History of Paraguay contra its Falsifiers: Chapter XVIII

History of Paraguay contra its Falsifiers: Chapter XVIII

The Caudillo Artigas.

While Paraguay managed to secure its independence from the yoke of the Porteñista Revolution, the rest of the Provinces were still struggling. One of the most important figures for the localist and provincial spirit of the Revolution was José Gervasio de Artigas (1764-1850).

Born on 19 June in the newly established City of Montevideo, he recieved a traditional education as a layman in the Brotherhood of the Holy Rosary, led by the Roman Catholic Church. However, despite being a man of a high-class family (his father was a Royal Officer of the Spaniard Army and Local Commissar and his mother was a créole woman with a respectable dowry), he decided to live his life as a «maverick», some kind of a «lone ranger» riding his horses throughout the conflictive frontiers of Spain and Portugal in the late Imperial Era of South America. One of his earliest biographers, Nicolás de Vedia, wrote about Artigas’ wanderings as a smuggler of cattle alongside many «hallucinated youngmen with a large number of animals to sell». [1]

He joined the Spaniard Army on 1797 and he gained some notoriety thanks to his «vigilante incursions» along the frontiers that were constantly violated by Portuguese Bandits. In one incursion, he destroyed a convoy of these smugglers (he knew exactly how to operate against them because of his youth experience) and liberated some slaves. One of them was Joaquín Lenzina, who became the lifelong partner of adventures of Artigas and was known as «el Negro Ansina». By 1806-1807, during the defeated English Invasions of the River Plate, José Gervasio organized and led a batallion that remained in the reserves. He reached the rank of «Major of Blandengues» immediately before the Revolution of May in Buenos Aires.

Artigas joined the «Revolución de Mayo» in a relatively late moment. He deserted the Blandengues Corp and united with the Buenosaireans who gave him the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was sent to Montevideo to support the revolt that was initiated by Pedro José de Vieyra and Venancio Benavides in the process that was known as «Grito de Asencio». This marked the beginning of the Revolution in «La Banda Oriental», as Uruguay was known in the early days. On 11 April 1811 he pronounced the «Proclama of Mercedes» and later on 18 May, he defeated the Royalist Forces of Spain in the Battle of Las Piedras. [2]

After the first «First Siege of Montevideo» in May – October 1811, where the Revolutionary Armies led by Artigas where defeated by the Loyals to the King of Spain, he would have a retalliation. Alongside the porteñista General José Rondeau (1773-1844), in the «Second Siege of Montevideo» that started on 20 October 1812, although with an erratic behavior, Artigas would play a decisive role for the destruction of the last stronghold in the hands of Spain in the River Plate. «Erratic behavior» because the former «Blandengue» was very suspicious of the centralist and despotic disposition of his allies in Buenos Aires. José Gervasio, at that moment already with the rank of General and «Lieutenant Governor of Misiones and the Banda Oriental», already thought about a solution that was completely different from the «porteñismo». Near the end of the «Second Siege of Montevideo» on 23 June 1814, General Artigas created the «Federal League of the Free People», though he was already writing documents and «proclamas» about this idea in 1813. This action enraged the «Porteñistas» whom declared war against the maverick «Caudillo Oriental», putting a prize over his head. [3]

The «Federal League» was an eclectic idea. Artigas was against the centralization of all power in the hands of Buenos Aires and he proposed, inspired in the ideals of the «Revolution of the United States of America», the establishment of a Federation. In fact, he was very influenced by the liberal thinker and «Founding Father» of USA, Mr. Thomas Paine (1737-1809). Although he uses the words «Federation» and «Confederation» as synonyms (pretty much like everyone else, except for the Paraguayans, in the River Plate) if we follow his influences and his political positions throughout his life, we can understand that he was in favour of a Federation, with provinces holding their degree of autonomy but with a central authority with capacity and strength to defend the interests of the nation in all senses. [4]

This was a problem for Don José Gaspar de Francia, the Paraguayan Supreme Dictator, as it was mentioned in the past chapter. Some former members of the «Junta of Asunción» were in favour of sending troops and supplies to Artigas and a very respected commander, Captain Vicente Matiauda with some soldiers and many indians, deserted the Paraguayan Army and joined the «Caudillo Oriental». To make the matters even worse, General Artigas considered himself the Ruler of all the territories of Misiones (an error that came from Buenos Aires, when they appointed him as Lieutenant Governor of that region), something that was unacceptable by the Supreme Francia.

