8.4 Policarpa Salavarrieta: A Spy for Colombia

Policarpa Salavarrieta: A Spy for Colombia

La Pola lived a short life, but she dedicated it to gaining her country’s independence from Spain. Sadly, she didn’t live to see that become reality.

This episode is part of the Women in Espionage series.

Full Transcript

If your education was anything like mine, you got a brief mention that South America exists. The Inca were cool. The Amazon is big. Maybe you heard the name Simón Bolívar. That’s about it.

You may even have gotten the impression that South America begins where Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California leave off. If so, please pause the audio and go consult a map.

Let’s try to brush up on South America. Obviously it was inhabited by many peoples and cultures, of which the Inca were only one. Most of them had no written language which is why strict history has little to say about them. Archaeology can say a whole lot more, but still not enough. Of particular interest to us today is the northern bit of the continent, the country of Colombia.

As I hope your education did tell you, in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He never actually made it to the country that was eventually named after him. His companions did set foot in Colombian territory, as early as 1499. By 1525, still more Spanish were embarking, with a definite intention to stay, founding settlements in Santa Marta and Cartagena. And, by 1538, also Santa Fe, later called Santa Fe de Bogotá and known on modern maps as just Bogotá. These are among the oldest European settlements in South America, and they are certainly older than any European settlement in the United States, including St Augustine, definitely including Roanoke and Jamestown.

Naturally, the indigenous peoples were less than amused at the raids, the violence, and the disease. The Spaniards were on a quest to find the legendary El Dorado, city of gold. The fact that they had already found and conquered it in Peru was no deterrent.

Historian Anthony McFarlane writes that in the 1540s (I mean, really not that long after first contact), “the surviving (Colombian) Indians were gathered in encomiendas to provide the tributes required to sustain the invader’s settlements ” (McFarlane, 8).

By the time the Spaniards had conquered enough to call themselves anything, they settled on this area of the world being called the “Kingdom of New Granada.” This kingdom did not correspond to the modern boundaries of Colombia, but it was roughly in that area.

The conquest of the native peoples did provide gold, some of it taken by straight-up grave robbing (McFarlane, 19) and the rest through the establishment of mining operations. This combination of disease, loss of homeland, and harsh treatment meant Indian labor was on a serious decline. Hence imported African slaves.

Agriculture and ranching also grew in importance, though even they took a blow when the mines began to run a little dry in the 17th century. By then the country was no longer divided between Indians and Spaniards. There was a born-in-New-Granada poor white and mestizo class.

Smuggling was super popular. Spain, like most of the colonial powers, tried to insist that all trade go through them for the benefit of the mother country. Increasingly their colonies saw no reason to love the mother country, especially when love was calculated monetarily.

In the same period the structure of government changed several times, sometimes lumping them in with Peru, sometimes not. What is clear is that the Spanish governors had a hard time enforcing their decrees. Indian labor was exploited even when the law tried to protect them. The miners refused to pay taxes, and everybody was doing illegal trading deals with the British traders, the Dutch traders, the French traders, and the other Spanish viceroyalties.

In 1698, the outmaneuvered governor actually had to flee to Jamaica. By the end of the 18th century, New Granada was largely a mestizo society. The censuses had four racial categories: whites, blacks, Indians and libres de todos colores (“free people of all colors”), which does not sound like a racial description to me, but it was the largest group by far (McFarlane, 34).

As I hope you can see, the colony held a great number of people who had no good reason to be loyal to Spain. The Indians and the blacks definitely had the biggest reasons to complain, but even the whites and the mestizos could say they weren’t really getting top quality customer service from their nonelected leaders.

They also had heard about a little thing called the Haitian Revolution, and then the American Revolution, and then the French Revolution, and a growing number were thinking maybe let’s have some New Grenadine revolution, yeah?

One of those who would think about it was around 1795. Her name was Policarpa Salavarrieta. Her father was a merchant or artisan in the town of Guaduas. Policarpa was the fifth of nine children.

As far as I can tell, none of the paintings of Policarpa were done during her lifetime, and they may not have any resemblance to her, but this one was painted by José María Espinosa. Source

We know very little about her childhood, but given the future careers of multiple children in the family, it probably wasn’t a royalist environment she grew up in. She was still young when a smallpox epidemic killed both her parents. The Salavarrieta children were on their own, and the world around them was changing.

