The death of Guillén Peraza

Possible remains of Guillén Peraza, marked number 4, discovered during archaeological excavations conducted by Professors Bertila Galván Santos and Juan Francisco Navarrro Mederos in the Church of the Assumption, San Sebastián de La Gomera (source: PÉREZ (2005), p. 294).

Between 1979 and 1980, a team of archaeologists led by Professors Bertila Galván Santos and Juan Francisco Navarro Mederos executed an excavation of urgency in the Church of the Assumption (San Sebastián de La Gomera), a building that would be subjected to a major reform. At the deepest level of the burials located in the former Main Chapel, beneath the remains of other dead, the experts discovered the skeleton of a young man who had a lateral skull fracture and who was lying in an oblique orientation relative to that of the temple’s nave. The presence of a blanca –a Castilian coin minted during the reign of Enrique IV– at a level just above that of the remains allowed to date the burial as possible before 1471. Fragments of Andalusian tiles and stone-and-mud rubble ventured the existence of an ancient chapel, oriented differently from the current church, which would explain the unusual position of the body.[1]NAVARRO (1984), pp. 588-590, 593-594.

Even without the modern techniques of genetic identification, evidence suggested a name in an almost incontestable way: that young man was likely to be Guillén Peraza, only legitimate son of Fernán Peraza the Elder.

On June 28th, 1445, Fernán Peraza managed to reunify the fragmented Seigneury of the islands of Canaria in his own person, after swapping an olive estate in Huévar town, next to Seville, which had belonged to his late wife, for the rights that Guillén de las Casas, his father-in-law’s brother, held regarding the Canarian fiefdom. The two legitimate children of the new Lord, Guillén Peraza and Inés de las Casas -the future doña Inés Peraza, last head of the Seigneury–, even being the heirs to the Sevillian hacienda through their mother, being minors and subjected to their father’s power, had no choice but to agree to the exchange of the property:

And because you, the said Guillén de las Casas, fear and distrust that because we, the said Guillén Peraza and Inés de las Casas, his sister, are over fourteen and under twenty-five, either we or any of us, so made and granted the said contract, would reclaim and plead to be mistaken, cheated and damaged in the said trade and barter and exchange, and in the said contract that we have to make and grant, and that we will reclaim and plead the said memory and to be restored to our right, therefore, we and each of us swear and promise by the name of God and St. Mary and the Holy Gospels and the meaning of the Cross on which we bodily put our right hands before the scribes and witnesses written below, we shall have for firm and stable and valid and agreeable now and forever the said trade and exchange that we shall make with you of such goods and properties […][2]AZNAR (1990 ), p. 95. Adapted from ancient Castilian by PROYECTO TARHA.

After the reunification of the Seigneury, Fernán Peraza undertook the invasion of the unconquered islands but his first overtly military incursion ended in complete failure: his son Guillén, along with other conquerors, was killed in combat during the attempted taking of La Palma. Although the exact date of this event is unknown, we can pin it down in time by two public documents:

  1. The royal permission to swap the estate at Huévar, granted by King Juan II of Castile on July 13th, 1447, in which Guillén Peraza is considered alive.[3]AZNAR (1990), pp. 109-110.
  2. The ratification that Fernán Peraza signed on the trade agreement on April 15th, 1448 after the death of his son, to whom he presented himself as universal heir.[4]AZNAR (1990), p. 108.

Therefore, Guillén Peraza’s death must have occurred between the second half of 1447 and the first quarter of 1448. And although many witnesses in the Cabitos’ Inquiry confirmed this disaster, none of them gave more details about it beyond the number of casualties on the Castilian side, around sixty individuals.[5]AZNAR (1990), p. 197.

