History of Paraguay contra its Falsifiers: Chapter XVI

History of Paraguay contra its Falsifiers: Chapter XVI

A Providential Man.

Don José Gaspar de Francia was born on 6 January 1766 in Asunción, Paraguay. He was the son of José García Rodrígues de França and María Josefa de Velasco y Yegros.

His father was a military officer of Portuguese origins who was born in Oporto and lived most of his life in the town of Mariana, in today’s Minas Gerais of Brazil. As far as it is known today, Don García Rodrígues de França arrived in Paraguay as a yeoman working in a tobacco plantation. His past as a Captain of Artillery in the Portuguese Army was well esteemed and considered as an important attribute. Apparently, he became inspector and adviser of many «haciendas» as well as Military Commander (some kind of Chief Superintendent or Sheriff) of Yaguaron, appointed by the authorities of the Province. On the other hand, Dr. Francia’s mother, Doña María Josefa, was a woman of a very well lineage, linked with the finest families of the Province. Some even claim that Don José Gaspar was a distant cousin of both Don Fulgencio Yegros and Don Bernardo de Velasco, though more precise genealogy should be done in order to find accurate information about this. [1]

Don José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia was admired by many intelectual figures of Latin America and elsewhere. A Venezuelan author, J. A. Cova, wrote about him:

«Dr. José Gaspar de Francia is the most original of all the american dictators. His autocracy doesn’t emerge from the military barracks in the middle of the clattering praetorian weaponry. He comes from the severe cloister of the University (…) His power doesn’t come from a military coup and strike, rather, he was preparing himself inside the University, in isolation and silently, for the great role he was destined to represent in his nation. The rooms of the University of Córdoba were the foundations of his intelectual gymnastics». [2]

Famously, the renown «philosopher of history» Thomas Carlyle of Britain wrote an «apologia» for the rule of Dr. Francia. Claiming that most of the Latin American Heroes still had to make a «name for themselves», he argues that the Paraguayan Dictator remains the only one with authenticity and originality. He claims:

«But undoubtedly by far the notablest of all these South American phenomena is Dr. Francia and his Dictatorship in Paraguay… Francia and his «reign of terror» have excited some interest, much vague wonder in this country; and especially given a great shock to constitutional feeling. One would rather wish to know Dr. Francia, but unhappily one cannot!». [3]

About the early days of Dr. Francia, not much is known. Some gave him an irascible character, writing fantastic stories about him torturing little animals in the house of his parents. But this sounds more like usual anglo propaganda rather than reality. Young José Gaspar was in fact a pious boy who recieved the first instruction from his own uncle, the Franciscan priest Friar Fernando Caballero (who is also considered a «Prócer» of Paraguay). Francia, just like his father, inherited some features of the Portuguese phenotype and of course, his mother being a high society «criolla», also gave him those characteristics. That is, he wasn’t a «mulatto» as some of his enemies once claimed. But probably, he was somehow resented in his youth by the Paraguayan population because of the Portuguese origins of his own father in a time when the wars between Spain and Portugal were igniting once again. Initially, he aspired to become a Priest, just like his mentor and beloved uncle Don Fernando Caballero, OFM. He went to the University of Córdoba in Tucuman, where his personality outshined to the rest of his soon-to-be famous classmates and fellows. Once, he had a quarrel with a partner who accused him of being a «portuguese» and not a «pure Spaniard». Francia, for any answer, challenged the daring insolent to a fight and after punching him until bleeding, he was very close of being expelled from the University. Being the finest student and thanks to the influence of his family, he was spared. [4]

