In recent years, the historiography of the early modern globalization has given increasing emphasis to the role of women. However, there are still little-known aspects due to the almost totally exclusive male focus. Among these topics, there is the presence of women on board transoceanic voyages. The difficulty of studying the women’s presence on early modern vessels comes mainly from the documentary silence. Indeed, women’s presence on board ships was considered very inconvenient. Women on board could represent an incitement to the ever-burning sexual appetites of the sailors, inducing them to sin. In addition to this, disorders could arise because of jealousy related to potential love affairs between women passengers and the crew.
Nonetheless, some women did travel on ships. We should cite the case of the first women who disguised as men managed to reach India on board Francisco de Almeida’s fleet, in 1505. They were Isabella Pereira, Lianor, Branca and Inês Rodrigues. We can only imagine the marvel in their eyes while reaching the Far East after a dangerous and long journey. Other categories of female passengers traveling to the West or the East were prostitutes and nuns, servants following their masters, or indigenous slaves brought back to Europe, or snatched from Africa for the Americas. The movements, it must be remembered, did not go in one direction only, and thus we cannot be restricted to a Eurocentric view.
A fascinating case is the story of Sor Jerónima de la Asunción, who in 1620, together with her Franciscan Sisters, left her convent in Toledo to go found the first female convent in the Philippines. The group of nuns first crossed the Atlantic and stopped in Mexico. They later embarked the Manila Galleon to cross the Pacific Ocean and reach the Philippines. This journey is narrated in a very rare source written by a companion of Sor Jerónima, Sor Ana de Cristo, a long manuscript account of their fifteen-month odyssey.
This is just one example among many that exist. Women, although unrecognized, paid a great tribute of blood to the global European expansion. These few lines are not enough to exhaust an extremely complex subject but they may serve as a cue to deepen and learn more. [David Salomoni]