Lieutenant Nun

Filed in Open Source

Portrait of Catalina de Erauso, the Lieutenant Nun

Portrait of Catalina de Erauso, circa 1626, by Juan van der Hamen

In this issue’s Open Source, we bring you an excerpt from the fascinating memoir of la Monja Alferez, the Lieutenant Nun. In 1600, a young novitiate named Catalina de Erauso fled a Dominican convent in Basque Spain, cut her hair and disguised herself as a young man. She started a new life on the road. In this rebirth, she was no longer Catalina, but Antonio or Alonso Diaz, and on another occasion Francisco. She was no longer a nun, but rather a traveling soldier, merchant, muleteer, gambler, murderer and conquistador. She spent her years traveling throughout the Spanish American empire, going as far south as the Chilean frontier, where the Conquest still raged against the Araucanian Indians.

Catalina’s memoir, skillfully translated by Gabriel and Michele Stepto, reads like a grand, picaresque adventure, and her hinted romantic exploits with other women have only added to her legend as a transgressive transgender hero. Her translators carefully note, however, that Catalina must be understood in terms of her causes, not ours: Catalina’s focus was on being a Spanish man, a soldier. As Michele Stepto puts it in her introduction to the translation:

It would be a misreading to see her as anything other than the perfect colonialist, manipulative, grasping, and at moments out and out bigoted. To align Catalina, as a cross-dressing “other,” with the victims of colonialism is to miss the truth that the rewards of her transformation were gained almost wholly at their expense.

Nevertheless, that transformation was no illusion. Was Catalina’s secret revealed? Her memoir is filled with nailbiters where she is almost discovered, but ultimately Catalina revealed herself. After almost dying in a swordfight, she confessed her secret to a bishop. Two nuns confirmed her gender and declared that she remained a virgin. Contemporary readers might expect punishment to follow. Instead, she presented her memoir to the king, Phillip IV, who rewarded her with a pension for her services to the crown. She then presented herself to Pope Urban the Eighth. Instead of chastising her, he gave her a papal dispensation to keep on dressing as a man—provided that she remained a virgin. Catalina de Erauso, or Antonio, or Alonso, or Francisco, was last seen in Mexico, running mules.

Without further ado, we present a taste of the Monja Alferez’s unique-seventeenth century story. We highly recommend Gabriel and Michele Stepto’s translation of the rest of her incredible tale, Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World.


Chapter One

Her country, parents, nativity, education, flight and travels in various parts of Spain.

I, doña Catalina de Erauso, was born in the town of San Sebastian in Guipúzcoa province, in the year 1585. My parents, Captain don Miguel de Erauso and doña María Pérez de Galarraga y Arce, were native-born residents of the town, and they raised me at home with my brothers and sisters until I was four. In 1589, they placed me in a convent of Dominican nuns there in town, San Sebastian the Elder, with my aunt doña Ursula Unzá y Sarasti, who was my mother’s older sister and the prioress of the convent. There I lived until the age of fifteen, in training for the day when I would profess myself a nun.

In the year of my novitiate, toward the end of it, when I was about to make my final vows, I got in a quarrel with one of the sisters, doña Catalina de Aliri, who had entered the convent and taken the veil after the death of her husband. She was a big, robust woman, I was but a girl—and when she beat me, I felt it. It was on Saint Joseph’s eve, March 18, 1600, when the entire convent rose at midnight to perform matins, that I went into the choir and found my aunt on her knees. She called me over, handed me the key to her cell and asked me to fetch her breviary. I went after it, unlocked her cell door and grabbed up the breviary, and seeing the keys to the convent dangling from a nail on the wall, I left the cell open and returned the key and the breviary to my aunt.

