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Subverting the Spanish Conquest: Race, Amazons, and the Search for California

Walter Penrose

San Diego State University

In 1510, Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Labors of Esplandián) was published in Seville, Spain, an important port that bustled with traffic to the Americas (Little 2). The story contained a tale of Amazons that possessed many elements of the Greek myth but placed them into a newer world order (but not one that was exactly “current” as of 1510). In Las Sergas de Esplandián, the author, Montalvo, told the story of an army of Amazons who came to Constantinople (the new Troy, it would seem), to fight on behalf of the Turks (Rodríguez de Montalvo chs. 157-160). These women hailed from the legendary “island” of California, allegedly found “on the right side of the Indies,” where they rode man-eating griffins and used weapons of gold, the only metal to be found in their native habitat (ch. 157). These black-skinned Amazons were ruled by Queen Calafia. Like her ancient counterparts, Penthesilea and Hippolyte, Queen Calafia is defeated by men, specifically the Christian knight Amadis. She subsequently converts to Christianity and is ultimately married to one of her captors (chs. 164-8). Inspired by these legends, and, of course, seeking gold, Spanish explorers and conquistadors came to the Americas and set off to conquer, destroy, and extract the “abundance of gold and precious stones” alleged to exist on the island of California by Montalvo (Irving 561-79; Rodríguez de Montalvo ch. 164). They were even given orders by the Spanish crown to find Amazons and hence gold (Irving 572-3). Yet the legend morphed as it spread across the so-called “new world.” The Amazon women of California had been described as “black” by Montalvo, but in a letter dated July 8, 1530 to Emperor Charles V, Nuño de Guzman describes the said Amazons as “whiter than other women” (Purchas 59-60). Apparently, the Spanish conquistadores mapped their own racist notions of beauty as “white” onto the formerly black bodies of the California Amazons. Ironically, it was this very racism of the Spaniards that provided some respite to the natives; in their quest for “white Amazons” the Spaniards were told to keep marching by the browner natives whom they encountered that did not meet their expectations (Leonard 571). When an indigenous woman ruler offered her own women to cohabitate with the invading Spaniards, the conquistadores did not find the women to their taste (Irving 577). The Spaniards travelled on in the direction to which the natives pointed. “Good riddance” as the saying goes. Eventually, from its mythic origins, California would be “discovered.” When they reached the tip of Baja California in the 1530s, Spanish explorers thought they had found the legendary island of California. Ultimately, it would be discerned that Baja California was not an island after all, but rather a peninsula (see further Beebe and Senkewicz). Of course, the Spaniards did not find the “white Amazons” described by Nuño de Guzmán, because they did not exist.

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Subverting the Classics in the Early Modern Americas

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