History of Paraguay contra its Falsifiers: Chapter VII

History of Paraguay contra its Falsifiers: Chapter VII

A Decisive Victory.

The Marshals of Napoleón Bonaparte were having a hard time in the Iberian Penninsula. The «Spanish Ulcer» was the beginning of the end for the prestige of the Grande Armée, thought as «invincible» until that moment.

Britain gave its support to the Spanish and Portuguese resistance against Napoleon. Many commanders of «La Perfide Albión» distinguished themselves in that raw and rude campaign. Field Marshal Sir Arthur Wellesley the 1st Duke of Wellington was at the helm. But there were also others such as General William Carr Beresford the 1st Viscount Beresford and 1st Marquis of Campo Maior (for the Portuguese Empire).

But the British support to the Spaniards was just part of their Imperial Design. Napoleon was the momentary enemy, but Spain was the traditional one. The very same General Beresford who tried to conquer the River Plate Provinces (1806-1807) and was utterly defeated by Don Santiago de Liniers and his soldiers, was now amongst the English Commanders fighting for the Independence of Spain and Portugal against the Napoleonic Invasion.

The English understood that the Hispanic Americans were not to be conquered by direct action, but by indirect subversion. In past chapters we already discussed hoy the Buenosairean Elite of «Happy Merchants» were already ruled, both economically and culturally», by the ideals of British Liberalism and the French Revolution. These «Porteños» only needed a plan to fulfill their desires of becoming an «imitation» of the «Perfidious Albion» and the «Club des Jacobines» in the River Plate. And the plan was «la Máscara de Fernando VII». The Mask of Ferdinand VII was used and abused in order to impose an absolutist rule of Buenos Aires over the rest of the provinces.

But Paraguay, as we have seen, refused to submit itself to the yoke of Buenos Aires. On 24 July 1810, the Cabildo of Asunción proclaimed that it wouldn’t recognize any superiority of the «Junta Porteña» over the Paraguayans. This was considered as an insult in Buenos Aires, where they started their propaganda machine against Paraguay and almost immediately, they sent a military expedition to conquer Paraguay. An example of this is given by no other but Don Bartolomé Mitre, who spits out his full triggered rage:

«The military expedition against Paraguay under the redemptive flag, was recieved by its population with arms in hands, though later it would accept the insurrection on its own way but refusing to accomplish the national union. Paraguay was operating with logic, obeying by instinct its own nature. Atrophied limb of the Viceroyalty, though linked to it thanks to the great River Plate Basin, the product of an embrionic civilization grafted in the wooden log of an indigenous race, barely modified by the Jesuitic Spirit, Paraguay had no contact points with the Argentine society sketched in the River Plate Basin. It didn’t form, therefore, part of its rudimentary organism. Its resistance, revealing a solution and a political continuity, determined the fact of a new nationality by sectional generation. Always obeying the «law of inertia», Paraguay isolated itself inside its woods and swamps, substracted itself from the general movements and common sacrifices and segregated itself without being able to find within itself the germs of an organic life». [1]

Ah, Mitre! Le Tartuffe! Forgetting that Asunción was the Mother City of Buenos Aires; forgetting that Asunción had the finest people, descendants of the Conquistadores, with a higher standing of living than the «Porteños» and even with a classical education for the time that had nothing to envy from other provinces closer to the Metropoli; forgetting that Asunción had more than 100,000 souls without counting distant villages and indians in the late XVIII Century while Buenos Aires, even adding excess numbers and the most faraway places of its province barely could reach 40,000 people. The higher nobility of Paraguayans in comparison to the Porteños was evident: the legendary scientist and military engineer from Spain, Don Félix de Azara (1746-1821), said many times that «Paraguayans surpass the Buenosaireans in sagacity, activity, height and proportions». [2] But of course, la tartufferie of Bartolomé Mitre and his liberal school always passed unchecked by anglo-saxon historians, partly because of idleness and ideological filibustering but mostly because of a doctrinnaire alliance to always drown out the Paraguayan voice by the loud screeches of the liberal revolution.

