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I Die With My CountryPerspectives on the Paraguayan War, 1864-1870
By Hendrik Kraay Thomas L. Whigmam
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2004 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
War, Politics, and Society in South America, 1820s-60s
"Muero con mi patria [I die with my country]!" These words, shouted defiantly at his Brazilian pursuers by Paraguayan president Francisco Solano López, brought to an end the most costly interstate war in South American history. As he slid mortally wounded into the red muck of the Aquidabán River on 1 March 1870, his last view was of a country devastated. Paraguay had doggedly held off Brazil and its Uruguayan and Argentine allies for nearly six years, wrecking a good portion of South America in the process. And now Brazilian forces had finally caught up with the remnants of López's army and destroyed it.
The Paraguayan War (or the War of the Triple Alliance) profoundly shaped the histories of the four countries involved, yet it remains little known outside South America. It readily lends itself to superlatives: Leslie Bethell notes that, after the Crimean War, it was the bloodiest interstate conflict between 1815 and 1914, and according to Miguel Angel Centeno's calculations, it accounts for more than half of the casualties in all of Latin America's interstate wars combined. Others have called it one of the first total wars. With more than 60 percent of its population dead by 1870, Paraguayenjoys the dubious distinction of suffering the highest rate of civilian and military casualties recorded in any modern war. In its long periods of grinding, static trench warfare, the conflict between Paraguay and its three allied opponents foreshadowed the First World War on the western front.
For the people of South America these years marked a watershed as profound as that of the Civil War for those of the United States or the First World War for those of Europe. As the great Brazilian writer Machado de Assis put it in 1894, "there is no doubt that, after López's death, clocks have run faster." Those generations of Argentine, Uruguayan, and Brazilian soldiers molded by the war returned to countries undergoing rapid social and economic changes. Urbanization, incipient industrialization, immigration, the final decline and abolition of slavery in Brazil, and the expansion of agricultural frontiers in Argentina and Uruguay were all hastened by the definitive consolidation of three nation-states. Although many of these changes had only indirect links to the war, those who experienced the conflict tended to see their societies through the prism of their wartime experience. To them everything bore its stain. This was also the case for the prostrate Paraguay, where the war's effects hung over the population for more than a generation.
The nine chapters that follow, all original works, provide perspectives on the Paraguayan War as it was lived by men and women in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. The authors share a concern with social history and the experience of societies at war. Wars yield to analysis at many levels-the national, the local, and the individual. Nation-states may go to war, but individuals approach war in distinct ways, often as part of the social groups or local communities that define them and through which they are mobilized. The contributors to this book look beneath the political, military, and diplomatic questions that have dominated scholarship to understand how men and women saw this conflict and how it shaped them and their societies.
The Luso-Spanish Conflict in the Plata, 1600s-1800s
War had always shaped the relations between Spanish and Portuguese South America. Indeed the Paraguayan War was just the last chapter in a two-century conflict between the Spanish and Portuguese over the region defined by the Platine river system. The Portuguese advance beyond the nominal bounds of their colonial domain brought them into contact and conflict with Spanish settlers along the frontier as early as the seventeenth century. Both craved the land as well as the Indians who lived upon it. In 1680 the Portuguese establishment of Colônia do Sacramento along the Río de la Plata opposite Buenos Aires marked a new stage in the struggle for hegemony in this region. The Portuguese aimed to tap directly into the contraband trade through the future Argentine capital to the rich silver mines of Peru. Spanish authorities had no intention of tolerating this challenge to their imperial commercial monopoly. They promptly destroyed the outpost, but the Portuguese rebuilt it three years later. For more than a century afterward the two colonial powers fought over the mouth of the Plata. None of the treaties negotiated during these years endured, and the empires' boundaries shifted back and forth in response to changing political fortunes.
The outbreak of the independence struggles in the Americas added new dimensions to these conflicts. Napoleon's occupation of the respective mother countries (and the capture of the Spanish king) produced far-reaching challenges. The Platine viceroyalty fractured into its pieces, with Bolivia, Paraguay, and ultimately Uruguay breaking free from Buenos Aires's administrative control. Argentina itself turned into a loose confederation of more or less autonomous provinces, none save Buenos Aires really viable, given its exclusive control of the customs house and its revenues. Under the dictatorship of Dr. José Gaspar de Francia (1814-40), Paraguay adopted a policy of isolation from the outside world, which insulated it from the political anarchy to the south and had the effect-probably unintended-of reinforcing the population's Hispano-Guaraní identity.
