Sáenz, Manuela (1797–1856)

views updated

Sáenz, Manuela (1797–1856)

South American revolutionary and companion to Simón Bolívar, the Liberator of South America, who accompanied him into combat, saved his life on two occasions, fought for his reputation, and guarded his papers until her death. Name variations: Manuela Saenz. Born Manuela Sáenz on December 27, 1797, in Quito, Ecuador; died on November 23, 1856, in Paita, Peru; daughter of Simón Sáenz de Vergara (a well-born Spanish adventurer) and María Joaquina de Aispuro (a wealthy woman in her own right); briefly attended a convent school; married James Thorne (an English merchant), in 1817; no children.

Sent to a convent school, from which she fled with a military officer (1814); fell in love with Simón Bolívar (1822); remained Bolívar's companion in the revolutionary cause until independence from Spain was achieved (1824); was separated from Bolívar at time of his death (1830); lived to see Bolívar reinstated as a hero (1842).

Wakened at midnight by barking dogs, Manuela Sáenz sat up, realizing that someone was moving about in the house. She shook the man next to her, whispered for him to get up, quickly helped him dress, and handed him his sword and pistol. He escaped through the window before she let in the men pounding on the door. They searched the room, demanding to know the whereabouts of her companion, and Sáenz answered that he was at a council meeting—she had been waiting for him herself. One man struck her in the face, sure that she was lying, then the intruders left by the open window themselves. A short while later that night, Sáenz rejoined her companion in the town plaza. He was Simón Bolívar, the heroic general known as the Liberator of South America, and it was the second time she had saved his life. When they returned home, Bolívar would say to her, "You are the Liberatrice of the Liberator."

Manuela Sáenz was born out of wedlock on December 27, 1797, in Quito, Ecuador. Her father Simón Sáenz de Vergara was a well-born Spanish adventurer and a married man with four children. Her mother María Joaquina de Aispuro was a woman of a wealthy and aristocratic family who raised her daughter in affluent circumstances. Of Manuela's birth, Hugo Mocay wrote, "She was born in a magnificent bed covered with velvet lined in satin and adorned with an abundant fringe and a precious gold ornament, with a coverlet in the same style and sheets embroidered in Belgian lace." The child grew up in the home of her maternal grandparents, where her father was a regular visitor and fiercely affectionate toward his daughter. He even tried to persuade his legitimate children to accept her, without success.

After Quito was sacked by rebel factions during one of the region's ongoing civil wars, Manuela and her mother left the city for their Catahuango hacienda, or ranch, where Manuela learned to ride horseback, read the classics, and speak English among playmates and companions who were chiefly black slaves. In the colonial frontier culture of South America, which was dominated by Spain and the Catholic Church, the upper levels of society officially adhered to strict standards of behavior, but women in the New World were actually allowed considerable freedom relative to the times. In this freewheeling society, Manuela grew up knowing how to smoke, drink and swear, and experienced "the tormented delights of love" during her teenage years; she also became enamored of the revolutionary politics then sweeping the continent, where many people, inspired by the recent revolutions in North America and France, longed for liberation from Spain.

In an effort to tame her adventuresome spirit, Sáenz was sent to a convent at age 17. Unfortunately, the chosen convent was "notorious for its libertine practices," and Manuela soon fled it with a military officer, Fausto de Elhuyar; their passionate affair lasted several weeks before she was returned to her mother. She had grown into a beautiful woman who loved being the center of attention when, three years later, she was married to an English merchant, James Thorne, who at 40 was twice her age. Thorne doted on his bride, and their lavish wedding celebration lasted three days. The couple set up a luxurious household and Sáenz, whose interest in revolutionary politics had remained strong, became a host for clandestine political meetings. But politics was apparently not enough to keep her occupied, and when she resumed her affair with Fausto, Thorne decided to move his wife from Quito to a hacienda outside Lima, Peru.

Delighted to be living in the "City of the Viceroys," Sáenz quickly became friends with the similarly intelligent, attractive and flirtatious Rosita Campuzano , who shared Sáenz's passion for revolutionary politics. Soon both women were holding salons in support of revolutionary action, organizing women into groups to raise money for shipbuilding and uniforms. During this time Campuzano became the lover of General José de San Martín, the military figure known as the Protector of Peru.

Learn to love and do not leave me, not even to go with God Himself.

—Simón Bolívar, in a letter to Sáenz

In April 1822, after the death of her mother, Sáenz was summoned back to Quito to collect her inheritance, but she may also have been sent away from Lima by her husband. Two months later, on June 16, 1822, Simón Bolívar arrived in Quito. At age 39, the man still in the process of liberating what would become the independent countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Bolivia was at the height of his influence. He had been born in Caracas, on July 24, 1783, the son of a noble Spanish family. In 1801, he had married Maria Teresa Toro , in Spain, and the couple returned to Venezuela in 1803. When his wife died of yellow fever, Bolívar had pledged never to marry again, but to devote his life to freeing Venezuela from Spain. A brilliant general as well as a statesman who understood the implications of democracy, Bolívar became a legend in his own time, leading armies throughout the continent, trekking through uncharted wilderness, and relying on limited resources during most of some 200 bloody battles in which he was eventually engaged.

On the night of June 16, Manuela Sáenz danced with Bolívar at the governor's palace, beginning what was to be a lifelong love affair. The two shared much in common. Both admired the same heroes, thinkers, and writers, and both were veterans in the fight against Spain. Both also had reputations as devotees of eros as well as revolution. If Bolívar was past his prime—due mainly to the rigors of his long campaign and to the symptoms of the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him—the passionate Manuela Sáenz was the physical and intellectual tonic he needed.