The Junta of Buenos Aires, after knowing that Paraguay refused to submit itself to her rule, on 22 Septiember 1810 ordered young Manuel Belgrano (1770-1820), a porteño from the bourgeoisie who studied in Spain and favoured the Revolutionary Ideals for a «Constitutional Monarchy» in the style of Britain. In fact, he was a great admirer of everything English (despite having fought against them as Captain of the Urban Militias in 1806-1807). Three days later, with a small batallion of nearly 400 horsemen, Belgrano marched to subjugate Paraguay. He was, in fact, deluded: they told him that in Asunción, the overwhelming majority of the people supported the Junta de Buenos Aires. But to be honest with Don Manuel Belgrano, from the very beginning he doubted the success of the operation, first of all, because he knew that Paraguayans were the finest soldiers of the River Plate Basin (he fought with many of them during the British Invasions of 1806-1807), secondly because his supply lines were very distant and third but most especially, because he never had any experience as Commander of larger military corps. He relied very much on his own ability as a diplomat and undeniable charisma, but he barely had any military knowledge up for the task. [3]

Nevertheless, Belgrano’s adherence to the ideals of the Liberal Revolution was also undeniable. In a way, he became the executioner of all commands given by Mariano Moreno. One of those orders was quite taxative: «you shall shoot all armed europeans that you find in your way, as criminals, in order to leave a clear message: the Junta will have no place for sensibilities or mercy». Terrorist instructions which would make Cromwell or Robespierre very proud of the «Junta de Buenos Aires», but definitely, would create aversion and repulsion to all civilized peoples. However, Belgrano would follow suit, discharging the muskets of his men on several prisioners and innocents in order to impose the revolutionary terror in the provinces. [4]

In Paraguay, the news of Belgrano’s arrival with troops to subjugate the province under the yoke of Buenos Aires, stirred up the mood. Everyone wanted swift action, but some Spaniards were reluctant. A portion of them saw the Porteño City as the ruler of the River Plate Basin, while the other portion wanted to belong to the new merchant bourgeoisie. A minority of Paraguayans shared those views, but the overwhelming majority (contrary to Belgrano’s hope based on the Junta’s deceitful propaganda) were either fiercely against the Porteños or fiercely favourable to the Spanish Crown and Paraguay’s Independence.

Don Manuel Belgrano arrived at Misiones (South of the Paraná River), Historical Paraguayan territory, on December 1810 and he gave a «Proclama» to the inhabitants: «By command of the Most Excellent Junta of Government, on behalf of His Majesty Don Fernando VII, I’m here to restore for you your rights of liberty, property and security, that you have lost for so many generations serving as slaves to those who only enriched themselves at the expense of your sweat and even your blood». [5]

Hypocrisy at its finest (or worst, depending on the optics) since the Paraguayans were part of the Spanish Empire, they remained loyal to the King of Spain and they never thought themselves as «exploited», neither by Jesuits nor by anyone but the «aduana» of Buenos Aires. And Belgrano, claiming to work for «His Majesty Don Fernando VII», in fact was attacking his rule and realm with a revolutionary army. ¡The sectarians of Buenos Aires were lying purposefully, but no one believed them! ¡Only thanks to a very biased and ideological predisposition towards their «historical school» these lies can still be taken as truth!

By the middle of December 1810, Belgrano had around 1.000 men. They obtained a victory over the small Paraguayan garrison commanded by Captain Pablo Thompson in Campichuelo, in the 19th day of the aforementioned month. Belgrano’s arrogance at that moment knew no limits, doing incendiary speeches about the evil of the European «mandones» that were destroying the American provinces. But his words fell in deaf ears: the Paraguayans were already preparing their defensive system behind the lines of the Tebicuary River. On 6-7 January 1811, the Combats of Maracaná and Tebicuary took place, with indecisive result: Paraguayans under the lead of Captain Pablo Rojas exchanged some shots with the Buenosaireans of Captain Gregorio Perdriel. It seemed that both adversaries were reserving themselves for the major battles to come.

