History of Paraguay


Early Explorers and Conquistadores

The recorded history of Paraguay began indirectly in 1516 with the failed expedition of Juan Díaz de Solís to the Río de la Plata Estuary, which divides Argentina and Uruguay. After Solís's death at the hands of Indians, the expedition renamed the estuary Río de Solís and sailed back to Spain. On the home voyage, one of the vessels was wrecked off Santa Catarina Island near the Brazilian coast. Among the survivors was Aleixo García, a Portuguese adventurer who had acquired a working knowledge of Guaraní. García was intrigued by reports of "the White King" who, it was said, lived far to the west and governed cities of incomparable wealth and splendor. For nearly eight years, García patiently mustered men and supplies for a trip to the interior and finally left Santa Catarina with several European companions to raid the dominions of "El Rey Blanco."

Marching westward, García's group discovered Iguazú Falls, crossed the Río Paraná, and arrived at the site of Asunción thirteen years before it was founded. There the group gathered a small army of 2,000 Guaraní warriors to assist the invasion and set out boldly across the Chaco, a harsh semidesert. In the Chaco, they faced drought, floods, and cannibal Indian tribes. García became the first European to cross the Chaco and penetrated the outer defenses of the Inca Empire to the foothills of the Andes Mountains in present-day Bolivia, eight years in advance of Francisco Pizarro. The García entourage engaged in plundering and amassed a considerable horde of silver. Only fierce attacks by the reigning Inca, Huayna Cápac, convinced García to withdraw. Indian allies later murdered García and the other Europeans, but news of the raid on the Incas reached the Spanish explorers on the coast and attracted Sebastian Cabot to the Río Paraguay two years later.

The son of the Genoese explorer John Cabot (who had led the first European expedition to North America), Sebastian Cabot was sailing to the Orient in 1526 when he heard of García's exploits. Cabot thought the Río de Solís might provide easier passage to the Pacific and the Orient than the stormy Straits of Magellan where he was bound, and, eager to win the riches of Peru, he became the first European to explore that estuary.

Leaving a small force on the northern shore of the broad estuary, Cabot proceeded up the Río Paraná uneventfully for about 160 kilometers and founded a settlement he named Sancti Spiritu. He continued upstream for another 800 kilometers, past the junction with the Río Paraguay. When navigation became difficult, Cabot turned back, but only after obtaining some silver objects that the Indians said came from a land far to the west. Cabot retraced his route on the Río Paraná and entered the Río Paraguay. Sailing upriver, Cabot and his men traded freely with the Guaraní tribes until a strong force of Agaces Indians attacked them. About forty kilometers below the site of Asunción, Cabot encountered a tribe of Guaraní in possession of silver objects, perhaps some of the spoils of García's treasure. Hoping he had found the route to the riches of Peru, Cabot renamed the river Río de la Plata, although today the name applies only to the estuary as far inland as the city of Buenos Aires.

Cabot returned to Spain in 1530 and informed Emperor Charles V (1519-56) about his discoveries. Charles gave permission to Don Pedro de Mendoza to mount an expedition to the Plata basin. The emperor also named Mendoza governor of Río de la Plata and granted him the right to name his successor. But Mendoza, a sickly, disturbed man, proved to be utterly unsuitable as a leader, and his cruelty nearly undermined the expedition. Choosing what was possibly the continent's worst site for the first Spanish settlement in South America, in February 1536 Mendoza built a fort at a poor anchorage on the southern side of the Plata estuary on an inhospitable, windswept, dead-level plain where not a tree or shrub grew. Dusty in the dry season, a quagmire in the rains, the place was inhabited by the fierce Querandí tribe that resented having the Spaniards as neighbors. The new outpost was named Buenos Aires (Nuestra Señora del Buen Ayre), although it was hardly a place one would visit for the "good air."

Mendoza soon provoked the Querandís into declaring war on the Europeans. Thousands of them and their Timbú and Charrúa allies besieged the miserable company of half-starved soldiers and adventurers. The Spaniards were soon reduced to eating rats and the flesh of their deceased comrades.

Meanwhile, Juan de Ayolas, who was Mendoza's second-in-command and who had been sent upstream to reconnoiter, returned with a welcome load of corn and news that Cabot's fort at Sancti Spiritu had been abandoned. Mendoza promptly dispatched Ayolas to explore a possible route to Peru. Accompanied by Domingo Martínez de Irala, Ayolas again sailed upstream until he reached a small bay on the Río Paraguay, which he named Candelaria, the present-day Fuerte Olimpo. Appointing Irala his lieutenant, Ayolas ventured into the Chaco and was never seen again.

