This month in Kickass Women in History, we celebrate the life of Manuela Sáenz y Aizpuru, “La Libertadora del Libertador.” This woman saved the life of Simón Bolívar and worked tirelessly to end Spanish colonial rule over South America.
Sáenz was born in 1797 to an unwed mother. She was a tomboy and loved riding horses. Sent to a convent at one point, she got kicked out when she was seventeen after being seduced by and having an affair with an army officer. In 1817, her father arranged her marriage to James Thorpe, a wealthy Englishman twice her age. The marriage was not a success and Sáenz left Thorpe in 1822. Though they never divorced, they also never reconciled. However, the marriage did raise her social status and exposed her to politicians and leaders who introduced her to revolutionary ideals.
Soon after leaving Thorpe, Sáenz met and fell in love with Simón Bolívar, who called her a “crazy, gentle woman”. Bolívar became famous as the military leader who expelled the Spanish rule from much of South America. While she’s often thought of as Bolívar’s lover, and they did have an intense romantic relationship, she was also a practical political and military leader who promoted anti-colonialism as well as the rights of women. She was instrumental in troop recruitment and in preventing troops from deserting, and during several pivotal battles she was an active combatant. In addition to providing support by supplying food and medicine to the rebels, she also served in the cavalry, and she rose through the ranks to eventually become a colonel. She was an excellent horsewoman and was known to dress in pants and carry a sword.
Sáenz’s most famous action came in 1828, when she saved Bolívar from assassins who attacked them in their room. Some say she distracted the assassins and other say she physically fought them. Regardless, Bolívar was able to escape by climbing out a window. He gave her the nickname, “La Libertadora del Libertador” – the Liberator of the Liberator.
Bolívar was successful in achieving independence for most of South America but ultimately he lost power and died in exile in Europe of tuberculosis.
Bolívar’s enemies hounded Sáenz for years. At one point she tried to commit suicide by getting a venomous snake to bite her, but she survived and lived in exile in Jamaica and then in Peru. She made a tenuous living as a merchant and translator. She died of diphtheria in 1856. In 2010, her “symbolic remains” were given a full state burial in Venezuela and laid to rest with Bolívar’s.