On 1815 Artigas occupied Misiones and requested Francia to join his revolution. This was an insult for the Paraguayan Ruler and the plundering attitudes of the soldiers of Artigas only increased the rage. When Francia refused all cooperation to Artigas, the «Uruguayan Caudillo» attacked Paraguayan convoys in the Misiones area, seizing weapons, supplies and stealing the merchants. After knowing this, Francia exclaimed, more or less, that «the infamous, vile and dastardly deeds of the petty thief (Artigas) are perfectly fitting for bandits with no Law, Fatherland nor Religion». From that moment onwards, all the suspected «Artiguistas» (followers of Artigas) in Paraguay were accused of high treason and imprisoned, many of them exiled and some executed. They were known as «los del otro bando» (the ones from the other side), an expression that today has a completely different connotation. [5]

General José Gervasio Artigas
General José Gervasio Artigas, leader of the «Uruguayan Revolution». Inspired by liberal and enlightened values, he attempted to create the «Federal League of the Free People». [Image: Uruguayan Parliament].

Artigas had an ambiguous relationship with Francia. Many times between 1815-1820, he attempted to establish an alliance or at least friendly terms with the Supreme. But Don José Gaspar was absolutely impervious to his approaches. But one time, when the Dictator punished the «Artiguistas» of Paraguay, the maverick warlord and «Protector of the Federal League» sent a threatening note to Francia, claiming that Artigas himself would go to Asunción to «cut the head of His Excellency». One can simply imagine the supreme laughter of Dr. Francia after reading such a boisterous and boastful message. [6]

But contrary to popular believe, Don José Gaspar answered to the attacks done by Artigas. The first measure was closing all trade ports and commerce to the provinces south of Paraguay. This was done because of the constant attacks against trading routes done by Uruguayan Caudillo. Artigas answered in 1817 by infusing a rebellion of the Guaraní Tribes in Misiones, in the regions surrounding the Paraná River. The Rebel Tribes attacked many Paraguayan Towns, plundering and stealing. Francia retalliated by sending his soldiers to destroy all the locations inhabited by Indians in the Misiones Region, killing hundreds of them, torching their homes and «scorching the earth» in the entire area, including 12 of the ancient «Jesuitic Missions». Many «artiguistas» were, once again, captured and punished while some were exiled to the countryside. However, when the Paraguayan and Artiguista Armies were about to face off, both Francia and Artigas halted the actions. [7]

But the conflict heated up once again when Artigas occupied the Province of Corrientes in 1818 with some 2.000 men, including Guaraní Tribes working for him. Francia sent 2.000 well armed soldiers to the borders. Artigas’ forces, as usual, started to plunder and steal, attacking trading routes and seizing weapons, supplies and ammunition that belonged to Paraguay, even capturing a couple of large «chalupas» (shallop boats) of the Paraguayan Fleet.

The Supreme Dictator ordered an immediate punitive operation against Artigas, sending four ships filled with marines. On 10 October 1818, they entered in Corrientes and started a cannonade against the City, sinking a «correntino sailboat» that tried to resist the attack and rescuing the captured Paraguayan Chalupas. It was a small but victorious operation for Dr. Francia. Artigas’ troops had some 30 losses (killed and injured) while the Paraguayans lost 2 men after an ineffective counterattack by the «Artiguistas». All trade between Paraguay and the Southern Provinces was halted until May 1819. [8]

Some Paraguayan dissidents had the idea of promoting a coup against Dr. Francia with support of Artiguistas’ Elements. This was the most threatening moment the «Supreme Dictator» had to face during his reign. As mentioned before, several influential members of the Paraguayan Aristocracy were very close to Artigas and they shared his values or at least, his revolutionary concepts. That’s why, from 1819 onwards, taking advantage of Francia’s focus against Artigas’ advances in Misiones and Corrientes, they were planning a plot to overthrow «El Supremo». The plan was very close to victory… But in the meantime, for Paraguay, Artigas’ menacing advances were halted once again.

