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Two Worlds and Two Wives

Good Faith and Truthful Ignorance: A Case of Transatlantic Bigamy

by Alexandra Parma Cook, by Noble David Cook
Duke University Press, 206 pp., $21.95

There is nothing like a bundle of legal documents for opening windows on the past. The initial stages can be unpromising. The bundle may perhaps carry on the cover a totally unknown name; you gingerly untie the ribbon, and turn over one or two documents, faded, moldering, partly illegible, for a desultory inspection; but then, something catches your attention—a sworn deposition full of colloquial turns of phrase, a surprisingly intimate personal letter, the notarized evidence of a long-forgotten and dubious-looking transaction—and you begin to read more carefully; and gradually you find yourself irresistibly drawn into a remote and alien world. And then, with the reading, the sense of remoteness begins to disappear. Names recur, and become increasingly familiar; you grow curious about the fate of those who bear them; and slowly, through the stilted legal phrases of those interminable and exasperatingly inconclusive judgments, the outlines of a story begin to emerge.

All too often, alas, the story leads nowhere. The protagonists, so rudely thrust into the full glare of daylight after their centuries of oblivion, retreat no less abruptly into the darkness once again, still burdened by concerns of such heavy moment to themselves and of so little to us. But sometimes, if you are lucky, the story is complete, or reasonably so; and, if you are pertinacious and skilled, you may in time succeed in rounding it out with evidence drawn from other sources. The Cooks, historians working in the history of colonial Spanish America, have had their share of luck. In their joint book, Good Faith and Truthful Ignorance, they also show themselves to be pertinacious and skilled.

As they explain in their preface, they were working in that great repository of Spanish colonial documents, the General Archive of the Indies in Seville, on the indigenous population of the Colca Valley of Peru, when they came across the court case that provides the story of this book: the story of one of the conquerors, and earliest Spanish settlers, of Peru, a certain Francisco Noguerol de Ulloa. Noguerol’s alleged offense was the crime of bigamy.

Other than his own contemporaries, did anyone before the Cooks know of the bigamy of this forgotten conquistador? Ironically, the brief and schematic entry for Noguerol in a work not actually cited by the Cooks, a catalog of 40,000 Spanish settlers of sixteenth-century America heroically compiled by Dr. Peter Boyd-Bowman, does refer to an accusation for bigamy lodged against him by his first wife, Beatriz, a native of Saldaña de León.1 But nobody had followed up this entry, and there was no reason why they should. Noguerol himself had no particular claim to fame, and his infamy, if such it was, would no doubt have remained interred with him in Boyd-Bowman’s catalog to the end of time if the Cooks had not stumbled on his case in the Archive of the Indies. Now, as a result of their labors, Noguerol becomes more than just another among forty thousand names.

Noguerol’s life was in fact by no means wholly unmemorable, although the most memorable things about him proved not to be those of his own choosing. When he was sixteen, his father was murdered in a bizarre act of violence which has entered the history books. As the governor of the castle of Simancas, now a state archive but then a fortress and prison, Mendo Noguerol was suddenly stabbed to death by the bishop of Zamora, a notoriously intemperate cleric who had been jailed in Simancas for his participation in the revolt of the comuneros, and was attempting to escape. The bishop himself was overpowered, and then garroted, and his body was strung up from the castle walls. For his part, the young Francisco Noguerol was left fatherless, and it was now that his troubles began.

Noguerol’s mother, the first of the three formidably persistent women in his life, decided that her son should marry a certain Beatriz de Villasur. Doña Beatriz was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and obviously the match was economically advantageous to the Noguerol family. Whether there were other considerations behind the marriage is not clear. From the later legal documentation it emerges that the bride and groom were related. The Cooks do not make much of this, but it suggests that family strategies were at play, about which we remain in the dark. In any event, Francisco was married, and married against his will. Four years after the signing of the contract, with the marriage still unconsummated, he left for the Indies.

