Isabel Barreto: the First Female Sailor and Admiral

The Galician Queen of the South Seas

Who was Isabel Barreto

Isabel Barreto was the granddaughter of Francisco Barreto, the Portuguese governor of India. She is supposed to be born in 1567, in Pontevedra (Galicia, Spain) where she also died in 1617. Still very young, she became a Spanish sailor and the first woman to hold the office of Admiral in European history. She married Alvaro de Mendaña, a Spanish navigator and patron of several expeditions to the Pacific Ocean. 

But why is she so important? Well, there was only one woman at the head of a naval expedition of the XVI century, and this was her, standing out for embodying roles and activities, at that time, intended only for men.

Maybe she inherited her passion for sailing from her grandfather. We don’t know much more about her life, but one thing is for sure: she was brave, untamable, and with a strong determination of conquering the world. Other versions also point out that she was extremely cruel both with the members of the crew and with the natives of the islands that she discovered. Whatever the truth is, she starred a huge feat.

Thus, let’s discover her life and how she arrived to be the first woman to hold the title of Admiral in the history of Spanish navigation!

The expedition to the Pacific

Alvaro de Mendaña portrait
Credits: Jot Down

From Galicia, she moved with her family to the Viceroyalty of Peru. Here she met her husband who married in 1585. Alvaro de Mendaña allowed her to join him on many of his voyages offshore. The expedition to the Pacific was one of them. 

They first discovered the Marquesas Islands, after them, they found the Santa Cruz Islands. Here, her husband contracted malaria and named Lorenzo Barreto, Isabel’s brother, Admiral of the expedition. However, Lorenzo too died a few days later, so Isabel remained in charge.

There was widespread discontent about her charge, but Isabel was a determined, strong, authoritative, and she knew how to assert herself. But at the same time, the expedition was becoming a failure: diseases, internal corruption, riots, attacks by indigenous people, deaths everywhere. Thus, she decided to end it and sets the course for the Philippines. During three months of hardships, Isabel demonstrated her stamina, rationing food and water, suffocating mutinies and dominating protests and threats. The expedition ended triumphantly at the Port of Manila, where the Queen of Saba of the South Seas was received with honours upon entering the bay.

After the expedition

Isabel Barreto
Credits: El Mundo

In Manila, she married the Governor’s nephew, Fernando de Castro, since she needed a suitable husband to assert her rights over the Solomon Islands. With him, she organizes a new expedition to Acapulco. In the meanwhile, the Spanish Court decided to refuse her request.  Here is where we lose track of Isabel. Some sources indicate that she travelled with her husband to Spain and that she ended up dying in her native Galicia. Others say that she died in Perù.

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