The War of Paraguay: Foreword

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Watercolor by José Ignacio Garmendia, depicting Paraguayan soldiers ambushed while pillaging the allied camp’s commissary in the Second Battle of Tuyutí

I’m very excited to write that tomorrow, I will post the first chapter of The War of Paraguay. Before I do, I want to establish what exactly this thing is, what you should know before reading it, why I think its cool, and what my ultimate plans with it are. But before any of that,

Francis, what’s up with the title?

The title is a near literal translation of the Spanish, La guerra del Paraguay. It should be translated as The Paraguayan War, because that’s the English name for the war—and that’s how I translate it whenever it appears in the text. But for the title, I’m using The War of Paraguay because there is already a book titled The Paraguayan War, and there could well be more books with that title. I don’t think its that important since the title isn’t even the original author’s invention, as I’ll explain right now:

What is this book?

This book is an excerpt from Joaquim Nabuco’s Um estadista do Imperio (A Statesman of the Empire), which is a massive work chronicling the political scene in the Empire of Brazil, from 1813 to 1878 (pretty much the whole life of the Empire), with a special focus on Nabuco’s father, the eponymous estadista, José Nabuco. This excerpt is not a contiguous section of the book—it is pieced together from a few different “books” within Um estadista, which together describe the political, diplomatic, and military events surrounding the Paraguayan War. Each of these books contains multiple chapters, and nothing has been cut from them in the excerpting process, aside from a few footnotes. So each chapter, each book of chapters, is whole, although some of the books have gaps in between them, where Nabuco’s original work had more chapters on matters unrelated to the war.

Um estadista, as should be readily obvious, is not in Spanish. It’s a Portuguese text. La guerra del Paraguay is a Spanish translation of a selection of chapters which concern the war. I don’t really know Portuguese, but I do know Spanish, so I’m translating the Spanish text. So although The War of Paraguay will be an indirect translation, the process should be fairly lossless, because Portuguese and Spanish aren’t nearly as far apart as are English and Spanish. As well, whenever I have encountered (or will encounter) any difficulty with the Spanish, or come across something that seems like a typo, I’ve consulted the original Portuguese, which I can suss out well enough with some liberal use of bilingual dictionaries.

Wait, so really, what is this book?

Reading the above, you may get the impression that this book is going to be only glancingly about the Paraguayan War, since its excerpted from a book about José Nabuco. Not so! In fact, Nabuco senior scarcely shows up in the first half of La guerra del Paraguay. However, this book is not a blow-by-blow military history. There’s some discussion of military events, but the majority of the book describes the political and diplomatic conflicts which created the war and which the war created. The subtitle I’m toying with is “A diplomatic history of Latin America’s deadliest war.”

The Paraguayan War was an instance where three countries—Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay—countries that were constantly making peace and going to war with one another, and with themselves, joined forces to defeat a common foe. Naturally, there was a lot of diplomatic action going on. In fact, there’s probably more discussion of conflict between the allies, and between Brazilian politicians, in the book than there is discussion of conflicts between Brazil and Paraguay. Of course, all those other conflicts arose from the conflict with Paraguay—regardless, the military events are mostly ignored. (Hopefully, I will be filling some of that in with supplemental posts from my own research, as I’ll explain below, because this is a war with some noteworthy military events.) And I think the political machinations leading to the war are well worth recording—all the more so because the source, Nabuco, was deeply embedded within Brazilian politics.

What is this war then?

The Paraguayan War was the deadliest war in Latin American history. It was fought from 1864-1870 between the Triple Alliance (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay) and Paraguay, and over half of Paraguay’s population had died by the war’s end. The conflict was sparked after Brazil intervened in the Uruguayan War, one of many episodes of Uruguayan civil war in the 19th century. Paraguay, lead by Francisco Solano López, demanded that Brazil cease occupation of Uruguay, and when Brazil did not comply, shortly invaded Mato Grosso and Rio Grande do Sul (Brazilian provinces)—though to reach Rio Grande do Sul, they had to cross Corrientes, an Argentinian province. This put Argentina at war with Paraguay, and pretty soon Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay signed a treaty of alliance to defeat López. What followed was a six-year war that devastated Paraguay, and began to erode such large, old Brazilian institutions as slavery, and the monarchy itself.

Why do you care, Francis?

This is a singular episode in history that is, of course, nevertheless reflective of other moments in history. The hell of jungle warfare. The inevitable backfiring of imperialist intervention. The difficulty of fighting a common enemy with allies who each have different motives. As an American reading it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the US occupation of Iraq, and there are plenty more conflicts that it casts light on—”War never etc.”