Historians have recently been displaying a lively interest in the process of European migration to America, and the reasons behind it. David Cressy, in his Coming Over,2 has given us a vivid account of migration and communication between England and New England in the seventeenth century; and, for the eighteenth, Bernard Bailyn is well embarked on his great survey of the peopling of North America.3 Spanish America has fared less well, although a recent study by Ida Altman of the migratory movement between sixteenth-century Extremadura and the Indies suggests something of the possibilities.4

The history of migration is not easy to write. While there are ways of charting the movement of great masses of people, it is not easy to track the life histories of individuals, or to trace their fortunes in equal detail on both sides of the Atlantic. We can follow them, for instance, to the point of embarkation, and then the trail goes cold; or alternatively, we can pick them up in the New World, but can find nothing of their Old World background. As for the personal motivations behind these great migratory movements, which included not only “coming over” but also, in many instances, returning home again, knowledge is more likely to be generalized than particular, unless a cache of correspondence has survived. We know, for instance, that the seven brothers of Saint Teresa of Avila migrated to the Indies, but why did they go? Was it because the business affairs of their father were not going well; or because like so many Castilian hidalgos of the period, they were greedy for fame and fortune; or perhaps because their Jewish blood left them with diminishing room for maneuver at home? We can only speculate.

Of the motives of Francisco de Noguerol, however, we can be pretty sure. He left for America to get away from his wife. How many of his fellow migrants were similarly impelled by domestic unhappiness we shall never know; and no doubt Noguerol’s own motives were more complex than this. The Indies offered an opportunity to see the world, to gain a name, and to get rich. For him, as for so many emigrants of his own and subsequent generations, America held out the prospect of release from domestic constraints, in the widest sense of that word.

Noguerol’s life in America was not an easy one. Making the transantlantic crossing (he suffered badly from sea-sickness) in 1534 he arrived in Peru too late to participate with Pizarro in the expedition that overthrew the Inca. He therefore threw in his lot with Diego de Almagro, and joined his expedition for the conquest of Chile. Finally disappointed in its hopes for gold, the weary expeditionary force decided to return, and Noguerol, after two years of extraordinary hardship and privation, was one of the lucky survivors to reach Cuzco in 1537. Back in Cuzco he was swept up in the civil war that now broke out between the Pizarrists and the Almagrists—a war that brought about the ruin or death of so many of his fellow conquistadores. But once again Noguerol showed himself to be one of nature’s survivors. Adept at changing sides, and with a knack for getting his timing right, he lived through the civil wars and the subsequent imposition of order by Pedro de la Gasca, who had been sent out by the Emperor Charles V to pacify Peru. In recognition of his services on behalf of the crown, he received a grant, or encomienda—one of the best in the country—of several thousand Indians in a fertile Andean valley to the west of Arequipa.

One of the greatest challenges facing the Spanish crown in the Indies was to transform nomadic conquistadores into settlers, and tie them to the land. One way of doing this was to grant them encomiendas of Indians who would provide them with tribute and labor services; another was to encourage the establishment of towns like Arequipa, founded in 1540, where they could live as responsible citizens; and a third was to make sure that they were integrated into families, well known to be the basis of every well-ordered commonwealth. It was in pursuit of this third objective that Charles ordered that every encomendero should, within a specified period, either find himself a wife or, if already married, bring over his wife from Spain to join him in the Indies.

This could have created a grave predicament for Noguerol, had it not been for the fact that the wife he had left behind in Spain was dead. He was informed of her convenient demise in two letters dated June 7, 1546, written by his sisters, Ynés and Francisca, both of them nuns in the Benedictine convent of San Pedro de las Dueñas. Letters from Spain to Peru, if they got through at all, could take anything from four months to over a year to arrive. Everyone in Arequipa, therefore, had known for some time that Noguerol was a widower when in 1549 he was married in the cathedral of Arequipa to Doña Catalina de Vergara, the wealthy widow of Dr. Juan Lisón de Tejada, a judge who had died at sea while traveling back on a mission to Spain in 1545. It was now Doña Catalina’s dearest hope to get back to her children in Spain, and one motive in marrying Noguerol was to acquire a husband who would be willing to accompany her home. Noguerol, for reasons not entirely clear, seems to have been tiring of Peru. With the wealth he had made in the Indies, he would be a rich man in Spain. Moreover, his first wife, the original cause of his emigration, was dead, and in addition to his sisters, he still had an elderly mother who longed for his return. In 1555, therefore, after at last winding up his complicated affairs, and having prudently sent ahead a shipment of sixtyfive bars of silver that were now safely invested in Spain, he and Doña Catalina sailed for Seville.

