August 16th, 1869, marks the Battle of Acosta Ñu, pretty much the end of the line in the War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay. The Paraguayan military had been so whittled away over the course of 6 years of fighting that most of the Paraguayans fighting by this point were between 12 and 17 years old, some wearing fake beards in order to be taken seriously by their enemies. The Paraguayan soldiers were many of them fighting with machete and bayonet having no ammunition or rifles left, they were described as often barefoot and almost naked, the boys laying out on the battlefield cried out for food as they were too hungry to notice their wounds.
To try and get a full picture of how things got to such a high pitch of human misery let us consider a chronology of Paraguay in the context of Spanish South America.
Of course in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue — we know how that played out pretty well, Europeans figured out they were not in China or India and they decided that if you killed enough of them, the locals might tell you where the gold was at.
So in 1494 Spain and Portugal rather arbitrarily carved up the globe, Spain being assigned the majority of the New World but leaving a big slice of the Eastern Seaboard of South America in Portuguese hands — over time the Portuguese would slowly move over this line and fill in quite a bit what would become the modern expanse of Brazil.
Spain spent 1532-1537 knocking down the Incas of Peru, the most politically organized native civilization in South America. On August 15th, 1537, the Feast of the Assumption, a stockade was built near the confluence of the Paraguay and Pilcomayo rivers: Asunción was assigned some importance as an administrative center by Spanish authorities, and yet was really too far in the backwaters to be that useful.
In 1545 to the north in the high plateau lands now known as Bolivia, a mountain of silver was discovered. Between 1556 and 1783, mines at Potosí would produce 41000 metric tons of silver for Spain, pushing the balance of world trade — especially in regards to China — into Spanish hands. On a map it would seem that carting silver to Asunción and sending it down to the port of Buenos Aires would have been the best way to get silver to the Atlantic and then across to Spain, but the overland trip was too rugged and full of hostile natives — instead the silver went down to the Pacific at Lima, by sea up to Panama City and then overland across the Isthmus to the Caribbean.
Buenos Aires, which would become Asunción’s powerful rival, commands the harbour at the end of the Río de la Plata — the culmination of the river system that begins upstream in Paraguay. The settlement there was founded in 1536, the year before Asunción was established, however it had been evacuated by 1542, due to attacks by local Native Americans. Governance of the Río de la Plata region moved upstream to Asunción but only until Buenos Aires was reclaimed beginning in 1580; after that, the region we know as Paraguay today settled into a quiet isolation. Settlers in Paraguay grew tobacco, logged valuable hardwoods and gathered a native plant that became Paraguay’s most important agricultural product in the region, yerba maté; however, all of these exports had to pass through Buenos Aires which, by 1620, had pretty much completely eclipsed Asunción politically.
One of the primary though not always recognized commodities produced in the area were the Guaraní, Native Americans who early on seem to have courted good relations with the Spanish leading to much intermarriage and also to their exploitation as forced labor. The Jesuit order had started a college in Asunción and in 1608 were granted the opportunity to convert the Guaraní and save them not just in the Christian sense but also to protect them from slavers. One might turn a cynical eye on this and call the Jesuit efforts a ‘slavery in Christ,’ however the Jesuit missions were suprisingly enlightened and very successful. The Jesuits figured out how to cultivate maté and with the labor of their grateful converts created a burgeoning Jesuit empire in Paraguay. The Jesuit reducciones — missionary settlements — operated in Paraguay for more than a century. By 1732, records show more than 100,000 Guaraní taking part in this really quite remarkable utopian religious communism. In 1767, however, the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish South America by royal decree; the reducciones were taken over by other Catholic orders who either could not or would not keep them up; the towns went into an extreme decline and the Guaraní either fled back into the woods or used their skills and missionary educations to join Spanish colonial society.
Let me take a moment to add up some of the important threads that we are weaving together into what will soon be the basis of a new independent nation of Paraguay. First, because of their isolation and the overall lack of interest Spain showed in the region, Paraguayans were used to having to look out for themselves. There was no mountain of silver in Paraguay, just as there was no access to the sea. Yerba maté was a commodity which was traded primarily with Paraguay’s neighbors, it was not a major player in any sort of international trade. So a make-do attitude and strong inclination towards self-reliance marked life in Paraguay. Secondly, although Paraguayan society certainly enslaved and exploited the native Guaraní, a certain nativist pride was beginning to grow — a mixed Guaraní-Spanish identity was being built, even if it was built on a good deal of hypocrisy and crime. Third, rivalry with Buenos Aires was an important undercurrent, the Porteños — people from Buenos Aires are Porteños, dwellers in the port city don’t you know — had politically and economically undercut Paraguay again and again. But even more prominent among Paraguay’s unloved neighbors was Brazil, with whom the Paraguayans had been in armed conflict with for decades over Brazillian incursions over the Paraguayan border.
We are about to step over the threshold into a period of time known as the ‘Age of Revolutions,’ and it seems worth remembering that these revolutions came about because of all manner of very worldly matters — very small countries in Europe had swallowed up vast regions of the earth made possible by their technological advantages, but several centuries later, their initial speculations weren’t paying out enough to keep the project of controlling far-flung empires workable. For instance, the silver mountain, Potosí, that had to a large extent financed the colonial endeavor in Spanish South America was not producing as much readily available silver as it had. There was still plenty of silver in the mountain, but the surface deposits were becoming exhausted and the work of extracting more was becoming more and more difficult, dangerous and expensive.
