In 1967, November 14 was declared the “Day of the Colombian Woman” to commemorate the death of Policarpa Salavarrieta, a heroine of the Columbian independence movement. Policarpa, or La Pola as many people knew her, was part of the revolutionary forces during the Spanish Reconquista of New Granada. During the Peninsular War with France, many Spanish colonies in the Americas had taken control from royalist forces, but after the defeat of Napoleon, Spain sent troops to quash the rebellion.
Policarpa’s birth certificate has been lost, so her birth name and date are unknown, but her sibling’s records make it possible to approximate her birth year circa 1795. Her family was respectable and relatively well off. But in 1802, a smallpox epidemic in Bogotá, where the family was living, took the lives of her parents and a brother and sister. The family broke up with Policarpa and her youngest brother moving back to their childhood hometown of Guaduas with their oldest sister, Caterina.
Not much is known about Policarpa’s life in Guaduas except that she worked as a seamstress and would have been exposed to the many travelers passing through on the way to Bogotá with information about current events. By the time she moved back to Bogotá in 1817, she and other members of her family were involved in the revolutionary cause. Policarpa and her brother, Bibiano, entered the city with forged documents and began work as “servants’ in the home of a revolutionary leader.
Policarpa’s real reason for going to the capital was to act as a spy. As a seamstress, she offered her services to the women in royalist households where she was able to gather information. She collected information on plans, maps, and the names of royalists and suspected revolutionaries. She and her brother also recruited fighters to the cause and helped pass information and supplies out of the city.
Later in the year, the Almeyda brothers, important figures in the revolution, were arrested with information that implicated Policarpa, but wasn’t sufficient to arrest her. The proof came with the arrest of Alejo Sabarain, who was captured with a list of patriots that she had given him. Both Policarpa and her brother were arrested and taken to prison. On November 10th she was sentenced along with others to death by firing squad.
It is said that Policarpa marched bravely to her execution on November 14 with priests by her side. Rather than praying with the priests, she chose to curse the Spaniards instead. When told to turn her back and kneel, she refused to kneel; and when they began firing, she turned to face her executioners. Policarpa’s body was claimed by two of her brothers who were Augustinian friars and she was buried at the convent church of San Augustin.
Find out what else happened on November 14 in Women’s History.