An ordinary enough story, it seems, although one that was more often dreamed about than realized—the story of a conquistador who, after making his fortune in the Indies, returned home to live in ease and affluence the rest of his days. But this was not quite to be the fate reserved for Noguerol, for he had already received, before embarking for Spain, a shocking piece of news. It turned out that his first wife, Beatriz de Villasur, far from being dead was very much alive. So much so, indeed, that she was suing him for bigamy, and for illegally shipping large quantities of gold and silver to Spain. The second story of Francisco de Noguerol—the story of his long struggle to rid himself both of the charge of bigamy, and of Doña Beatriz, and to clear his name of smuggling—was about to begin.

This second story is a story of litigation, of fraud and deceit. Sixteenth-century Spain was a highly litigious society, in which litigants had ample opportunities, at least if they were well-to-do, to appeal from one tribunal to another in a world where competing jurisdictions strove for precedence. Noguerol was both rich and adroit, but he still had a long and arduous struggle to clear his name. Doña Beatriz was not inclined to give up a husband who had returned home rich; but equally Doña Catalina was not prepared to see herself stigmatized forever as a woman unlawfully wedded to a bigamous spouse. The obvious line of argument, and the one adopted by Noguerol, was to claim that his first marriage was illegal on grounds of consanguinuity, and, that in any event, it had never been consummated and should therefore be annulled.

The saga of how Noguerol eventually escaped from the coils of his disastrous first marriage is a fascinating one, and the Cooks tell it well. The book is divided into a series of very short chapters, each with a theme taken from some document in the case, and this proves a useful device for maintaining the pace and excitement of the narrative. This would read even better than it does if they were better writers. They use such words as “thusly,” and seem addicted to the splitting of infinitives; and the numerous documents they cite are, alas, translated into Spanglish. A case can perhaps be made for somewhat stilted and archaizing prose when quoting from old legal texts in a foreign tongue, but there is no pleasure to be gained from reading a phrase like, “This of the money, I ask you that the señor Cristóval de Santander does not find out.…” But, in spite of this blemish, those with a taste for a well-paced historical narrative illuminating the hidden recesses of private life in the two worlds of Europe and America will find that the Cooks have served them well.

There are, inevitably, loose ends which they have been unable to tie together. When, for instance, did Noguerol first discover that Beatriz was still alive? Is it conceivable that he already knew before the second marriage, and hoped to brazen it out? How much did a judgment in his favor, which involved a direct appeal to Rome, depend on the greasing of palms along the way by a wealthy man? The riches he legally or illegally shipped back to Spain were obviously very considerable, and no doubt were used to win him influential friends. The Cooks speculate that in his years of retirement in Medina del Campo, with his battles won, he still remained something of an outsider, in spite of his wealth. They may be right about this, but one of their own footnotes cites the statement of a contemporary that Noguerol “went to the Indies and returned so rich, that in this time [1580] he is the richest and most powerful person in Medina del Campo”—and power in the wealthy business and commercial world of Medina del Campo was power indeed.

There remains the question of those letters which were to bring such trouble down on Noguerol’s head—the letters from his sisters, falsely informing him of the death of his wife. Why did these two, presumably pious, nuns tell such a monumental lie, and how did they manage to get away with it in the face of intense investigation by a bevy of legal officials into every aspect of Noguerol’s background and life? Those who want to know the answer must read the book for themselves. But it would not be the first time in which a little innocent deception went badly awry. As to how the sisters felt about their peccadillo in the light of subsequent events, and how they justified to themselves the suppression of some inconvenient facts—even the sleuthing skills of the Cooks cannot reveal to us the mysteries behind the convent walls. These are things that will remain forever a secret between the nuns and their Creator.

  1. 1

    Indice geobiográfico de cuarenta mil pobladores españoles de América en el siglo XVI, Vol. 2 (Mexico City: Editorial Jus, 1968), No. 11761.

  2. 2

    Cambridge University Press, 1987.

  3. 3

    Voyagers to the West: A passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (Knopf, 1986), reviewed in The New York Review, January 29, 1987.

  4. 4

    Emigrants and Society: Extremadura and Spanish America in the Sixteenth Century (University of California Press, 1989).

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