In contrast to Paraguay, Buenos Aires emerged as a center of patriot sympathies, sending armies as far afield as Peru to defeat royalist forces in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Despite their success in liberating South America, porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) failed to impose their will on the provinces. The relatively centralized and businesslike government of the United Provinces of the Plata, established in 1816-19,collapsed in the face of caudillo opposition in 1820. Bernardino Rivadavia's liberal, modernizing efforts in the 1820s enjoyed some limited success in the port. But when he attempted to build a unitary government for the United Provinces, he lost the support of ranchers in Buenos Aires Province, who feared losing control of the capital's all-important customs house. Intractable ideological differences and competing visions of the relationship between the provinces and Buenos Aires rendered Argentina virtually ungovernable.
Portuguese America went through a significantly different trajectory. Prince-Regent (after 1816, King) João VI avoided the fate of his Spanish counterpart and escaped the French invaders, reaching Rio de Janeiro in 1808. There he established his capital, governing the entire Portuguese empire from this tropical court until 1821. The ambitions of his Spanish-born wife, Carlota Joaquina, to dominate Platine affairs coincided with the interests of southern Brazilian ranchers. This led to a full-scale Portuguese invasion of the Banda Oriental (modern-day Uruguay) in 1816 that displaced the nascent Federal League of José Gervasio Artigas. Soon Brazil incorporated the region as the Cisplatine Province. The 1820 revolution in Porto, Portugal, prompted a reluctant João to return to Lisbon; by 1822 his son had turned himself into Emperor Pedro I of Brazil. Relatively little fighting was required to expel troops loyal to Portugal (except in Bahia) or to ensure the loyalty of the far-flung provinces to the new government in Rio de Janeiro. Even the Cisplatine Province-loyal longer to Lisbon thanks to its large Portuguese garrison-eventually fell into line. By 1824 the empire was secure, with British and Portuguese recognition coming one year later.
Brazilian rhetoric that heralded the Río de la Plata as the country's natural southern frontier could not be sustained. In 1825 exiles led by Juan Lavalleja crossed onto the east bank of the Uruguay River, the Banda Oriental, and raised the standard of revolt against Brazil. Receiving strong backing from porteños, the rebellion soon attracted support from rural caudillos. Within six months the Brazilians controlled only Colônia do Sacramento and Montevideo. Brazil declared war against Buenos Aires, but the ensuing conflict, known as the Cisplatine War, ended in a stalemate. A British-mediated peace in 1828 led to the creation of the independent República Oriental del Uruguay the following year. Political instability in Brazil during the nine-year regency that followed Pedro I's abdication in 1831 and the early years of Pedro II's personal reign prompted a temporary Brazilian withdrawal from Platine affairs.
This retreat coincided with the rise in Buenos Aires of Juan Manuel de Rosas, the Federalist caudillo. Rejecting all that smacked of Rivadavia's liberal and centralizing (Unitarian) reforms, this rancher proclaimed his unbending opposition against "savage Unitarians." Nominally the governor of Buenos Aires Province, Rosas in fact exercised control over the thirteen other provinces through a complex web of patronage and alliances backed by force. Unitarians sought refuge in Montevideo (and further abroad), vilifying Rosas as a barbarian. Rosas's ally in Uruguay, Manuel Oribe, and his Blanco Party controlled the countryside, while Colorados and Unitarian exiles hung on in the capital, surviving a nearly nine-year siege (1843-51). Immigrant volunteers-including Giuseppe Garibaldi-and the timely interventions of Britain and France ensured Montevideo's survival.
Southern Brazil had its share of civil war as well. The ranchers of Rio Grande do Sul retained extensive interests in Uruguay after its independence, and they had numerous grievances against the imperial government, notably the lack of protection for their charque (dried beef) in the domestic market (it was a major part of the slaves' diet). In 1836 leaders of the so-called Farroupilha Rebellion proclaimed a republic in Rio Grande do Sul. Some sought ties with Uruguay and Argentine provinces, but little came of these initiatives. Concessions by the imperial government combined with war weariness finally produced a settlement in 1844-45. The Farrapo defeat proved easier to stomach given the generous bribes distributed by the imperial commander, Luis Alves de Lima e Silva, the Baron (later Marquis and Duke) of Caxias.