The Porteño Force of around 2,000 in total (including the reinforcements by Galván and Rocamora) sent by the Junta of Buenos Aires to subjugate Paraguay were under the command of Brigade General Don Manuel Belgrano. They were crushed by some 4,000 Paraguayans under the Governor Don Bernardo de Velasco but with the stellar participation of Colonel Manuel Atanasio Cabañas, a mestizo born in Pirayú. [Image: Historia Argentina, painting of unkown author of the Battle of Paraguarí].
The Porteño Force of around 2,000 in total (including the reinforcements by Galván and Rocamora) sent by the Junta of Buenos Aires to subjugate Paraguay were under the command of Brigade General Don Manuel Belgrano. They were crushed by some 4,000 Paraguayans under the Governor Don Bernardo de Velasco but with the stellar participation of Colonel Manuel Atanasio Cabañas, a mestizo born in Pirayú. [Image: Historia Argentina, painting of unkown author of the Battle of Paraguarí].

On 13 January 1811, Belgrano arrived to the south side of the Mbaci Creek, some 10 kilometers away from the town of Paraguarí where his adversaries were accumulating forces (around 4,000 men). For the Paraguayans, the «Porteños» were not just traitors but heretics, if we believe Bartolomé Mitre’s assertion that the Paraguayan troops were rallied for fighting based on a religious cause rather than their own political feelings of Independence from Buenos Aires. In fact, the Paraguayan troops stitched Catholic Crosses to their uniforms, wore Rosaries and Chaplets and when they heard the Holy Mass in the distance (either from the Porteño or the Paraguayan side), they knelt down in absolute reverence. [6]

The first major battle took place on 19 January 1811. José Ildefonso Machain (1778-1849), a Paraguayan born in Asunción but under the yoke of Buenos Aires, was Major of Infantry who had the opportunity to be part of the elite «Guardias de Cuerpo Americanas» of the King Charles IV of Spain, in the fourth company. He also fought against the Napoleonic Invasion in 1808-1809 (most especially in the Battle of Medina del Río Seco, where the Spaniards were defeated by the brave and tough Marshal Jean Baptiste Bessiéres, one of Napoleon’s finest commanders, who despite having half the number of troops of his enemies, took a remarkable triumph). When Machain returned to the River Plate, he sided with the Junta of Buenos Aires and became the Second Officer of Manuel Belgrano in his infamous «Paraguayan Campaign».

Belgrano sent Machain with around 500 soldiers (supported by 200 in the artillery corps and the reserves) to the center of the Paraguayan position, numbering some 3,000 men, in the town of Paraguarí. The Spaniard Governor of Paraguay, General Don Bernardo de Velasco, was leading the Paraguayan Army. Velasco was a hero of the victorious campaign against the British Invasion of 1806-1807, but his «elite force» (the Penninsular Spaniards in the Paraguayan Army, some 500 men) disbanded at the first wave of attack and the Porteños were very close to victory, but Colonel Manuel Atanasio Cabañas (1768-1828), second officer of Velazco (who retreated to a safe place in order to avoid being captured), took control of the situation and with support of his friend, Major Juan Gamarra, launched a counterattack with the «native troops» surprising the Buenosaireans in their exposed flanks near the Cerro Mba’e (also known as Cerro Porteño, the Hills of the Porteños). The «Guaranís» obtained a victory from the verge of defeat and they committed some barbarism: Lieutenant Ramón Espínola, a Paraguayan serving the invading army of Buenos Aires (son of the hated «porteñista» Colonel José de Espínola) was decapitated and his head toured around the country on a pike. [7]

As usual with military campaigns in XIX Century Hispanic America, the number of losses for both sides are very difficult to determine. Based on many sources, we could claim that the Buenosaireans had some 250 casualties and the Paraguayans some 150. [8]

Belgrano retreated to the line of the Tacuari River, a very defensible position (his sole disadvantage was his inferior number, but for defensive purposes, he had good chances to hold a resistance). He requested some reinforcements (according to his calculations, at least some 2,000 extra men, with full equipment and artillery, were needed to hold the position and to restart the «Conquista of Paraguay»). Colonel Tomás Rocamora, a traitor who was serving as Lieutenant Governor of Misiones (under Don Bernardo de Velazco, who was Governor of Paraguay and all the Misiones) but deserted to join ranks with Buenos Aires, managed to gather some 200 men to reinforce Belgrano. Another Lieutenant Governor, Don Elías de Galván of Corrientes, sent some 150 extra men to the Buenosaireans in Tacuarí. This way, Belgrano was able to number around 1,000 soldiers in Tacuarí. The Paraguayans under Cabañas had some 2,000 souls for the final battle. The Porteños hoped to remain in the position as a stronghold as long as possible in order to recieve the long waited reinforcements from Buenos Aires. During the whole month of February, they armed and prepared themselves, but only the aforementioned Galván and Rocamora sent some troops… Nothing came from Buenos Aires. Belgrano was abandoned to his own good luck (and in his Memoirs, he would bitterly remember this «desertion»).

