Italian-Americans have long been divided politically. The political and historical memories of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, Communist labor leader Peter Cacchione, and socialist Vito Marcatonio have been contested by world leaders and global citizens with Mussolini-like sentiments and by the incessant popular imagery of revolting actors such as Christopher Columbus. Contemporary Italian-American politicians, both Democrat and Republican, who believe in austerity and dedication to neoliberal frameworks have also held steady in protecting their policies and holding onto the status quo despite recent statue desecration, impeachment, opposition to censorship, and calls for political change in leadership. One notable Italian, who in the context of civic reform, engagement and social democracy, was Giuseppe Garibaldi, and is at times, held up as an alternative to traditional forms of Italian commemoration. But it should be known that it was his Brazilian wife, Anita, that most likely shaped a great deal of Garibaldi’s actions and philosophies concerning abolition, democratic rights, and internationalism.
On August 30, 1821 Anita da Silva de Jesus was born in Brazil South to Bentao da Silva and Antonia de Jesus. At the age of seven, Anita became skilled with horses and devoted much of her time to raising and teaching her siblings while her mother did domestic work. In 1831, when Anita was ten, revolution broke out in the Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s most southern province. A few years later she lost her father in a tragic accident and was physically assaulted by a neighboring farmer. After acting in self-defense, her case came before the local Justice of the Peace, where she was found innocent. When Anita was eighteen years old in 1839, she was in an unstable arranged marriage. This is when she met Giuseppe Garibaldi (who she referred to as José). Giuseppe Garibaldi was participating in revolutions fomenting in Brazil and Uruguay; they married soon after. Starting in 1839-1840, Anita Garibaldi developed a comradeship with Giuseppe, and contributed to the independence movement and trekked across the countryside, giving birth to their first child. After her capture as a prisoner, she managed to escape and reunite with Giuseppe.
In 1841, after fighting on behalf of Rio Grande, Anita left for Montevideo, Uruguay, a place at war with Argentina. Here, Anita Garibaldi organized women at building fortifications caring for children, helped to distribute food, and raised money for political projects in the effort to abolish slavery in Uruguay. In 1847, she travelled to Italy and helped organize political foundations for the redshirts to join the revolutions of 1848. Anita Garibaldi died on August 4, 1849 after participating in the Risorgimento and contracting malaria.
In this essay, in synthesizing Anita Garibaldi historiography, I will argue that she was not de-politicized and subservient to Giuseppe Garibaldi, but an equal in terms of revolutionary tactics, if not his superior. This specific argument not only contests the western-based image that women in battle were relegated to prescribed duties of care (which Anita also performed) but helps to inform about the role women played in nineteenth-century borderland politics and how they established agency in internationalist activities. In my estimation, this picture is made clearer with the synthesis of compensatory historical sources such as novels, fiction, and memoirs.
Women in Nineteenth-Century Geo-Politics
Global and national borderland histories of the nineteenth-century shaped world politics and history in the modern era. Worldwide civil wars, rebellions, resistance to slave systems, reactions to industrialization, and social revolutions and reforms – all helped to provide explanations for how and why official borderlands and defined political spaces became less reliable indicators for ideological and geographical alignments. To understand the life of Anita Garibaldi is to understand the nature of these nineteenth-century political developments in several nations. According to historian Marjan Schwegman, “crossing national boundaries should be at the heart of the study of nineteenth-century politics.” She maintains that the time-period invites “us to think of national politics as in the making; as a historical process of frequent reinvention and negotiation from both inside and outside diplomatic borders.”
Anita Garibaldi, like Giuseppe, was a relevant political actor that ultimately influenced nineteenth-century political causes on three continents (Europe, South America, and North America). Since she left behind no memoir her history was largely pieced together by writers covering the Garibaldis’ joint activities. Feminist Margaret Fuller of the New York Tribune, the first female international correspondent in American history, “became devoted to foreign political causes” and allied with the Garibaldis on issues involving: the 1848 revolutions, emancipation, the abolition of slavery, feminism, suffrage and independence movements.
Anita Garibaldi and Knowledge Construction
Since she left behind no written records, much of the historical information involving Anita Garibaldi’s life is a challenge to trace with documents. With the use of biographies, historical fictions, novels, and even Giuseppe Garibaldi’s own memoirs, much of Anita’s place in history is self-reinforced within these forms of primary data that compensate for a women’s history ignored by early professional members. Bonnie Smith argued that during the nineteenth century the writing of history became an occupation of male professionals. Women considered “amateur historians”research interests were excluded from universities. As a result, I contend additional sources that corroborate with actual events but without a robust archive, require further review.
