Thursday, November 5, 2015

Catalina de Erauso, The Nun-Lieutenant

In 1592, a young girl was born to a prominent Basque family in Spain. Destined for the nunnery, she escaped a cloistered life, decided to become a man, and spent the next 20 years rampaging across the New World. And in the end, rather than be condemned for this behavior, she was praised for it. Meet Catalina de Erauso, a Badass Chick of History.

The hidalgo of St. Sebastian was her father, a well-known military man. All of her brothers joined the Spanish Army. When Catalina was four years old, her father sent her to a Dominican nunnery to be raised to enter the church as a nun. She stayed until she was 15, but for all those years she hated it and planned to escape. One day, when Catalina's mother came to attend church services at the convent, she didn't even recognize her own daughter - and that gave Catalina the germ of her idea.

A few days before she said her final vows and took up a life "behind the veil," Catalina escaped from the convent. Hiding in a grove of chestnut trees for several days, she cut her hair short and altered her clothes as much as possible to appear to be a boy. Once she was satisfied, she began her great adventures.

Living as a man, she took various jobs as a servant, a page, and a clerk, all with a view toward getting a berth on a ship bound for the New World, where she hoped to make her fortune. As luck would have it, she actually got onto the crew of a Spanish galleon commanded by her own uncle - who didn't recognize her.

Arriving in South America, she began calling herself Alonzo Dias, and joined the army. She led men to victory in several skirmishes against natives, and eventually her military opinion was often solicited by the Spanish generals. However, Catalina/Alonzo developed a terrible reputation for drinking, gambling, fighting, and general trouble-making. Said one contemporary: "(She) chose for (her) associates the most desperate and reprobate characters, and seemed to take a fiendish delight in outdoing them." 

Once, at a theater, a gentleman blocked her view. This precipitated some harsh words. Eventually Catalina stabbed him, sparking a chase that led across several towns before the authorities settled the matter. To get her out of trouble she was posted to the job of assistant to a Spanish commander. This commander turned out to be her own brother. But, despite working alongside Catalina on a daily basis, he never recognized her.

It's worth stopping to note an eyewitness description of Catalina from this time, from a fellow writing after he discovered she was a woman. "She was tall and strong, very fond of conversation. She applied an Italian medicine to her breasts to shrink them. She was masculine but appeared more like a eunuch."

Today, we'd probably say Catalina was transgendered. She was certainly gay. In fact, part of her bad reputation was based on the fact that she often "put peasant girls into compromising positions, then fled before the marriage date." 

Catalina admired her brother. She also admired her brother's mistress and attempted to seduce her. This led to a fist-fight, and Catalina was sent away to Chile to fight the Mapuche Indians in the Arauco War - one of the most savage and bloody conflicts in the history of the Spanish conquest of South America. Here, Catalina distinguished herself. A native chief captured the Spanish flag during a battle. He and several warriors fled with it. Catalina personally chased them down and re-captured the flag. She (as Alonzo, of course) was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and given her own company to command.

But it didn't take long for her violent nature to cause a fall from grace. In the town of Concepcion, in a house of ill-repute, she got into an argument with an important man-about-town and stabbed him. His relatives came after her, so she fled. After another murder she was captured and sentenced to hang. Seemingly unfazed, she called the hangman a drunk, and, as he bungled tying the noose, she quipped "put it on right or don't put it on at all!" However, a Basque friend of hers arranged for the Spanish military to come in with what turned out to be a literal last-minute reprieve.

For a time she wandered across South America, serving as a mercenary, a sailor, even a lawyer. Eventually, she rejoined the Spanish military, where she had a second, fateful encounter with her brother. A friend asked her to be his second in a duel. Late at night, he went to meet his opponent. It was so dark, Catalina later remembered, she couldn't see her hand in front of her face. Her friend got the worst of the fight, and flouting duelist convention, Catalina jumped in to help. Her friend's second then also jumped into the fight, and Catalina stabbed him in the dark. When she realized it was her brother, she was horrified. She spent eight months in prison on charges of rebellion, but she escaped with the help of her friend, the famous explorer Juan Ponce de Leon.

Fleeing to Peru, her bad temper got her into another fight that ended up with some poor bastard dead on the end of Catalina's sword. The authorities chased her and she took refuge in a church. There, the bishop took pity on what he saw as a young male criminal. He urged "Alonzo" to repent. Moved by his pity, Catalina fell to her knees, sobbing, and told the bishop she was a woman.

He took her under his wing and arranged for her to live in a convent. She stayed there for two years. Meanwhile, the story got out. It was a sensational tale for its time. She became known as "The Nun-Lieutenant." When the story drifted back to Spain, a verse play was produced about her. So when she  got permission to return to Spain in 1624, she found a crowd waiting for her in Cadiz. Her fame (or infamy) preceded her. Wherever she went, crowds would turn out to see her. The Spanish king gave her a lifetime military pension for her service, and Pope Urban VIII (the jackass who persecuted Galileo) was so impressed with her he gave her a papal dispensation to live as a man, take a man's name, and wear men's clothing for the rest of her life.

But Catalina (now officially re-named Antonio) could not rest in Europe. She went back to the New World and became a merchant, bringing riches out of the interior to the coasts in massive, well-defended mule trains. She died there of natural causes at the age of 58.

So yeah, she had a violent streak a mile long. And she probably wouldn't even appreciate being included in a list of women. Catalina/Antonio wanted to be a man all along, and, shockingly, the King of Spain and the Pope actually let her do it. That's a rarity for its time, no doubt about it. There's also no doubt that even though she'd rather not have been a chick, that Catalina de Erauso is certainly a Badass Chick of History.

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