John Ruse Larus.

Women of America online

. (page 7 of 27)
Online LibraryJohn Ruse LarusWomen of America → online text (page 7 of 27)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the black paint was the occasional depiction of sable tears rolling down
the cheeks. Silver and beads were much worn, - for silver was almost as
common as stone among the aborigines of Chili, - and bright colors were
profusely used in the dress of the Araucanian lady of social standing.
The most distinctive part of the costume of the Araucanian belle was her
headdress and the manner of wearing the hair, the former being composed
entirely of beads, and coming low upon the forehead, while it passed
over the head and descended quite low on the back; the hair was worn in
two queues, which were wound with bright colored beads, the ends falling
over the face or sticking out in front like horns.

As among most Indian races, polygamy prevailed among the Araucanians. To
the women fell the greater part of the work; indeed, it would not be
overstating the case to assert that the wife did all the labor in the
Araucanian household, even to those offices which the Indian of the
northern continent generally performed for himself. Yet the women of the
Araucanians were not ill treated as a rule. Marriage by capture
prevailed, though there was about it also the elements of marriage by
purchase. The friends of the wooer sought the father of the girl and
requested his consent to the match; but this was rather a matter of form
to even more than the usual extent, since while the father was thus
being flattered the lover was searching for his bride. Invading the
sanctity of her chamber and plucking her forth, by the hair or heels, as
was most convenient, - for the Araucanian was somewhat strenuous in his
wooing, - he threw her upon his horse and galloped off with her _à la_
Lochinvar, leaving his friends to sustain the attacks of the women, who
always rallied fiercely to the defence of the bride. The latter made it
a point of honor, indeed, to scream loudly for help; and, however
doubtful may have been her good faith, the other women considered it a
duty to their sex to accept her protests as implicit and to visit her
rape upon the heads of the allies of the lover, which allies rarely
escaped with unscarred faces. Having covered the retreat of the ardent
swain, the friends then followed him to the sylvan haunts which he
sought for concealment and from which he emerged some two or three days
later with his captive, now a willing bride. No other ceremony was
needful; but, if the parents of the girl were really averse to the match
and rallied in time to prevent the wooer from gaining the shelter of the
woods with his captive, there was no marriage; if, on the other hand,
the thicket was safely gained, the marriage could not be afterward
annulled. After the emergence of the wedded pair from their solitude,
the friends of the husband called upon him to congratulate him and to
offer him gifts, most of which had been pledged beforehand. These
presents were then conveyed in procession to the father of the bride,
who, if he considered that he had been paid full value for his daughter,
took the bridegroom by the hand and declared his delight at the
alliance. The mother, however, was supposed to be so angered with her
son-in-law for the robbery of her child that she would not even speak to
him or so much as look at him; and though she generally relented so far
as to tell her daughter to ask her husband if he were not hungry, and
upon receiving an affirmative answer proceeded to cook a feast for the
assembled company, nevertheless for years after the marriage she would
never speak face to face with her son-in-law, though with her back
turned to him she would converse with him with entire freedom. This
formal resentment on the part of the mother-in-law seems to indicate a
recognized status on the part of the _mater familias_, since it was
theoretically in opposition to the will of the _pater familias_ and
therefore in some sense a declaration of independence.

Divorce was known among the Araucanians, and the discarded wife was sent
back to her father's house with full liberty to marry whom else she
would; but in such case the second husband was compelled to pay to the
first the full price which the woman originally cost him. When a man
died his widow became independent, except where there were surviving
sons by another wife, who in such case could claim their father's widow
as a concubine to be held in common. This singular custom doubtless
arose from the theory of the woman being a chattel of the estate and
reverting by right to the heirs. Adultery was punished on the woman by
death, while if the outraged husband took the guilty paramour in
_flagrante delicto_ he could slay him without incurring any penalty; if,
however, the man escaped, he could not afterward be killed with
impunity, but could be made to pay to the injured husband the original
cost of the wife. It seems highly probable, however, that among the
early Araucanians female virtue was of a high standard, though among
their descendants it is not quite so highly esteemed.

