Doña Manuela Sáenz (December 27, 1797, or possibly 1795, – November 23, 1856) was born in Quito, Viceroyalty of New Granada (Present-day Ecuador) and died in Paita, Peru. She was a revolutionary hero of South America, who also became the mistress of the South American revolutionary leader, Simón Bolívar. She married a wealthy English merchant in 1817 and became an aristocrat and socialite in Lima, Peru. This provided the setting for involvement in political and military affairs, and she became active in support of revolutionary efforts. Leaving her husband in 1822, she soon began an eight-year collaboration and intimate relationship with Bolivar that lasted until his death in 1830. After she prevented an 1828 assassination attempt against him and facilitated his escape, Bolivar began to call her, “Libertadora del Libertador”, the liberator of the liberator and she was celebrated and given many honors. For many years after their deaths, their contributions to the revolutions of South America were suppressed and although those of Bolivar were revived a decade later and he was returned to the status of a hero, Manuela’s role generally was overlooked until the late twentieth century.
Manuela was born in Quito, the illegitimate child of Maria Joaquina Aizpuru from Ecuador and the married Spanish nobleman Simón Sáenz Vergara (or Sáenz y Verega). Her mother was abandoned by her modest family and young “Manuelita” went to school at the Convent of Santa Catalina where she learned to read, to write, and express herself. She was forced to leave the convent at the age of seventeen, when she was discovered to have been a victim of seduction by army officer Fausto D’Elhuyar, the nephew and son of Juan José and Fausto de Elhuyar y de Suvisa, who was one of the co-discoverers of tungsten.
For several years, Manuela lived with her father, who in 1817 arranged for her marriage to a wealthy English merchant, James Thorne, who was twice her age. The couple moved to Lima, Peru, in 1819 where she lived as an aristocrat and held social gatherings in her home where guests included political leaders and military officers. These guests shared military secrets about the ongoing revolution with her, and, in 1819, when Simón Bolívar took part in the successful liberation of New Granada, Manuela Sáenz became an active member in the conspiracy against the viceroy of Perú, José de la Serna e Hinojosa during 1820.
In 1822, she left her husband and traveled to Quito, where she met Simón Bolívar. They felt an instant attraction to each other and, for the following eight years, she dedicated her life to Bolivar. She exchanged love letters with him, visited him while he moved from one country to another, and supported the revolutionary cause by gathering information, distributing leaflets, and protesting for women’s rights. As one of the first women involved, Manuela received the “Order of the Sun” (“Caballeresa del Sol”), honoring her services in the revolution. During the first months of 1825 and from February to September 1826, she lived with Bolívar near Lima, but as the war continued, Bolívar was forced to leave. Manuela later followed him to Bogota. On September 25, 1828, mutinous officers attempted to assassinate Bolívar, but with Manuela’s help he was able to escape, which made him later call her “Libertadora del Libertador”.
Bolívar left Bogotá in 1830 and died in Santa Marta from tuberculosis while he was in transit, leaving the country to exile. He had made no provision for Manuela. She became a thorn in the side of Francisco de Paula Santander, who returned to power after Bolívar’s death. Santander then exiled Manuela, and she went to Jamaica.
When she attempted to return to Ecuador in 1835, the Ecuadorian president, Vicente Rocafuerte, revoked her passport. She then took refuge in northern Peru, living in the small coastal town of Paita. For the next twenty-five years, a destitute outcast, Manuela sold tobacco and translated letters for North American whale hunters who wrote to their lovers in Latin America. While there she met the American author Herman Melville, and the revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi.
In 1847, her husband was murdered in Pativilca and her enemies made sure that she was denied her 8,000 pesos inheritance. Disabled after the stairs in her home collapsed, “Manuelita” died in Paita, on November 23, 1856, during a diphtheria epidemic. Her body was buried in a communal, mass grave and her belongings were burned. She had contributed many items, however, to the collection of papers preserved about Bolivar. On December 17 of 1830, at the age of forty-seven, Simón Bolívar died after a painful battle with tuberculosis in the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino in Santa Marta, Gran Colombia (now Colombia). On his deathbed, Bolívar asked his aide-de-camp, General Daniel F. O’Leary to burn the remaining, extensive archive of his writings, letters, and speeches. O’Leary disobeyed the order and his writings survived, providing historians with a vast wealth of information about Bolívar’s liberal philosophy and thought, as well as details of his personal life, such as his longstanding love affair with Manuela Sáenz. Shortly before her own death in 1856, Sáenz augmented this collection by giving O’Leary her own letters from Bolívar.
Recognition and 2010 reburial
On July 5, 2010, Manuela Sáenz was given a full state burial in Venezuela. Because she had been buried in a mass grave, no official remains of her existed for the state burial; instead “symbolic remains,” composed of some soil from the mass grave into which she was buried during the epidemic, were transported through Peru, Ecuador and Colombia to Venezuela. Those remains were laid in the National Pantheon of Venezuela alongside those of her lover, Bolívar, who is memorialized at that monument.
There is an impressive statue of Manuela outside the entrance to the Mitad del Mundo Equatorial Line Monument outside Quito, Ecuador