Manuela Sáenz is one of Latin America’s ultimate Hussies. She lived her life as a mistress to another man, betraying not only her husband, but also her country. Yet, until 2010 when she was given a state burial, she was one of the region’s unsung heroes, a leader, and a revolutionary. She fought for her own freedom and for the freedom of the people that she loved.
Manuela Sáenz was born in December 1797, right in the midst of Spanish Colonialism in Latin America. She was the illegitimate child of a Spanish nobleman and a local girl, and as a result she was sent in disgrace to a convent to be educated. She was forced to leave the convent when it was discovered that she was having relations with a Spanish army officer. The extent to which these relations were consensual is not fully known. It is suspected that they were not. She ended up living with her father Quito, in Ecuador, who ‘kindly’ arranged a marriage for her to an Englishman twice her age when she was only 20. She joined the realms of aristocracy and high society in Lima, Peru. Many would have said she was very lucky to be in such a position, but the pompous charade of colonists was not for her. It was a life that she resented and she spent her life fighting against it.
She used her time in that world wisely, though, and learnt about the revolutions occurring around Latin America, and importantly what the Spanish and English were doing about them. She gathered both military intelligence and her own confidence from the rebel stories spread between aristocratic mouths, absorbing and planning. During her time in Lima, Manuela joined the rebel groups and acted as a spy for them, sharing her information for the good of the revolution. Which is in itself awesome…like 007 but in a fancy dress…
Before long she was following her ideals, leaving her husband and heading back to Quito. Simon Bolívar the infamous Latino Hero, know by the people as ‘El liberador’ (the liberator in Spanish – in case your logic is out of sync today) had just won a great battle for the rebels and welcomed Manuela with open arms…if you know what I mean… They fell in love instantly and Manuela spent the next 8 years of her life at his side, but importantly he was also at hers. They exchanged love letters and she visited him while he moved from one country to another. Manuela became known as ‘Libertadora del libertador’ ("liberator of the liberator"), she prevented his assassination in 1828 and helped Bolívar to escape to continue with the rebellion. She also supported the revolutionary cause by gathering information, distributing leaflets, and protesting for women's rights.
In fact, Manuela fought on the battlefield many times, working her way through the ranks until she was honoured with the rank of Colonel on the request of Bolívar’s second-in-command. She had shown herself worthy on her own merit of being an active and brilliant individual, without Bolívar. As one of the first women involved in the revolution, Manuela received the Order of the Sun (‘Caballeresa del Sol’ or 'Dame of the Sun'), honouring her services in the revolution. This award is the highest award bestowed by the nation of Peru to commend notable civil and military merit, and she was the first female to receive such a high honour.
Unfortunately the success of Boliviar’s revolution was limited and he was forced into exile. He died from tuberculosis leaving Manuela behind, alone and unprovided for. However, as the brilliantly strong woman that she was, she continued with the revolution in his name until she herself was exiled to Jamaica. There she stayed for a while before finally settling in the small town of Paita on the Peruvian coast. She made a living writing and translating letters for sailors on whaling ships and by selling tobacco and candy. Amusingly, she had several dogs, which she named after her and Simón’s political enemies. Regardless of her exile, Manuela remained active in revolutionary activities by holding meetings and often being an advisor for those wishing to take the battle further.
With time, she became destitute and disabled after she fell through the stairs in her home. She died in 1856, 25 years after Bolívar, from Diphtheria. At the time she was considered a harlot and a pariah and she was buried as such within a mass grave. Once the fighting was over, Bolívar was recognised for his part in the revolution and honoured for it. It wasn't until recently, however, that Manuela Sáenz was recognised herself. In 2010, more than 150 years after she had died, she was finally recognised for the work that she had achieved. She was ceremonially buried beside her lover Bolívar in the National Pantheon of Venezuela; ‘We are going to unite the remains of our liberator Simón Bolívar with the remains of his immortal companion,’ said Venezuela's vice-president, Elías Jaua. In 2007 the Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa officially promoted her to ‘Generala de Honor de la República de Ecuador,’ or ‘Honorary General of the Republic of Ecuador.’ Many places such as schools, streets and businesses bear her name, and her history is required reading for schoolchildren. There's also a museum dedicated to her memory in old colonial Quito, and she is the subject of multiple books, musicals and films.
As she should be, Manuela Sáenz has finally been immortalised. But I feel that it may be for the wrong reasons. In all the news articles and media surrounding her reburial, she is portrayed as the lover of Bolívar, his confidante. As Pamela Murray, author of For Glory and Bolívar: The Remarkable Life of Manuela Sáenz says, ‘Often she is portrayed as a romantic or superficial figure but she was politically important for Bolívar and a political operator in her own right.’
Manuela Sáenz may not be a well-known or living feminist leader, in fact the word ‘feminism’ was not part of her vocabulary. But she was a leader before her time, a solider, a politician, an activist, a nurse, a protector, a freedom fighter and, of course, the ultimate Hussy. She may be immortalized as the liberator’s lover in the minds of others, but for me, she will be immortalized as one of the bravest and most influential females of her time.