Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Total War in Indigenous Territories

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Total War in Indigenous Territories

Article excerpt

THE WAR OF THE TRIPLE ALLIANCE (1865-1870) was the first total war on the American continent. Whether one uses the technical definition of German general Erich Ludendorffthat involves a complete subordination of politics to war, leaving Paraguay with only two alternatives, victory or utter defeat, or if one uses the more ample definition of a total war as affecting the whole of society, economy and territory of a country, this war, also known as the Great War, engulfed the region.

Although it started and ended in indigenous ancestral territories, and directly or indirectly concerned a dozen pre-Columbian nations, studies on the Great War have forgotten these protagonists. Without taking any military initiative, the indigenous peoples ended up being the biggest losers of the tragic campaign.

This war pitted small Paraguay against the two South American powers-the former Brazilian Empire and the Argentine Confederation-and another small country, Uruguay. On December 1864, Paraguayan forces attacked Mato Grosso (1 on map, p. 64), with its small Brazilian towns (Corumbá, Miranda, Albuquerque) surrounded by Indian villages Kadiweu-Guaycurú, Xané-Guaná and Guato.

The war ended five years later in March 1870, with the defeat of Paraguay in Cerro Corá, state of Amambay, a wild region with hundreds of Guarani villages from the Mbyá Guarani, Avá Guarani and Paï Tavyterá tribes (4 on map). Unlike Mato Grosso Indians-who had casual encounters with the Portuguese-these Guarani had no contact with Paraguayan society except for clashes with yerba mate (Ilex Paraguayensis) harvesters, who had ventured into the region since the early 19th century.

Two other disputed areas, where there had been small battles, were also populated by natives. Large Nivaklé and Toba groups were living in the lower Chaco (2 on the map), from the banks of the Pilcomayo to the Bermejo River. The area did not experience Spanish (criollo) occupation until 1870. Guarani villages had also been settled in Candelaria on the leftbank of the Paraná (3 on map) since the times of the Jesuit Missions.

After the war, both of these areas were leftunder Argentine rule. Even before the Paraguayans started selling public lands (1885-1890), the government of Buenos Aires sold land for the benefit of large producers of sugar, tannin essence and yerba mate.


In anachronistic readings, nationalistic writers boasted about how "their natives" identified with the "national cause." However, the few military memoirs mentioning indigenous people provide a different account. Indeed, given that the emerging nation-states from the Rio de la Plata would be consolidated only after-and in part thanks to-this international conflict, it seems unlikely that the various indigenous communities, harassed like animals or in a fragile truce with local authorities, could feel any kind of patriotism.

On the Paraguayan side, the matter was even more complicated because of the Allied propaganda campaign, which described the enemy-Paraguay-in newspaper articles and campaign reports as "wild," "Indian raiders," or as an "Indian camp" army. More scholarly accounts explained the "blind submission" of the troops to Marshal Francisco Solano López as a consequence of the Guarani servitude in the Jesuit Missions.

Offsetting these allegations, Paraguay didn't claim that indigenous people provided military support. However, some memoirs-such as those of Frenchwoman Dorotea Duprat de Lasserre, Brazilian Viscount Alfredo d'Escragnolle Taunay and Paraguayan geographer Hector F. Decoud-did describe contacts with the Guarani during the final stages of the war.

Uncontacted Guarani indigenous tribes living in the jungle were called Cainguá-without further distinction-by the Paraguayans. López established confinement camps for women such as Panadero (in what is now Canindeyú state) or Espadín in Mbya and Avá-Guarani territory. The Cainguá approached these camps to barter food with these starving women for clothes, jewelry and utensils. …

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