Francia took the «minor orders» (probably, he became a sub-deacon though some claim he reached the «major order» of a full deacon) and recieved his diploma of «Bachelor, Master in Philosophy and Doctor in Sacred Theology» from the famous Spaniard teacher and Bishop of Córdoba Don José Antonio de San Alberto O. Carm. (1727-1804).  He returned to Asunción on 1785, six years after his entrance in the University and he worked for a brief period of time as a teacher of Latin and Vespers Theology. But soon afterwards, he abandoned those positions as well as his service as a sub-deacon, having a period of anti-clericalism which created some rifts with his former Franciscan colleagues in the Royal College of Asunción. Some claim that in 1790-1800 he lived a dissolute and profligate life, with moments of gambling, heavy drinking and pleasures with women. But after a disease, apparently in the liver, he changed his ways once again and became the severe and disciplined man he always was. From 1800 onwards, he served as a very respected lawyer for poor people as well as his passage into many public positions of the Province of Paraguay («alcalde de primer voto», «síndico procurador» and «diputado del Cabildo»), distinguishing himself thanks to a superlative sense of duty, patriotism, responsability and above all, honesty without limits in the service of the Spanish Crown and the people of the country. [5]

Concerning his relationship with his father, Dr. Francia had a fight with him and they never reconciled. According to Wisner von Morgenstern, this quarrel started when Don José Gaspar refused to continue his ecclesiastical career, something that was very resented by Don José García. The second and definitive reason of their breaking was that his father «replaced Francia’s mother» with another woman after her death. He never forgave Don José García despite the desperate attempts this one did to obtain his pardon. Dr. Francia also broke relations with his siblings under the guise that they did nothing to control their father and his affaires with other women while José Gaspar was in Córdoba. [6]

But despite all speculations, it is false that he never forgave his siblings. In fact, he kept a very close relationship with his sister Petrona Regalada Rodríguez de Francia (1764-1848), whom took care of Don José Gaspar’s only recognized child, his daughter Ubalda García de Francia (1806-1890). However, it is a well known fact that Ubalda, totally forgotten by her father Dr. Francia, had a lascivious life hanging out with many men, most of them military and members of Don José Gaspar’s personal guard. Since Dr. Francia didn’t care at all about the propriety and virtuous behavior of his own daughter (and to be fair, neither the rest of the Paraguayans did, contrary to popular believe), a rumour spread about his alleged «decree» in which he declared prostitution a legal and noble activity in Paraguay. But this is an absolute fabrication: not a single document exists to proof that enormous claim and apparently, it was just an invention of the Robertson Brothers, two Britishmen and merchants who were largely ridiculed by Thomas Carlyle. [7]

Dr. Francia in his library, alongside his beloved dog "Sultan". The Paraguayan Dictator is a legendary figure in the history of Hispanic America.
Dr. Francia in his library, alongside his beloved dog «Sultan». The Paraguayan Dictator is a legendary figure in the history of Hispanic America. [Image: Facebook].
Petrona Regalada, Dr. Francia’s beloved sister, became the first female teacher and School Director of Independent Paraguay. She was also educated by the Priest Fernando Caballero, her uncle, and she opened her own private institution of learning, under the auspices of his brother whom, it is said, personally gave some lessons in her school. «Doña Petrona’s Institute» was opened for both sexes, male and female, and it had cathedras of mathematics, letters, music and also had special workshops for the girls of Asunción, where they could learn how to fabricate candles, domestic tasks, sowing, cooking and other «things for ladies» in those days. [8]

The honesty and probity of Don José Gaspar was paradigmatic. Everyone knew that the man was impossible to be bought nor bribed. He was the respected «Karai Guazu» of the lower classes, riding on his horse while wearing the robes of a Deacon and a Tricorne Hat «in imitation to Napoleon», some malignants claimed. In fact, the «Tricorne» was «invented» by the Spaniard Army in the XVII Century during the Dutch War of Independence (1568-1648). But the liberal and biased enemy of Dr. Francia, Don Benjamín Vargas Peña, accurately describes that his dressing and hairstyle in fact was more similar to what was used by the Spaniard Governors and Bourbon Kings of Spain rather than anything coming from Revolutionary France, including fancy Military Jackets, shining boots with golden garments and shirts made with silk. Even in his personal aspect and features, according to Vargas Peña, Dr. Francia showed all indications that he was simply following the «Spaniard Monarchist» look and nothing else. [9]

