A Woman to Know: Manuela Sáenz

We are going to unite the remains of our liberator with the remains of his immortal companion. — Elías Jaua

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

They called her "the liberator of the liberator." But they also called her "the most famous harlot in the Americas."

Scandal after scandal after scandal rocked Manuela's young life. As the bastard daughter of a prominent nobleman in Ecuador, her mother banished her to a convent, never to be seen again lest her presence disgrace the family name. But teenage Manuela broke the strict nuns' rules in any way she could -- even running away with a military man when she was just 17. Horrified at her rebellion, the nuns married her off to a much-older suitor, a visiting Englishman intent on whisking his young wife away from her life in South America.

But then, Manuela met her escape: the magnetic Simon Bolívar, a young revolutionary intent on overthrowing Spanish rule in South America. The two became inseparable; Bolívar even named Manuela a colonel in his rebel army, and she once saved his life from a crew of deadly assassins. Once Bolívar successfully overthrew the Spanish, however, his group of revolutionaries turned hostile. When Bolívar died in 1830, his compatriots turned on Manuela. So she ran away in Peru, where she spent the rest of her life ducking vicious rumors and allegations of her "seduction." She died alone and penniless in 1856, barely remembered for her role in Bolívar's work.

Today, her body is buried alongside her lover in Venezuela's prestigious pantheon, a mausoleum for political heroes — and now, heroines.

"Often she is portrayed as a romantic or superficial figure," says biographer Pamela Murray. "But she was politically important for Bolívar and a political operator in her own right."

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