"Why have you made me manly and strong like my brothers, only to compel me now that I am fifteen to do nothing but mumble a lot of interminable prayers?" - From the autobiography of Catalina De Erauso
Doña Catalina de Erauso - or the Nun Lieutenant, as she was called - was born to a noble family in San Sebastián de Guipúzcoa, Spain, around 1585. Destined to serve God from the age of four and raised in a nunnery, Catalina decided eleven years later that she would much rather serve herself. After escaping the convent San Sebastian el Antiguo, she cut her hair and donned men's clothing, determined to make her own way in the world.
At first, Catalina took employment as a page, then having perfected a male persona, was engaged as a cabin boy for a ship bound for the Indies. Upon reaching Panama, she stole money from the captain and jumped ship, ending up in Trujillo, Peru, working as the manager of a store. Catalina lost her position following a bloody duel, when she injured a relative of her employer's mistress - a señor Reyes - and was forced to seek sanctuary in a church to avoid prosecution. The employer's solution? Marry his mistress!
The fight: "I closed the shop, grabbed up a knife, and went
looking for the barber to grind the blade to a sawtoothed edge, and then,
throwing on my sword - it was the first I ever wore - I went looking for
Reyes and found him where he was strolling by the church with a friend.
The aftermath: "It is understood that this doña Beatriz de Cárdenas was my master's paramour and he was looking to have us both for keeps, me for business and her for pleasure. It seems that they had both agreed on this plan, for after I was restored to the church, I used to slip out by night to that lady's house. There she caressed me passionately and, feigning fear of the police, begged me not to return to the church but to stay there. One night she even locked me in and declared that in spite of the Devil I had to bed her. She held on to me so tightly that I had to pry her hands loose to get away."
Leaving Trujillo, Catalina sent to Lima, Peru, where she found a comfortable situation until...
"At the end of nine months [my master] informed me that I should seek my living elsewhere. The reason for this was that he had two young maidens living in his house, sisters of his wife, and with whom (and above all with one who was especially fond of me) I used to frolic and fool around. And one day he happened by a window and saw us in the parlour. Reclining in her petticoats, she was combing my hair, our legs entangled. He heard her telling me that I should go to Potosí and earn money so we could get married. He withdrew and summoned me shortly. He questioned me, settled accounts, and I departed."
Once again, Catalina's penchance for a pretty face got her into trouble. An Indian uprising in Chile provided an answer, so she upped stakes and went to Concepción to enlist in the Army. There she met her oldest brother, Captain Miguel de Erauso, who did not recognize his sister. It was not take long before Catalina was flirting with disaster.
"I remained with my brother as his aide, dining at his table for nearly three years without his ever realizing anything. I went with him sometimes to the house of a girlfriend he had there. Other times I went there without him. He found out about this and took it hard, telling me to keep away from there. He lay in wait for me and caught me at it again. When I came out he attacked me with his belt and injured my hand."
Sent off to the front, Catalina became a second Lieutenant in the company of Captain Gonzalo Rodríguez, where she distinguished herself in battle. When her commanding officer was killed in battle, Catalina was given a temporary captaincy.
"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
Unfortunately, a duel ended in personal tragedy for Catalina when she killed one of her brothers, Captain Miguel de Erauso.
"The darkness was so thick that 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.
Stricken by grief, she deserted the Army and fled towards Peru with two companions, who died in the Andes. Near death herself, Catalina was saved by some ranch hands and nursed back to health by the rancher, a widow with an unmarried daughter. The daughter took quite a liking to Catalina, who did not return the admiration.
"After having me there for eight days, the good woman told me that I could stay there and be master of the house. I expressed much appreciation for the kindness she showed me in my waywardness, and I offered to serve her as best I could. After a few more days she gave me to understand that she would consider it a favor if I would marry the daughter that she had there with her. The daughter was very dark, and ugly as the devil, very contrary to my taste, which was always the pretty faces."