A somewhat curious custom, still in force among the Araucanians, was
that of borrowing children. A sterile woman was an object of reproach,
as has been the case among all primitive peoples, and she was likely to
forfeit the consideration of her husband and to be supplanted by a new
wife who might bear him children. It was to guard against this as far as
possible - as well as for protection, since sterility was cause for
divorce - that the barren Araucanian wife would often borrow from some
complacent and prolific kinswoman one or more of her children, whom the
sterile wife would rear as her own. The exact status of these children
in the household is not clear; they would seem to have been attributed
by courtesy, as it were, to the wife, but not to have stood as heirs to
the husband unless in default of heirs of his body, nor even then except
by express testamentary act, or that which bore the value of such act,
on his part. Yet the fact that the custom existed and still exists is
sufficient to show that it must in some way have assured the position of
the barren wife. The Araucanians, by the way, notwithstanding a
statement to the contrary by Molinos, swathe their children as do most
Indian tribes, and they even tie their infants to a bamboo frame so
tightly that the little unfortunates have no control over any portion of
their bodies save their eyes, and in this state they are hung upon the
walls when it is desirable to get them out of the way an occurrence so
frequent that the infants pass nearly their whole existence hung upon
pegs like unhappy _lares_.

One curious Araucanian custom, surviving to the present time among many
of the tribes, is that of giving to each wife a separate fireplace, at
which she did her own cooking. Of course this was not practicable where
the house was small and the wives were many; but so well was the custom
established, in theory at least, that the polite manner in which to
inquire the number of wives a man had was to ask him, "How many fires do
you burn?" The houses, by the way, were often shaped much like an
inverted boat, and the interior was furnished with a row of cane
partitions which roughly carried out the maritime idea, as they had
somewhat the appearance of staterooms. These were arranged on each side,
and in the middle ran the row of fires around which squatted the ladies
of the household. It must not, however, be imagined that only one
family, as we understand the word, inhabited one house; on the contrary,
each of the married sons had his portion of the paternal rooftree, and
often there were as many as a dozen households under one roof. These
matters varied with the geographical position of the tribe, the Indians
of the north differing from their southern brothers much as the Indians
of the eastern part of North America differed from those of the west;
and the household which has just been described was typical rather of
those of the south than those of the north, though some of the features
were identical in both sections.

One of the most remarkable facts concerning the status of women among
the Araucanians was that there were medicine women as well as medicine
men, and that the former were generally held in higher repute than their
male rivals. While this belief in women as peculiarly adapted to the
pursuit of sorcery has been prevalent among many peoples, those of white
blood as well as those of black, it is rare among Indian races.

The civilization of the Araucanians, both past and present, is among the
most interesting of the social developments of American origin, and is,
perhaps, the one which has survived in truest individuality. Little
record is found of individuals; but two historical facts may be cited
concerning the women of the great Indian race of the south facts
illustrative of the spirit which was inculcated into females as well as
males and born of the indomitable love of liberty which was the
fundamental characteristic of the Araucanians.

When Caupolican, one of the greatest of the Araucanian leaders in their
long struggle against the Spaniards, was at last taken prisoner, his
chief wife, on learning of his capture, hastened to his side; not, as
might be expected by those of less Spartan culture, to alleviate his
captivity with her tenderness, but to upbraid him for his pusillanimity
in being taken alive. Coming into his presence, she threw at his feet
their infant son, saying, passionately and scornfully, _No quiero titulo
de madre del hijo infame, del infame padre!_ [I do not wish to be called
the mother of the infamous son of an infamous father!] At least, that is
what she is reported to have said; but as the Spanish is in rhyme, and
the chronicler was one rather given to romance, we may be permitted to
doubt the implicitness of the narrative in this respect; yet it is most
probable that the incident really occurred, since it would have been in
entire conformity with the fierce pride of the Araucanians.

