In the early 1800s, Simón “The Liberator” Bolívar came barreling through South America, liberating (or conquering, depending who you ask) territories like it was going out of style. By the time he’d finished his Spanish-expelling free-for-all, he’d established the nation of Gran Colombia – a short-lived country about half the size of western Europe, stretching from Venezuela to Peru – and was left with a new problem. Namely, that without a common enemy, he now couldn’t trust any of his colleagues. Any, that is, save his mistress: firebrand, spy, moustache harvester, and proud owner of an actual pet bear, Manuela Sáenz.
He’d scarcely need to trust anyone else.
“That gentle, crazy woman”
Sáenz never quite fit into normal Ecuadorian society. Born out of wedlock when that was a big deal, she eschewed church and polite society in favor of riding horses and shooting pistols with her family’s black servant (and lifelong best friend) Jonatas. After being sent to a convent (and subsequently bolting from it on a short-lived fling with an army guy), Manuela was married off to James Thorne, an English merchant with all the personality of a bowl of oatmeal. The idea was to get her to settle down. It did not work.
She joined the rebels when she was 26, straight-up deserting her new hubby in exchange for adventure. She certainly got it. In short order, she’d become such a phenomenal information gatherer in Lima that she earned the rank of general. She rode with the army on harrowing journeys, including a 950 mile mountain trek that saw 700 people die or desert. She was at the Battle of Ayacucho (one of the most important battles in the wars for independence), a claim even Bolívar could not make. As proof she’d been there, she carried around a moustache she’d taken off a dead enemy. She wore the disembodied moustache to masquerade balls, which didn’t win her a lot of friends. She also kept a pet bear that terrified visitors. Manuela was a little weird.
She wore a moustache she’d taken off a dead enemy to masquerade balls. She kept a pet bear that terrified visitors. Manuela was a little weird.
And though she was not officially credited for it in her lifetime, Manuela saved Bolívar’s life. Twice. The first time was at a masquerade ball to which she’d not been invited. She caught wind that Bolívar was to be assassinated at midnight (she was a master spy, after all), and ran off to the ball – in male military garb, morbid facial hair presumably in place. She threw such a fit at not being allowed in (clear anti-moustache prejudice!) that Bolívar had to escort her home. Thus was the attempt on his life thwarted and her reputation further complicated2.
The second assassination attempt was more involved. Again she caught wind of a plot against Bolívar, this time producing a crapload of evidence3 to her procrastinating lover, who ignored all warnings until the actual night of the planned assassination. He then summoned her to his side, told her some yahoos were about to try to kill him, but it wasn’t a big deal, so he hadn’t made any extra precautions – and would she please read poetry to him while he takes a bath? She thought better of this, and convinced him to sneak out the window, after twice talking him down from running out and fighting all the assassins himself4.
So when the assassins got to the bedroom, they were greeted with a sword-wielding Manuela, who snarled, “what do you want?”
“Where’s the Liberator?” “I don’t know. Maybe the council room?”
“Why’s the window open?” “I heard shouting outside.”
“Why’s the bed warm?” “I was waiting for him to get here.”
“Where’s the council room?” “I have no idea, for I am a simple little girl! Tee hee!”
The assassins eventually got so frustrated with Manuela’s responses that they beat her with the flat of the sword, as she taunted them (“Go ahead, cowards, kill me! Kill a woman!”). She was laid up in bed for two weeks. Bolívar survived (after hiding under a bridge for 3 hours), and told the newspapers that he’d escaped all on his lonesome, after fighting off a number of his assailants. Manuela was not mentioned at all. Dick move, Bolívar.
“In heaven we’ll marry again; but on earth, no.”
Throughout all of this, she was still technically married to Thorne. Being a decidedly unconventional woman, her ideas on fidelity and monogamy didn’t exactly line up with her husband’s button-up English upbringing. Her letters to Thorne speak for themselves:
“Do you believe, after being the mistress of this general for seven years, with the security of possessing his heart, I could prefer to be the mistress of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, or the Holy Trinity? …If I feel anything it is that you haven’t accepted any better your having been deserted. I know very well that nothing can unite me with him under the auspices that you call honor. But do you believe me less honorable for his being my lover and not my husband? Ah! I don’t live under the social preoccupations invented for mutual torment. Leave me, my dear Englishman. Let’s make a deal: in heaven we’ll marry again, but on earth, no.”
“Do you believe me less honorable for his being my lover and not my husband? Ah! I don’t live under the social preoccupations invented for mutual torment.”
Bolívar’s dream of Gran Colombia quickly crumbled, and with it, so did Bolívar. Unlike Thorne, Bolívar left Manuela out of his will, and didn’t even mention her after his last confession 6. although he did really love her, as his copious surviving letters, referring to her as “the liberator of the Liberator,” can prove. After he died, Manuela got a poisonous snake to bite her, like Cleopatra. Unlike Cleopatra, though, she survived. Because Manuela Sáenz was fucking hardcore.
She lived for another 26 years, agitating here and there7, but gradually settling down into the life of a quiet shopkeep. She died of diphtheria at age 64 and was buried in a mass grave. In 2010, she was symbolically reinterred with Bolívar.
- To be fair, Manuela may have had some pieces on the side too. ↩
- This may have been coincidental, that she just happened to show up and get him out of there by throwing her reputation under the bus. But given that the plot was coming from Bolívar’s vice president Santander, and that Manuela had gotten into trouble earlier for bringing an effigy of Santander to a party and having it executed by an actual firing squad, I think it’s safe to say she knew what she was doing ↩
- Besides Manuela’s normal suspicions, a woman came forward with tons of details of the plot against him. He also caught some subordinates discussing who’d be running the show after Bolívar was dead. He ignored all of this. Bolívar may have been South America’s Napoleon, but he was not always big on common sense. ↩
- She also gave him her boots, since his were out getting cleaned! They wore the same size shoe. He was a little guy. I just wanted to add that detail, because I think it’s adorable. ↩
- “Monotony is reserved to your nation, in love, for sure, but also in the rest… love affords you no pleasure, conversation no wit, movement no sprightliness, you greet without feeling, rising and sitting with care, joking without laughter, these are divine formalities, but I am such a miserable mortal that I have to laugh at myself, at you and at all your English seriousness… Enough of jokes. Formally, and without laughing, in total seriousness, truth, and purity of an Englishwoman, I tell you that I will never be yours again.” COLD. BLOODED. ↩
- The church dictated against mention of sin. ↩
- Many of Bolívar’s supporters looked to her to continue the cause, which she didn’t do in earnest, due to Bolívar’s urging her not to. However, she wasn’t about to get insulted. When the new Colombian government had a parade with her and Bolívar in effigy (hers reading “Tyranny” and his reading “Despotism”), she got on a horse, busted past a bunch of guards, and destroyed the effigies. This got her tossed in jail. Again. ↩
- Lots of callbacks here. There’s the moustache-on-a-stick, the cloaked knife-wielding figures in the background, the bear dancing with Thorne (because why not), and even her best friend Jonatas (in blue, screen right).
- At her waist is a medal of the Order of the Sun, one of Peru’s highest honors. She got it for her intelligence gathering in Lima and would proudly wear it around everywhere. It was about the only piece of jewelry she did wear.
Concept Art & Alt Versions
Next Time on Rejected Princesses
Voulet-vous battre avec moi ce soir?
(no, that’s not a typo)