Manuelita: Revolutionary Warrior and Lover of Simón Bolívar – S&C Speaks To Tamsin Clarke About Her New Play

By 28 May, 2015

Manuelita is a new play about the life of one of Latin America’s greatest heroes, the Ecuadorean revolutionary Manuela Saenz (1795-1856). A warrior and leader of the resistance to the Spanish Empire, Saenz was the confidant and lover of Simón Bolívar as together they orchestrated the grand campaigns of independence which would eventually oust the Spanish colonisers from the continent. Yet her critical role in South America independence was until relatively recently consigned to historical oblivion, as her name disappeared from history books and other documents. Wide recognition of her feats only began to emerge in the 1990s and in 2010 her remains were repatriated to Venezuela to rest alongside those of her lover, the Great Liberator, Bolívar.

Now Saenz’ story is being brought to UK audiences with the staging of Manuelita, written by and starring British-Venezuelan playwright, actor and director Tamsin Clarke. Following a successful run at London’s Rosemary Branch Theatre in February, the play now returns to the same venue. We spoke to Tamsin about her inspiration for Manuelita, the historical role of women in revolution, and the legacy of a revolutionary warrior who came to be known as la libertadora del libertador.

Hi Tamsin. Thanks for talking to us. Who was Manuela Saenz?

Manuela Saenz was a revolutionary hero in the Latin American Wars of Independence. While still young she became actively involved in the war effort as an underground spy. Married to an aristocratic Englishman, she utilized her position in society, holding secret meetings and spreading information amongst the political classes.

In 1822, Manuela separated from her husband and returned to her hometown in Ecuador, where she met and fell in love with Simón Bolívar. During the next eight turbulent years, Manuela achieved a number of extraordinary feats. She became Bolivar’s personal archivist, was made a fighting hussar in his army, and eventually rose to the highly prestigious rank of Colonel.

In 1828, she prevented an assassination attempt against Bolívar, earning her the moniker La Libertadora del Libertador. After Bolívar’s death in 1830, Manuela was exiled and forced to live out the rest of her days in poverty. Her achievements were largely overlooked until the late 20th century, and there is still a notable absence of historical commentary on her life and her role in the revolution.

What was it that attracted you to her as a historic figure?

I first heard about Manuela Saenz from a newspaper article in 2010 entitled ‘Bolivar’s heirs honour “harlot of Americas”’. Now, that sounds intriguing! The article spoke about ‘the most famous harlot of the Americas’, Manuela Saenz, who lived and fought alongside the great liberator of the South American continent, Simon Bolívar. She died ostracised from her country and her people for being one of his most ardent supporters.

As I read the story I found myself more and more absorbed. Forgotten in exile in northern Peru, she survived by selling tobacco and translating love letters to the whalers who stopped at the dusty port town. Theatrically romantic, I thought (although, in reality, somewhat tragic). My imagination immediately took me to a stage filled with sand and a lone figure sitting on a wooden barrel. And a cigar, of course. No thought is complete without a smoking cigar.

The article continued: after 200 years she was posthumously recognised and her symbolic remains were taken to lie next to those of Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela. “We are going to unite the remains of our Liberator with the remains of his immortal companion”. I wonder what she would’ve thought about that. I also wondered why this was only being done now? Why was she so forgotten? Was she really a harlot or just a woman struggling in a difficult patriarchal society? What was there to learn from this historical figure? 

Her important contribution to Latin American independence has only recently been widely recognised. Why is that?

I think the common memory of her as a ‘harlot’ gives a pretty good indication as to why she may have been ‘forgotten’ or ‘mis-remembered’. Her political accolades, her work as a spy or as official archivist may not have seemed as interesting. Her ardent support for Bolívar immediately after the liberation, when Bolívar was at his most unpopular, plus her aggressive nature in a male dominated society, would have left her with many enemies.

The revolutionary figure of popular imagination tends to be one of masculine dignity and courage. But the likes of Manuela Saenz, Celia Sánchez, Tamara Bunke (Tania the Guerrilla) and many others tell another story. Do you think the revolutionary role of women is overlooked in the historical context?

Yes, definitely. As you say, many women during the wars of independence (and throughout history) have been forgotten, even though their contribution during the war effort was vital. Somehow with time, it seems less vital than the military effort on the battlefield. Although there have been female combatants throughout history, the role of women in revolution has tended to be a more hidden, back-of-the-scene type of affair. These were incredibly dangerous roles but also imperative to the development of underground communication between groups, many of which lead to capture and death, as in the case of La Pola in Colombia (a contemporary of Manuela’s although they never met).

What was Manuela’s pathway in life following the wars of independence?

Bolívar’s great plan was for a United South America, free from Spanish rule but held together under one central government. After the liberation, the independent countries wanted to maintain and control their new found freedom. As such, Bolívar and his liberalistas were gradually ousted. Bolívar was sent to exile where he eventually died. Manuela struggled on in Bogotá but was soon sent into exile herself, first to Jamaica where old friends of Bolívar helped her and her two servants. She tried to return to Ecuador but was refused entry so she settled in Paita, a forgotten corner in the north of Peru. Her resentment grew as she tried to survive in poverty there. She died from diphtheria 30 years after her lover and was buried in a common grave.

Many people will know her primarily as Bolívar’s lover but she was far more than simply another mistress. What did the Liberator gain from their relationship?

Manuela was Bolívar’s best friend and confidante. In a time of war, mistrust and danger she offered him love, companionship and support. They shared a common understanding about life and politics. Bolivar was an infamous lover and had many relationships throughout his life, but he always returned to Manuela. The love she had for him suggests there was something very special between them. An untold magic.

How is Saenz memorialised in South America today?

From my research I learnt that Manuela is remembered in many different ways. When I asked the South Americans I met about her they would either reply “Uff, Manuela was a naughty one!” or they would come out with “la libertadora del libertador”. I think she would just like to be remembered.

Have you had an opportunity to perform your play out there?

We haven’t yet, but we are working on it. The dream is to take our Manuelita to the countries she helped liberate.

As a playwright and actor, are you firmly focused on historical themes of Latin America or do you want to do something different for your next project?

As a half-Venezuelan, the history and culture of Latin America is very inspiring to me and I will always be interested in it. If I find another story which I can adapt for the stage, then of course I will try. Women’s role in history fascinates me and I think there are many more to be brought into the limelight so maybe that is where I will go next.

Do you think South American culture – theatre, art, music, film etc – receives the recognition it deserves among English-speaking audiences?

Perhaps not as much as it should. Music and dance seem to be the most popular and there are some very celebrated fine artists from Latin America. Márquez and Allende have introduced the world to Latin literature. Theatre is perhaps the least recognised but the success of Manuelita just goes to show that people are interested. Now it’s just about getting out there and showing them off to the world.

Manuelita runs at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in Islington, North London, from 28th – 31st May. For information on further tour dates and to buy tickets, visit the Popelei or Rosemary Branch websites.

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