Manuela Sáenz (1797-1856) was an Ecuadorian noblewoman who was the confidante and lover of Simón Bolívar
before and during the South American wars of Independence from Spain. In September, 1828, she saved Bolívar's life when political rivals tried to assassinate him in Bogotá: this earned her the title "the Liberator of the Liberator." She is still considered a national hero in her native city of Quito, Ecuador
Manuela was the illegitimate child of Simón Sáenz Vergara, a Spanish military officer, and Ecuadorian María Joaquina Aizpurru. Scandalized, her mother’s family threw her out, and Manuela was raised and schooled by nuns in the Santa Catalina convent in Quito. Young Manuela caused a scandal of her own when she was forced to leave the convent at the age of seventeen when it was discovered that she had been sneaking out to have an affair with a Spanish army officer. She moved in with her father.
Her father arranged for her to marry James Thorne, an English doctor who was a good deal older than she was. In 1819 they moved to Lima, then the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru. Thorne was wealthy, and they lived in a grand home where Manuela hosted parties for Lima’s upper class. In Lima, Manuela met high ranking military officers and was well informed about the different revolutions taking place in Latin America against Spanish rule. She sympathized with the rebels and joined the conspiracy to liberate Lima and Peru. In 1822, she left Thorne and returned to Quito. It was there that she met Simón Bolívar.
Manuela and Simón:
Although Simón was about 15 years older than she, there was an instant mutual attraction. They fell in love. Manuela and Simón did not get to see one another as much as they would have liked, as he allowed her to come on many, but not all, of his campaigns. Nevertheless, they exchanged letters and saw each other when they could. It wasn’t until 1825-1826 that they actually lived together for a time, and even then he was called back to the fight.
The Battles of Pichincha, Junín and Ayacucho:
On May 24, 1822, Spanish and rebel forces clashed on the slopes of Pichincha volcano
, within sight of Quito. Manuela actively participated in the battle, as a combatant and supplying food, medicine and other aid to the rebels. The rebels won the battle, and Manuela was awarded the rank of lieutenant. On August 6, 1824, she was with Bolívar at the Battle of Junín
, where she served in the cavalry and was promoted to captain. Later, she would also aid the rebel army at the Battle of Ayacucho: this time, she was promoted to Colonel on the suggestion of General Sucre himself, Bolívar's second-in-command.
On September 25, 1828, Simón and Manuela were in Bogotá
, in the San Carlos Palace. Bolívar's enemies, who did not want to see him retain political power now that the armed struggle for independence was winding down, sent assassins to murder him in the night. Manuela, thinking quickly, threw herself between the killers and Simón, which allowed him to escape through the window. Simón himself gave her the nickname that would follow her for the rest of her life: "the liberator of the liberator."
Bolívar died of tuberculosis in 1830. His enemies came to power in Colombia and Ecuador, and Manuela was not welcome in these countries. She lived in Jamaica 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. She had several dogs, which she named after her and Simón’s political enemies. She died in 1856 when a diphtheria epidemic swept through the area. Unfortunately, all of her possessions were burned, including all of the letters she had kept from Simón.
Manuela in Art and Literature:
The tragic, romantic figure of Manuela Sáenz has inspired artists and writers since before her death. She has been the subject of numerous books and a movie, and in 2006 the first-ever Ecuadorian produced and written opera, Manuela and Bolívar, opened in Quito to packed houses.
Manuela’s impact on the independence movement is greatly underestimated today, as she is remembered mostly as Bolívar’s lover. In fact, she actively participated in planning and funding a good deal of rebel activity. She fought at Pichincha, Junín and Ayacucho and was recognized by Sucre himself as an important part of his victories. She generally dressed in the uniform of a cavalry officer, complete with saber. An excellent rider, her promotions were not merely for show. Finally, her effect on Bolívar himself should not be underestimated: many of his greatest moments came in the eight years they were together.
One place where she has not been forgotten is her native Quito. In 2007, on the occasion of the 185th anniversary of the Battle of Pichincha, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa officially promoted her to “Generala de Honor de la República de Ecuador,” Or “Honorary General of the Republic of Ecuador.” In Quito, many places such as schools, streets and businesses bear her name and her history is required reading for schoolchildren. There is also a museum dedicated to her memory in old colonial Quito.