The other woman of whom Araucanian history tells us was called Janaqueo.
She was the head wife of a chief who was defeated and slain by the
Spanish invaders. As soon as she learned of the death of her husband she
organized a band of Puelche Indians, was chosen their chief, and sallied
forth against the enemy. She proved herself a most skilful leader in the
peculiar fighting which was appropriate to the terrain; she hung on the
flanks of her foes as a hound on a clumsy boar, alternately fighting and
disappearing, and even in pitched battle defeating more than one noted
Spanish general. She was one of the most enterprising and dangerous foes
ever encountered by the invaders; and when at last she was conquered
through her affection for her brother, - who, having been taken captive
and condemned to death, was enlarged on condition that his sister
retired to her distant home, - the Spaniards felt that they had won a
victory which was most important, even though the forces of the Amazon
still held the field against them. There can be no doubt that Janaqueo
was a most skilful and valiant general; and she relieves the Araucanian
nation from the aspersion of being the only people that cannot claim a
national Joan of Arc to play against the French heroine.

Before turning to a consideration of South American women as descended
from Spanish civilization, it may be well to say a word concerning a
most singular class of natives of South America one which, happily, may
be dismissed in a few words, but yet which must be mentioned for the
sake of completeness, _the Gauchos_. There may be a question as to the
right of the Gaucho women to occupy even a minor place in a history of
the development of woman; for the feminine Gaucho has but one individual
characteristic. She is dirty, she is slovenly, she is lazy, she is a
mere animal, a slave, a beast of burden, but all these things may be
found in other extant or past civilizations, - to give them a term of
courtesy, - and it would seem hardly needful to bring to the reader's
attention a peculiar people if the qualities mentioned were the only
ones to be found among these women. But this is not so, for the Gaucho
woman has a preeminence in one respect: she is absolutely the most
unmoral woman upon the face of the earth, and she has been so ever since
her singular class came into recognized existence. This does not say she
is immoral; her depravity is too open, too much a matter of course, too
entirely a condition of her existence to be deemed immorality. It has
been said that it is a wise child who knows his own father; but among
the Gauchos it was a remarkable woman who had any assured ideas as to
the father of any particular one of her children. Marriage existed as a
form of possession; but as all Gaucho women who had reached maturity had
families, - and maturity in that climate came at about the age of
twelve, - whether they had gone through the ceremony of marriage or not,
it will be understood that few Gauchos, male or female, ever thought of
troubling to be formally wedded. Sir Francis Head, who, about the
opening of the last century, wrote a most entertaining account of his
travels across the Andes and Pampas, tells us that if one asked a young
Gaucho señorita who might be the father of the child that she was
carrying, the almost invariable and entirely artless reply would be,
"_Quien sabe_?" and though Lieutenant Strain, who followed in the
footsteps of Sir Francis some fifty years later, contradicted the
latter's account of the surliness and fierceness of the male Gaucho, he
did not find it lie in his mouth to defend the virtue of the women.

Such absolute, universal, and unblushing unmorality as this is worthy of
chronicle and really is hardly shocking, since it is so perfectly matter
of fact that it simply resolves itself into a rule of life alien from
our ideas. Yet, on the other hand, it is not as the unmorality of the
natives of the South Sea islands, for example, where in their primitive
state the retention of that which among us is known as womanly virtue
was considered a reproach; for the Gaucho women, though so frankly
unmoral, yet were not thus by religion and custom. On the contrary, the
Gauchos were usually profoundly superstitious and were apt to be devout
members of the Roman Communion. Had they been pagans, they would not
have acquired any especial claim to renown for immorality by their
customs; but as members, by courtesy, of a Christian civilization the
women of the Gauchos deserve to be embalmed in the history of their sex
as superlative in their national unmorality.

