It was in the autumn of 2015 that we arrived in Cáceres, in western Spain. We had set out walking from Sevilla in the south, following the pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostela, but the weather had turned quite cold and we were not adequately equipped for the conditions. We decided to take a break and return another day; the path would still be there.
But little did I know at the time, that if we had continued walking for another four days we would have reached Plasencia, the birth place of one of my heroines, Inés de Suárez.
‘Who on earth was she’, I can hear you thinking. So let me enlighten you.
Apart from being born in Plasencia in about 1507, as far as I know nothing more is known of her early life, until she married an adventurer, a Juan de Malaga, in about 1526. Not long after, he left her to go with the Pizarro brothers on a speculative venture to South America.
I have no idea how she supported herself in the interim, but after some ten years of not receiving any contact from her husband, she decided to go to South America to find him, or at least to find out what had happened to him. In that era, it was not acceptable for a Spanish woman to travel on her own, but she eventually received permission to go, providing she took a niece with her. I don’t know who her niece was or what happened to her afterwards.
She never did find her husband. It appeared that he was dead, but I am not sure how. One report was that he had died at sea, another that he was killed in the battle of Las Salinas near Cuzco, between the Pizarro brothers and a rival fighting for control of the city. In any case, he was presumed dead and she applied for a grant as the widow of a Spanish soldier and was given a small plot of land in Cuzco. And it was there that shortly after she became the mistress of Pedro de Valdivia.
Valdivia was a lieutenant of Francisco Pizarro and he was authorized to lead a small contingent of Spanish soldiers to establish a colony far to the south of present-day Lima. Somehow, he managed to get permission to attach Inés to his expedition, as his domestic servant. In 1539, he started with only eleven soldiers, but as they preceded south others joined. At one time there were about 150 of them.
They travelled south for almost a year, until they reached the valley of the Mapocho River, the site of present-day Santiago de Chile, originally named Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura. They suffered incredible hardships in travelling through some 1600 km of the Atacama Desert. In the chronicles that have survived the journey, Inés had a significant part in boosting the morale of the soldiers through caring for the sick and wounded.
The site that they eventually chose was already populated and and initially the natives were accepting of the newcomers, or at least they pretended to be. But when Valdivia was absent on another expedition to the south, the local population revolted.
The Spanish were severely outnumbered, and it seemed inevitable that they would be wiped out. From a previous negotiation for food supplies, they held seven of the Indian chiefs as hostages. Inés advised the soldiers to execute them. When the commander hesitated, Inés herself took a sword and decapitated the chiefs one by one, and had their bodies thrown over the wall. Or at least that is how the legend recounts it. In any case it appears that the Indians were so shocked and confused by the action that they withdrew.’
Perhaps it did not happen quite as I have described it, but there is no doubt that she was a heroine in the defense of the settlement. At that time, she would have been the only woman.
When Valdivia finally returned, they continued to live together openly. The hierarchy in Lima did not approve of this ‘illegitimate’ union and Valdivia was summoned to attend a hearing in Lima. The issue was resolved by Valdivia agreeing to summon his wife from Spain and having Inés married off to his lieutenant, Rodrigo de Quiroga in 1549.
But all did not happily ever after. Valdivia died before his wife reached Santiago. He was captured by Indians in a battle in the south and eventually executed.
Inés settled down to a quiet life as wife of Rodrigo de Quiroga, who eventually became Governor of Chile, not once, but twice. They died within a short time of each other in 1580 and were both buried in the Basicila de la Merced.
Inés survived all the original conquisadores.
It was not until 2015 that I finally visited Santiago de Chile. Of course the city today bears no resemblance to the original settlement that Inés would have known.
In the Plaza de Armas, there is a statue of Pedro de Valdivia, her old lover, and the church, La Basilica de la Merced, where she was buried, is but a short walk away.
For me, Inés was a remarkable woman. Not only was she tenacious in seeking out her husband in what must have been frontier conditions, but for months on end she survived the crossing of the inhospitable Atacama desert. And shortly after she showed tremendous courage in the face of death. Her example is one for all women.
I don’t know when we will continue our pilgrimage north from Cáceres, but when we do, we will pass through Plasencia and walk in the footsteps of Inés.