- Nuns Navigating the Spanish Empire by Sarah E. Owens
the historiography of spain's conquest and colonization of the New World has been mainly construed from the chronicles and narratives of the men who risked their lives crossing the oceans with the purpose of evangelizing, settling, or soldiering in the American continent and beyond. In contrast, women's colonial history has only recently begun to be explored. Women traveled less and later to the New World than men; unlike male narratives of exploits, writings by women were broadly divided by their religious or secular intent. The latter consisted of brief exemplars such as letters, government petitions, and poetry. Religious women most often wrote autobiographies, biographies, and foundational narratives of convents, which followed the missionary enterprise of male religious orders. In many cases, their writings functioned as hybrid texts, as they not only related the founding of a particular convent but also integrated nuns' biographies and, in some cases, authors' autobiographies.
It is this kind of hybrid model that Sarah Owens's enlightening study introduces in her recovery of a 450-folio manuscript penned mostly by an unknown nun, Sor Ana de Cristo, the vicaress of the first Franciscan convent in Manila, Philippines. The manuscript, which serves as Owens's main source, contains parts of Sor Ana's autobiography—especially her experiences in traveling to Manila from Spain—as well as the biography of the convent's elderly founder, whose identity, Sor Jerónima de la Asunción [de la Fuente], is known thanks to her portraits by Diego de Velázquez (one of which is now in the Museo del Prado). Sor Jerónima's importance cannot be overstated; twenty years older than the manuscript's author, she had already gathered a following for her sanctity that included Queen Margarita of Austria. Sor Ana's biography, which ends in 1629, the year before Sor Jerónima's death, not only responds to the nuns' desire for a faithfully written portrait of their founder but also illuminates Sor Jerónima's failed struggle to run a strict convent without dowries that allowed indigenous and mestiza women in the order.
Based also on archival documents and letters, Owens's study charts the history of the two nuns from their days in the Toledo convent of Santa Isabel de los Reyes to their departure for Manila some twenty years later in 1620. [End Page 173] Owens's study, however, is much more than a recounting of the nuns' lives. The first chapter recreates Sor Ana's narrative, first contextualizing the travel plans to Manila by explaining the accustomed patronage of convent foundations by royalty and nobles. It identifies the friars who initially supported the trip along with the cohort of nuns selected as cofounders, communicating a vivid sense of the excitement generated by the latter's preparations and brief stays in Seville, Jerez, and Cádiz. Owens notes that the first long trek of their voyage, from Cádiz to the islands of Guadeloupe, was surprisingly omitted by Sor Ana; she surmises that the nuns experienced the same hardships—continuous seasickness, malnourishment, storms, and fears of capsizing—suffered by a group of Capuchin nuns who traveled from Spain to Lima, Peru, and whose adventures, written by Madre María Rosa, Owens has edited and translated (Journey of Five Capuchin Nuns, Iter and Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2009).
On reaching Guadeloupe, Sor Ana describes the native Caribs, who had a rudimentary knowledge of Catholicism and spoke some Spanish. Throughout her study, Owens expands on Sor Ana's narrative with historical information on the colonization and settlement of the New World, depicting how the nuns reacted to contact with its inhabitants. The passage through Mexico details the surprise caused by the nuns to the locals as they stayed in doctrinas and met with criollos, priests, and friars on the road to Mexico City. The nuns' five-month stay there gave Sor Ana much to write about; she encounters the widespread devotion to Mother Juana de la Cruz, the medieval mystic whose miraculous...