Amazons #4: The Amazons Fight the Spaniards April 28, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
It will be remembered that the year is 1542 and that a small Spanish party is making its way down the Amazon under the command of Francisco de Orellana. There follows the fourth and the most dramatic of the Amazon episodes in the work of Gaspar de Villar (for 1, 2 and 3 follow the links): Gaspar it will be remembered was an eye-witness: in fact he was injured in the battle described here and lost his eye the day after.
The Thursday afterwards we passed other middle-sized villages and we did not care to stop there. All these villages host fishermen from the interior. In this way we went looking for a suitable place to celebrate and rejoice at the feast of St John the Baptist, the herald of Christ. God wanted that in turning the curve of a river, we saw on the banks many big villages which were all whitening in the sun [some uncertainty in translation]. Here we found ourselves suddenly in the excellent land and dominion of the Amazons.
Jueves siguiente pasamos por otros pueblos medianos y no curamos de parar allí. Todos estos pueblos son estancias de pescadores de la tierra adentro. Desta manera íbamos caminando buscando un apacible asiento para festejar y regocijar la fiesta del bienaventurado San Juan Bautista, precursor de Cristo; y quiso Dios que, en doblando una punta que el río hacía, vimos en la costa adelante muchos y muy grandes pueblos que estaban blanqueando. Aquí dimos de golpe con la buena tierra y señorío de las amazonas.
The Spanish find that the temperature is rising very quickly.
The forementioned villages had been warned and knew of our coming. For this reason they rushed out to meet us on the water, in a hostile manner and as they came close to the captain, he spoke to them of peace, and talked to them and called to them, but they laughed and made fun of us and told us to keep on and that below they were ready for us, and that we would be seized and taken to the Amazons.
Estos pueblos, ya dichos, estaban avisados y sabían de nuestra ida, de cuya causa nos salieron a recibir al camino por agua, no con buena intención y, como llegaron cerca del capitán, quisieron traellos de paz, y así los comenzó a hablar y llamar, pero ellos se rieron y hacían burla de nosotros e se nos acercaban y decían que anduviésemos, que allí abajo nos aguardaban, y que allí nos habían de tomar a todos y llevar a las amazonas…
The Spanish run past these boats and then go down river and go to another village in search of food – what were they thinking?! Here five of the party were injured by arrows, including our narrator. There followed the single most dangerous scrap the Spaniards had on the Amazon. Even a brief glance at the next passages will show that the Europeans were extremely lucky to escape with their lives.
Given our danger, the Captain began to give the oar men courage and urged them to the shore, and though it was hard, we managed to land the boats and our men leapt down into the waters which went as high as our chests. It was here that we fought a very serious and dangerous battle, as the Indians mixed in with the Spanish, who protected themselves with such courage that it was a wonderful thing to see.
Visto el peligro en que estábamos, comienza el capitán a animar y a dar priesa a los de los remos, que sabordasen. Y así, aunque con trabajo, llegamos a zabordar e nuestros compañeros se echaron al agua, que les daba a los pechos; aquí fue una muy gran y peligrosa batalla, porque los indios andaban mezclados con nuestros españoles, que se defendían tan animosamente que era cosa maravillosa de ver.
What is interesting about this fight is that the Indians did not turn tail, as they typically did when faced with European discipline and European weapons. The Spaniards needed to explain this.
The fight lasted more than an hour, as the Indians did not lose heart, but it seemed that their courage grew, though many Indians were killed, and they came over them [the corpses], and they retreated and came back again. I want to set down why these Indians defended themselves in this way. Here it is necessary to understand that they [the Indians] are subjects and tributaries to the Amazons, and once it was known that we were coming, they went to ask the Amazons for help, and ten or twelve came, that we ourselves saw these women and they came and fought before the Indians as captains, and they fought so fiercely that the Indians did not dare turn and flee, and those that attempted to flee, they killed with clubs. And this was the reason that the Indians defended themselves so well.
Andúbose en esta pelea más de una hora, que los indios no perdían ánimo, antes parecía que se les doblaba; aunque veían a muchos de los suyos muertos y pasaban por encima de ellos y no hacían sino retraerse y tornar a revolver. Quiero que sepan cual fue la causa porque estos indios se defendían de tal manera. Han de saber que ellos son sujetos y tributarios a las amazonas y, sabida nuestra venida, vanles a pedir socorro, y vinieron hasta diez o doce, que éstas vimos nosotros, que andaban peleando delante de todos los indios como capitanas, y peleaban ellas tan animosamente que los indios no osaban volver las espaldas y, al que las volvía, delante de nosotros le mataban a palos. Y esta es la causa por donde los indios se defendían tanto.
