Agustina Domenech’s exploits in the siege of Zaragoza inspired one of the few heroic etchings in Goya’s series “The Disasters of War.”
Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Spain in February 1808 set revolutions in motion throughout Latin America. It created a different kind of popular movement in Spain itself: resistance. For six years, Spanish patriots, men and women alike, fought against the French occupation in small irregular bands and provided critical support to the British Army in the Peninsular War against France. Twenty-two-year-old Agustina Zaragoza Domenech (1786–1857), who kept a key artillery position from falling into French hands at the first siege of Zaragoza, became the face of that resistance—so much so that British poet Lord Byron and Spanish artist Francisco Goya both created works celebrating her heroism.
Napoleon’s invasion of Spain had its official roots in long-simmering tensions between King Carlos IV of Spain and his son Ferdinand. Fearful that his father intended to remove him from the succession, Ferdinand asked Napoleon to help him depose his father.
If Ferdinand had been patient, the throne would have fallen into his hands without the risk of inviting Napoleon to invade. Carlos IV and his wife were not popular with their subjects. In March 1808, a public uprising forced Carlos to abdicate in favor of Ferdinand. The new king arrived in Madrid on March 24, one day after French commander Joachim Murat entered the city at the head of the French army. Dissatisfaction with Carlos IV’s corrupt government was so strong that many Spaniards greeted the French as liberators. By the end of April, it was clear the French had come to conquer, not to liberate.
On May 2, rumors spread that the French planned to forcibly remove the remaining members of the royal family to Bayonne, where Carlos and Ferdinand were now held captive, having abdicated in favor of Napoleon’s brother. Violent protests erupted in Madrid. A cavalry unit made up of the Muslim slave soldiers known as Mamluks, a souvenir of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, charged the protesting crowd, which was armed with little more than cudgels and knives. Once the protestors were dispersed, Murat’s men rounded up everyone they could find who was armed. Executions lasted through the night and well into the morning.
The brutal repression of the May 2 protest fueled resistance across Spain.
Agustina Zaragoza Domenech was the wife of Juan Roca, a Spanish sergeant stationed at Barcelona. With Ferdinand’s abdication, the Spanish army owed its allegiance to Joseph Bonaparte—and indirectly to France. Plenty of Spanish soldiers were unhappy with this arrangement, including Roca. Like many other Spanish soldiers, Roca fled French-occupied Barcelona after the May uprising in Madrid and made his way to Zaragoza, where General José de Palafox had organized resistance against the French. Domenech followed her husband there with their four-year-old son. Soon after reaching Zaragoza, Roca was sent to join a force some hundred miles away, leaving Domenech on her own in Zaragoza when the French army besieged the city on June 13.
Palafox held the French off for two months, from June 13 through August 15, with an improvised force of soldiers and townspeople—similar to those that have defended besieged cities throughout history. Domenech, like other women in the city, took on the tasks women traditionally performed in a besieged city: bringing food and water to the men on the city walls and caring for the wounded.
On July 2, 1808, the French launched a new attack on the city walls. As Domenech approached an artillery battery near the Portillo gate on the east wall of the city, a French shell destroyed the battery’s earthwork defenses and killed or incapacitated most of its gunners before they could fire their last round. The French army stormed the position. Domenech took a linstock—a long pole designed to hold a burning length of wicking, known as a “slow match”—from the hand of one of the fallen soldiers and fired the loaded twenty-four-pound cannon. Hit by a round of grapeshot at close range, the French retreated. Domenech received a medal, a small pension, and an honorary commission as a lieutenant for her bravery.
Domenech was not the only woman to fight at Zaragoza. By all accounts, many women took part in the city’s defense. At least two others received official recognition for their services. French horsemen surrounded a peasant woman named Casta Álvarez (1776–1846) as she delivered food and water to a key artillery battery. She grabbed a musket and bayonet and joined the battery’s defense. She received a pension and a medal for her role. Manuela Sancho (1783–1863) was wounded defending the convent of San Jose during the second siege. General Palafox, who clearly saw the promotional value of women warriors, mentioned her with honors. She, too, received a pension for her services at war’s end.