas .... Later it was learned through the interpreters that these women said that they had come by sea and formerly lived in such a manner that they did not have husbands nor did they permit men among them. Rather, at certain times the men from the neighboring districts could come to them. Then the women who were pregnant and gave birth to males buried the latter alive, but raised the females. However, for some time now they did not kill the male offspring but reared them until they were ten years old or so when they were given to their fathers. We couldn't learn much about these secret matters because the interpreters that we had weren't very expert.[24]

From all the foregoing it is plain that a belief in the existence of Amazon women on islands somewhere along the northern mainland of the Indies was firmly implanted in the minds of the conquerors and explorers from their first tentative skirting of the Yucatan shore through the dramatic conquest and overrunning of the mainland. The preoccupation of these men of action with this legend and their repeated efforts to locate the warlike women can hardly be attributed to a mere intellectual curiosity regarding a strange human species. There was, perhaps, the unconscious drive of men who had left their womenkind behind to seek their own psychological counterparts, but a more impelling incentive for these tough adventurers was undoubtedly the rich treasure, particularly gold, with which the female warriors were inseparably associated.

But what made the Conquistador so certain that the Amazons could be found in the Indies? And what convinced him that their gold would amply reward him for his efforts to hunt them down? The answers to these questions are suggested by the words of Montalvo's novel: "Know ye that on the right hand of the


Indies ..." and "... their weapons are all of gold and there is no other metal on the whole island." The great "South Sea" or the Pacific ocean, extending far beyond the west coast of the mainland, doubtless surrounded these mysterious isles, and the nearby peninsula, looking like an island and projecting like a finger into its blue expanse, came, somehow, to bear the romantic name of California which Montalvo used for the habitat of Queen Calafia and her colorful henchwomen. To be sure, no documentary evidence thus far unearthed has established definitely the connection between this novel of chivalry and the naming of Lower California, but by 1542, when the Sergas de Esplandián and Lisuarte de Grecia were still enjoying popularity, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo made a historic voyage along that part of the Pacific coast of North America. In the log of this voyage he used the name "California" in referring to a portion of the coast skirted, thus indicating that the appellation was already a fixed one.[25]

Whether applied in derision or in earnest, the island realm of Montalvo's Queen Calafia seems surely to have bequeathed its name to an elongated strip of land, long mistaken for an island, lying approximately "on the right hand of the Indies"—proof positive that some conqueror or explorer who had glimpsed it was familiar with those exciting chapters of the chivalric tale, Sergas de Esplandián .


IV Amazons, Books and Conquerors—Mexico

Preferred Citation: Leonard, Irving A. Books of the Brave: Being an Account of Books and of Men in the Spanish Conquest and Settlement of the Sixteenth-Century New World. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.