The nuns were singing the psalms in a mournful tone, and when they got to the first lesson I went to my aunt and asked to be excused, telling her I was sick. She touched her hand to my forehead and said, “Go on, go to bed.” I left the choir, took up a lamp and returned to my aunt’s cell. I took a pair of scissors and a needle and thread, I took some of the pieces of eight that were lying there, and the keys to the convent, and I left. I went opening doors and closing them carefully behind me, and when I came to the last one I shook off my veil and went out into a street I had never seen, without any idea which way to turn, or where I might be going. I struck out, in what direction I cannot say, and came upon a chestnut grove just beyond the walls, on the outskirts of the convent grounds. There, I holed up for three days, planning and re-planning and cutting myself out a suit of clothes. With the blue woollen bodice I had I made a pair of breeches, and with the green petticoat I wore underneath, a doublet and hose—my nun’s habit was useless and I threw it away, I cut my hair and threw it away, and on the third night, wanting to get as far from that place as I possibly could, I set off without knowing where I was going, threading my way down roads and passing villages, until I came to the town of Vitoria, some twenty leagues from San Sebastian, on foot, tired, and having eaten nothing more than the herbs I had found growing by the roadside.

I entered Vitoria without the least idea where to put up, but it wasn’t more than a few days before I met a certain doctor of theology, don Francisco de Cerralta, who took me in without any fuss, despite the fact that he didn’t know me, and even gave me some new clothes. He was married, as I soon discovered, to yet another of my mother’s sisters, but I didn’t let on as to who I was. I stayed there what must have been three months, and the Doctor, seeing that I read Latin well, took a fancy to me and got the idea in his head I should continue my training as his student. When I let him know I wasn’t interested, he pleaded and insisted and finally went so far as to lay his hands on me.

With this, I decided to leave—and that is exactly what I did. I relieved him of some few cuartos I found lying about the place, and when I found a driver headed for Valladolid, I struck a deal for twelve reales and set out with him for that city, which is about forty-five leagues away.

The Court was in Valladolid at the time, and it wasn’t long before I found work as a page with the King’s secretary, don Juan de Idiáquez, who immediately dressed me up in a fine new set of clothes. There I went by the name of Francisco Loyola, and for seven months I did very well for myself. But at the end of that time, one evening when I was standing in the gate with one of the other pages, who should arrive but my father, asking whether Señor don Juan was at home. My friend responded yes, the don was at home, and my father told him to tell the don he was there. The other page went inside and I was left there with my father. The two of us didn’t speak a word to each other, nor did he recognize me, and when my friend returned to say he might go in, my father started up the stairs, with me following along behind him.

Don Juan met him at the top of the stairs, embraced him warmly, and exclaimed, “Señor Captain, how good of you to visit!” From the way my father answered, the don could tell there was some trouble, and dismissing the person he had been seeing he came back and sat down with my father and asked him what the story was. My father explained how his daughter had run away from the convent, how he had searched high and low for her, and how it was this very thing that brought him to Valladolid. Don Juan showed his deep concern on account of the grief it caused my father, and his own fondness for me as well—and there were other things too, the matter of the convent, which his ancestors had founded and of which he was now a patron, and the town itself, of which he was also a native.

I had listened in on the conversation, and when I heard the anguish in my father’s voice, I backed off slowly and slipped away to my room. I got my clothes and some eight doubloons I had squirreled away and made my way to an inn, where I slept that night, and caught wind of a driver leaving the next morning for Bilbao. I settled on a price with the man and left the next day, with no better idea of where to go, or what to do, than let myself be carried off like a feather in the wind.

It was a long road to Bilbao, some forty leagues I imagine, and at the end of it I could find neither inn nor private lodging, and was at my wit’s end. Before long, I managed to attract the attention of some of the town’s youths, who encircled me, edging up closer and closer, until finally I had had enough and picked up some stones and let one of them have it—where I cannot say, because I didn’t see. I was arrested and thrown in jail, and there I remained for one long month, until the boy I had hit got better and I was set free, my pockets several cuartos lighter for the cost of my stay.

From Bilbao, just as soon as I was let go, I headed for Estella in the province of Navarre, which must be about twenty leagues off. I found work there as page to don Carlos de Arellano, a native of Santiago, and remained in his house and employment for two years, well-fed and well-clothed. But at the end of that time, with no more reason than that it suited me, I quit the comfort of this situation and returned to my hometown of San Sebastian, ten leagues away, where I remained completely unrecognized, a well-dressed young bachelor.