Let us read the account on this battle by the pen of Brother Juan de Abreu Galindo, which is the most detailed that we have:

[…] Guillén Peraza de las Casas, son of Fernán Peraza, […] as he was young, wanting to match his elders in their deeds and looking at himself as a rich and mighty Lord of these islands, left Sevilla with an armada made up of three ships with two hundred crossbowmen: he arrived to Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, where three hundred men joined him who went to La Gomera, and from there to La Palma, landing on the boundaries of Tihuya, lordship of Chedey, who commissioned the defense of the land to his brother Chenauco, who rallying the land came to aid and succor him another brave palmero named Butynymara. The Captains in the armada of Guillén Peraza de las Casas were, among the people from Sevilla, Hernán Peraza Martel, and among those from the islands, Juan de Adal and Luis de Casañas and Mateo Picar. He went inland. The island of La Palma is very high and of tough climbing and walking, and the people lead by Guillén Peraza de las Casas was unused to such toughness, and being the palmeros skilled and swift on it, putting themselves on the most harsh and difficult paths, they rushed to the Christians in such a way that they threw them into disarray, and although they bravely defended themselves they made them retreat, and wanting Guillén Peraza de las Casas to face them, they hit him with a stone and he fell dead.[6]ABREU (1848), p. 63. Translation by PROYECTO TARHA.

Whether the death of young Peraza served to any purpose it was for bequeathing to posterity a beautiful dirge -a sad composition- that some authors consider as the first manifestation of Spanish literature made in the Canaries, although we personally doubt an islander authorship for these verses, as defended by Abreu Galindo, their first spreader,[7]The alleged friar incidentally Guillén Peraza’s body was taken to Lanzarote for burial, a rather dubious possibility as the expedition of conquest sailed from La Gomera. because we tend to think that they were composed in Sevilla, where the novel conqueror would have left a greater number of people who would mourn his loss. However, we cannot overlook that this is a capital poem belonging to the ancient history of the Archipelago, a true lament-curse: [8]ABREU (1848), pp 63-64.

Llorad las damas si Dios os vala | Cry ye Ladies if God serves

Guillén Peraza cayó en La Palma | Guillén Peraza on La Palma fell

La flor marchita de la su cara | The withered blossom on his face

No eres palma, eres retama | A palm thou are not,  a broom thou are

Eres ciprés de triste rama | Thou are a cypress with a mourning branch

Eres desdicha, desdicha mala | Thou are misery, misery in bad

Tus campos rompan tristes volcanes | May gloomy volcanoes tear thy lands

No vean placeres sino pesares | May them see not pleasures but the sad

Cubran tus flores los arenales | May thy flowers be covered by the sands

Guillén Peraza, Guillén Peraza | Guillén Peraza, Guillén Peraza

¿Dó está tu escudo? ¿Dó está tu lanza? | Where is thy shield? Where is thy lance?

Todo lo acaba la malandanza | Misfortune is to end everything at last

(This loose English translation by PROYECTO TARHA)

Rediscovered by philologists Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo and Dámaso Alonso out of the 1848 edition of the History by Brother Juan de Abreu Galindo, the dirge to the death of Guillén Peraza has been the focus of a number of excellent studies, among which are those by Professors María Rosa Alonso and Francisco Rico, linked in the References section. However, dirge’s dating has been questioned this year by researcher Ángel Ignacio Eff-Darwich Peña in an interesting article titled Dos apuntes sobre las endechas a la muerte de Guillén Peraza (Two notes on the dirge to the death of Guillén Peraza).

In this paper it is argued that, although a coetaneous funeral song dedicated to the dead conqueror could be composed, the dirge referred to by Abreu Galindo was probably contemporaneous with this author, since there is no evidence that the word and the concept volcán (volcano) were used in old Castilian language, at least until the sixteenth century.

In our opinion, however, it is possible that the dirge were authentic, although its stanzas have probably undergone modifications over the years that modernized them, as is the case with many traditional compositions. For example, we might speculate questioned verse was originally written as Tus campos rompan tristes brojales, for abrojales; that is to say, fields of thistles, a solution figuratively coherent with the flores (flowers) appearing in the last verse and that would solve the strange qualifier of tristes (sad) applied to the volcanos, a geological term completely exotic in the eyes of the Iberian culture. Another strange word, this time contemporaneous but of infrequent use in the late medieval period, is escudo (shield), which we think that originally could have been an adarga (a leather, heart-shaped shield), phonetically more harmonic in the sequence Peraza, Peraza, adarga, lanza, acaba, malandanza.

In any case, being a historical milestone to the literature related to the Archipelago, and being its true melody unknown, this dirge has been covered in different styles including chamber music, folk music and rap. Here we offer the interpretation made in the 80s by Uruguayan singer-songwriter Eduardo Darnauchans.

Antonio M. López Alonso



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  1. Pingback: Endechas de Canarias: primera página de la Literatura Canaria

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