Monday, January 28, 2013

26. Agustina de Aragon

What would you do if Napoleon and his army were coming to invade your town?

It’s the 2nd of June, 1808 in Zaragoza, a city in northern Spain. The invading French army have been bombarding the walls for more than two days, and the siege itself has dragged on for the past two weeks. Many of the defending troops are dead, the earthworks protecting one of the town’s main cannons at the Portillo Gate have been destroyed, and the French troops are about to start storming the city walls. 22-year-old Agustina, a young married woman, is up on the walls because she’s bringing food and water to the surviving soldiers. She sees what’s going on and steps forward. Grabbing the cannon-fuse out of the hands of a dead soldier, she fires it into the faces of the invading troops! The sight of a woman firing a cannon both encourages the Zaragozan defenders and horrifies the French troops — according to the legends that have grown up around Agustina, this one moment was enough to turn the direction of the battle, and the town was saved. When the French troops returned in 1809, Agustina again joined the defence on the city walls — however, the city fell, and Agustina relocated to Madrid. She later worked as a vivandiere with the Spanish guerilla fighters, and I’ve turned up some suggestions that she served with Wellington at the Battle of Vitoria. She eventually received a military rank, pension and even a few medals for her efforts! After her death at the age of 71, she was buried with honour in a prestigious church in Zaragoza.

Agustina is sometimes referred to as ‘the Spanish Joan of Arc’, and seems to play a similar role in terms of defining both female heroism and national identity — Franciso de Goya incorporated her into his series of etchings The Disasters of War, and Byron wrote a short (and heavily fictionalised) section about her in the poem Child Harold. There are lots of idealised representations of her — the sketch above, by the artist Juan Galvez, is unusual in that it was made from life. Agustina also seems to have been used as a source of inspiration in later periods — for example,  there was a very popular Spanish-language film made about her in 1950.

However, there are a couple of interesting differences from the Joan of Arc legend. One of these is that Agustina was married with kids — her first husband, Joan Roca Vila-Seca, was also a soldier in the Peninsular War (she later remarried after his death). They had at least one child — there’s some evidence to suggest that Agustina was already pregnant when she was first married at 16. This doesn’t sit particularly well with the image that we tend to have of ‘warrior maidens’ as single and unattached, and ‘mums’ as gentle and nurturing people who don’t generally fire cannons at marauding French soldiers. Byron, for one, imagines Agustina’s husband out of existence, preferring to write about her as motivated by a lover who has died during the siege. (He also writes rubbish like ‘Her fairy form, with more than female grace' and 'Yet are Spain’s maids no race of Amazons, /  But formed for all the witching arts of love’, so personally I think he can STFU). 

There’s also no evidence of her concealing her gender at any point — and while the situation in Zaragoza in 1808 was serious enough that I don’t think anybody minded who was lighting the cannon fuse at that particular moment, her later involvement in the war effort, and the recognition that she got for it, suggests that on some level it was considered acceptable for her to continue serving the national defence while openly female. Historian John Lawrence Tone suggests that while open ‘Amazon-style’ fighting was relatively rare in the Peninsular War, women’s resistance — through taking part in public demonstrations and revolts, stealing goods and weapons to supply the Spanish troops, and providing channels of communication and information to the guerilla groups — played a vital role in the Spanish defeat of Napoleon. And as we so often forget, these are the roles in warfare that, although vitally important for all sorts of reasons, tend to get forgotten about. For every Agustina standing on the barricades, how many other women were quietly providing vital medical care, feeding and clothing the guerilla fighters and nicking gunpowder and bayonets from the French while their backs were turned? (Seriously, they were doing just that — Tone’s article has a fantastic story about Spanish women breaking into the Governor’s mansion in El Ferrol and making off with the entire city’s supply of muskets, which they then handed out to the Spanish men). 

I think Agustina, and the stories that have grown up around her, occupy a really interesting position at the intersection of femininity, soldierliness and patriotism — but I still wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of a cannon from her!


Google Books link: Bernard Cook, Women in War, a Historical Encyclopedia:

Google Books link: John Lawrence Tone, ‘Spanish Women in the Resistance to Napoleon’ in Constructing Spanish Womanhood: Female Identity in Modern Spain:

Short Heritage History bio with timeline:

Read Byron’s Child Harold for yourself:

Wikipedia bio:


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