By 1808, Napoleon was on the ascendant. He invaded Spain and installed his brother on the throne. In New Granada, they maybe hadn’t loved the Spanish monarch, but that did not mean they wanted a French one instead.

On November 20, 1810, an unnamed Spaniard on the streets insulted an unnamed mestizo, who slapped him, which started a brawl, which led to a riot, which led to revolution. Royal forces were driven out. Huzzah! The revolutionaries dusted their hands and congratulated themselves.

In 1813 a Declaration of Freedom was signed. But in 1814, Napoleon was exiled to Elba and his brother was booted off the Spanish throne. In an episode called “Return of the King,” a new troop of royal soldiers crossed the pond, and there the New Granadines were, just a colony again.

The new head honcho, General Pablo Morillo, did try to curb some of the abuse that had led to Spain’s low customer service ratings in the first place. But he had absolutely no tolerance for any of this liberty or death rhetoric. You would be loyal to the throne. Or you would be dead. He would see to that.

Suppression did not have the intended effect. Dissent was growing. By this point, Policarpa was working as a maid for a family that had taken her in after her parents died. They had moved to Bogotá.

The situation was tense. If you were a young man, you had two options, stay in the open and be impressed into the royalist army, or quietly slip away to join the patriot army. Neutrality was not really an option. Conscientious objection was not really an option.

Venezuelan-born Simón Bolívar was the head of the movement, but the local man on the ground was Francisco de Paula Santander. He had a growing army. Growing armies need food, equipment, and information, and for all of the above he needed spies.

Men were always the first choice, of course. But they weren’t super available. If they were royalists, they couldn’t be trusted. If they were rebels, they had fled out of the supply centers where the information was to be found. Women were the perfect answer.

Andrea Ricante de Lozano was a Bogotá home owner. She took Policarpa in and gave her a base of operations. At least five other women were also in the circle.

Together these women recruited men and sent them to Santander. Policarpa is said to have done this the time-honored way: by flirting. Once converted to the cause, the women provided them with instructions on how to get to Santander. They also sewed uniforms for them. (Policarpa is often listed as a seamstress.) They also collected other supplies and sent whatever information they could gather on the royalist forces who held the city. While I cannot pinpoint any particular piece of information that Policarpa was responsible for passing on, historians have determined that the women’s efforts in general were crucial.

Unfortunately, the Spanish army made the same determination. An army sergeant followed Policarpa’s 12-year-old brother to Andrea Ricante’s door. Policarpa kept the sergeant busy in a shouting match, while Andrea bribed the two accompanying guards to let her burn a sheaf of papers that contained letters from patriots, a list of financial supporters, letters from guerilla chiefs, and the disposition of the Spanish army. Discipline in that Spanish army was apparently not at all tight if the two guards could be so easily bribed behind their superior’s back.

Despite the absence of proof, Policarpa was arrested. That tends to happen when you’ve been shouting at an army sergeant. Andrea was not arrested, on account of her pregnancy. But proof against Policarpa was very soon forthcoming. The royalists caught a group of men escaping to the rebels, and they were carrying letters signed by Policarpa.

On November 13, 1817, Policarpa and eight others were sentenced to be shot. One of them is said to have been her lover, a man she had set on the road to Santander.

Another painting of La Pola, also attributed to Jose Manuel Espinosa. Source

According to one of the prison guards, Policarpa was told that if she swore loyalty, she could go free, but she defiantly refused.

On November 14th, the firing squad assembled in the main plaza of Bogotá. Per custom, traitors were meant to be shot in the back while kneeling with hands tied behind their backs. It was intended to be a warning to others with rebel sympathies: there would be no brave heroics here. Being shot in the back was a coward’s death, for one who had turned to run away.

It was not intended that an undoubted spy like Policarpa would refuse to kneel, as she shouted for the firing squad to turn their rifles on the authorities instead. “Assassins!” she screamed. “My death will soon be avenged!”

According to some accounts, she also turned around at the last second, so that she was shot in the front, rather than the back.

In the coming weeks more of the women in her ring were also executed.

Policarpa Salavarrieta is now celebrated as a Colombian heroine. Her story is taught to school children and the mythmaking has grown just as you might expect. “La Pola” is the teenage martyr, whose death led to a frenzy of patriotic zeal and won the glorious Revolution.

Actually, according to the chronology I’ve given here, Policarpa was no longer a teenager. And the patriotic zeal was not necessarily galvanized by her death in particular. Other martyrs died as well, and it is true that royalist soldiers continued to desert to the rebels.

