Rafaela was 19 years old when she shot the commander of the British fleet with a cannon.
Standing on the rampart of the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception, which commanded a bend in the San Juan river, Rafaela Herrera looked out upon the British fleet.
Nicaragua had attracted Great Britain’s interest because of its geography. Its lakes and rivers represented a potential connecting route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans which would revolutionize world trade. And Britain had sent an expeditionary force up the San Juan river, raiding and destroying undefended Nicaraguan settlements as they progressed. Jinotega and Acoyapa fell to the British force; and then Loviguisca and San Pedro de Lovago were overrun. The mission of Apompua near Juigalpa and the town of Muy Muy were captured. Villages were burned and looted; and many prisoners were taken.
It was 1762, and Britain was a mighty world power. Her navy sailed the seven seas and kept distant colonies under control worldwide. Nicaragua was small and young and alone.
The British expeditionary force consisted of 50 ships and 2000 men. The Fortress of the Immaculate Conception held about one hundred soldiers. At 4 am on July 26, 1762, as the fleet approached the fortress, a British landing party took a Nicaraguan observation post and captured its defenders. That same morning, a few hours later, the fleet anchored before the fortress, and the British commander sent an envoy ashore to negotiate a surrender. The terms were, in exchange for cessation of hostilities, unconditional surrender of the fortress,
Inside the fortress there was anxious turmoil, as their commander had just died a few days before. The second in command, a sergeant, was planning to surrender when Rafaela spoke forth: “Have you forgotten the duties imposed by military honor? Are you going to allow the enemy to steal this fortress, which is the safeguard of the Province of Nicaragua, and of your families?” Rafaela, you see, was the daughter, the only offspring, of the commander of the fortress, Lieutenant Don Jose de Herrera, who had just died.
The men were stunned and not knowing what to do. Rafaela Herrera ordered the gates of the fortress to be locked, took the keys and placed sentries. The enemy envoy returned to the fleet which promptly arrayed itself for battle, thinking to intimidate the defenders. Hererra, whose grandfather was a military engineer, and whose father had trained her in military honor, and the handling of weapons, aimed one of the cannons. Boom! and a volley sailed across the waters. Boom! a second volley; and then, in case they were mistaken as to her intentions, Boom! a third cannon shot sailed forth. On the third volley, the commander of the British fleet was killed.
The British were enraged and commenced an all out assault. Those one hundred rallied mightily, and, inspired by Rafaela’s heroism, responded with ferocious defense. Deep in the night, Rafaela soaked clothes in alcohol and set them afire and adrift on floating branches in the river. The flotilla of flame descending upon the anchored fleet forced them to readjust to defensive positions.
The battle continued at daybreak, and then day after day for six days. Rafaela Herrera commanded the cannons and Lieutenant Juan de Aguilar led the defenders. On August 3, 1762, the British lifted their siege, retreated, and sailed back downstream to the mouth of the San Jose river, never to return.
On November 11, 1781, King Charles III of Spain, issued a royal decree granting Herrera a pension for life as a reward for her heroic actions during the Battle for the Río San Juan de Nicaragua.