The idea came up when Alicia vallina, technical director of Naval Museum of San Fernando, He discovered a small box that was kept on a shelf in the warehouses of these military units in Cádiz. Covered in dust and possibly unopened in the last 200 years, the wooden box housed an old book bound in board which, in turn, preserved an astonishing history, written in late eighteenth-century administrative language. Vallina (Pola de Siero, 44 years old) carefully devoured the paragraphs drawn by hand and decided to turn them into an entertaining book: Daughter of the sea (Plaza and Janés, 2021).
This doctor in Art and Ancient World Studies has let her imagination fly, perhaps too much, when writing this historical novel. The reader discovers it in the last pages, when the author offers him the transcription of the documents that she found inside the box and on which she has relied to relate the complex life of Ana María de Soto and Alhama. This posed as Antonio de Sotomayor, Marine. Carlos IV, in attention to “the heroism shown and his refined conduct”, granted him on July 24, 1798, salary and rank of sergeant, allowing him to use the colors of the Navy and the insignia of his rank on his women’s clothes despite of deception.
Ana María de Soto was born on August 1, 1775 in Aguilar de la Frontera (Córdoba). At age 18 he enlisted as a grenadier soldier in the sixth company of the eleventh battalion of the Marine Infantry, under the name of Antonio María de Soto (or Sotomayor) and Alhama. His affiliation appears for the first time registered in a notebook of the frigate Our Lady of the Mercedes, in 1793. From this ship he passed to the Saint Dorotea and, subsequently, to the Matilde. He participated in the attacks on Banuyls (France), in the defense of Rosas, in the battle of Cape San Vicente, in the defense of Cádiz … A promising military life that ended abruptly on July 7, 1798 when his true identity was revealed.
Coinciding with the covid pandemic, a true boom of the historical novel is taking place in Spain. With greater or lesser success, an attempt is made to reconstruct events or lives based on more or less reliable documents. In the case of Daughter of the sea, the author delves into a reconstruction that – without ceasing to be possible, although quite unlikely – does not quite square with what the box she found in the museum treasured. De Soto, contrary to Vallina’s fictionalized story, did not end his days watching the son who had the fruit of a relationship with a beautiful and brave soldier grow up, but leaving his properties to his “universal heir”, Antonia Pérez Luque, the woman with the one who shared her life after being expelled from the Navy.
The author is wrong when she changes the heroine’s real life to adapt it to a tale of princesses and knights errant. The experiences of Elena de Céspedes, military man and surgeon, who self-used because she felt like a man, or Catalina de Erauso / Francisco de Loyola, known as the nun-ensign, the victorious captain of the battle of Valdivia (Chile), to which Felipe IV granted him a life pension, despite knowing his transvestism, Inquisition through. Or Maria The bailaora, who fought in Lepanto in 1571 as an arquebusier following his beloved and whom Juan de Austria also rewarded with a salary for life.
Even so, the novel faithfully recreates Spain at the end of the 18th century, a nation besieged on the seas by the English and French, where warships were shown as the last barrier to stop the collapse of the empire, and whose warehouses were loaded with the dreams of thousands of young people of a time. A country of dirty taverns built next to dusty roads, but where the firepower of its ships made the enemies tremble, who were forced to attack the unsuspecting Spanish frigates in peacetime without warning in order to sink them, as happened. with the Mercedes, the first of the ships in which De Soto crossed the sea looking for a fight and fortune.
“I command that it be redoubled with the bells of the convent of San Francisco, those of the hermitage of Our Lady of the Rose and two medians of the parish, paying for it the usual alms, I command that 25 masses say for my soul …”, The woman who concealed her sex for more than five years in the Navy wrote in her will.
Carlos IV, like Felipe II and Felipe IV before, did not care about the sex of his warriors. He even granted De Soto in 1799 permission to open a tobacconist in Montilla (Córdoba), which he maintained until 1820, when surprisingly, in the period known as the Liberal Triennium, the authorization “to sell cigars” was withdrawn. In 1833, at the age of 58, he passed away. “The characters, adventures and situations that occurred in this novel are fictional,” admits the author. “However, the character of Ana María de Soto y Alhama, the first woman who, disguised as a man, enlisted in the Spanish Marine Corps in 1793, is absolutely real.”
In the Naval Museum of San Fernando there is today a small space dedicated to the figure of this woman, “dressed in a grenadier uniform”, and where the facsimiles of her birth certificate and her will are exhibited. And although the data in these documents ―Vallina only admits it at the end of her book― do not coincide with those of the fictionalized account of the protagonist’s life, it is not too important either, if one takes into account that the book is an entertaining novel, that reconstructs an exciting world full of heroic battles when the sailors were still fighting seeing the face of the enemy on deck, although they did not distinguish that one of them was a woman. The same one that he wrote in his last wishes with military pride: “I command that my corpse be shrouded with the habit of Our Lady of Sorrows”, the patron saint of the grenadiers.
Daughter of mar, by Alicia Vallina (2021). Plaza and Janés Editores. 368 pages. 18.90 euros.