But we like a good heroine, don’t we? After Policarpa’s death, Santander continued to rise in the revolutionary ranks. He told Bolívar that Santa Fe de Bogotá should be their primary target and Bolívar did implement that strategy, liberating it with spectacular victories in the summer of 1819.

On December 17, 1819, the republic of Colombia was officially established and included Venezuela and New Granada. Bolívar’s idea, by the way, was to liberate the continent, not just his own native Venezuelan corner of it. He was the new president. Santander was vice president. Spain, of course, did not recognize this new version of their colony. Fighting continued, even as the government struggled to pull itself together. (That’s not a criticism by the way. The US government also struggled. So did every other revolutionary government.)

The result of the fallout was that Santander and Bolívar turned out not to be best buddies after all. In 1828, Bolívar assumed powers as a dictator on condition that elections would happen in 1830.

In 1830, things fell apart. Over the next few decades, the names and boundaries shifted several times until 1886 when the Republic of Colombia was reborn, smaller than the original one.

Meanwhile Policarpa was a dead heroine everyone could rally around. Well, everyone except the Spanish, of course.

Policarpa is credited with a lot more of a death speech than I have given here. Words like “Lazy people! How diverse would be your lot today if you knew the price of freedom! But it is not too late. See that, although a woman and young I have more than enough courage to suffer death and a thousand more deaths. Do not forget my example!” (Vanegas)

Quite a long speech from someone with her back to a firing squad, but thrilling! As with last week’s Agent 355, the eyewitness accounts are somewhat short, but the speculation and the outright fabrication were only getting started.

She was memorialized in a play as early as 1820, only three years after her death. The Spanish weren’t even all gone yet. The playwright had competition for his subject, for he wrote that no matter how bad his play was, at least it was better than all the others with the same name (Vanegas).

By 1837 there was a hymn to La Pola. The most enduring account of her was written in 1857 by Jose Hilario Lopez who said he was a private in the Spanish army in 1817. But he was also building liberal ideas and symbols in his book, so of course that would color his memories of events that happened 40 years earlier. It’s really not an ideal source, but it is better than pretty much anything else we’ve got.

Policarpa’s most iconic painting was also done in 1857 by an artist who never saw her. He made her skin white and her eyes blue to correspond with time period’s ideas of beauty, though the original accounts say little about her physical appearance. I do not even know which of those four racial categories she would fall in.

In 1910, there was a statue of La Pola in Bogotá which I believe can still be seen today (Vanegas Carrasco). She had by then taken on direct comparisons with Joan of Arc. Of course, she needed a statue.

La Pola’s statute in Bogota. Source

And in the modern world, she is now the heroine of novels, telenovelas, erotic literature, and a feminist punk rock group called Las Polas.

The more official, state-sanctioned honoring of her is financial. She’s on the current Colombian 10000-peso bill.

They also celebrate November 14th as the official Day of the Colombian Woman. None of the other spies I will cover in this series became a nationally recognized hero. At least, not for their spywork. I suppose you could call that success, though I suspect she would have preferred to live and see her country’s victory.

Selected Sources

Adams, Jerome R. Notable Latin American Women : Twenty-Nine Leaders, Rebels, Poets, Battlers, and Spies, 1500-1900. Jefferson, N.C., McFarlane & Co, 1995.

Carrasco, Carolina Vanegas. “El Monumento a “La Pola” Y La Escultura En Colombia En 1910.” Museo Nacional de Colombia, 5 May 2021. https://museonacional.gov.co/Publicaciones/publicaciones-virtuales/Documents/cmpola.pdf. Accessed July 23, 2022.

McFarlane, Anthony. Colombia Before Independence: Economy, Society, and Politics Under Bourbon Rule. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Mejía, Germán R.., Mejía P., Germán., LaRosa, Michael J.. Colombia: A Concise Contemporary History. Ukraine: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

Restrepo, José Manuel. Historia de La Revolución de La República de Colombia En La América Meridional. Bogotá, Impr. Nacional, 1858, archive.org/details/historiadelarevo01rest/page/454/mode/2up. Accessed 23 July 2022.

Vanegas, Caroline. “Usos de La Memoria de Policarpa Salavarrieta En Colombia.” Politika, http://www.politika.io/fr/article/usos-memoria-policarpa-salavarrieta-colombia. Accessed 24 July 2022.

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