South America is known for a number of things – the Amazon, Simon Bolivar, the Andes mountains, Machu Picchu, and more – but something it doesn’t always get enough credit for is its long and rich military history. From inter-tribal indigenous warfare to Spanish conquistadores to cultures rebelling against the shackles of colonialism, there’s a lot that can be written about the continent and the challenges faced by combatants. This week, let’s take a look at one of South America’s most fearless women, who played an essential role in the war for independence of Bolivia and Argentina!
Juana Azurduy Llanos de Padilla
Born: July 12, 1780, Chuquisaca, Rio de la Plata
Died: May 25, 1862, Sucre, Bolivia
Occupation: Loyalist guerrilla fighter, army commander, mother
Juana Azurduy lived a very, very difficult life; as a mestizo, she had a native mother and a Spanish father, and grew up speaking Spanish in addition to the indigenous languages of the area that is now Sucre, Bolivia – Quechua and Aymara. Her father was a wealthy man, but he was murdered and Azurduy was subsequently orphaned by age 12, and had to live in a nearby convent; she was kicked out by age 17 due to her general unruliness and disruptive behaviour. In 1805, she married Manuel Ascensio Padilla, a criollo military leader originally from Upper Peru who shared her commitment to the indigenous peoples of South America.
In 1809, the War of Bolivian Independence began; citizens were upset at Spanish influence over the region. Spanish-born peninsulares held almost all the positions of importance and power during this era, subjecting the South-American-born Spanish criollos, mixed-race mestizos and indigenous populations to their whims. Seizing the opportunity presented by Spain’s political instability during the Peninsular War with Napoleonic France, a rebel army rose up, looking to overthrow the ruling class and make Bolivia independent. Both Azurduy and her husband answered the call of duty, joining the rebels and leading many battles.
Here is why Juana Azurduy is such a badass of history:
- Between 1811-1817, she participated in 23 battles, in full male dress, with her hair kept under a cap. She was skilled in the use of swordfighting, shooting, and artillery, and was wounded several times.
- In August 1816, under her direct command, she led an army that managed to temporarily capture the town of Potosi, which contained the colonial mint; for her outstanding courage and bravery in the battle, she was awarded the rank of Lieutenant Colonel by Argentinian General Martín de Pueyrredón, and as well was given the personal sword of General Manuel Belgrano as a testament to her character.
- Later that same year, her husband was killed in battle, and the four sons she left behind were captured by royalist forces were also executed, despite Azurduy and Padilla leading a fierce campaign to save them. It’s important to note here too that Juana was pregnant with her fifth child at this time – and was still fighting on the front lines.
- Even with the loss of her entire family just a short time before, she gave birth to her daughter on a riverbank, right in the middle of battle – and then rejoined the fighting afterwards. Seriously.
- Surrounded by royalist forces, she was forced to retreat into northern Peru, but she continued to fight on – Azurduy joined the guerrilla forces of Argentinian rebel general Martín Miguel de Güemes, and was a key force in helping Argentina gain its independence from Spain as well; under the appointment of de Güemes, Azurduy was named the commander of the Northern Army of the Revolutionary Government of the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata (that is a mouthful to say out loud). At its peak, Azurduy was the commander of an army of 6,000.
- By 1819, the royalist threat was gone from Argentina, which faced its own issues with a civil war brewing as a newly independent nation – and Azurduy fought on to free her homeland; in 1825, Bolivia became an independent country, free at last of Spanish rule.
While Juana Azurduy de Padilla died in relative obscurity during her time, she has since been honoured by both Bolivia and Argentina in a number of ways in the past century. Bolivia named a province in its Chuquisaca region Azurduy, in honor of her service, and to commemorate her birthplace. In 2009, Azurduy was awarded the rank of General in the Argentinian army, the highest rank that can be bestowed on an officer; a 25-ton, 52-foot-tall statue of her likeness was commissioned by Bolivian president Evo Morales to replace a statue of Columbus in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires. Argentina has also named its government-run womens’ rights and empowerment program in honor of Azurduy.
All in all, that’s a hell of a tough life to live – fighting for everything you believe in, and losing your entire family in the process… oh yeah, and the whole giving birth on the battlefield. Seriously, god damn. Folks, we already know not to mess with pregnant women as is; there’s no way I’d ever want to get tangled up with a true badass like Juana Azurduy, because I’m definitely not walking out of there with all of my limbs attached.