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A Paraguayan Perspective on the Strange Case of the President of Paraguay and the Irish Courtesan

A few months ago, I wrote a piece about three novels that have as their subjects the former President of Paraguay, Francisco Solano López, who was in power from 1862 to 1870, and his wife, Irish-born Eliza Lynch. I wrote it because the fact that there are so many books – Historical Fiction and History Nonfiction – about this episode in Paraguay’s history and this couple, intrigued me. I wanted to compare the novels that I had read, and find out what was behind the depictions. The result was a post of which an extract is below, and the complete article is here.

A reader, Emilio Urdapilleta, an academic from Paraguay, has commented on the post, pointing out that this particular part of Paraguay’s history is often misunderstood. It is interesting to see how a Paraguayan views it – because no doubt many non-Paraguayans see the López-Lynch couple as merely titillating and risqué. So, here are Mr. Urdapilleta’s comments for your consideration.

A Paraguayan perspective

*Key phrases have been bolded

“I have read your very interesting article concerning the story of Francisco Solano López and Elisa Lynch. It was written in a very enjoyable style, I got immersed in it because of the nice writing and especially because I’m Paraguayan and this particular topic interests me deeply, since I’m also a history teacher.

“First of all, let me thank you for having an interest in our country. You are right, Paraguay has the misfortune of being landlocked between two noisy and not-at-all impartial and restrained neighbours, Brazil and Argentina. From 1810 to 1865 both of them quarrelled constantly, with intense bloodshed, in the whole River Plate region, to see which would emerge as the hegemon. The whole place was in an absolute turmoil when, in 1862, President Solano López took power in Paraguay, through a legal procedure (quite different from what was happening in the rest of the River Plate: Argentina with constant coups d’etat, Uruguay the same, Brazil had an Emperor…).

“Certainly, Paraguay (as you correctly mentioned it) was a Republic in the sense of the ‘Roman Republic’, not the modern, liberal and constitutional “Republics” of our times. It was ruled by Dictators, or at least, with authoritarian regimes. But three things should be added there:
1 – It was the style of the times (see how many iron-fisted monarchs or autocrats were ruling Europe at that time, for a quick example).
2 – They guaranteed internal order and security in the country, something extremely rare and very desirable in the whole Latin America, usually engulfed in civil wars, rebellions and revolutions.
3 – They were very respected, maybe even loved, by the Paraguayan people (all sources, even contrarian ones to Paraguay, claim that) because, despite their authoritarian style and whatnot, they were actually patriots and wanted to improve the country in a positive way.

Solano López and the Triple Alliance

“But if Solano López was a very patriotic, maybe imperialist, autocrat (inspired perhaps by his distant friend Napoleon III of France), that isn’t necessarily a reason to claim that he was to blame for the Paraguayan War (1864-1870).

On the contrary, all documentary sources available now and discovered by unbiased historians, prove that Solano López did almost everything in his power to prevent and stop the war. He was willing to renounce the claimed territories of Paraguay, even offered his own resignation to the Triple Alliance, in order to attain peace. But as you correctly hinted, the ‘Triple Alliance’ was already at work and they wanted to remove all potential enemies in the region, that is, the remaining Argentine dissidents (the ‘Federales’), the Uruguayan ‘Blancos’ (who opposed Bartolome Mitre and Brazil) and of course, Paraguay, which was strong and beyond their reach at that time, having a strong government with a non-liberal style.

“Mitre, Pedro II (the Brazilian Emperor) and Venancio Flores (the Uruguayan Caudillo) were pretty much liberal ‘doctrinarians’; they wanted to enforce liberalism in all the River Plate region. This was resisted by the naturally conservative population in all the countries involved. I am not going to enter into details about this historic event. I strongly advise you to read the account of Gen. Martin T. McMahon (March 21, 1838 – April 21, 1906) on the Paraguayan War [Paraguay and her Enemies And Other Texts Regarding the Paraguayan War]. He was an American Hero of the Civil War, he wrote many things about the Paraguayan War from a more serious and non-propagandist perspective.

Solano López and Elisa Lynch

“In his private life, Solano López was an open-minded and even transgressive type (he got married to Elisa Lynch, a divorced courtesan from Ireland, something that stirred extreme social outrage in the ultra-conservative and catholic Paraguay). But not to the point of trying to change the status quo of the country, quite the contrary… But there is a major misconception (made popular by Brazilian authors and their Anglo-Saxon retweeters): his figure was never reviled by the Paraguayan society; that only happened during the ‘occupation of Paraguay’, when Brazilians and Argentines ruled the country as some kind of ‘Protectorate’ after the war.

