Some accounts have Simón Bolívar bathing on the night of September 25, 1828. Others say he was sound asleep. Nonetheless, what is known for sure is that the president of Gran Colombia (encompassing modern-day Colombia, Venezuela, Panamá, Ecuador and northern Perú) — the man called “El Libertador” for his role in freeing much of Latin America from Spanish rule — was unaware that a band of assassins were making their way through Bogotá’s Palacio de San Carlos to kill the 45-year-old leader.
Elsewhere in the presidential palace Manuela Sáenz, Bolívar’s iron-willed lover, had heard the intruders and was rushing to alert the general. A daughter of Quito, at the age of 19 Manuelita had married an English merchant 20 years her senior and moved to Lima — then the colonial capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru — where she joined clandestine efforts to undermine Spanish authority. When her marriage to Englishman proved loveless, she returned to Quito without him but remained married to her estranged husband for the next 25 years — a small detail which didn’t keep her from igniting a fiery romance with the visiting Bolívar in 1822.
Her open affair with the world-famous general would’ve disquieted any town in the early 19th century, especially one as prudish as early Quito. But Manuelita didn’t stop there. While Bolívar was away on an endless campaign to pacify and unify Latin America, Sáenz hosted gatherings where she drank and talked politics as much as her male counterparts. And as the philandering general carried on heated (albeit brief) affairs with 18-year-old village girls, rumors spread that Bolívar’s main lover was as sexually promiscuous as him — and with members of both sexes, no less.
Still, the two remained faithful to one another spiritually if not physically. For years Bolívar and Manuelita sent each other countless letters smoldering with passion and desire.
Besides being beautiful and charming, Manuelita showed herself to be extremely useful to the Liberator, often being the eyes and ears he so desperately needed to govern his small empire. On one occasion, having caught wind of an assassination plot, Manuelita appeared at a party held in the general’s honor. On top of not having been invited, she had come dressed in men’s clothing and caused such a commotion at the door that Bolívar was forced to leave the event with her, foiling the assassins’ plan.
Six weeks later Manuelita was helping the general (who was wearing her shoes) climb out of a second-story window at the presidential palace. When the would-be assassins burst into the room and demanded to know where the Liberator had escaped to, she slyly (and truthfully) told them she had no idea where he had gone. From that moment on, Bolívar would call her “la Libertadora del Libertador,” a sobriquet which followed her for the rest of her life.
After Bolívar died in exile three years later, Manuelita herself was forced to flee to Jamaica by rivals who came to power after the general’s death. She attempted to return to her beloved Quito in 1835 but had her passport revoked by the then president of Ecuador, which had separated from the Bolivarian republic immediately following the Liberator’s resignation in 1830. Manuelita sought refuge in a coastal town in northern Perú where she sold tobacco and translated the love letters written by U.S. whalers sailing the Pacific. (During his 1841 voyage aboard the Acushnet, a young Herman Melville went looking for the famous lover of the even more famous man, reportedly telling her: “I admire you, not as the victor crowned by honors, but as the defeated.”)
Largely despised by her fellow americanos — many of whom considered Bolívar to have been more emperor than liberator — Manuelita lived out the rest of her days in poverty, dying of diphtheria in 1856 at the age of 58. Her body was buried in a mass grave and her belongings burned. Years before her passing, Manuelita had given all of her letters to Bolívar’s aide-de-camp, who had refused his general’s dying request and saved all of his correspondence.
In 2010 the government of Venezuela, Bolívar’s homeland, gave Manuelita a full state funeral. Dirt from the mass grave was carried across Perú, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela — the former provinces of Gran Colombia — and laid to rest beside Bolívar’s remains at the National Pantheon in Caracas.
Remembering Manuelita — and that we are all Americans, from Tierra del Fuego to Hudson Bay — is how we celebrate our heritage.