The description is often quoted. However, few ask how accurate it will have been coming in a life and death struggle on the banks of a wild river thousands of miles from Malaga. Perhaps we should take this with a grain of salt or perhaps the Spaniards fighting for their lives were taking in every impression with photographic levels of accuracy.
These women are very white and tall and their hair is long and braided and wrapped about the head, and they are strong and go about naked, with only their genitals covered, and with bows and arrows in their hands, fighting as much as ten Indians. There was one woman who loosed an arrow that went a span deep into one of our boats, and others went less deep, and our boats looked like porcupines.
Estas mujeres son muy blancas y altas, y tienen muy largo el cabello y entrenzado y revuelto a la cabeza y son muy membrudas y andan desnudas en cuero, tapadas sus vergüenzas, con sus arcos y flechas en las manos haciendo tanta guerra como diez indios, y en verdad que hubo mujer destas que metió un palmo de flecha por unos de los bergantines y otras qué menos, que parecían nuestros bergantines puerco espín.
This description stands at the very centre of the whole Amazon episode. The Amazons were very tall and white: this is reminiscent of the many examples of ‘white’ Indians discovered by Europeans travelling through the New World. (Beach suspects that this tells us more about the Europeans than these supposed American Caucasians.) Surely though we are dealing with a different ethnic group? Or at the very least a different class of warriors? Many scholars have suggested that these were not women at all but differently dressed men. The genitals were not exposed and ‘the breasts’ may have been chests.
In any case, returning to our subject and the battle, our Lord gave us force and courage and strengthened my companions who killed seven or eight – these Amazon we saw! – and for this the Indians lost heart and were defeated and retreated with many losses. And because there were many Indians coming from other villages to help and because the Indians [who had been defeated] were coming back, the captain told us to get on the boats as quickly as possible because he did not want to risk our lives. In this way we got on board with difficulty because already the Indians were starting to fight and on the water were arriving a large number of canoes and, in this way, we got onto the river and away from the shore.
Tornando a nuestro propósito y pelea, fue Nuestro Señor servido de dar fuerza y ánimo a mis compañeros, que mataron siete u ocho, que éstas vimos de las amazonas, a causa de lo cual los indios desmayaron y fueron vencidos y desbaratados con harto daño de sus personas. Y porque venía de los otros pueblos mucha gente de socorro y se habían de revolver porque ya se tornaban a pelear, mandó el capitán que a muy gran prisa se embarcase la gente, porque no quería poner a risco la vida de todos, y así se embarcaron no sin zozobra, porque ya los indios empezaban a pelear, y más que por el agua venía mucha flota de canoas, y así nos hicimos a lo largo del río y dejamos la tierra.
A crucial point here that is often missed is that the Spanish were not victorious in this fight but had to retreat. This meant that they never had time to examine the bodies of ‘the Amazons’. Then, finally, the next passage is often jumped in descriptions of this fight, but it is absolutely crucial.
We had now travelled, from where we had left Gonzalo Pizarro fourteen hundred leagues, and more rather than less, and we had no idea how distant the sea way. In the forementioned village we captured an Indian trumpeter and was there among the Indians, who was about thirty years of age, and once captured this man began to tell the Captain many things of the interior and we took him with us.
Tenemos andadas de donde salimos y dejamos a Gonzalo Pizarro mil y cuatrocientas leguas, antes de más que de menos, y no sabemos lo que falta de aquí a la mar. En este pueblo ya dicho se tomó un indio trompeta que andaba entre la gente, que era de edad de fasta treinta años, el cual en tomándole comenzó a decir al Capitán muchas cosas de la tierra adentro y le llevó consigo.
