Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Indomitable Agostina Zaragoza: Maid of Saragossa

By all accounts, Agostina of Zaragosa was a woman of humble birth, one of those who might have passed her time in history unrecorded, had not circumstances beyond her control brought out her amazing strength of character.

Most of the population of the entire Continent of Europe felt helpless against the might of Napoleon's Grand Armee. Most great cities just capitulated when they saw him coming. Few battles were fought without enormous casualties on those defending armies. Napoleon invaded Spain, a country still largely locked in its own impoverished medieval past, something different happened. There isn't much positive that could be said about Spain's army or its generals, and the weak monarch and royal family could do nothing but flee. But the people were something else. In the end, it was the "Spanish Ulcer" that oozed the blood of the Napoleonic forces, keeping them tied up in Spain and unable to join the emainder of the armies in battles elsewhere.

Saragossa, or Zaragoza, was one of those small Spanish cities that lacked sufficient fortification to repel invaders, and to the French, it must have looked like easy prey, being surrounded by low, insubstantial brick walls, and only a few old cannons. The usual story of a siege was that once inside the city walls, the battle was over. But not at Saragossa. Inside the walls were many fortified convents and houses, so that the city was like a fortress comprised of many small fortresses.

There were actually two outstanding heroines at Saragossa. Countess Burita, said to be extraordinarily beautiful, had even more courage and determination than beauty, for she organized and led the city's women in resistance against the French. Agostina, a woman of low birth was among them. Initially the women provided assistance to the men, the usual carrying of water and ammunition. (Black powder was manufactured locally, so the people of Saragossa had the knowledge necessary to manufacture all they could use.)

When Agostina came upon a battery that was unattended, its men either dead or just gone, she took over firing herself, thus shaming the men who had abandoned the gun into returning. And let me tell you, just one person firing a park-size cannon is a pretty hard job. Normally a minimum crew of four is required for even a small cannon.

But Agostina didn't just quit when the guys came back. She kept on firing her cannon, and stayed with it until the French finally gave up the siege. Her true story was so inspiring that poets like Byron and Southey wrote about her and artists like Wilkie painted her. She was awarded medals and honors, and when asked to choose her own reward, wanted only two things: To take the name of her city as her own, becoming Agostina Zaragoza, and to continue fighting against the French. She was given both honors.

There is much more to the Siege of Saragossa, which the people, led by their hero, garrison commander Joseph Palafox, with the women continuing to pour their all under the Countess Burita's leadership. The indomitable city held out against the second siege for over 50 days. Eventually the city did fall to the French, but the survivors had forced the French to reasonable terms instead of complete annihilation. If you want to know more about this amazing city and its even more amazing women, this is one of the best descriptions:

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