The fact of the New World, the extensive new contact with far away civilizations like China and India, the explosion of scientific curiosity brought about by the need for everything from new mining techniques, better maps of the world, and catalogs of the new and potentially important plants and animals of far away lands — all these intellectual inputs profoundly affected European writers and thinkers. Concepts that severely challenged the world view established by reactionary forces like the Church and Royalty brought about radically skeptical new world views, views that would eventually cause people to declare the right of the people to determine their own governance and to punish crowned heads for their abuses. The Age of Colonial Expansion led inevitably to the Age of Enlightenment and then straight on to the Age of Revolutions.
The crowned heads of Spain I’m sure watched with horror and disgust as the British colonies revolted in North America, and with even more horror and disgust as the King and Queen of France lost their heads to a rabble in the streets of Paris. The spectacle that likely horrified them most was the meteoric rise of a certain commoner, Napoleon Bonaparte, from being a second lieutenant in the French Army all the way up to crowning himself Emperor of France. Two years after crowning himself Emperor, Napoleon came after Spain, the resulting Peninsular War (1807-1814) effectively began the scramble for Independence among the many divisive factions at work in Spain’s far-off colonies in the New World.
Many of the initial revolutions in Latin America began as conservative attempts to reject rule by Napoleon’s puppet government of Spain in support of the Spanish monarch held captive by France. But too many conflicting ideals and ambitions were at work and soon the struggle became one between the Spanish born ruling elite and the next tier in society below them, the native born creoles — an educated and landed gentry who had traditionally been denied positions in the government. It is worth pointing out that this is not too different from what had occurred in the Anglo-American War of Independence, ‘we the people’ may have risen up to cast off the tyranny of English rule, but power was still distinctly in the hands of the wealthy white American-born landed gentry.
In 1810, the local government in Buenos Aires sent the Spanish Viceroy packing. The Porteños tried to induce Paraguay to join a new independent United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, but the Paraguayans weren’t having it. After some bungled diplomacy, the Porteños decided to use force and were fiercely repulsed by Paraguayan forces. The initial impulse among Paraguayans seems to have been a loyalist rejection of the Porteño revolt against Spain, but soon creole interests began to lose their affection for the left-over Spanish authorities. Paraguay declared its independence in May of the next year, 1811. In the next few years an educated creole lawyer and theologian José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia maneuvered his way into a lifetime position as absolute ruler of Paraguay. ‘El Supremo’ was renowned for being frugal and honest and seems to have been well loved by the lower classes, most especially for the way in which he utterly broke up and discomfited the upper classes. He redistributed land, taxed the elites, forcefully repressed any opposition to his policies and carefully withdrew Paraguay from the political machinations of his neighbors. Paraguay, either in spite of or because of Francia’s iron rule became even more self-reliant and when he died in in 1840 the Treasury had more than doubled its contents.
As many benefits as Paraguay seemed to reap from the benevolent despotism of Francia, a major disadvantage became apparent in his absence. The majority of Paraguayans had been trained by their first three decades of independence to have no political aspirations or impulses — they had come to have absolute faith in their ruler. From 1844 to 1862 another well-educated lawyer, Carlos Antonio López, ruled as dictator, but unlike Francia, López used the position of first consul as a means to enrich himself and his family. He brought Paraguay a few steps out of its complete isolation, strengthened and modernized some of the countries infrastructure, but did nothing to curb the absolute power of his position and then handed that position down to his son, Francisco Solano López.
Solano López came to power in 1862 at the age of 35. By 1864 he had embroiled his country in armed conflict with Brazil and 1865 was at war with a Triple Alliance of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Solano López had been made a Brigadier General in his father’s army at the age of eighteen. Sent abroad to Europe, he had definitely enjoyed buying arms and machinery, as well as fancy new uniforms for the military — one imagines he threw himself into the adventure of all-out war with the joy of a spoiled child. The first year or so of the war went well for Paraguay, the army made successful forays into Brazil and Argentina capturing ships, forts and weapons but by 1866 the Paraguayans were on the run. The fierceness and dedication of Paraguayan troops seems to have somewhat overwhelmed the Triple Alliance, it was with great caution that the enemy began to press its advantage into Paraguay.
Towards the end of 1867, Solano López had a full accounting drawn up of the men left available to fight his war. One list prepared in the previously well-populated town of Villa Rica offers 563 soldiers, 245 of whom were between the ages of 12 and 14, 260 more who were age 50 or above; the remaining 58 were, for the most part, either slaves or else blind, insane, wounded in battle or disabled in some other way. And still the war dragged on, Solano López becoming more and more paranoid and homicidal — he became convinced that his own people were out to get him, when in fact they remained remarkably dedicated to his cause considering the great misfortunes he had heaped upon them. Thousands were arrested on suspicion of plotting López’ downfall, many hundreds were tortured and executed, and the purges continued even as Solano Lopez abandoned the capital and retreated from the oncoming Alliance. Enemy soldiers discovered hastily buried Paraguayans all along the path of Solano López’ retreat. By the time they caught and killed him, almost seven months after the miserable Battle of Acosta Ñu, Francisco Solano López had effectively wiped out the majority of able-bodied adult males in his own country. One of the more balanced and methodical studies done on the subject posits that between 60 to 70 percent of the population of Paraguay died in the War of the Triple Alliance.
My musical offering this week is a Sarabande, a stately dance of the Baroque period, composed by Domenico Zipoli, an Italian composer who without any explanation gave up his prestigious job as an church organist in Rome and headed off to join the Jesuit missionaries in Paraguay.