La Guerra de la Sed

Translation: “The War of Thirst”

Paraguay has given the world two horrendous wars over the last two centuries. Yesterday, I posted about the War of the Triple Alliance. Today, we will see one of the most horrendous wars of the Twentieth Century: The Chaco War of 1932-1935 between Paraguay and Bolivia. The Grand Chaco is a desert area comprising most of Paraguay’s territory (in an area the size of Poland) but with only 3% of the population. In its earlier war, Paraguay lost big. The Chaco War was actually fought to a draw, with heavy casualties on both sides.

The Bolivians were hampered by the fact that their supply line was so much longer, and most of their troops were from the altiplano and were not used to lowland deserts, especially truly horrible ones like the Chaco. Here there were few water holes, cockroaches that ate human hair, poisonous snakes, jaguars, giant lizards, vampire bats, and a wilderness of thorns and sharp spines. Also, Paraguayans could intercept messages in Spanish meant for the Bolivians, while the Paraguayans communicated over radio lines in Guaraní, the other official language of the country.

In his book At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay, John Gimlette wrote:

A pattern emerged. The Bolivians would be separated from their water and then the Guaranís would cut round the back to offer them dehydration or surrender. Behind these moves was a man with chilly blue eyes who played the war like chess, not theatre. General Estigarribia is often credit with genius, and later he would stand for [the] presidency. Had his propeller not come off over Altos, he might have spared Paraguay the Stronato [the nickname for the long presidency of dictator General Alfredo Stroessner] and the uncomfortable years ahead….

Bolivian morale slithered. The myth of Paraguayan invincibility took shape: the Guaranís lived on palm hearts and thin air, fought like wilcats and were everywhere.

PARAGUAY: a Stamp Printed in Paraguay shows Heroes of the Chaco War


When the war was over, the general thinking was that the war was fought for oil instead of a useless chunk of desert. In fact, there was no oil in the Chaco. The war was fought over a desolate area of no major import to either of the war’s participants.

Curupayty

The Only Battle the Paraguayans Won

Here is a trick question for you: What was the most deadly war fought in the Western Hemisphere? What, the American Civil War? Not even close. Just as we were fighting our Civil War (which I don’t think is quite over yet), the tiny country of Paraguay decided to invade Brazil. Soon, Argentina and Uruguay joined in against Paraguay, in what is called the War of the Triple Alliance. By itself, Brazil had the resources and the manpower to crush Paraguay. But the war went on from 1865 to 1870, during which 80% of the total population of the little inland country lost their lives.

The man behind the war was dictator Francisco Solano López (shown below), better known for his obesity and rotten teeth than for his military prowess. Oddly, this was a war on which there were heavy casualties on both sides. Who knew that the starving Paraguayans fought like the devil and wouldn’t just play dead. They also had one self-trained military genius, a young railway engineer named George Thompson. He designed the Paraguayan fortifications at Curupayty to take his adopted country’s weaknesses and turn them into strengths.

The Fomentor of the War

I am re-reading one of the best travel books I have ever encountered, John Gimlette’s At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay. Here is Gimlette describing the aftermath of an abortive allied attack on the positions so skillfully designed by Thompson:

The Allies took Curupayti as a terrible blow. Argentina lost any remaining enthusiasm for the war, and the greater share of the fighting now fell to the Brazilians. Allied strength was built up to 80,000, but even the Brazilians struggled to find the numbers. Brazilian rural life was fractured by violent recruiting gangs, and eventually the plantation slaves of Bahía were drummed into the ranks on the promise of freedom and land. The cost was debilitating at £14,500,000 a year, of which £2,000,000 went on maintaining the horses of the imperial cavalry. All sides were now desperate for a conclusion.

Curupayty held out for another year. At first the Allies were paralyzed with shock, and then the ranks of both armies were liquefied by cholera. López was so terrified by the disease that he forbade anyone to mention it by name, and it was only known simply as “the Chain.” It claimed fifty men a day for six months…..

When Curupayty was finally abandoned, Thompson mounted the earthworks with one last, sullen garrison. The wary Allies shelled them for three days before mustering the courage to advance. They were in for a bitter surprise.

The last defenders of Curupayty were merely scarecrows, stuffed with straw.