Bolívar's military actions kept him constantly on the move, and Sáenz was soon traveling with him. An excellent equestrian, she adopted an outfit of red pants and a black velvet poncho, with her loose curls falling out from under a plumed hat. She also became skilled with a sword and pistol. Although Bolívar remained the ladies' man he had always been, both recognized the uniqueness of their relationship. Sáenz became chief confidante, secretary and advisor to the Liberator, reading to him when he was tired and caring for him when he was sick. She alone was entrusted with his personal records. Bolívar's aide-de-camp, Daniel Florencio O'Leary, eventually proposed that she be made a colonel, and people began to refer to her as "Bolívar's woman."

On December 9, 1824, Spain's power over the New World finally ended at the battle of Ayacucho,

Peru. Bolívar returned to Bolivia, named in his honor, where he established schools, distributed land to the Indians, and implemented new irrigation and mining techniques. Unfortunately, his vision of a united South America was soon subsumed by those eager to carve out personal fiefdoms for themselves, and power grabs became the order of the day. Before long a series of civil wars broke out which were to consume political energy on the continent for the next half-century. Even the ambitious friends of Bolívar turned against him, leading to his rescue by Sáenz on two occasions. The first time, in August 1828, she got news that his enemies intended to kill him in Bogotá, Colombia, at a masked ball. Unable to warn him ahead of time, Sáenz arrived at the gathering, unkempt and apparently drunk, making such a scene that Bolívar unknowingly thwarted the murderers' plot by leaving; the second time, she prevented the attempted assassination in his bed.

As the political intrigues worsened, Bolívar's past feats were thrown into disrepute. His military victories were said to have been won by other generals, or else he was portrayed as a bloodthirsty monster, blamed for atrocities committed by both sides. Sáenz found herself attacked as a common prostitute and castigated for her loyalty to the former hero, now viewed as a mere murderer. The South America created by Bolívar had begun to splinter into Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia by January 1830, when Bolívar resigned from the last of his official duties. He was ill and most of his personal fortune had been spent on freeing the various parts of the continent. Refusing both a pension and a gift from his uncle, he sold his fine horses, some furnishings and jewels, and set out with Manuela for the Colombian port of Cartagena, intending to sail for Europe.

The money was soon gone, however, and Bolívar, perhaps realizing that he was near death, sent Sáenz away. Still she remained loyal. When Sáenz returned to Bogotá for the Feast of Corpus Christ on June 9, 1830, she learned she was to be burned in effigy, a display arranged by Bolívar's nemesis, Francisco de Paula Santander. Fearing Sáenz's reaction to the display, the authorities stationed armed guards around the plaza. Sáenz rushed to the plaza brandishing a pistol, intent on destroying the effigy which she viewed as an insult to Bolívar. Her opponents were cowed. On June 23, she wrote to a newspaper:

If even the withdrawal of this hero from public life has failed to calm your rage and you have chosen me as your target, I can say to you: you can do whatever you want to me, you can threaten my very existence, cowards that you are, but you cannot make me betray my respect and friendship for General Bolívar and my gratitude to him. Those of you who consider this to be a crime reveal only the pettiness of your own minds, while I demonstrate the constancy of my spirit by vowing that you shall never make me vacillate or fear.

Bolívar died on December 17, 1830; Sáenz lived another 26 years, generally impoverished and persecuted by some who demanded her imprisonment. When pressured to hand over Bolívar's papers, she responded defiantly, "You will neither get papers nor books; I shall deliver them to no one unless you prove to me by law that he is an outlaw." Banished for awhile to Guaduas, she let a poisonous snake bite her in the hope she could join her dead lover; later she was exiled to Jamaica. Finally she settled in the Peruvian coastal town of Paita, where she ran a shop catering to sailors and was sought out by such notable visitors as Giuseppe Garibaldi, Ricardo Palma, and a young whaler named Herman Melville.

At age 50, Manuela dislocated a hip, which left her an invalid until her death a decade later, on November 23, 1856, during a diphtheria epidemic. She was buried in a common grave, and the papers of Bolívar which she had so jealously guarded were burned by townspeople in their attempt to halt the spread of the disease. She had lived long enough, however, to see Bolívar restored to his rightful place in history, following the publication of the memoirs of his aide, O'Leary, 12 years after the general's death. Manuela Sáenz, for a long time relegated to the back pages of history, recently has become more recognized for her contributions during the struggle for independence and for her unfailing loyalty to the Liberator.


Ballesteros, Mercedes. Manuela Sáenz, el ultimo Amor de Bolívar. Madrid: Fundacion Universitaria Española, 1976.

Bushnell, David. The Liberator, Simón Bolívar: Man and Image. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.

Gil-Montero, Martha. "Manuela & Simón," in Américas. Vol. 42, no. 2, 1990, pp. 6–15.

Malta, Demetrio Aguilera. Manuela, La caballeresa del sol: A Novel. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967.

Masur, Gerhard. Simón Bolívar. Rev. ed. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1969.

McNerney, Robert F., Jr. Bolívar and the War of Independence. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1970.

Nicholson, Irene. "Simón Bolívar," in The Liberators: A Study of Independence Movements in Spanish America. NY: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969, pp. 153–263.

Paine, Lauran. Bolivar the Liberator. London: Robert Hale, 1970.

von Hagen, Victor W. in collaboration with Christine von Hagen. The Four Seasons of Manuela: The Love Story of Manuela Sáenz and Simón Bolívar. NY: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1952.

Karin Loewen Haag , writer, Athens, Georgia