Austere and solitary, Don José Gaspar had simple pleasures in his private life. He had a beloved pet, his dog «Sultan», whom he adored. When «Sultan» died of old age, Francia, allegedly, had a long depression and he barely recovered. He used to have an early breakfast eating oranges and drinking the Paraguayan tea known as «tereré» and «cocido». His favourite lunch was «puchero» (meat stewpot) with an Oporto or a Red Wine. He used to pay a loyal tribute to that beautiful Spaniard tradition known as «siesta». In the afternoons, he smoked pipe and often he mounted his well groomed horses for a ride. When he passed in the streets of Asunción, always escorted by his guard, the people used to side away from the road and, standing still, with awe and admiration, watched «El Supremo» crossing the paths. He used to work in the mornings, recieving his ministers and military commanders. At nightfall, he was personally going to close the doors of his «Governor’s House». He had two maidens who helped him for cleaning and cooking and a freed mulatto servant known as «El Negrito Pilar» (not to be confused with José María Pilar, another mulatto and professional burglar that was imprisoned by Francia). He was very well mannered with all of them. Policarpo Patiño was the name of his personal secretary, but he never trusted him nor Pilar, to whom he used to call «major rascals» (bribonazos). Once he discovered Pilar stealing from his house, so he prepared a trap: he placed a gold coin that was at a very high temperature (but unnoticeable at plain sight) near the door. The mulatto tried to steal the coin and his hand got totally burned, with the mark of Dr. Francia’s effigy in his palm. Begging for his life, Pilar was crying and Don José Gaspar simply uttered: «I won’t punish you, but you will forever remember this lesson thanks to your burning hand». Allegedly, Pilar never stole him again and they lived together until Francia’s death. He trusted only in one man: Dr. Vicente Estigarribia, a Paraguayan physician educated by the Jesuits. He became his personal doctor and Estigarribia, an expert in ancient Guaraní medicine, took care of him using herbs and potions. When Francia died, Estigarribia was his coroner. [10]

Contrary to popular believe, Don José Gaspar had a lot of affairs with women during his lifetime, just like his own father. Some have created a legend around his unrequited love with Doña Petrona de Zavala (whom got married with Juan José de Machaín, a political adversary of Francia). It is well known that she rejected him for being the son of a Portuguese «advenedizo», but there are no evidences that this actually affected Francia in any way. He had love relationships with María Juana García (the mother of Ubalda García de Francia) and, apparently, with María Roque Cañete who was also his mistress, yet this remains unproven. According to legend, in his young days of wild parties and heavy drinking, Francia, who was an excellent guitar player, captivated an enigmatic Spaniard woman known as «La Andaluza» (the Lady from Andalucía). And the monarchist historian from France, Jacques Pierre Bainville (1879-1936), who openly declares his admiration for Dr. Francia’s rule based on the Jesuit System, «a masterpiece» that preserved peace and order in Paraguay while developing the internal industries and agriculture, claims that the «Supreme Dictator» got married with a French woman when he was 70 years old, that is, four years before his death on 20 September 1840. But there are no evidences about this «marriage» of Dr. Francia. [11]

An avid lover of books, Francia started his own collection at a very young age. When he died, some say, he was lying over his bed and his mattress was made of books… Next to the window of his library, a telescope and a theodolite were pointing to the skies… Astronomy, nature and the occult, those were the private passions of this providential and incredible man, a wise and dark philosopher, distinguished Jesuitic layman and Neo-Inquisitor, legendary figure of a legendary era of Paraguay. [12]


[1] García Mellid, Atilio (1963): «Proceso a los Falsificadores de la Historia del Paraguay», op. cit. volume I page 187.

[2] Cova, J.A. (1948): «Solano López y la Epopeya del Paraguay», page 53. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Venezuela.

[3] Carlyle, Thomas (1847): «Critical and Miscellaneous Essays: Collected and Republished», volume 4 page 263. London, Britain: Chapman and Hall.