The «Liga Federal de los Pueblos Libres» was just an illusion. Mainly based on the central role of the «Caudillo», it was very difficult to organize the people around a complicated mix of «confederation», «federation» and «centralism». Argentine and Uruguayan Revisionists try to create a legend around Artigas’ movement, but at the very end of the day, he never accomplished more than just a petty revolution based on liberal and enlightened values against the rule of the Spaniard Crown. Nothing more. The so called «Federal League» existed only in papers, not in reality. Just like Buenos Aires’ unfounded and baseless allegations of being «the head of the Viceroyalty», Artigas had no authority to sustain his claims. Francia, a loyalist and reactionary at heart, never saw the «Uruguayan Caudillo» as more than just a «bandolero de profesión» (professional bandit) with no law nor religion.

But to be fair with General Artigas, his ideals were probably closer to the feelings of the population if one compares with the über-liberalism and centralism of Buenos Aires. And the «Porteños» did everything in their power to destroy the «Liga Federal», including their crypto alliance with the Portuguese Army of the region. Buenos Aires imposed, just like in the days of the Viceroyalty, an economic stranglehold against the «Interior Provinces» thanks to the «Aduana», the infamous Port and Custom. This was the main reason why Artigas was unable to build a solid position of resistance. The attacks of the Portuguese and the merciless position of Dr. Francia against all agitators and revolutionaries did the rest. [9]

Artigas’ quarrel against Paraguay would still have a final episode.


[1] Vedia, Nicolás de: «Apuntes Biográficos sobre Don José Artigas». Published in Mariano de Vedia y Mitre (1936): «El Manuscrito de Mitre sobre Artigas», pages 94-97. Buenos Aires, Argentina. – Mones, Álvaro; Klappenbach, Miguel (1997): «Un Ilustrado Aragonés en el Virreinato del Río de la Plata: Félix de Azara (1742-1821)», page 77. Anales del Museo Nacional de Historia Natural de Montevideo, Second Series, Volume IX. Uruguay.

[2] Acevedo, Eduardo (1916): «Manual de Historia Uruguaya», volume I pages 126-129. Montevideo, Uruguay: Imprenta El Siglo ilustrado.

[3] «1815: La Liga Federal se une contra Buenos Aires», published by the University of Kent (Britain). Link: https://research.kent.ac.uk/warandnation/es/1815-la-liga-federal-se-une-contra-buenos-aires/ – «Artigas en la Mesopotamia: Una Figura Demasiado Influyente», published in the «Biblioteca Argentina», 28 July 2012. Link: https://web.archive.org/web/20120728094716/http://www.artigas.org.uy/fichas/artigas/artigas_mesopotamia_01.html

[4] Rosa, José María: «Artigas». Published by «Liga Federal» (Argentina), 24 April 2010. Link: https://web.archive.org/web/20100424215747/http://www.freewebs.com/ligafederalnr/artigas.htm – Trías, Vivian; Rodó, José Enrique: «El Artiguismo: Base del Pensamiento Democrático». Published by «Revista La Onda Digital» (Uruguay), 26 July 2010. Link: https://web.archive.org/web/20100726132644/http://www.laondadigital.com/LaOnda/LaOnda/001-100/15/el%20artiguismo%20base%20del%20pensamiento%20democratico.htm

[5] Chaves, Julio César (2019): «Compendio de Historia Paraguaya», op. cit. page 137. – In Paraguay, being of «el otro bando» nowadays means being a sodomite. – Vittone, Luís (1975): «Dos Siglos de Política Nacional», page 35. Asunción, Paraguay: Imprenta Militar.

[6] García Mellid, Atilio (1963): «Proceso a los Falsificadores de la Historia del Paraguay», op. cit. vol I, pages 247-248.

[7] Wisner von Morgenstern (1996): «El Dictador del Paraguay José Gaspar de Francia», op. cit. pages 148-149.

[8] Wisner von Morgenstern (1996): op. cit. pages 155-157.

[9] Fraga, Ana (2001): «El Artiguismo en la Revolución del Río de la Plata: Algunas Líneas de Trabajo sobre el Sistema de Pueblos Libres», published in «Nuevas Miradas en Torno al Artiguismo», pages 125-140. Montevideo, Uruguay: Departamento de Publicaciones de la Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias de la Educación de la Universidad de la República.

Emilio Urdapilleta