Mention of the women of the South Sea islands leads to another
digression from the main subject, for there are one or two interesting
facts to be told about these women. The customs of the Taeehs, one of
the most powerful of the tribes of the Pacific islanders, may be taken
as typical of the others, though, of course, there are points of
variance and even departure. When Porter, the captain of the famous
Essex, visited the island of Nookahevah during his celebrated cruise in
1812, he found that island governed by a princess named Pittenee - a fact
which shows that among the islanders women were held in some esteem. The
lady, potentate though she was, was not above forming a scandalous
connection with one of Porter's officers, though she displayed no
fidelity to her temporary spouse; but nothing better could be expected
of one of a race where the parents urged their daughters to sacrifice
their virtue to strangers and even rewarded with presents those who did
them the honor to accept that virtue in gift. Indeed, the claims of
hospitality required the proffer of the person of wife or sister to the
guest, while before reaching marriageable age - about nineteen, very late
for such a climate - the young girls were given entire license. There was
marriage among these people, though it is difficult to see why; and,
strange to say, post-nuptial unfaithfulness was rare. The married women,
as usual among primitive peoples, were rather chattels than slaves,
being entirely at the disposition of their husbands; indeed, save in the
matter of unmorality, the customs of the islanders in regard to their
women differed but little from those conventional among barbarous

It is now time to turn to a consideration of the women of South America
as we usually think of them, the product of a grafted Spanish
civilization rather than a survival or result of primitive cultures. Yet
when we turn to such consideration we find but little that is
characteristic or even interesting. It is not to Spanish-founded
countries that we must look for the greatest advances in the status or
culture of women; in such lands there has ever been stagnation and even
retrogression, while there has rarely been any marked individuality of
personal or national trait. Nor must it be forgotten that the phrase
"the Women of South America," even in the limited meaning of those of
Spanish blood, covers an exceedingly broad field.

In noting the history of woman in South America, it is pleasant to
relate that one of the first of the sex of whom we have record is
chronicled as having performed a vast service to posterity, even though
it were one which would have been done by others had she not been the
pioneer. It is recorded that the first wheat ever sown in South America
was carried to Lima, in the year 1535, by Doña Maria de Escobar, though
the quantity was only a few grains. When the crop came to ripeness, the
lady called together all her friends to celebrate the first harvest of
wheat ever gathered in the New World; and although she was in error as
to this, - wheat having been produced in Mexico in 1528 by a negro slave
belonging to Cortés, who accidentally found a few grains mingled with
the rice supplied to the soldiers and sowed them, - she is none the less
deserving of being held in honorable remembrance as the benefactor of
generations yet to come. While speaking of benefactors among South
American women, one may be mentioned who is remarkable both for her race
and for the form of one of her bequests. This was Catalina Huanca, an
Indian, who was so rich - being a cacique - that she left at her death
much money to be expended in various charitable bequests, among them
being the still existing hospital of Santa Ana at Lima; but the
extraordinary bequest to which allusion is made was a sum to be used for
forming and maintaining a body guard for the viceroy, the guard to
comprise both infantry - halberdiers, as the foot then were in such a
body and cavalry, and to consist of a hundred men. It is difficult to
say whether this bequest was not a malicious hit at the poverty of show
among the high Spanish officials as compared with the state held by the
Indians in their ceremonials; but the viceroy did not care to inquire
too curiously into the donor's meaning, but preferred to accept with
gratitude the goods with which the gods had provided him.

It may be broadly said that the characteristics of the Spanish-American
ladies of Chili, Peru, and the rest of the greater Spanish-American
states were from the first, and continue until now, very like those of
the Mexican women. Even physically there is a great resemblance in the
races, as indeed there should be, considering the identity of parent
stock. Their complexions were and are rarely good; but their hair and
eyes are generally fine and their figures excellent, while small feet
form a national physical trait of which they, like their Mexican
sisters, are exceedingly proud. There has never been any marked racial
individuality among the women of South America, and what little there
once was has entirely disappeared. Even early in the past century a
traveller, in noting the influx of European manners, said: "This spirit
of imitation is natural and praiseworthy, but it produces a cloying
sameness; it is a leveller, destructive alike of national and personal
individuality, and the traveller, tired of seeing continually reproduced
the manners, customs, dress, and even ideas with which he has always
been familiar, will tarry with pleasure in those spots presenting the
freshness of originality. Such spots exist only where a continual
jostling with the exterior world has not abraded the salient angles of
the national character."