One day, I went to hear mass at my old convent, the same mass my mother attended, and I saw that when she looked at me she did not recognize me, and when the mass was over and some of the nuns beckoned me into the choir, I made like I didn’t understand, and with a bow here and a fine word there slipped out the door. This would have been at the beginning of the year 1603.

From San Sebastian I travelled to the port of Pasajes, a league away, and there stumbled upon one Captain Miguel de Berroiz, who was about to embark for Seville. I asked the man to take me with him, we settled on a price of forty reales, I went on board, we set sail, and before long arrived in Sanlúcar. I disembarked and went off to see Seville, and though I liked the place and thought about staying on for a while, in the end I was only there for two days, and then returned to Sanlúcar. There I met up with a Captain Miguel de Echarreta, a native of my own province. His ship was escorting the galleons of General don Luis Fernández de Córdoba, part of the Royal Armada which set sail for Punta de Araya in 1603, under the command of don Luis Fajardo, and I found work as ship’s boy on the galleon of my uncle, Captain Esteban Eguiño, a first cousin to my mother, who now lives in San Sebastian.

I went on board, and we set sail from Sanlúcar on Holy Monday in the year 1603.


Editor’s note: Catalina de Erauso was employed as a cabin boy on the voyage to the New World. Upon arrival in modern day Colombia, she stole 500 pesos from the captain and ran away ashore. She eventually made her way down to Lima, Peru where Catalina found work with a prominent merchant. That is, until the merchant caught Catalina “frolicking” with his daughter in their front parlour. “I had my head in the folds of her skirt and she was combing my hair while I ran my hand up and down between her legs,” was how she put it. Catalina was fired and decided to join an army battalion headed for Chile, a violent frontier where the Spaniards were fighting a prolonged war with the Araucanian Indians.


Chapter Six

She arrives in Concepción in Chile and there encounters her brother. She moves on to Paicabí, where she takes part in the battle of Valdivia, rescuing the company colors. She returns to Concepción, kills two men and her own brother.

After twenty days at sea, we came to the port of Concepción, a decent-sized town that goes by the nickname the noble and the loyal, and has its own bishop. Troops were scarce in Chile at the time, and our arrival was welcome, and we received immediate orders to disembark. They came from the governor, Alonso de Ribera, conveyed by his secretary, Captain Miguel de Erauso. As soon as I heard the name I was overjoyed, and I knew it was my brother, because while I didn’t know him—indeed, had never laid eyes on him because he left San Sebastian when I was only two—I had had news of him even if I didn’t know his exact whereabouts. He took the rollbook and went walking up and down the line, asking each of us our names and where we were from, and when he came to me and heard my name and my country, he dropped his pen, threw his arms around me, and asked for news of his father and mother, his brothers and sisters, and his beloved Catalina, the nun. I responded as best I could without giving myself away or rousing his suspicions.

And so he went on with the roll call, and when he had finished he invited me to have supper at his house and we sat down to eat. He told me that the garrison we were assigned to at Paicabí was a soldier’s worst nightmare, and that he would talk to the governor to see if he couldn’t get me a new post. And at one point during the meal, he went up to see the governor, taking me with him, reported to him the arrival of the new recruits, and begged him as a favor to reassign to his company a certain young greenhorn from his own province, saying he hadn’t seen any of his own countrymen since leaving home. The governor had me brought in, and when he saw me—I cannot say why—he said there was nothing he could do. My brother was crushed and left the room, but then a little while later the governor called him back and told him it should be as he requested.

So that, when the companies marched out, I stayed behind as my brother’s soldier, and dined at his table for three years, all the while never letting on to my secret. On occasion, I went with him to the house of the mistress he kept in town, and on other occasions I went there without him. It wasn’t long before he found out, and imagining the worst he told me that he’d better not catch me at it again. But he spied on me, and when he caught me there the next time he waited outside, and when I came out he lit into me with his belt, wounding me in the hand.