I highly recommend Gimlette’s book for anyone interested in learning about events that are unknown to 99.9% of Americans. When the War of the Triple Alliance finally sputtered to an end, there were ten Paraguayan women to one man. The war continued on to levels of craziness not often seen in battle:

Meanwhile, the Allies poured fire down on to the defenders. The Paraguayans responded with all they had left, often just blowing their túrútútús—or trumpets—and infuriating the Allies with their stoicism. They dug themselves fox-holes with names like the Hotel Français, de Bordeaux and Garibaldi fed their gallows humour.

“If a Paraguayan in the midst of his comrades was blown to pieces by a shell,” wrote Thompson, “they would yell with delight, thinking it a capital joke, in which they would have been joined by the victim himself had he been capable.”

Do you wonder why I want to visit Paraguay?

 

A Vanished Arcadia

Historical site of Encarnacion and Jesuit ruins in Paraguay, South America

The following is a lightly edited repeat of a post I made back in March 2013.

It is interesting to me that, for the first time in its history, the papacy is in the hands of a Jesuit, from South America no less. In southeastern Paraguay and in the Argentinean state of Misiones, there are numerous ruins attesting to the 17th and 18th century Jesuit missions—missions that were so powerful that they were, in effect, the government of Paraguay. If you ever saw Roland Joffe’s 1986 movie, The Mission, with Robert DeNiro, Liam Neeson, and Jeremy Irons, you have some idea of what this Jesuit government was like.

You can find out even more by reading the forgotten classic history by R. B. Cunninghame Graham entitled A Vanished Arcadia: Being Some Account of the Jesuits in Paraguay 1607 to 1767.

It even finds its way into Voltaire’s Candide, but its author being such an anticlerical cuss, he has his hero kill the Jesuit commandant of one of the missions. Yet he writes in Histoire Politique et Philosophique des Indes:

When in 1768 the missions of Paraguay left the hands of the Jesuits, they had arrived at perhaps the highest degree of civilization to which it is possible to conduct a young people, and certainly at a far superior state than that which existed in the rest of the new hemisphere. The laws were respected there, morals were pure, a happy brotherhood united every heart, all the useful arts were in a flourishing state, and even some of the more agreeable sciences: plenty was universal.

Poster for Roland Joffe’s Film The Mission (1986)

I have long thought that, if my thoughts had ever taken a turn toward the Catholic priesthood, I would have become a Jesuit. My teachers at St. Peter Chanel in Bedford, Ohio, wanted me to become one of them, a Marist. But, in the end, I became neither.

So now Pope Francis is a Jesuit from Argentina. He, I am sure, is quite aware of the history of the Jesuits in the southern cone of South America. It would be nice if he did for the Catholic Church what the Jesuits did for the Guarani in Paraguay and Argentina. Benedict XVI was a good man, but not strong enough for the task of making his faith relevant to a world that is falling away from the Church.

Serendipity: African Laughter

A Laughing Epidemic Swept Tanzania in 1961

Between 1962 and 1964, there was a laughter epidemic in Tanzania that started in one girls’ school and spread like wildfire around the country. The following is from the How Stuff Works website.

At a small girls’ boarding school in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), three students started to giggle. Starting and stopping abruptly, their fits would last anywhere from a minute or two to several hours. This “laughter” proved contagious — soon other girls were doing the same thing. No one could concentrate on their schoolwork, and restraining the laughing students proved ineffective. Six weeks later, more than half of the school’s middle and high schoolers had caught the laughing bug.

School officials shut the place down. But when they reopened it two months later, the laughing plague immediately restarted and the school was once again shuttered. The laughing epidemic spread to other schools and lasted somewhere between six and 18 months.

So what caused this? “The bad news is, it had nothing to do with humor. There was no merriment. Laughter was one of many symptoms,” said linguist Christian F. Hempelmann, who researched the incident. He noted that the students also had fits of pain, fainting, crying and rashes.

He blamed excessive stress for the uncontrollable giggles. The boarding school where the laughter began was a very strict one. Plus the country had just gained its independence, and people were anxious about the future. With all of the terrorism in the world today, experts say another laughing epidemic wouldn’t be surprising.

Check out this video regarding the incident:

 

The Centinela Adobe

One of Los Angeles’s Original 19th Century Adobes

Just north of the Los Angeles Airport, adjacent to the southbound lanes of the San Diego Freeway (the I-405), is one of the 43 surviving adobes around Los Angeles. Sitting somewhat incongruously on a suburban street full of ticky-tack postwar single-family homes, the adobe is run by the Historical Society of Centinela Valley. The Centinela Adobe is the original structure of a huge Mexican land grant comprising some 25,000 acres of the Rancho Aguaje de la Centinela, including parts of the communities of Inglewood and Westchester.