[4] Benítez, Justo Pastor (1984): «La Vida Solitaria del Dr. José Gaspar de Francia Dictador del Paraguay», pages 23-25. Asunción, Paraguay: Carlos Schauman Editor.

[5] Zubizarreta, Carlos (1985): «Cien Vidas Paraguayas con Prólogo de Alfredo M. Seiferheld», pages 113-114. Asunción, Paraguay: Editorial Araverá.

[6] Wisner von Morgenstern, Franz (1996): «El Dictador del Paraguay José Gaspar de Francia», op. cit. pages 92-93.

[7] María Juana García, a mistress of Dr. Francia when he was young, was the mother of Ubalda García de Francia. Don José Gaspar only recognized his daughter many years after María Juana’s death. Concerning most of what is usually «known» about Dr. Francia, the books written by John Parish Robertson and his brother William, as well as the «travellers chronicle» of the Swiss physicians John Rengger and Marcelin Longchamps are, unfortunately, the main sources of information for lazy historians. Granted, these works contain important data but mingled with silly observations, second hand rumours and baseless propaganda, most likely done in order to excite the imagination of the European audiences. The great philosopher of history Thomas Carlyle largely refuted and ridiculed the aforementioned authors and famously wrote about that: «How to get on with this Dr. Francia? The materials, as our reader sees, are the miserablest: mere intrincate inanity… And little more. No facts but broken shadows of facts; clouds of confused bluster and jargon, the whole still more bewildered in the Robertsons, by what we may call a running shriek of constitutional denunciation, «sanguinary tyrant» and so on. How is any picture of Francia to be fabricated out of that? Certainly, first of all, by omission of the running shriek! This latter we shall totally omit. Francia, the «sanguinary tyrant», was not bound to look at the world through Rengger’s eyes, through Parish Robertson’s eyes, but faithfully through his own eyes…». See: Carlyle (1847): op. cit. volume 4, page 272. – Rengger, Johann Rudolf (1827): «The reign of doctor Joseph Gaspard Roderick de Francia, in Paraguay: being an account of a six years’residence in that republic: from July, 1819 to May, 1825″London, Britain: Thomas Hurst, Edward Chance, 208 p. – Robertson, John Parish; Robertson, William Parish (1839): «Francia’s Reign of Terror: Being a Sequel to Letters on Paraguay», in three volumes. Philadelphia, USA: E.L. Carey and A. Hart.

[8] Monte de López Moreira, Mary (2018): «Petrona Regalada Rodríguez de Francia». Article from the Real Academia de la Historia (España). Retrieved: 12 July 2021. Link: http://dbe.rah.es/biografias/57837/petrona-regalada-rodriguez-de-francia

[9] Vargas Peña, Benjamín (1993): «El Perfil del Tirano», op. cit. pages 35-60.

[10] Benítez, Justo Pastor (1984): «La Vida Solitaria…», op. cit. pages 227-229. – The famous Paraguayan novelist Augusto Roa Bastos recovers many stories of the intimate life of Dr. Francia, some of them fictionalized, others based in the popular tradition of the country. Policarpo Patiño and «el Negrito Pilar» are part of many of these stories. After Francia’s death, Pilar was released (just like the rest his servants) and Patiño, allegedly, tried to seize power in the country, but there aren’t reliable sources to proof that. He was captured and died in jail. See: Roa Bastos, Augusto (1986): «I, the Supreme». New York, USA: Knopf. Translated by Helen Lane.

[11] Bainville, Jacques (1941): «Los Dictadores», pages 143-144. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Juventud. – Chavez, Julio César (1964): «El Supremo Dictador», op. cit. pages 65-77. – Carlyle, Thomas (1847): op. cit. volume 4, page 281. Wisner von Morgenstern (1996): op. cit. page 94.

[12] Carlyle (1847): op. cit. volume 4 pages 288-294.

Emilio Urdapilleta