Having "pacified" Rio Grande do Sul and defeated the other internal revolts by midcentury, a politically unified Brazil under Emperor Pedro II stood poised to resume its historic imperial role in the Plata. This included its strategic interest in ensuring free navigation along the regional river system, the only easy access to the interior province of Mato Grosso. By then Rosas's position in Buenos Aires had weakened. Opposition crystallized around the Federalist caudillo of Entre Ríos, Justo José de Urquiza, a wealthy rancher and old ally of the Bonaerense strongman. A mixed alliance of porteño Unitarians, Montevideo Colorados, and interior Federalists, backed by Brazilian money and troops (and verbal support from Paraguay), defeated Rosas at Caseros (2 February 1852), sending him into a long English exile. Uruguay became virtually a Brazilian protectorate, its government financed by Rio de Janeiro (previous regimes had mortgaged the Montevideo customs revenue); Brazilian troops remained in the country until 1855. Even then Uruguayans lacked a principle around which they could unite. Attempts to meld the rival Colorado and Blanco factions into a Fusionist government of national unity in the late 1850s came to naught when dogmatic Colorados vetoed the policy.
With Rosas out of the way, Urquiza presided over a constituent assembly that created a federal constitution for the Argentine Confederation. Buenos Aires, however, felt most uncomfortable with any system that curtailed provincial privileges. On several occasions, the province rebelled. In 1861 the Unitarian governor of Buenos Aires, Bartolomé Mitre (aided by Uruguayan Colorados under Venancio Flores), destroyed the confederation at the battle of Pavón. Mitre, elected president of a new Argentina that included Buenos Aires in 1862, proceeded to build a central state and waged war against the remaining Federalist caudillos.
Mitre's interests extended beyond the bounds of Argentina. As Juan Manuel Casal notes in chapter 7, Mitre lent support to Flores in his 1863 war against the regime of Bernardo Berro. This government also came under considerable pressure from Brazil, whose nationals accounted for more than one-tenth of Uruguay's population and controlled much of the best ranching land bordering Rio Grande do Sul. Berro's attempts to impose Montevideo's control over this district lay behind the numerous appeals for intervention heard in Rio de Janeiro over the next year. In September 1864, after issuing an ultimatum that Berro could never accept, Brazil invaded Uruguay to support Flores's rebellion. Anticipating an amenable Flores administration, Mitre acquiesced in the Brazilian intervention, marking a significant shift in the historic pattern of regional rivalries. Instead of enemies the governments in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro now acted as allies, and in February 1865 they placed the presidential sash over their client, Flores.
Meanwhile the Paraguayan president, Francisco Solano López, regarded these developments with increasing dismay. After Francia's death in 1840, his successor, Carlos Antonio López, had initiated modest political reforms, writing a limited constitution in 1844 and, more importantly, beginning an extensive construction program. His government built roads, a shipyard, an iron foundry, a railroad to link Asunción and Cerro León, and other military facilities. Foreign, especially British, technicians provided the expertise necessary to complete these projects. The more-activist post-Francia state relied heavily on conscript labor and financed its public works with revenue derived from monopolies in yerba mate (Paraguayan tea) and timber in addition to profits from the state-owned ranches.
In a relatively quiet way the elder López had attempted to open Paraguay and expand his country's role in the Plata region. A military expedition to Corrientes in 1845-46, commanded by nineteen-year-old general Francisco Solano López, sought to dislodge Rosas's allies from the Argentine northeast as part of a rapprochement with Brazil and the Unitarians. In the 1850s López obtained free navigation on the river system for Paraguay and signed treaties with a number of foreign powers, though border issues with Argentina and Brazil remained unresolved. The construction of Humaitá, a massive fortress that controlled the river access to Asunción, reflected the president's continuing worries about relations with his neighbors.
Shortly before his death in 1862,Carlos Antonio López handed the mantle of presidential authority to his son, Francisco Solano López, who dreamed of making Paraguay into the regional arbiter. He accelerated the military build-up that his father had initiated, raising the regular army's strength to some twenty-eight thousand men. Mitre's success in creating a liberal and centralized Argentina worried the younger López, for even in the 1860s, many Argentines continued to regard Paraguay as little more than a renegade province. Moreover the remaining Federalists and interior caudillos heralded Paraguay as the last defender of their political model. To the new dictator Argentine and Brazilian intervention in Uruguay presaged Paraguay's own fate. López thus issued an ultimatum demanding that the empire not invade Uruguay. When Brazil did so anyway, the Paraguayan navy seized the Brazilian steamer Marquês de Olinda, carrying the new provincial president (governor) of Mato Grosso. The republic then launched a quick and successful (though strategically unwise) invasion of Mato Grosso.
Excerpted from I Die With My Country by Hendrik Kraay Thomas L. Whigmam Copyright © 2004 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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