Built in 1834, the adobe is generally open only on Sunday afternoons. Martine and I were there at opening time and had a great tour of the premises by one of the volunteers who was both knowledgeable and forthcoming on the many historical exhibits.

Looking at the above photograph, it looks as if the structure is a wood frame house. A kitchen extension built later is indeed built with wood, but the main part of the structure is built with mud bricks (such as the ones shown in the picture below), covered with stucco, and painted over with white paint. Originally, the roof consisted of tar taken from the La Brea Tar Pits. It lasted about a hundred years, until the 1930 Long Beach earthquake forced the Historical Society to install a modern roof.

Adobe Mud Bricks of Which the Main Building Is Constructed

In September, there will be a big Mexican-style fiesta at the adobe which I plan to attend. Next weekend, there will be a barbecue, but as a diabetic, I tend to eschew the usually heavily sugared barbecue sauces.

People tend to think that California is a state without a history. In fact, Los Angeles goes back to the year 1781 and has flown the flags of Spain, Mexico, and the United States. Parts of the state were also under Russian control in the 1850s—but very briefly. I plan on visiting more of the adobes and ranchos that were the base that the second largest city in the United States was built.

So You Want To Be a Princess

Maybe It’s Not Such a Good Idea

I could not think of this last weekend’s Royal Wedding without thinking of Princess Diana. Although I do believe that she was not cut out for the Royal Family. To be a real princess, especially when married to someone like Prince Charles, one would have to be willing to forego most of one’s dreams and be impervious to all slights, of which there are many.

The image I have of that doomed wedding is of Princess Di, four months pregnant with Prince William, throwing herself down a flight of stairs to bring about a miscarriage. The source? Princess Di herself: It appears in her book Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words (1992). I sometimes wonder what Prince William thinks of his near escape.

Little girls everywhere dream of being Walt Disney princesses. That’s all well and good, if we lived in a cartoon universe. But if we do, it is one created by S. Clay Wilson, the underground cartoonist, and not Walt Disney.

S. Clay Wilson Cartoon Featuring the Checkered Demon


Apparently, Princess Di wanted the whole princess package. What she got was a somewhat ghastly domestic tragedy, partly of her making, partly of Princes Charles’s making, and partly of the Queen’s making.
 

The Federal Republic of Central America

One Real Coin of the Federal Republic of Central America

Between 1823 and 1840, what we know of the countries of Central America was a single country, with the following two exceptions:

  • British Honduras (now Belize) has never officially been recognized by Guatemala.
  • Panama did not exist as a separate country, but was a part of the Republic of Colombia.

In 1839, a young American by the name of John Lloyd Stephens was appointed by President Martin Van Buren to be a special ambassador to the unified Federal Republic of Central America. The only problem was that, by the time Stephens and his artist companion Frederick Catherwood landed in Central America, the Federal Republic was in the process of splitting apart.

John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852)

Stephens’s main interest was to visit the Mayan ruins scattered around Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico—but going as a plenipotentiary of the United States was a big plus, especially since the countries of Central America were coming apart like a cheap suit.

I have just finished re-reading Volume i of Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán. The only ruins Stephens and Catherwood were able to visit before presenting their credentials to the government were in Copán, Honduras.  Most of the rest of that volume concerns the efforts of the two to find the government, which Stephens does in El Salvador, quite by accident:

The next day I made a formal call upon Señor Vigil [Vice President of the Republic]. I was in a rather awkward position. When I left Guatimala [sic] in search of a government, I did not expect to meet it on the road. In that state I had heard but one side [that of Guatemalan rebel General Carrera]; I was just beginning to hear the other. If there was any government, I had treed it. Was it the real thing or was it not? In Guatimala they said it was not; here they said it was. It was a knotty question. I was in no great favor in Guatimala, and in endeavouring to play a safe game I ran the risk of being hustled by all parties. In Guatimala they had no right to ask for my credentials, and took offence because I did not present them; here, if I refused, they had the right to consider it an insult.

As I read Stephens, I was reminded of how great some of the 19th century U.S. historians were. Not only Stephens, but also William H. Prescott (History of the Conquest of Mexico), Francis Parkman (the volumes of France and England in North America), and John Lothrop Motley (The Rise of the Dutch Republic). They are unfortunately not read much today, but I am convinced they are, in their own field, among the lights of 19th century American literature.