Between 1864 and 1870, Paraguay fought the most devastating war any country has ever suffered. Estimates of the number of dead differ widely, but it seems safe to say that 60% of the country’s total population was lost—proportionally the most destructive war of the last millennium. In the end, some say 90% of the male population of Paraguay was killed. The most meticulous study concludes that of the 150-160,000 Paraguayans left in 1870, only 28,000 were males: a ratio of 4 females to 1 male. But in the worst-devastated areas, the ratio was more like 20 to 1. Why would that tiny land-locked country pit itself against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay and then fight nearly to annihilation? The answer you get depends on who you ask.
|Carlos Antonio Lopez|
Most historians agree that the politics of the La Plata region were a mess at the time. After achieving independence from Spain, Paraguay enclosed itself in a shell and lived to serve and enrich its dictators—first José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia and then Carlos Antonio López. Argentina was mired in a persistent identity crisis, unable to make up its mind whether it wanted to grow up to be a republic or a unified country ruled from the large, liberal city on its coast. The Argentinos fought one another brutally every once in a while but never managed to settle the question. Brazil’s rivalry with Argentina caused it to rise up from time to time, flex its muscles, and try to prove it was the biggest kid on the block. Poor little Uruguay, stuck between the two coastal would-be super powers, found itself a frequent battleground in proxy conflicts between the pro-Brazilian and pro-Argentine factions in its midst.
Enter Francisco Solano López. When he ascended to the “throne” of Paraguay on the death of his father, he immediately began to militarize. He brought in 200 foreign technicians to build a railroad, a telegraph system, warships and weapons. In 1850, the Ybycuí foundry began to turn out cannons, artillery, and bullets, using every bit of metal it could lay its hands on, including the bells in the church towers. With all that political tumult and materiel at hand, there was bound to be a war.
López’s apologists claim that he was not after territory but rather was defending the rights of the two small countries not to be meddled with by the two local heavy weights. There is some supporting argument in favor of this, too. Brazil had done some major mucking around in Uruguay for the previous fifteen years. In October of 1864, it found a pretext to invade its little neighbor. The Colorado faction in Uruguay appealed to Solano López for help. One could make a case that López’s real motivation in starting the war was to show big-guy Brazil that the smaller countries would not stand for such a thing. We must note, however, that López did not go in to fight with the Uruguayans. Instead, he attacked the Mato Grosso province of Brazil, which would be his desired corridor to the sea. Was he trying to kill two birds with one stone? If so, he wound up killing his countrymen instead.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, revisionist historians floated a new theory, saying that real culprit was Great Britain, variously motivated by its need for a source of cotton (having lost its supply from the American South because of our Civil War) and better yet because it stood to make enormous amounts of money supplying armaments and engineers and importantly by lending the warring powers bags of cash at favorable—to Britain—interest rates. Since Britain actually was the only entity to come out ahead in the awful struggle, you might want to believe it entrapped the warring parties to participate. Profiting heavily from such a horror show does seem a nasty way for any country to make itself rich, but it is hard to imagine that Britain could have gotten the war started if the other participants had not been looking for a fight, as well as cruising for a bruising.
The least likely reason for this war, actually stated as truth in books that call themselves nonfiction, is that the real culprit was—Can you believe it?—Eliza Lynch.
Yes, her, the Irish courtesan.
As has been mankind’s wont from the story of Adam and Eve onward, some men (and I am being gender-specific here) say it is evil woman who goads otherwise peaceful and honorable man into sin. These are the types who say Lynch pushed Solano López into the war because she wanted to be an Empress like her friend Eugenie. Her goal was that her lover would eventually conquer all of South America, which they would rule together. The proponents of this theory either ignore or never noticed that Solano López opened an armaments factory four years before he ever met the lady.
This is not to say that La Lynch did not participate once the conflict was underway. But that’s a story for another day. Come back and read it next week.