History of Paraguay contra its Falsifiers: Chapter X

History of Paraguay contra its Falsifiers: Chapter X

A Peaceful Revolution?

The «Carlotista» Movement was close to victory in Asunción. Don Bernardo de Velasco played a well structured game and he even obtained a minor victory on 17 April 1811, when the Paraguayan Patriots conquered the City of Corrientes (another town established thanks to the Asunceños in the XVI Century). But this triumph, that was supposed to lift up the spirits of the Paraguayans in favour of the Crown, didn’t produce the expected results. [1]

However, the Occupation of Corrientes was possible because the «Correntinos» always felt themselves as brothers, since they had the same culture, traditions and even they shared the same Guaraní language. [2] Only after 1870, when the «Mitrismo» from Buenos Aires was imposed, Corrientes and Paraguay separated themselves.

On 13 May 1811, in the House Martínez Saenz, Captain Pedro Juan Caballero with four officers, the Priest Francisco Xavier Bogarín and Don Tomás Yegros, gathered together and discussed the informations they received from the Porteñista Don Pedro Alcántara de Somellera (1774-1854). According to these versions, the arrival of the forces of the Portuguese Don Diego de Souza was imminent. Caballero made the decision of striking on the 14 May 1811, without the expected reinforcementes from Col. Fulgencio Yegros, who was retained in Itapúa. [3]

The Alférez (2nd Lieutenant) Vicente Ignacio Iturbe, who was interrogated by Don Bernardo de Velasco himself in April (because his revolutionary and porteñista activity was discovered by the military surgeon Dr. Juan de la Cruz Vargas), on 13 May 1811 was informed that the Loyalists were aware of the conspiracy against the Legitimate Government, and quickly he gave word to the insurrectionists in the House Martínez Saenz. But a relief for the revolutionaries came when Captain Mauricio José Troche, commanding officer of the Barracks of La Ribera (where the vast majority of the Gendarmes of Asunción were stationed, alongside the forces of the «Curuguaty Platoon»), joined their movement that very same day. And effectively, during the dusk of 14 May 1811, Caballero led the rebellion. The «speech» used by the Paraguayan revolutionaries (inspired by the «Black Legend» infused by Buenos Aires via Don Pedro de Somellera) was that the Governor Gen. Don Bernardo de Velasco showed a pathetic and even cowardly attitude against the Porteño Invasion of 1810-1811 and that the Paraguayans were the sole victors of those invasions, reducing or simply ignoring the contributions of the Penninsular Spaniards in the battles. [4]

In the military element, this «speech» had some effect but there were many «Penninsular» and «Paraguayan» Spaniards who didn’t fell for that rhetoric. Two of them, victorious against the Porteños, Lt. Col. Juan Manuel Gamarra and Lt. Col. Don Pascual de Urdapilleta, refused to pledge allegiance to the revolutionary movement, claiming (in the words of Gamarra): «I won’t join a movement that, seems to me, goes against God and my King». In fact, Gamarra with other Paraguayan Royalists (Francisco de Quevedo, Julián y Manuel de la Villa, Santiago Cavallero and in a lesser degree, Pascual de Urdapilleta) were the last hope for the resistence of the Spanish Crown in the plans of Governor Don Bernardo de Velasco. But the «surprise factor» on 14 May 1811 played a key role for the defeat of the Royalists: despite their knowledge about the plot, they barely had any time to devise a proper reaction. [5]

That night, Caballero, Iturbe, Troche and other insurrectionists marched towards the Government Office. The Spaniard Garrison, commanded by Captain Parga, presented no resistence and some of those troops, in fact, joined the movement. Near midnight, the revolutionaries already had some three infantry companies and three artillery companies (around 500 men) surrounding the Governor’s House with lit torches and ready to fire. Don Bernardo de Velasco could barely mount some 50 soldiers of his Personal Guard and even these men had no desires to present a combat. Captain Juan Valeriano de Zeballos, a Penninsular Spaniard, was amongst the Governor’s Guard but he was part of the conspiracy. The Officers of Velasco’s Guard claimed that any resistence would have been futile at that moment, and the Governor surrendered to the revolutionaries, without any bloodshed.