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Brazilian naval command at Humaitá

It’s a little talked-about topic in a little talked-about region (in the anglophonic world), and yet there is a lot to learn from it. It’s not some small, internal conflict, it’s a big, complex war. As well, the closeness of the writer to the events he’s describing is a unique perspective. George Thompson’s The War in Paraguay describes the war from a British engineer aiding the Paraguayan army, but La guerra del Paraguay gives us a view into the Empire.

It’s worth noting that Nabuco certainly brings his own bias. He was a prominent abolitionist, with plenty to critique the Empire over, though he clearly believes that Paraguay was wrong and Brazil was right. The book is primarily a history, not an argument meant to persuade you, but Nabuco’s writing is still full of value judgments. He does provides quotes, and describes perspectives, from different sides of the various conflicts of the book, but he’s just one person. He can’t give the full view, or an “objective view” (whatever that is) of the war. And I think there’s a lot to enjoy in that—in seeing what the Brazilian conception of this war was toward the end of the 19th century. And whenever there’s anything he overlooks, or something that’s blatantly false, I’ll point it out, as I’ll now explain.

What do I need to know before reading this?

Nothing! Other than what I’ve written in this foreword, I mean. I’ll have some translator’s notes throughout the text, and include maps where pertinent. As well, when we come to chapters that require lots of background knowledge on a specific topic to understand them, I’ll have a supplementary post describing that topic, from my own research. Some of those posts will be about the Paraguayan War itself, as the conflict proper isn’t as fully developed as other issues surrounding it.

What’s the plan, Fran?

The plan is to publish every single chapter of The War of Paraguay on this blog (41 of ’em, though there are three exceptionally long ones which will each be split into two blog posts) as well as the supplemental background info posts. It’s not all going to be in a row—probably about once a month I’ll post a review or something about writing or a bit of research that doesn’t have anything to do with the war—but hopefully I won’t have to take any hiatuses. Hopefully.

Anyway, that means that, at the earliest, the final chapter of this book will be going up about a year from now! Woohoo, long-term projects! If you can’t wait that long though, I do plan on publishing the full translation ahead of that—which will also include translations of the footnotes which appear in La guerra del Paraguay. For the most part, I won’t be translating those footnotes for the posts on this site, so you’ll only be able to get them in the book version.

Conclusion

I first heard about the Paraguayan War this spring, when one of my friends mentioned learning about it, and about how devastating it was to the Paraguayans. I started looking into it, astonished that I could have never heard of the second deadliest war in the entire history of the Americas. Of course, there are many events like this—enormous and hugely impactful sections of history about which I know nothing, or next to nothing. Whenever I find out about such events, I instantly want to know everything about them. A lot of times this is impossible, because there just aren’t many English books and articles about them, or because I simply don’t have time. A lot of times I’ll satisfy myself with devouring the Wikipedia article on the topic, but never be able to return to it, because again, I’ve only got around 70 more years on this Earth and I can’t spend all of them in the library. With the Paraguayan War I did the Wikipedia thing, but didn’t probe any further.

However, as summer approached, I decided that once the Spring semester ended and I was out of school I wanted to work on a project translating something into English, to get better at translating and reading Spanish. I would need a text that was a. in the public domain, b. in Spanish, c. never before translated into English, and d. about something that interested me. After a few false starts, I returned to the Paraguayan War to see if there were any books about it that would satisfy these conditions, and in this way I found La guerra del Paraguay.

Through translating this book, I’ve been able to indulge that curiosity for the massive-but-unknown. I think the reason I’m always so eager to dive into these important-yet-obscure topics is because it is so easy to believe that everything I know constitutes everything that exists—which leads to silly beliefs like “This could only happen in America” and “This would never have happened a century ago.” I try to quash these fallacies within myself whenever they arise, but the easiest way to disrupt American exceptionalism or 21st century exceptionalism is by diving into these important-yet-obscure topics. If you have the same inclination, the same desire to reject simplicity and solipsism in favor of complexity and plurality, I think you will enjoy this book. And if you have the same problem of not having time to really deeply understand these things, no problem—it’s only one chapter a week, and they’re (mostly) not long chapters. And if you’re a Portuguese or Spanish-speaker, or anyone to whom this topic is not as obscure, please feel free to offer corrections or additional insights at any time.

I’ve had a great, disruptive, enriching time reading, and now beginning to translate, La guerra del Paraguay, so I hope you’ll join me as I work with Joaquim Nabuco and Gonzalo Reparaz (the Spanish translator) to describe a diplomatic history of the war of Paraguay.

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