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The Creole vicereine

Almudena de Arteaga unveils the woman who supported Bernardo de Gálvez in the independence of the United States and wanted to work for the modernisation of Spain
Almudena de Arteaga

 -   Almudena de Arteaga

Until recently, the Malaga-born Bernardo de Gálvez (Macharaviaya, Málaga, 1746 - Tacubaya, Mexico City, 1786) was practically unknown to the general Spanish public, despite being the only compatriot recognised by George Washington as one of the heroes of American independence, and even centuries later, in 2014, by President Barack Obama, who granted him honorary nationality.

The last of the biographies analysing the impressive career of this military man was brought to light in 2018 by Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia, winner of the Distinguished Book Award of the Society for Military History for the best biography published in the United States.  In that book, (Bernardo de Gálvez, Alianza Editorial), the author already points out that the fascinating biography of Bernardo de Gálvez could not be explained without the presence of his wife, Felicitas de Saint-Maxent, leaving in the air the challenge for someone to discover her.

A challenge accepted and now consummated by Almudena de Arteaga (1967), 20th Duchess of Infantado, who tells us the impressive life story of Felicitas de Saint-Maxent in " The Creole Vicereine". The illustrious Countess of Gálvez, a woman between two worlds (Ed. HarperCollins, 382 pp.).

Almudena de Arteaga
 " The Creole Vicereine"

The author literally steps into the shoes of her biographer and narrates in first person the frenetic changes and twists and turns of her life from her successive vantage points in New Orleans, Havana, Mexico and Madrid, in the turbulent middle of the 18th century when the revolt of the Thirteen Colonies would involve the three great empires of the time - Spanish, English and French - in American independence. This event would accelerate the French Revolution and provoke the great tensions in Europe that would end in the great Napoleonic continental war, with particular damage and losses for Spain. 

The beautiful, blonde Felicitas de Saint-Maxent was born a Cajun, meaning settlers of French descent who chose to settle in Louisiana. They came from New France (Canada) and, like so many others, had fled the English siege they were subjected to with their abusive tariff demands. Dedicated to the fur trade, farming on the great prairies, raising bison and selling meat, they soon made a fortune.

The Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1762 and the subsequent Peace of Paris, which ended the Seven Years' War and the French defeat of England, resulted in France surrendering Canada and all of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River to England, leaving the possessions on the opposite bank in the west, including the capital, to Spain. The Spanish crown, whose King Charles III had aided his cousin Louis XVI of France in the conflict, would lose both Floridas: the East, with its capital at St. Augustine, and the West, with its capital at Pensacola

Louisiana definitively ceased to be French and, as a Spaniard, became part of the Captaincy General of Cuba. Gilberto de Saint-Maxent, Felicitas's father, was the first Cajun to offer his unconditional services to Antonio de Ulloa, the new Spanish governor appointed by Charles III

​  Almudena de Arteaga  ​
​Almudena de Arteaga

Felicitas, always through Almudena de Arteaga, narrates with her acute feminine vision the intrigues that are forged around her, which notably changes the perspective of the story compared to when it is written by male authors. The exquisite attention to detail, the terminological precision, especially with regard to the names that gave rise to the phenomenon typical and exclusive to the Spanish empire, the description of the moods of the families, always expectant of news of their husbands and fiancés on military missions, and the anger at the frequent attacks by the English pirates, with their habitual practices of robbery and plundering, make up a different and complete picture of the thriving society that was being formed in the new American world. 

Widowed before her twentieth birthday and later united and married to Bernardo de Gálvez, she became his support and confidant and shared his despair at the administrative slowness that delayed, if not prevented, operations that would have speeded up the process of defeating the English and reconquering La Mobilia and Pensacola or transporting the supplies that Charles III secretly sent to the combatants in Washington.

As vicereine of New Spain she introduced major reforms in behaviour, dealt with the already huge population of Mexico City, and supported her husband in new ways of relating to the indigenous groups living on the fringes of the northernmost Spanish territory, especially the Apaches. She lived through the long and painful illness of dysentery, which would end Gálvez's life in her early forties. And, widowed again, she fulfilled her deathbed promise to leave everything behind and take her children to Spain for their education.

She wanted to and succeeded in setting up in the salons of her Madrid home the scientific and literary gatherings that she had already tried out with notable success in Havana and Mexico, but these were the turbulent times unleashed by the French Revolution. Those who had French origins or professed open-mindedness were regarded with distrust and suspicion, and Felicitas, despite being the widow of a hero and enjoying the favour and friendship of many of the most influential men of the time, could not avoid being exiled. A life as brief as her husband's, but certainly no less exciting and intense, and a glaring example of the dizzying ups and downs experienced in the course of a lifetime