One hundred and forty-seven years ago today, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay signed an alliance treaty, joining forces against Paraguay in what would become one of the most devastating wars in modern history. By the end of the Paraguayan War (or War of the Triple Alliance) in 1870, Brazilian, Argrentine, Uruguayan, and Paraguayan politics and societies had fundamentally transformed.
Although the war did not officially begin until 1865 (with skirmishes and battles taking place in 1864), it originally had its origins in the regional politics and conflict between conservatives and liberals in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay in the 1850s and 1860s. Throughout the middle of the nineteenth century, Brazil and Argentina had been rivals over the Rio de la Plata region, with Brazil supporting the liberal Colorado Party in Uruguay and helping Uruguay and Argentine provinces overthrow conservative Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1852.
In spite of Brazilian support, the Colorado Party in Uruguay fell to the conservative Blanco Party. In 1863, a series of alleged invasions from Uruguay into the Brazilian province of Rio Grande do Sul led Brazil to demand that either Uruguay pay damages and punish those guilty of the incursions, or Brazil would send its army to force punishment and payment. In response, the Uruguayan Blancos turned to Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López. However, Brazil launched a blockade of Uruguay and sent troops into its southern neighbor, and the Blanco Party’s government quickly collapsed, with a government more favorable to Brazil quickly filling the vacuum. In response, López attempted to monopolize the Paraná river basin, a vital waterway for Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil. López also sent Paraguayan forces into Brazilian territory and, when Argentina refused to allow Paraguayan troops to cross its territory, López declared war on and invaded Argentina as well, forcing a new alliance between the traditional rivals of Argentina and Brazil. Thus, on May 1, 1865, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay all signed the Treaty of the Triple Alliance, pledging to fight against Paraguay.
While the Alliance anticipated a quick victory, the war quickly became a quagmire for the three countries, and by the end of 1866, both Argentina and Uruguay had effectively stopped fighting, turning the war into a fierce contest between Brazil’s and Paraguay’s armies. By mid-1865, the Paraguayan riverboat fleet was destroyed. However, although outnumbered, Paraguayan troops were better trained and disciplined than their Brazilian counterparts. Early in the war, the Brazilian army suffered a string of defeats.
However, as the war progressed, Brazil gained the upper hand as it modernized its army and professionalized its military institutions. Between 1865 and 1870, the Brazilian government spent nearly $300 million as it mobilized over 200,000 soldiers to fight, including slaves who were pledged their freedom in exchange for service. This led to increasingly racialized portrayals of the armys: Brazil framed the war as a battle of “civilization” against the “savage” and heavily-Guaraní culture and society of Paraguay; at the same time, Paraguay portrayed Brazil as a “degenerate” nation of slave-owners, mulattos, and Afro-descendants whose alleged barbarity stood no chance before Paraguayan society.
Brazil’s resources and manpower ultimately made the war increasingly lopsided, however. By January of 1869, Asunción fell, and Brazilians celebrated. Solano López did not surrender, however, instead shifting to guerrilla tactics, and the war raged on for another fourteen months until Brazilian forces captured Paraguayan troops, including Solano López, who died in the process. Thus, after more than five years and well over 400,000 civilian and military casualties, the war came to an end.
While the war ended in 1870, it fundamentally transformed Brazilian, Paraguayan, and Argentine society and politics for generations to come. While Argentina had not been nearly as involved in the war as Brazil, the war did allow a new level of nation-building in the country in a process that would further intensify as Argentina launched genocidal military campaigns against indigenous peoples in Patagonia later in the 1800s. And the alliance drew Brazil and Argentina, traditional rivals up to that point, into closer relations.
The war also intensified nation-building in Brazil. The southern-most provinces had always been isolated from the imperial capital in Rio de Janeiro, and earlier in the 1800s there had even been secession movements in provinces like Rio Grande do Sul. However, the war provided the context for infrastructural development in and incorporation of the southernmost provinces into the nation. With the declaration of war, the government strung telegraph lines to tie South to the capital, creating a level of communication between the two regions that had previously been absent. Additionally, the country witnessed industrial growth and expansion, based on wartime need for production of materiel. At the same time, Brazilian politics transformed in two significant ways. Some politicians felt the war revealed the weaknesses of Emperor Pedro II’s rule and of the imperial government more generally, and began to form alliances, views, and groups that would ultimately take part in the end of the empire and the formation of a republic in 1889. Slaves who fought in war fought well and were granted freedom, leading officers to question the institution of slavery more generally. Finally, the military also became a major political actor in the wake of the war, in part to counter the criticisms of politicians who felt the military took too long to win. In order to defend its efforts, the military was drawn into broader political debates, and it would remain a major actor in national politics, appointing and deposing leaders at various moments well into the latter half of the 20th century.
As for Paraguay, it paid a heavy price for the war. While Brazil had lost more than 50,000 soldiers, mostly to disease, Paraguay was absolutely devastated by the war. More than half of the country’s entire population died during the war, and a much greater percentage of the male population died (with some unconfirmed estimates putting the number at 90% of the total male population). The demographic loss set Paraguay back decades as political, economic, and cultural elites of the future died in battle or, more regularly, from diseases like cholera and other war-time illnesses.
For those interested in the War and its impact on Brazilian military institutions, politics, nation, and society, I highly recommend Peter M. Beattie’s The Tribute of Blood: Army, Honor, Race, and Nation in Brazil, 1864-1945.