It may be added that such spots have become increasingly difficult to
find, and that the romance of South America has entirely disappeared
before the march of "progress." Yet few countries have known more of
romance, and this in regard to her women, though the chronicle is scanty
and must be pieced together from scraps of information. Perhaps the most
romantic era of South American women was that of the buccaneers. It was
a brief time and one that held much of peril to womanly honor and
virtue; but it also held delightful possibilities for the daughters of
Spain in their new home. These ladies, even some of noble birth, looked
not unkindly upon the "hereticos" who came with fire and sword to gain
wealth in the shape of booty and ransom. Do we not read in quaint old
chronicle of that paladin of a filibuster, Revenau de Lussan, who, in
1685, put Panama to ransom and then occupied the town of Queaquilla? De
Lussan was a freebooter, which is a polite way of writing "pirate," and
he was a Frenchman in days when Gallic morals were not on the highest of
planes even when judged by the usual standard of their country; but the
gentlemanly filibuster was frankly shocked at the state of affairs
existing in Queaquilla, where he found the most beautiful and wanton
women he had ever encountered. The monks and priests with which the town
swarmed took the lead in illicit intercourse with the entirely willing
ladies, and there were few children who had the faintest idea concerning
the identity of their paternal parents. The people of this place had
been told frightful stories about the pirates, and when De Lussan
captured a pretty young woman, the maid to the wife of the governor, she
begged him with tear-strewn cheeks, _Señor, por l'amor de Dios no mi
coma!_ [Senor, for the love of God do not eat me!] It took but a short
time, however, for the jovial buccaneers to prove to the ladies that
they were not greatly to be feared by the fair sex unless the latter
proved unkind; and when the pirates retired to the island of Puna with
their spoils they were accompanied by many of the ladies of Queaquilla,
who went with them nominally as prisoners awaiting ransom but really as
willing mistresses. There the freebooters spent many glorious weeks in
high revelry, with music, wine, dancing, and all other amusements most
dear to the pirate heart, the Spanish ladies entering most heartily into
the spirit of the occasion. In the attack on the town De Lussan killed
the Spanish treasurer, and the latter's disconsolate widow fell to the
lot of the slayer of her husband. In a few days she developed for the
gallant Frenchman a passion that was absolutely embarrassing, insisting
that he should remain with her after the rest of the band had departed,
should marry her, and should live with her at Queaquilla. She actually
went so far as to obtain from the governor a signed pardon for De Lussan
for offences committed against Spanish possessions, so that he could be
assured that he might safely remain. De Lussan, however, though he tells
us that he "was not a little perplexed herewith," could not resolve to
settle down and abandon the career of a pirate for that of a private
citizen; he may also have had doubts as to the intention of the governor
of keeping his fair promises when once he had the famous freebooter in
his power; so he further tells us: "Thus I rejected her proposals, but
so as to assure her I should retain even long as I lived a lively
remembrance of her affections and good inclinations toward me." Thus he
extricated himself from his quandary with all the finesse and gallantry
of his nation and went his way rejoicing in his liberty. We are not told
of the future fate of the lady, of whose name we are indeed kept in
ignorance, but it is probable that some Spaniard consoled her for the
loss of her lover as readily as had that lover for the loss of her

De Lussan's experience with the women of Central America - which for
convenience is here considered as part of the southern continent - was so
typical that it has been treated at greater length than it may have
deserved. Indeed, there seems to be much light thrown on the impetuous,
passionate nature of the Spanish-American woman by her bearing toward
the pirates who ravaged the shores of her country yet to whom she
frequently gave her heart and virtue. Of course this bearing was not

Online LibraryJohn Ruse LarusWomen of America → online text (page 7 of 27)