As so often in these ‘other world’ adventures where neither party understands each others words, we must ask how much the Spaniards really learnt. Beach will return to a more general analysis – if that is not a too portentious word for his general confusion – of the Amazon episodes in the next days. For now though any thoughts on this extraordinary battle? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
30 April 2013: Two different contradictory opinions on this. First KR “Many scholars have suggested that these were not women at all but differently dressed men. The genitals were not exposed and ‘the breasts’ may have been chests.” Really!? Many scholars are idiots. These didn’t check with the right experts: endocrinologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, soldiers, and, not to mention, your average healthy male human. Any of you guys out there willing to say that you cannot tell a group of bare-breasted women from a group of bare-chested men? (Remember this is centuries before sex-change operations!) Endocrinologists, neurologists,-psychiatrists and psychologists, who work with Post-traumatic stress in soldiers, say that when one is in danger, adrenaline flooding the system begins a systemic process that gives one a heightened awareness such that fine details are much MORE vivid. This hyper-awareness is part of what enables a warrior to fine-tune his responses, improve his aim, and thus it increases his chances of surviving. It is also the reason that saying “just forget about it” to a PTS sufferer doesn’t work: post-trauma flashbacks are more like reliving the experiences than simply remembering them. Those men in the story, who were in mortal combat, would have a heightened sense of danger and thus, a biologically-determined greater awareness of details. The author was thus MORE likely to recall accurate details and not less likely to do so. Bare female breasts are not the sort of detail a male adult human is likely to mistake or misidentify in the calmest of times, as identifying females of his species is also a strong biological imperative. Nope. I don’t believe those scholars. I don’t believe they believed what they said either. Shoddy scholarship on their part, or just dissembling?’ Next the Count who swings the bat with the other hand: ‘I’d just like to say that in my opinion, the final part of your Conquistadors vs. Amazons saga seems to be at odds with the rest. These warrior women have been built up as an all-female tribe who only interact with men because it’s necessary if there are going to be any little Amazons, and only at very specific times. Yet here we have them apparently not only living with but governing a normal half-male tribe! I suspect that, having been led to believe that these terrifying warrior women existed, the Spaniards misinterpreted long-haired men, perhaps with well-developed pectorals (bearing in mind that tribal women who spend their entire lives naked from the waist up and have children from puberty onwards tend to be a bit flat-chested once their youth is past), as these scary women they’d been led to expect. As you say, they didn’t get to examine the corpses of these “Amazons” because they lost the battle. But they did observe that these “women” were physically larger and stronger than the male warriors, used more powerful bows – at any rate, they comment on the penetrating power of their arrows as if this is unusual – and had clubs as secondary weapons. All of this sounds more like a tribe with two castes, the dominant one being physically bigger and stronger than the others, as well as being lighter-skinned and wearing their hair in a way which the Spaniards considered feminine. In tribal societies where nothing significantly changes for thousands of years, minor genetic differences get amplified so that different tribes may become extremely dissimilar in appearance – look at Africa! They’re all dark-skinned, but that’s about it – it’s hard to believe that Watuzi and Pygmies live on the same continent, only a few hundred miles apart. In primitive warfare, the physically bigger and stronger tribe would tend to win in pitched battles every time. Let’s suppose that the big guys decisively beat the little guys, but weren’t ruthless enough to exterminate them, Instead, they made them permanent second-class citizens. Naturally, the conquerors regarded themselves as superior to the conquered, and it became strictly taboo for the two classes to interbreed. This has happened time and time again. The Indian caste system is based on this idea, and Brahmins are to this day very obviously lighter-skinned and taller than Untouchables, with various gradations in between. The very first contact between Europeans and the population of Easter Island reported that the ruling class were much taller than the rest, and possessed abnormally long earlobes, though by the time of the belated second contact, a disastrous revolution had taken place, and half the population was dead, including all but one of the “Long-Ears” (who were apparently so tall in comparison to everybody else that they are sometimes referred to as giants). The Manchu dynasty of China were Mongols who were taller than everybody else, had different features, and wore their hair long and loose. Europeans would have considered this feminine, but its actual purpose was to emphasize their freedom, as opposed to the strict rule that their ethnic Chinese subjects had to bind their hair into pigtails as a token of submission. And so on. I think that’s what we’re talking about here – a dominant caste of bigger and stronger individuals who breed only amongst themselves, and wear their hair uncut and unbound to indicate that they can do whatever they like, whereas ordinary tribesmen presumably had to have topknots or whatever. But everything in that story makes these “Amazons” sound like men, not women. Which doesn’t mean that the actual Amazons didn’t exist – merely that the Spaniards were mistaken in thinking that they’d met them.’ I [Beach] would like to add here that a crucial question – forgive me if this is almost painfully shallow sounding, but this is bizarre history – would be the breast size of Amerindian Amazonian women. There is, after all, breast size variation in terms of ethnicity: . Thanks to KR and the Count!