Leyenda • Legend

La Rogativa
sculpture by Lindsay Daen

La Rogativa, 1797

In Spanish, the word, “rogativa” means “supplication or prayer”.  One of the enduring legends of the 1797 British siege of San Juan is that of La Rogativa: that divine intervention led to the British abandonment of the attack following a religious procession of the women of San Juan, praying for the salvation of their city. The legend itself describes a prayer procession led by the Bishop held in honor of Saint Catherine and Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand virgin handmaidens. 

This procession left the Cathedral after dark on 30 April with every participant, many of them women, carrying a candle or torch, such as each could afford.  The procession, in prayer, wound around all the streets of the city, not returning to the Cathedral until daybreak.  Bells ringing from the towers of the Cathedral and other churches accompanied the supplicants.  The British commander, General Abercromby, upon seeing the seemingly endless line of torches, along with hearing the bells, mistook the procession for a significant reinforcement of the capital by troops from the countryside.  Recognizing that the current military standoff would only worsen for the British with the arrival of so many more Puerto Rican recruits, Abercromby ordered the British troops to reembark their transports and by 1 May, the British ships were seen at full sail, heading away from the island.

This legend is commemorated today with four bronze statues grouped together in the Plazuela de la Rogativa (Rogativa Plaza) in Old San Juan, which pay tribute to the Bishop and townswomen who participated in the procession. 

However, whether or not it resulted in the British abandonment of the siege, it is likely that the Rogativa, as a religious procession, did actually occur.  In fact, a number of such processions probably took place in parishes around the island.  A letter dated 18 April 1797 from Bishop Juan Bautista de Zengotita y Bengoa sent to the Dean of the San Juan Cathedral reads:   

Mr. Dean:  The present needs require that solemn Rogativas be carried out in this Holy Cathedral Church, for the fortuitous triumph of His Majesty’s Arms.  I expect you to begin them during the main mass of this day. May God Keep Your Person

Puerto Rico, 18 April 1797, Friar Juan Bautista. Bishop of Puerto Rico  

A second letter orders that, on 20 April, all of the parishes around the island hold such processions during the siege.
“...that after having received this letter you hold in each parish a daily, public, Rogativa, for the glory of Spanish Arms, asking the God of Armies to humiliate that proud nation, an enemy of his Holy Name, and that he distances and eliminates it from our sight , so we can worship His Divine Majesty with a relaxed spirit and in the peace of our altars and temples...”
Given in our Bishopric in Puerto Rico on 20 April 1797-Friar Juan Bautista, Bishop of Puerto Rico-By Mandate of his Most Illustrious Excellency the Bishop, my Master, Juan Antonio Uribe y Zengotita, Secretary. 
 These letters are interesting for several reasons:  the British warships and transports were only spotted on 17 April, so the 18 April letter puts the Rogativa processions as beginning early in the siege—not only at the end as the legend asserts.  Moreover, on 17 April women and children are ordered by the governor to leave San Juan.  However, since the able-bodied men were enrolled in the militia and the regular military at this point and highly focused on defending the capital, it suggests that the legend may be accurate in that the processions were predominately composed of women—thus hinting that not all the women of the capital heeded the evacuation order. 

Regardless of one’s personal beliefs: that divine intervention did lead to the end of the siege; that the British mistook the processions for the arrival of significant numbers of reinforcements; or that in modern, psychological terms, the Rogativas simply gave a portion of the population that was relatively helpless in a military sense the belief that they were actively participating in the defense of the island, the legend of La Rogativa plays an enduring role in the history of Puerto Rico.

Prepared by Kerry E. McClure, February 2010