Anthony Valerio wrote a history of Anita Garibaldi by utilizing, cross-genre, a method that compiles biographical information to tell a life story using poetry, memoir, literature, biography, and historical fiction. He also provided this work in English, where most sources referring to Anita provide accounts written in Portuguese and Italian. Valerio, like author Lisa Sergio, follow nearly an identical format as well: tracing Anita Garibaldi through three main chronological segments, Brazil (1821-1841, Uruguay (1841-1848) and Italy (1848-1849). Although this structure and storyline informs a great deal about Giuseppe Garibaldi it uses evidence taken from his biographers to describe Anita Garibaldi’s life. Sergio writes, “Not infrequently they got into long discussions over the plans he never stopped making for Italy. On occasion, when common sense was needed to temper his excessive dreaming, Anita brought him down to earth again, and he followed her with good humor.” This agency and characterization means almost nothing in isolation, but when reached by a consensus through multiple sources and genres, it becomes close to corroboration.
William Rosenfeld, troubled by the fact that Giuseppe Garibaldi’s closest comrades did not leave behind public or private papers, set out to construct Anita Garibaldi’s memoirs. Although it is quite a stretch to call this invented voice historical data, he does accurately depict the Young Italians, abolitionism, imprisonment, voyages, reforms, and revolutions. In effect, these biographies further emphasize the reputation of Giuseppe Garibaldi history as told by Esperance von Schwartz (a female Giuseppe biographer who first included Anita’s portrait in a published work), Theodore Dwight Weld and Alexandre Dumas. Dwight in particular, was very dedicated as an American abolitionist and undoubtedly appreciated Garibaldi’s anti-slavery sentiments and actions. By extension, Rosenfeld, Valerio and Sergio self-indulge as Anita Garibaldi biographical enthusiasts, seemingly inferring that that this type of portrayal (Weld’s) extends to Anita Garibaldi’s life.
Marina Luisa Rohde and Gilmei Francisco Fleck contend that the value of the “novel as a narrative genre” can provide “a logical literary vehicle of a culture” thus providing a “new social arrangement” that offers a “distinct way of portraying social relations.” Nineteenth-century history and fiction was interwoven to capture specifics mores.
Historians and Garibaldi Discourse
With a dearth of Anita Garibaldi archival information, how does her history register with historians interested in unpacking Giuseppe Garibaldi and his attitude towards women? Lucy Riall argues that, “It is possible that the ideas of the romantic socialists – their confidence in the benefits of technological progress, their spiritualism and especially the faith in a new religion of ‘Humanity’; the idea of a community based on affective ties; a belief in female emancipation; a non-monogamous attitude to sex and the rejection of marriage – had a strong impact on Garibaldi’s political convictions, if not stronger, as the later nationalist elaborations of Mazzini.”
People interested in Anita Garibaldi might make extrapolations about the dual-alliance and comradeship with Giuseppe based on his proclivities. Although Riall expresses interest in Anita and informs, “Garibaldi’s life and experience in South America are among the least known and the most mythologized of his entire career. Certain episodes – Garibaldi’s meeting his first wife Anita; Anita’s own flight from the enemy, variously, pregnant or with Garibaldi’s infant son in her arms, have achieved canonical status,” but also according to Riall, much of this is difficult to authenticate with data.
Conventionally, historians argue that Garibaldi’s time in South America was shaped by a gaucho worldview, with habits he brought back to Italy in 1848. His “scandalous” (she was a young married woman when they met) relationship with Anita, a person that “by all accounts was as adventurous, courageous and unconventional as he and who remained in most respects his female ideal for the rest of his life,” provide some basis in Anita as a revolutionary. Riall maintains that Garibaldi’s memoirs, including the references to his wife throughout as the “Brazilian heroine,” served as political extensions to his actions and her biographical construction in 1848 and 1849. Furthermore, Garibaldi’s attraction to Anita was largely rooted in her “masculinity” and “violation” of gender norms (wearing pants and horse breaking) as historian Christopher Hibbert writes that Anita “looked upon battles as a pleasure and the hardships of camp life as a pleasant pastime.”
Approaching a Synthesis of the Historical Record
Providing that with or without a vast primary source collection to explain Anita Garibaldi, a reasonable explanation for her agency still presents itself: “Who captured who? Who follows who leads?” That is, in the context of romantic love and complex meanings surrounding revolution.Another way of buttressing the scant primary data connected to Anita Garibaldi is to get a better handle on the scholarship of nineteenth-century women connected to European and South American politics and traditions coinciding with 1848. “Garibaldi’s overwhelming presence in Italian monuments suggests that his political role has been defined by the Italian nation, but he started his career as an international fighter for freedom and national borders that did not matter.” Anita Garibaldi likely played a vital role in shaping this internationalism.
Schwegman further discusses how since Garibaldi envisioned a resistance movement based solely on the merits of political contributions and desired the same outcomes as Anita. “The life of revolutionaries,” Schwegman states, explains “the boundaries between political and private life [and how they] are not clear.” Without a reliable “transmitter of new ideas and who the receiver is, who leads, who follows, who is feminine and who is masculine” determining the moving social parts proves difficult when it comes to unpacking Anita’s role in European and South American internationalism.
Feminist historians are turning to a discussion of romantic attraction as an occurrence pertinent to nineteenth-century geo-political history. This demonstrates how 1848 rendered the nation-state far less relevant when it came to the study of politics because of the malleability and social construction of not just borderlands, but women’s relationships. Furthermore, Liza Featherstone recently demonstrated how this can extend much more broadly in the context of twentieth-century world history with an analysis of Alexandra Kollontai. Featherstone cites political theorist Jodi Dean on how “Kollontai teaches us to notice that the most intimate aspects of our lives are collective.”