Nevertheless, Catalina agreed to the marriage (as well as the handsome dowry). Obtaining part of the dowry without having to undergo the marriage ceremony, she abandoned the girl and wandered from town to town, gambling, picking fights and stealing while getting a reputation as a dangerous outlaw. Catalina also took various positions in her travels, often utilizing her sword skills as a mercenary. She was accused of a serious crime and arrested in La Paz but escaped the gallows, then went on the run, once signing onto a ship and being captured by the Dutch. In Cuzco, she tangled with a fellow called the "New Cid" in a street brawl and was seriously injured. Receiving the Last Rites, Catalina confessed all, and to everyone's astonishment - including her own - recovered from her wounds. With the law in hot pursuit, she made way for Lima and fought a posse at the Apurimac bridge with the help of a few supporters.
After being surrounded and surrendering in Guamanga in 1619, Catalina revealed her true name and gender to Bishop Fray Agustin de Carvajal. Examined by midwives and found to be virgo intacta, she was sponsored by the Bishop and entered the convent of the Most Holy Trinity, where she remained for nearly two and a half years. In 1624, Catalina shook the dust of the convent from her heels (because word had come from Spain that she had never taken her vows) and journeyed to Cadiz, where two other brothers were acting as commanders in the famous Armada. Fame traveled before her - Catalina was greeted by peope who lined up on the sides of the road to catch a glimpse of the (in)famous woman.
In 1626, the writer Pietro Della Valle (known as Il Pelligrino) met Catalina and had this to say about her:
"On the fifth of June the Basque lieutenant Catalina de Erauso came to my house for the first time, having come from Spain and just arrived in Rome. Her compatriot Father Rodrigo de San Miguel was my friend and introduced me to her. Tall and sturdy of stature, masculine in appearance, she has no more bosom than a little girl. She told me she had applied I don't know what method to make it disappear. I believe it was a plaster administered by an Italian; the effect was painful but much to her liking. She is not bad looking, but well worn by the years. She has the look of a Spanish gentleman and wears her sword as big as life, tightly belted. Only by her hands can one tell that she is a woman as they are full and fleshy, although large and strong, and occasionally gesture effeminately."
The roller coaster continued. Catalina was arrested by the Church, then released, started for Rome but was arrested in France and deported as a spy, and finally appeared before King Philip IV to present a petition outlining her military service and accomplishments, and seeking a pension as compensation. It was granted and she was given 800 escudos per annum. This was not the end, though. Catalina finally made her trip to Rome where she was granted an audience with Pope Urban VIII, who granted her a dispensation allowing her to continue dresssing as a man.
A testimonial given on October 10, 1693, in the Capuchin monastery of Seville, by Fr. Nicomedes de Rentería, to Fr. Diego de Sevilla, states: "that in the year 1645, before he became a religious, he served with the galleons of General don Pedro de Ursua, and several times in Veracruz saw and encountered The Nun Ensign, doña Catalina de Erauso - who there and then was called don Antonio de Erauso--and that she had a string of mules in which she, along with some negroes, carried clothing to various places. Thereby and therewith she transported the clothing that she carried to Mexico and she was regarded there as very valiant and capable individual. She went about in male clothing and carried a sword and dagger decorated in silver; she seemed then about fifty years of age, husky, olive complexion, with a few little hairs for a moustache."
And thus the roaring girl, the soldier, the killer, the lover of women, that charming female Devil herself Catalina de Erauso fades into history, but not into invisibility. Even today, her exploits remain a colorful thread woven into the Latin American tapestry of folklore. While Catalina wrought death, she relished life to the fullest, and that makes her an Amazon in the truest sense.
Information from Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque
Transvestite in the New World, translated by Michele and Gabriel
Stepto, Beacon Press, 1996; The Lieutenant Nun - Transgenderism, Lesbian
Desire, and Catalina de Erauso by Sherry Velasco, University of Texas
Press, 2001. Additional information from The Encyclopedia of Amazons
by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Paragon House, 1991. Also highly recommended:
The Sword and the Veil (online version of a master's thesis by
Dan Harvey Pedrick) http://carriagehousebandb.ca/soul.html
to which many of the quotations are credited.