I was forced to defend myself, and the sound of our brawling brought the Captain Francisco de Aillón, and he made peace between us. Still, for fear of the governor, who was a stickler for rules, I had to take refuge in the church of San Francisco, and there I remained, even though my brother interceded on my behalf, until the day he came to tell me I had been banished to Paicabí. There was nothing to be done, I was forced to leave for Paicabí, where I remained for three years.

So there I was, in Paicabí, for three years of misery, and after having always led the good life. What with the swarms of Indians in those parts, we ate, drank and slept in our armor, until finally the governor, Alonso de Sarabia, arrived with the rest of the armies of Chile. We joined up with them and were quartered in the plains of Valdivia, on open ground, five thousand men, with everything but discomfort in short supply. The Indians sacked Valdivia and took the field. Three or four times before, we had marched out to meet them and engaged them on the field, always gaining the upper hand and butchering them—but in the last battle reinforcements arrived and it went badly for us, and they killed many of our men, captains, my own lieutenant, and rode off with the company flag.

When I saw the flag being carried off, I rode after it with two horsemen at my side, through the midst of a great multitude of Indians, trampling and slashing away and taking some wounds in return. Before long, one of the three of us fell dead, and the two that remained pressed on until we overtook the flag. But then my other companion went down, spitted on a lance. I had taken a bad blow to the leg, but I killed the chief who was carrying the flag, pulled it from his body and spurred my horse on, trampling and killing and slaughtering more men than there are numbers—but badly wounded, with three arrows in me and a gash from a lance in my left shoulder which had me in great pain—until at last I reached our own lines and fell from my horse. A few men came to my side, among them my brother, whom I hadn’t seen in a while, and this was a great comfort to me. My wounds were tended to, and we stayed quartered there for nine months. At the end of that time, my brother brought me the flag I had rescued, a present from the governor, and I became the lieutenant of Alonso Moreno’s company, which soon came under the command of Captain Gonzalo Rodríguez—the first captain I had ever served under—and all in all, I prospered and was well taken care of.

I served as a lieutenant for five years. I was there at the battle of Puren where my captain fell, leaving me in command of the company for some six months, and during that time I had a number of encounters with the enemy and took a few arrows. In one battle, I came up against one of the Indian captains, Francisco Quispiguaucha, a newly made Christian and a rich one too, whose devilish raids gave us plenty of trouble. I met him on the field, threw him from his horse, and he surrendered to me. I immediately strung him up from the nearest tree, and this made the governor furious, for as it turned out he had wanted the man taken alive, and they say it was for this reason he didn’t give me the company, but gave it to Captain Casadevante instead, and put me on half-pay with some promising noises about next time.

The armies withdrew, each company back to its own garrison, and I went on to Nacimiento, which despite its fine name is nothing more than a shortcut to the grave—and there again I all but ate, drank and slept in my armor. But I’d only been there a few days when fieldmaster Alvaro Núñez de Pineda arrived with orders from the governor to form a detachment for the Valley of Puren, some eight hundred cavalry from our garrison and others, and I was numbered among them, along with other officers and captains. We headed out for the Valley of Puren, and were on the rampage there for six months or so, slashing and burning Indian croplands. Later, the Governor Alonso de Ribera gave me permission to go back to Concepción, and I returned to my post in the company of Francisco Navarette, and there I remained.

But Chance toyed with me, turning my every scrap of luck into disaster. I had been leading a quiet life in Concepción until, one day, when I was in the guard camp, I went into a nearby gambling house with a fellow lieutenant. We began to play, and the game was going along smoothly, when a small misunderstanding came up and my companion, with plenty of people around to hear it, told me I lied like a cuckold. I drew out my dagger and ran it into his chest. So many people jumped on me—those at the table, and those that came running at the sound of the brawl—that I couldn’t budge. One of the attachés held me fast until the local judge, Francisco de Párraga, came in, and he grabbed me tight as well, and shook me this way and that, firing I don’t know what questions at me. I told him that I would make my statement before the governor.