Asunción circa 1910. The ancient Governor's House can be seen in the background, surrounded by hundreds of people. A similar scene, but with soldiers pointing torches, guns and cannons towards the Governor's House, took place in the night of 14 May 1811. The following day, a Provisional Government was established. Governor Don Bernardo de Velasco remained as President of the Triumvirate, but with Secretaries Don Juan Valeriano de Zeballos and Don José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia as his advisers. The "Governor's House", with a history that went back at least to the mid XVII Century, was demolished by orders of Liberal President Don Eduardo Schaerer in 1913, an act considered today as a "historical, cultural and architectural crime" against Paraguayan Heritage. [Image: Archivo Jorge Rubiani].
Asunción circa 1910. The ancient Governor’s House can be seen in the background, surrounded by hundreds of people. A similar scene, but with soldiers pointing torches, guns and cannons towards the Governor’s House, took place in the night of 14 May 1811. The following day, a Provisional Government was established. Governor Don Bernardo de Velasco remained as President of the Triumvirate, but with Secretaries Don Juan Valeriano de Zeballos and Don José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia as his advisers. The «Governor’s House», with a history that went back at least to the mid XVII Century, was demolished by orders of Liberal President Don Eduardo Schaerer in 1913, an act considered today as a «historical, cultural and architectural crime» against Paraguayan Heritage. [Image: Archivo Jorge Rubiani].

Wisner von Morgenstern gives us more details about what happened in the next morning, 15 May 1811:

«At 9 AM, Dr. Somellera, who was the soul of the movement, joined by Commander Caballero, some 10 Officers, Don Tomás Yegros, Dr. Don Fernando de la Mora, Dr. Don Ventura Bedoya, The Priest Father Don Francisco Bogarín and Don Fernando Caballero had a meeting at the barracks. Somellera was the first one who broke silence, giving a speech about the importance of the movement and its consequences for the life of the people, and he ended up congratulating Commander Caballero and advising for the immediate establishment of a Junta of Government. Dr. Bedoya proposed this first «Junta» to be provisionally presided by Dr. Somellera and to be formed with the rest of the members. This motion was rebated and rejected unanimously. Father Bogarin opined that the First Junta should be formed by a few number of Patriots, three at most, and he proposed for members Don Fulgencio Yegros, Commander Caballero and Dr. Somellera, this last one as secretary and advisor and the first one as president; and after the establishment of the Junta, it had to be proposed an assembly of the notable people of the country in order to settle the new form of government to be adopted by Paraguay. Somellera, hurt in his self-love because of the rejection suffered by the motion of Dr. Bedoya, strictly manifested that in no way he would accept any charge whatsoever in the Junta, mainly for being a stranger and also because he decided to leave with his family to Buenos Aires». [6]

After Somellera’s resignation, Fernando de la Mora and Ventura Bedoya were proposed, but they also declined. Then, someone mentioned the name of Don José Gaspar de Francia as a potential member of the new Junta. He was resisted, however, by the military members of the revolution who claimed that Dr. Francia wasn’t an active participant of the movement and they even claimed that he was a crypto-royalist (according to Wisner). However, Priest Fernando Caballero, Somellera and De la Mora answered that Don José Gaspar was a man with remarkable probity and honesty. This way, the most important man in the process of the Paraguayan Independence was summoned from his chalet in Yvyray. He arrived at the headquarters of the revolutionaries the next morning and was received by Commander Pedro Juan Caballero who said to him: «My dear Doctor, as you may have noticed, we tamed this bull that ended up being very meek».

