Martina Chapanay (1800-1887): An Argentinian Female Robin Hood

[Header Image: Courtesy of http://www.taringa.net/posts/info/15548586/Martina-Chapanay-La-Montonera-Federala.html%5D

In this post, we turn to Argentina in the nineteenth century. On 9 July 1816 the United Provinces of South America (which is still one of Argentina’s legal names), declared independence from the Kingdom of Spain. Although the Spanish did try to reassert their control over the colonies, they were in no fit state to do so after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars: they had been occupied by Napoleon and his army, and the rightful Spanish King had been deposed and a member of Napoleon’s family had been placed on the throne (Spain had of course been allied with France in the early years of the war, but changed sides towards the end).[i]

Acta_Independencia_argentina_quechua
Argentinian Declaration of Independence, 1816 (c) Wikimedia Commons

New nations scarcely have the resources with which to police their interior or to combat counter-revolutions (and there were at this point, unbelievably, some in South America that wished to restore the Spanish yoke). Moreover, when governments break down (usually due to foreign or civil wars, etc.), banditry flourishes. Indeed, in rural, less developed economies, when the state is weak and unwilling or unable to provide adequate law enforcement, then unsurprisingly crime and, especially banditry, flourishes. For example, England was in such a state during the medieval period, and it is of course at this point in English history when tales of Robin Hood first emerge.[ii] In Argentina, employment was scarce and banditry seemed an attractive option to young men looking to make their way in the world.

Indeed, banditry is often a course of life pursued by men. When women are present in bandit gangs, they usually have a role similar to Maid Marian in the stories of Robin Hood: as the wives of consorts of the robbers. But Martina was a special case.[iii]

As with all people from the margins of society, little is known of Martina Chapanay (1800-1887), except that she was born in the province of San Juan, and that she was of Indian heritage, drawn from a community of people called huarpes.

It is unknown how she fell into a life of banditry, but by her twenties she was ‘involved’ a notorious Argentine bandit named Cruz Cuero. With Cuero and the other men she took an active role in robbing travellers at gun point. Although she was in a relationship with Cuero, she fell in love with a young man who they had kidnapped (as you do). This enraged Cuero, and he shot the man. Naturally quite dismayed that Cuero had killed her new lover, Martina took a spear and stabbed Cuero. She then took control of his band.

Under Martina, the gang of bandits were anxious to portray themselves as Robin Hood types of thieves who stole from the rich and gave to the poor – it will be remembered from previous posts I have written, of course, that stealing from the rich and redistributing the wealth to the poor is by no means exclusive to Robin Hood: Bulla Felix, the Ancient Roman bandit, as well as Oleksa Dovbush (the Ukrainian Robin Hood), as well as Dick Turpin were all known for this.

Death of Facundo
Death of Facundo Quiroga (c) Wikimedia Commons

Meantime, having thrown off the burden of Spanish rule, Argentina descended into intermittent civil wars which lasted virtually from the day that independence was declared until the 1880s. Martina then briefly offered her services to General Facundo Quiroga (to put it briefly, Quiroga was a federalist who led his forces against the nationalist, centralising government of President Bernardino Rivadavia – the former wanted more power for the regions of South America, the latter did not). Martina served on the front line with Quiroga fighting against the Rivadavia’s forces.

Sadly, Quiroga was murdered in February 1835, and the Federalist cause broke down thereafter. So Martina returned to her bandit ways, resuming leadership of her old gang once more. She remained popular with the peasantry of Argentina, who viewed her as a liberator and freedom fighter. She was celebrated in several Argentinian folk songs, and later made it into several novels written in that country. Thus, her ‘career’ as an outlaw has followed much the same as that of Robin Hood, progressing from songs to ballads, and into prose. I did also hear that there was a movie produced in Argentina about her life, although I have been unable to track this down thus far.

She also lived a long life as a bandit, and few details, frustratingly, are known of her later life. One anonymous author records what were allegedly her last moments as she was being visited by her priest:

“Father,” she exclaimed, “I feel that my end is coming too. I have been a criminal, but I did everything I could to repair my faults and I trust in the infinite mercy of God … the messenger with whom I sent for the priest of Jáchal does not return and my strength is over … I wish that his fatherhood Hear in confession. The priest did so, and when the sick woman had painfully fulfilled the Christian precept, for her life was extinguished without remedy, she indicated to the confessor a belt which she kept under the pillow. Inside a pocket 50 ounces of gold. “Take them, father, with the crucifix,” Chapanay said in a barely perceptible voice, “return them to the Blessed Virgin.”[iv]


Further Reading/References

[i] Robert Harvey, The War of Wars: The Epic Struggle Between Britain and France: 1789-1815: The Great European Conflict, 1793-1815 (Constable, 2007).

[ii] See Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2001).

[iii] Very few primary and secondary sources for Chapanay exist. The best, of which I have seen online translated excerpts are the following: Saúl Domínguez Saldívar The Gauchos Rebels in Argentine History (Buenos Aires: Gedisa, 2004). Indeed, it is chiefly as a result of reading about her in Hobsbawm’s Bandits that she came to my attention.

[iv] Pedro Echagüe, Chapanay cited at http://www.tiempodesanjuan.com/a/aps/noticias/dinamicos/ajax/3-noticias-relacio (Accessed 9 March 2017).

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