At this point, my brother came in and told me, in Basque, to run for my life. The judge grabbed me by my jacket collar and, dagger in hand, I told him to turn me loose—but the man shook me again, and I let him have it, slicing him across both cheeks—and still he held fast, so that I gave him another one, and he let go. I drew my sword as the whole room charged at me, backed toward the door, levelling whatever got in my way, and made my escape into a nearby Franciscan church, where I learned that both the lieutenant and the judge were dead.

This brought out the governor, Alonso García Remón, who had the church surrounded with soldiers and kept it that way for six months. He issued a proclamation, offering a reward to the man who took me alive, and forbidding my embarkation at any port. He alerted the various garrisons and marketplaces—and took other precautions as well—until time, which cures all things, also cured his vigilance. Petitions on my behalf began to pile up, the guards surrounding the church were removed, the general air of alarm seemed to lift, and as I began to feel more at ease and even receive visits from friends, people began to talk about how provoked I had been in the first place, and what a tight spot I had been in.

One of the friends who came to see me during this time was Don Juan de Silva, a full lieutenant, who told me he’d had some words with a certain don Francisco de Rojas, a knight of Santiago, and that he had challenged him to a duel for eleven that night. Each man was to bring a second, he said, and he had no one to turn to but myself.

I didn’t answer at first, thinking it was some sort of trap. Juan de Silva guessed what was on my mind, and said, “If you’re not with me, so be it, I will go alone. There is no other man I trust at my side.” I said to myself, “What can you be thinking?” and accepted.

As the bells were ringing out for evening prayer, I left the church and went to his house. We dined and chatted about one thing or another until ten o’clock, when we heard the bells strike the hour and gathered up our swords and cloaks and set out for the spot. The darkness was so thick, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face—and noting this, I suggested we should tie our handkerchiefs around our arms so that, whatever might happen in the next couple of hours, we would not mistake one another.

The two men arrived, and one of them said, “Don Juan de Silva?” and I could tell by the voice it was don Francisco de Rojas.

Don Juan answered “Here I am!” and they each laid hand to sword and went at each other, while the other man and I stood by.

They went on duelling, and after a while I could tell my friend had taken a hit, and that he wasn’t any the better for it. I jumped to his side, and the other man took the side of don Francisco, we parried two on two, and before long don Francisco and don Juan fell to the ground. My opponent and I kept fighting, and my point went home below his left nipple, as I later learned, through what felt like a double thickness of leather, and he fell to the ground.

“Ah, traitor,” he said, “you have killed me!” I thought I recognized this stranger’s voice.

“Who are you?” I asked, and he answered, “Captain Miguel de Erauso.”

I was stunned. My brother begged for a priest, as did the other two, and I went running to the Franciscan church and dispatched two friars to take their confessions. The other two died on the spot—and my brother was carried to the house of the governor, whom he had served as secretary of war. A doctor and a surgeon were summoned to tend to his wounds, and they did what they could. Then a statement was taken, and they asked him the name of his murderer, and when my brother begged for a mouthful of wine, the doctor, whose name was Robledo, said no, it would not be advisable, and he begged again, and again the doctor refused, and my brother said, “Why, Sir, you are crueller to me than Lieutenant Diaz was!”—and after a few minutes, he passed away.

At this point, the governor had the church surrounded and tried to force his way in with his personal guard. The friars resisted, along with their superior, a certain brother Francisco de Otaloza, who today lives in Lima, and a hot argument ensued, until a couple of the brothers plucked up their courage and told the governor to think it over carefully, because if he came in he could forget about leaving, and with that the governor cooled down and withdrew, leaving some guards behind.

Captain Miguel de Erauso was dead, they buried him in the in the Franciscan monastery, and I watched from the choir—God knows in what misery! I stayed there for eight months while they prosecuted me on a charge of rebellion—a charge I was given no opportunity to defend myself against.

When don Juan Ponce de León offered me his protection, I saw my chance. He gave me a horse and weapons and wished me godspeed out of Concepción, on to Valdivia and Tucumán.

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