Anita Garibaldi was a bright flame who shone briefly in her native Brazil and Italy. She was the companion in arms and wife to Giuseppe Garibaldi and a hero in her own right. Her story is wonderfully romantic and tragic.
Anita’s Early Life
Born in 1821 in Brazil, Anita (named Anninha) was her father’s daughter. She loved being with him breaking horses or helping with the herds, rather than sewing for her wedding chest. She had her father’s love for the outdoors, mountains, streams, flowers, and trees.
When he died in a construction accident, Anita was devastated, and her mother was left destitute.
Women in South America at that time were expected to marry, in part because they had no other way of making a living. Anita’s mother remarried quickly after her husband’s death, and she expected her three daughters to marry too. But Anita was willful.
Her father had said she would probably want to find her own husband. She agreed. But when her mother begged her to marry a shoemaker who was much older, she did, to get stability. He turned out to be a brutal, violent man. Her life was boring when he was sober and terrifying when he was drunk.
Then Anita met Guiseppe Garibaldi.
Giuseppe Garibaldi was a larger-than-life figure in European history. He was a freedom fighter who fought throughout his life for the cause of Italian liberation and unification. At the time they met in 1836 he came to South America as a political exile but also to help the Brazilians fight for their freedom.
He had long red-gold hair, dark blue eyes, and great charm. Just the sort of person Anita might fall for. It was love at first sight, for both of them. He was 29, and she was just 15. When he sailed on a short journey, she begged to go with him. He told the crew she was his wife. Anita loved the life of the sea and she quickly took on sailor’s duties and won the admiration of the crew.
Her Most Dangerous Adventure
Anita became Garibaldi’s companion in arms, went everywhere with her “Jose,” as she called him. She fought with him and cared for the troops as a nurse after the battles were over. A few years after they met, on a campaign against the Brazilian empire, she was captured and put into prison. She shared her daily meal with other prisoners, refusing special treatment because she was a woman.
She managed to escape from the prison and hid in the woods until dawn. She got some help from a farmer and his wife and she headed south on a horse, through a summer storm. For two days and two nights, she got little rest and food, eating grass to keep going.
On the third day, she crossed a desert and a raging river. As she stepped out of the river, an imperial guard saw her, as her hat came off, revealing her hair. He fled as if he had seen a ghost. She finally found Garibaldi and his soldiers.
It didn’t take long for her to become pregnant, but she didn’t let it stop her from traveling with Jose as a guerrilla fighter. Twelve days after she had the baby (a boy named Menotti) she wrapped him in a blanket, slung him on her saddle, and rode with the men.
In 1840, Jose and Anita and their son went to Uruguay. He tried to settle down, but it wasn’t the type to do that. He soon took a post with the Uruguayan navy.
It was during this time that she made his famous “red shirt” uniform, and his comrades in Italy took on that name when they fought for freedom.
They had three more children, one dying from pernicious anemia. Garibaldi wanted to go back to Italy, even though he had a death sentence on his head in Sardinia.
Anita and the children went ahead of him in 1847 and lived with his mother in Nice. When they left, Anita told him she was taking red, white, and green cloth with her on the journey, to make him a flag to carry when she met him on his return to Italy.
Sure enough, in June 1848, she met his ship with the flag waving by her side.
Fighting in Italy – and Her Death
Garibaldi stayed only a few days in Nice after he landed. He took off immediately for Rome and she followed, leaving the children with his mother, determined to fight by his side.
They couldn’t conquer Rome, so they headed for headed off to fight in Milan. I can see her in her legionnaire uniform of “red shirt, baggy pants tucked into her boots, large round hat with a plume, concealing her hair.”
Anita was pregnant again, but she refused to go home. The Apennine mountains were difficult, and she was feverish and in pain. Her tent was lost on a pass, and she slept on a bed of leaves. In Venice, a doctor told her not to travel further, but she lied to Jose and didn’t tell him about the doctor’s orders. Through her “amazing willpower” she kept going as Garibaldi and his legionnaires tried to avoid the Austrian troops and escape to Switzerland to avoid a death warrant on him. She was weaker and weaker, stubbornly continuing to walk.
Finally, they found her a bed in the home of supporters and her body finally gave in. She died on August 4, 1849. Garibaldi had to leave immediately after she died because the Austrians were chasing him
Anita – After Her Death
Anita Garibaldi’s body was buried as an “unknown woman” to keep the Austrians guessing, but the neighbors knew exactly where she was. In 1859, Garibaldi and his two surviving children took her body to Nice to be buried.
You may be wondering why she would leave her children to fight with her husband. It’s simple. She said,
“I love my children, but…I love Jose more than I love any other creature in the world.”
In June 1932, her ashes were taken to Rome, where a monument to her still exists. The Lisa Gergio, the author of the biography below, says,
“On the summit of [the hill of] Janiculum, her body outlined against the Roman sky, she leaps with her horse, not as an Amazon, but as a wife and mother who had turned warrior for the sake of the man she loved and of the freedom she learned to love.”
Most of the information in this article and all the quotes come from I Am My Beloved. Unfortunately, the price of this book is high ($45.19).
I also found information in Rejected Princesses: Tales of history’s boldest heroines, hellions, and heretics by Jason Porath. 2016.
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