Russian Revolutionary women of the twentieth century that comprised this same nineteenth-century interplay between liberation and love, with their respective meanings in comradely flux, sharpened their teeth on the upheavals associated with the movements of 1848. Further, just as nineteenth-century feminism is important in understanding later political developments, so is the understanding that 1848 “recognized transnational connections.” Maybe Anita Garibaldi wasn’t a part of the European ontology of privilege and the official demands brought forth by the organized women of Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, or Seneca Falls, but her itinerant contributions were just as disorderly.
Sadly, in 1932 Benito Mussolini, honored Anita Garibaldi in a public ceremony. The downside of the contested Anita is the way in which the dominant culture abused her legacy. Historians rightly cited the obvious problem however: “Anita Garibaldi had represented everything that Fascism detested: she had been a most unconventional woman who had violated the very core of gender principles that the misogynist regime imposed.”The Fascist Italian dictator knew that it was hard to imagine Giuseppe advocating so strongly for emancipation and universal suffrage without the primacy of Anita but this did not stop his intentional distortion of her courage. Anita and Giuseppe Garibaldi’s life story offers an astounding collection of moments and textures. On the one hand, with little known about Anita, her story and history remain the topic and debate for how to interact with a diverse archive. Is it possible for a history written this way?
Although Karl Marx once called Giuseppe Garibaldi “a pitiful donkey” as both he and Proudhon condemned nationalism, and Gramsci called Italian unification mere “revolution from above,” Giuseppe still was to the left of Lincoln regarding emancipation and gained admiration from Engels, Che Guevara, and A.J.P. Taylor. He also gradually joined Mazzini to the more social democratic/socialist left. Much of Garibaldi’s evolution (including a deep friendship with Andrea Aguyar) was based on his experiences in the global south and undoubtedly Anita.
In the absence of traditional and more reliable primary documents, does the cross-genre methodology suffice? For it is all we have with Anita Garibaldi. The benefit of this approach is the way women contemporaries pronounce Anita’s life with adjacent sources, events, and their own topics of scholarly inquiry. Borderland and political histories rely on archives and evidence, but they are also socially constructed and less fixed. Too much Italian-American commentary and remembrance of Garibaldi is shaped around what Amy Bass calls the “patriotic orthodoxy.” (He was born on July 4, 1807 and often draws comparisons to George Washington).
Studying Anita Garibaldi however reinvents our conceptions of Giuseppe Garibaldi and more accurately shapes his internationalist and revolutionary character as Italian-Americans struggle to popularize their heroes on the left. Historical evidence can be limited and at times, is largely based on probability. In the month of August, it is important to recognize Anita’s history (August 30, 1821 – August 4, 1849) and her probable contribution as the actual better half.
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1/ Marjan Schwegman, “In Love with Garibaldi: Romancing the Italian Risorgimento.” European Review of History 12 (2005): 384. ↑
2/ Marjan Schwegman, 384. ↑
3/ Marjan Schwegman, 385. ↑
4/ Marjan Schwegman, 385. ↑
5/ Lisa Sergio. I Am My Beloved: The Life of Anita Garibaldi (New York, NY: Weybright and Talley, 1969), 104. ↑
6/ Marina Luisa Rhode and Gilmei Francisco Fleck, “Anita Garibaldi: A Brazilian Heroine in a Traditional Perspective.” Asian Research Journal of Arts and Social Sciences 4 (2017): 3. ↑
7/ Lucy Riall. Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 38. ↑
8/ Lucy Riall, Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero, 41. ↑
9/ Lucy Riall, Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero, 42. ↑
10/ Lucy Riall, Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero, 159. ↑
11/ Christopher Hibbert, Garibaldi: Hero of Italian Unification. (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 19. ↑
12/ Marjan Schwegman, “In Love with Garibaldi: Romancing the Italian Risorgimento.” European Review of History 12 (2005): 393. ↑
13/ See: Margaret Fuller and Cristina di Belgiojoso ↑
14/ Marjan Schwegman, “In Love with Garibaldi: Romancing the Italian Risorgimento.” European Review of History 12 (2005): 383. ↑
15/ Marjan, Schwegman, 385. ↑
16/ “Eros for the People: Alexandre Kollontai’s Sex-Positive Bolshevism,” Liza Featherstone, Lux Magazine, accessed April 2021, https://lux-magazine.com/article/alexandra-kollontai-eros-for-the-people/. ↑
18/ Karen Offen, Globalizing Feminisms 1789-1945: Rewriting Histories (New York: Routledge, 2010), xii. ↑
19/ Historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall wrote “Disorderly Women: Gender and Labor Militancy in the Appalachian South” to explain how women workers in Tennessee textile mills struggled apart from urbanites. ↑
20/ Anthony Valerio, Anita Garibaldi: A Biography. (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2000), iii.