The heroic efforts of Inés de Suárez during the Spanish conquest of Chile

11 September 1541, the heroic efforts of Inés de Suárez saved the just founded settlement of Santiago from sacking by the indigenous Mapuche during the Spanish conquest of Chile.

“Courage is a virtue appreciated in a male but considered a defect in our gender. Bold women are a threat to a world that is badly out of balance, in favor of men.” (Isabel Allende, “Inés of My Soul“)

 “Doña Inés de Suarez en la defensa de la ciudad de Santiago”
 by an unknown artist (1897, Museo Histórico Nacional, Santiago de Chile)

Spanish law actually forbade women to travel to the Americas on their own during the 16th and 17th century and we know of very few who played an active part during the conquest. There were conquistadoras though, like María Estrada who fought with Cortés, or women from the thereabouts, like Cortés legendary translator, advisor and lover La Malinche or the Yalcon war leader La Gaitana who fought the Spanish like a Colombian Boudica. Inés de Suárez actually came to the New World in search of her husband, found him dead, was granted a small plot of land near Lima where the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, who was about to set forth to conquer Chile, fell in love with her. She became his mistress and accompanied him on the expedition, the second after Almagro withdrew from there and left scorched earth in 1536.

The Chilean painter Pedro Lira's imagination of the "Founding of Santiago" (1888)

Pedro and Inés left Lima in January 1540 by leave of Pizarro with 150 Spaniards, trecked through the Andes and the Atacama desert and the indigenes where not at all pleased to see the hated Spaniards return. Pedro de Valdivia founded his new capital on an island in the valley of the Rio Mapocho, tried to pacify the local Mapuche tribe with gift giving and was a bit surprised, when they kept the gifts and attacked nonetheless. It was a close run thing for de Valdivia and his men, but the Mapuche fled when they allegedly saw an armoured man with a naked sword riding a white horse descending from the skies on them. The apparition was quickly identified by the baffled Spanish with Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moor Slayer, who had, at least in legend, saved the Asturians by pulling the same stunt in 844. Accordingly, Pedro de Valdivia named the city Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura.

Cuzco School: Santiago Matamoros (17th century)

Inés de Suárez had gained the full confidence of the conquistadores during the trip from Lima and when Valdivia was off to a punitive expedition and the woods around Santiago were reported to be full of hostile Mapuche one fine day, they turned to her and asked if they should not at least surrender the seven caciques they held to guarantee the indigenes’ good behaviour. Surrender, my stars, said Ines and organised the defences while things turned ugly for the Spanish colonists. Allegedly more than 20.000 Mapuche attacked the less than 100 defenders who were again about to be overwhelmed when Ines came up with an idea. She put on a mail shirt, donned a morion, took a sword, decapitated the first cacique, ordered the rest to be beheaded as well, mounted a white horse, ordered the seven heads to be thrown over the walls and galloped out of the city towards the Mapuche who fled in terror. Santiago was saved. Inés de Suárez and Pedro de Valdivia lived happily ever after. Almost. During the 1550s, the Church demanded an end of their living in sin and since Pedro already had a wife in Spain, Ines married one of his friends and died at the age of 73 on her estate.

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