The history of nineteenth-century female revolutionaries unsurprisingly mirrors women’s subjugated status of that century… if their stories are not entirely suppressed or consigned to mere footnotes, they are usually documented as embarrassing radical lunatics – the glory of the heroic freedom fighter and liberator being an almost exclusively male domain. One notable exception is today’s On This Deity subject – Policarpa Salaverrieta – the Colombian revolutionary executed by Spanish royalists 199 years ago. Unlike so many other brave women whose considerable contributions to the numerous revolutions throughout the 1800s remain anonymous, Policarpa Salaverrieta – or La Pola, as she is popularly known – is a celebrated and emblematic Colombian martyr. She is the only non-allegorical female to be depicted on Colombian banknotes. A statue of her likeness resides in Bogotá’s most renowned square. Her legend is faithfully passed down to new generations by artists and poets. And an annual holiday – “Day of the Colombian Woman” – was proclaimed in her honour by an act of congress in 1967. La Pola was not the only female revolutionary during Hispanic America’s long battle for independence from Spain – but her courage and zeal, particularly in the moments before her execution, captured the imagination of Colombians for whom she remains their most beloved and popular heroine. Let us now briefly recall the revolutionary life and death of this young seamstress – whose tongue was said to be as sharp as her needle – and who, as a daring patriot spy and recruiter, established one of the most effective underground networks of the Revolution.
By 1817, Spain had recovered sufficiently from its war against Napoleon to deploy forces to the New World in order to quash the separatist uprisings of its colonies, quickly regaining control of Bogotá, the capital of New Grenada (modern-day Colombia). Policarpa Salaverrieta was a beautiful, feisty and fiercely patriotic 26-year-old who, determined to join the resistance movement, was able to enter the royalist stronghold of Bogotá with false documents. Working as a seamstress, she infiltratad the drawing rooms of some of the most eminent royalists, feeding back intelligence that the patriots would never have otherwise been able to obtain. As a pivotal member of the underground resistance, La Pola was responsible for collecting money, buying equipment, making uniforms and transporting and hiding soldiers. She was also one of the movement’s best and most trusted recruiters – quick to spot soldiers whose expressions identified them as patriots forced to join the royalist army, the alluring La Pola would persuade them to desert and, providing them with introductory papers signed by her, directed them to patriot lines.
In September 1817, two brothers carrying compromising documents implicating La Pola in rebellious activity were apprehended by the Spanish. Her connection to the revolution was confirmed following the capture of a patriot leader carrying long lists of the names of royalists and rebels bearing Policarpa’s signature. Arrested and condemned to death, she was offered freedom if she recanted. She refused. Her public execution in the main plaza was set for the morning of 14th November. Hands bound, La Pola marched to her death with two priests by her side. Instead of repeating the priests’ prayers as was custom, she cursed the Spaniards and predicted their defeat. So vociferous were her taunts that the Spanish governor feared the lesson he was trying to impress upon the large crowd of onlookers would be lost. He gave orders for the drummers to beat louder. But La Pola raved on, admonishing the soldiers for not turning their rifles on the authorities and berating the firing squad for preparing to shoot a woman. “Assassins!” she shouted as she ascended the scaffold. “My death will soon be avenged!”
It is absolutely certain that La Pola’s tongue was never silenced up to the last moment of her life, as testified by a 19-year-old patriot soldier by the name of Jose Hilario López who bore witness to her execution. Inspired by La Pola, the soldier would eventually rise to become president of the liberated Republic of Colombia. López would often repeat the story of her bravery, and Policarpa Salavarrieta is remembered today throughout Colombia as the “Heroine of Independence”.