In the afternoon of May 16th, 1811, after some discussion, the First Junta was officially established and proclaimed. However, the constituents were different from the original proposal: General Don Bernardo de Velasco retained his position as President of the Government, albeit provisory. Two extra members, as «Vocal Secretaries», were added to his administration: Captain Don Juan Valeriano de Zeballos and Doctor Don José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia. [7]

The new designation of authorities gave a twist to the plot. The original idea of the revolutionaries was to appoint a «Triumvirate» with three Porteñistas in charge (moderates Caballero and Yegros with the ardent Somellera). But on 16 May 1811, the Triumvirate ended up being formed by the same Governor Don Bernardo de Velasco (Loyalist until the end), Captain Zeballos (a Penninsular Spaniard who favoured the revolution but who was also loyal to his Governor) and Dr. Francia (an enigma, described as a «cripto-royalist» by his adversaries and as a «fervent revolutionary» by his supporters). But for all intents and purposes, the mastermind of Don José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia was already working and the designations (of Velasco and Zeballos), very probably, were his idea: very differently from what happened in Buenos Aires, Paraguay retained the legitimate and legal ruler once appointed by the Spanish Crown. This way, Don Bernardo de Velasco was (provisionally and de facto) the first President of the Independent Province of Paraguay and Misiones, with all the posibilities surrounding this act.

Francia’s influence reigned supreme from the very beginning. A liberal historian who admired Don José Gaspar wrote:

«Somellera advises to the officers gathered in the headquarters on the night of 15 May 1811 to send an urgent dispatch to Buenos Aires; this would have signified the recognition of the Junta. The dispatch was written and it was meant to be taken to Corrientes by the shipowner José de María. A couple of hours later, Dr. Francia arrives and his first measure was to cancel the remission of the dispatch, claiming that Paraguay have left from a despotic rule with great difficulty and it was very easy to fall in the trap of another one. The scene can be reconstructed: in the headquarters were sitting Francia with Caballero, Somellera and Marcelino Rodríguez. The first one asks: «what was decided, what are we going to do?» and Captain Caballero answers «we decided to send Don José de María immediately to give a report to the Junta of Buenos Aires with this dispatch, already redacted and on the table». Then Francia smiles and says «if that thing is done, it will be to give the greatest joy to the proud Porteños… we shall do none of that!», while spreading his tailcoat». [8]

Indeed, a Supreme Mastermind was taking control above the mendacious mediocrities and Paraguay started something quite unique: a peaceful revolution. But was it a «revolution», actually?


[1] Garay, Blas (1983): «Reseña Histórica del Paraguay». Extracted from: «Álbum Gráfico de la República del Paraguay 1811-1911: Edición Facsimilar», page 38. Asunción, Paraguay: Cromos S.R.L. Talleres Gráficos.

[2] Thompson, George (2011): «La Guerra del Paraguay», page 71. Asunción, Paraguay: Editorial Servilibro. – Thompson talks about the Counter attack of Paraguay in Corrientes during the War of 1864-1870, but serves as a great example of what happened in 1811 with Don Bernardo de Velasco.

[3] Wisner von Morgenstern, Franz (1996): «El Dictador del Paraguay: José Gaspar de Francia», page 103. Asunción, Paraguay: Instituto Cultural Paraguayo Alemán Editor.

[4] Moreno, Fulgencio R. (1983): «La Independencia». Extracted from: «Álbum Gráfico de la República del Paraguay 1811-1911…», op.cit. pages 12-13.

[5] Alvarenga Caballero, Pedro Antonio: «Juan Manuel Gamarra». Retrieved from: Real Academia de la Historia (España), 08 May 1810 (online). Link: http://dbe.rah.es/biografias/74196/juan-manuel-gamarra

[6] Wisner (1996): op.cit. page 104.

[7] Garay (1983): «Reseña Histórica». Extracted from: «Álbum Gráfico de la República del Paraguay 1811-1911…», op.cit. page 39.

[8] Chavez, Julio César (1964): «El Supremo Dictador: Biografía de José Gaspar de Francia», pages 109-110. Madrid, España: Ediciones Atlas.

Emilio Urdapilleta

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