A painting of Francisco Solano López, dictator of Paraguay, 1866, by Aurelio García (1846–1869) . Sources say he wasn’t tall, but quite attractive, supremely confident and macho.

“When Brazilians and Argentinians left the country, at the late years of the 19th century, the ‘vindication’ of Solano López reigned supreme once again. As for Elisa Lynch, she is indeed a tragic heroine and she deserves much better treatment. She abandoned her native Ireland just before the Great Irish Famine of 1848 started. Her family barely had money to send her to a convent and arrange a marriage with a French military physician, Xavier de Quatrefages (not to be confused with his cousin Jean de Quatrefages, a very famous biologist).

“Her marriage was a tragedy, mainly because Dr. de Quatrefages did it without the consent of the French Military (i.e. Napoleon III) and it was considered null because it was done in an Anglican Ceremony (both Quatrefages and Lynch were Catholics, but Quatrefages did that on purpose so he could… enjoy the pleasures of beautiful young Elisa). Quatrefages pretty much abandoned Elisa at Paris some months after their marriage and he went to Algeria to complete his military service. Being a young, beautiful, with a disaster marriage, lonely girl in Belle Époque Paris… Everything was destiny: she started the courtesan style and voilá, in 1853 she met young General Solano López of Paraguay, the ‘Crown Prince’ of his country…

“Solano López, Elisa Lynch and Xavier de Quatrefages arrived at an enigmatic agreement in 1854, but even historians are still unsure of the terms. We can sum it up by saying: Quatrefages ‘officially’ divorced Elisa (it was a null marriage anyway) and left her go with Solano López, and both Solano López and Elisa promised Quatrefages that they would be absolutely silent about everything in order to not ruin Xavier de Quatrefages’ reputation and rising career as Chief Pharmacist of the Paris Military Hospital (since, as I told you, he got married to Elisa in an illegal ceremony, against military laws and civil laws of France). So, this was done… And the rest is history.

Historical reputation

The official portrait of Eliza Lynch, from sometime between 1854 and 1870.

“Some Irish historians got infatuated by Elisa Lynch, they described her as ‘Queen of Paraguay’ and link her to the tragic history of 19th century Ireland, blended with the tragic history of 1864-1870 Paraguay. If you add to that image the eternal conquistador literary figure that was used and abused in the tales about Solano López, you do have a great story to write about. 

“But beyond novelistic intentions, history (more exactly, historiography) is being very, very unfair towards Paraguay. Most Anglo-Saxon [ed. note; reference to Anglophone; English-speaking] historians, pretty much repeating the ‘noisy’ propaganda from Brazil (because most researchers in Argentina largely admitted that Paraguay had a very minor responsibility, if any at all, for the outbreak of the conflict) even today are using the novelistic idea as if it were a historic fact.

They keep presenting Solano López pretty much as a ‘petty South American Napoleón’ and Elisa Lynch as a kind of bloodthirsty Lady Macbeth who enabled him… The voice of Paraguay, pretty much like the voices of Ireland, Poland or Armenia, remains drowned in blood and deafened by the noisy and powerful Brazilian propaganda.

“Before the Battle of Cerro Cora, during which Solano López died, some witnesses to his last days claim that he made the following speech: 

‘We will be vilified by many in our own country
who will grow despising us
thanks to the calumnies and hatred of the victors.
But new generations shall come
and they will vindicate our sacrifices
and acclaim the glory of our immolation.
I myself will be the most hated man in the world,
but my great day will arrive
and I shall rise from the depths of infamy
to become what I must really be in the pages of history.'” [end text] 

Francisco Solano López quoted by Emilio Urdapilleta (Correspondence dated January 16, 2021)

The Strange Case of the President of Paraguay and the Irish Courtesan

Oct. 30, 2020

If you look up Paraguay on a map, like I had to, you will see that it is a country that is located in a most unfortunate spot: It is landlocked between the much larger countries of Brazil to the north and the east, Argentina to the south and Bolivia to the north-west. Earlier in its history, it also had Uruguay to the south to contend with. It is described without much appeal as a place of large swathes of swampland, subtropical forest and chaco that are wildernesses comprising savanna and scrubland and a host of hostile animal life. The country has always been defined by the rivers running through it – from the Río de la Plata that runs into the Atlantic between Uruguay and Argentina, to the Paraná River further north, and finally the Paraguay River that leads to the capital, Asunción, on its banks. For a small area it has extreme weather – a tropical to subtropical climate, with the absence of mountain ranges leading to extreme winds, and temperatures that can drop below freezing or alternatively get boiling hot in summer with a daily mean of 28.9ºC. The east of the country gets torrential rainfall, while the west has semi-arid conditions.

So much for the charms of the Republic of Paraguay. But bear with me. This story gets strange.

Read the full article here.
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