Colonel Manuel Atanasio Cabañas ordered the artillery (under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Don Pascual de Urdapilleta, a Penninsular Spaniard who fought against the British Invasion in 1806-1807 and remained in the battlefield to fight against Belgrano) to focus the fire over the Tacuarí Pass, while the Paraguayan troops would perform a pincher movement around the Porteños’ position. To complete this maneuver, the Guaranís improvised some boats and kayaks in order to cross the Tacuarí and to surprise Belgrano’s Army. On 9 March 1811, the decisive moment arrived. Lieutenant Colonel Machaín (who was promoted by Belgrano) tried a desperate attempt to break the pincher movement of the Paraguayans, but he failed and was captured while the majority of his men were killed. Don Manuel Belgrano, now with the rank of General given by the Junta of Buenos Aires, barely offered any resistance after the defeat of Machain’s vanguard and quickly surrendered. [9]

Around 200 prisioners were in the hands of the Guaranís, including Belgrano and Machain. Some 150 porteños were also killed or wounded, taking the number of casualties to nearly 350 in total. The Paraguayans had around 50 losses as a whole. The Victory of Paraguay against Buenos Aires in the «Belgrano Expedition» was crowned with a remarkable feat in the Battle of Tacuarí.

Belgrano used his finest diplomacy to win the trust of the Paraguayans. The victors gathered in a meeting in order to decide what to do with the defeated and hated foe. By majority vote, Belgrano and his men were spared of being executed as traitors: they were all sent back to Buenos Aires. A gallant and noble gesture, for sure, but nowadays it feels like a missed chance: the «revolutionary terror» of the Porteños should have been punished with the reparative but elegant «old regime» rite of the firing squad…

The Triumph of the Paraguayans against the Junta Porteña in 1810 – 1811 became (and remains) an indelible mark of Paraguay’s military, cultural and moral superiority over Buenos Aires in the last days of the Spanish Empire in the Viceroyalty of the River Plate. But the most important thing wasn’t the military victory. The Paraguayans were now ready for something else… Independence.


[1] Mitre, Bartolomé (1890): «Historia de San Martín y la Emancipación Americana», volume I, page 205. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Félix Lejouane Editor, Second Edition in 4 volumes.

[2] García Mellid, Atilio (1963) op.cit. volume I, pages 113-114.

[3] «Memoria de Manuel Belgrano sobre la Expedición al Paraguay», cited by: Paz, José María (1892): «Memorias Póstumas del General», page VIII. La Plata, Argentina: Ireneo Rebollo Editor, Imprenta la Discusión.

[4] One of many cases of «revolutionary terror» was reported by Belgrano himself: «Report by Belgrano to the Most Excellent Junta of Government of the Provinces of the River Plate». Camp at Capi’iveve, 7 January 1811. Cited by: García Mellid (1963) op. cit. volume I, page 129.

[5] «Proclama» de Manuel Belgrano. Costas del Paraná, 9 de Diciembre de 1810. Cited by: García Mellid, Atilio (1963) op. cit. volume I, pages 133-134.

[6] Mitre, Bartolomé (1887): «Historia de Belgrano…», op. cit. volume I, page 289.

[7] Moreno, Fulgencio R. (1911): «Estudio sobre la Independencia del Paraguay», volume I, page 128. Asunción, Paraguay: Talleres Nacionales de H. Kraus.

[8] Unless we give specific data in the main text, we will always talk about general casualties (killed, wounded, prisoners, deserters) as a whole for every combat, battle, campaign or conflict.

[9] García Mellid (1963) op. cit. volume I pages 136 – 137.

Emilio Urdapilleta

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