After Mendoza returned unexpectedly to Spain, two other members of the expedition--Juan de Salazar de Espinosa and Gonzalo de Mendoza--explored the Río Paraguay and met up with Irala. Leaving him after a short time, Salazar and Gonzalo de Mendoza descended the river, stopping at a fine anchorage. They commenced building a fort on August 15, 1537, the date of the Feast of the Assumption, and called it Asunción (Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asunción). Within 20 years, the settlement had a population of about 1,500. Transcontinental shipments of silver passed through Asunción on their way from Peru to Europe. Asunción subsequently became the nucleus of a Spanish province that encompassed a large portion of southern South America--so large, in fact, that it was dubbed "La Provincia Gigante de Indias." Asunción also was the base from which this part of South America was colonized. Spaniards moved northwestward across the Chaco to found Santa Cruz in Bolivia; eastward to occupy the rest of present-day Paraguay; and southward along the river to refound Buenos Aires, which its defenders had abandoned in 1541 to move to Asunción.

The Young Colony

Uncertainties over the departure of Pedro de Mendoza led Charles V to promulgate a cédula (decree) that was unique in colonial Latin America. The cédula granted colonists the right to elect the governor of Río de la Plata Province either if Mendoza had failed to designate a successor or if a successor had died. Two years later, the colonists elected Irala as governor. His domain included all of present-day Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, most of Chile, and large parts of Brazil and Bolivia. In 1542 the province became part of the newly established Viceroyalty of Peru, with its seat in Lima. Beginning in 1559, the Audiencia of Charcas (present-day Sucre, Bolivia) controlled the province's legal affairs.

Irala's rule set the pattern for Paraguay's internal affairs until independence. In addition to the Spaniards, Asunción included people--mostly men--from present-day France, Italy, Germany, England, and Portugal. This community of about 350 chose wives and concubines from among the Guaraní women. Irala had several Guaraní concubines, and he encouraged his men to marry Indian women and give up thoughts of returning to Spain. Paraguay soon became a colony of mestizos, and, prompted by Irala's example, the Europeans raised their offspring as Spaniards. Nevertheless, continued arrivals of Europeans allowed for the development of a criollo elite.

The Guaraní, the Cario, Tapé, Itatine, Guarajo, Tupí, and related subgroups, were generous people who inhabited an immense area stretching from the Guyana Highlands in Brazil to the Río Uruguay. Because the Guaraní were surrounded by other hostile tribes, however, they were frequently at war. They believed that permanent wives were inappropriate for warriors, so their marital relations were loose. Some tribes practiced polygamy with the aim of increasing the number of offspring. Chiefs often had twenty or thirty concubines whom they shared freely with visitors, yet they treated their wives well. They often punished adulterers with death. Like the area's other tribes, the Guaraní were cannibals. But they usually ate only their most valiant foes captured in battle in the hope that they would gain the bravery and power of their victims.

In contrast with the hospitable Guaraní, the Chaco tribes, such as the Payaguá (whence the name Paraguay), Guaycurú, M'bayá, Abipón, Mocobí, and Chiriguano, were implacable enemies of the whites. Travelers in the Chaco reported that the Indians there were capable of running with incredible bursts of speed, lassoing and mounting wild horses in full gallop, and catching deer bare-handed. Accordingly, the Guaraní accepted the arrival of the Spaniards and looked to them for protection against fiercer neighboring tribes. The Guaraní also hoped the Spaniards would lead them once more against the Incas.

The peace that had prevailed under Irala broke down in 1542 when Charles V appointed Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca--one of the most renowned conquistadors of his age--as governor of the province. Cabeza de Vaca arrived in Asunción after having lived for ten years among the Indians of Florida. Almost immediately, however, the Rio de la Plata Province--now consisting of 800 Europeans--split into 2 warring factions. Cabeza de Vaca's enemies accused him of cronyism and opposed his efforts to protect the interests of the Indians. Cabeza de Vaca tried to placate his enemies by launching an expedition into the Chaco in search of a route to Peru. This move disrupted the Chaco tribes so much that they unleashed a twoyear war against the colony, thus threatening its existence. In the colony's first of many revolts against the crown, the settlers seized Cabaza de Vaca, sent him back to Spain in irons, and returned the governorship to Irala.

Irala ruled without further interruption until his death in 1556. In many ways, his governorship was one of the most humane in the Spanish New World at that time, and it marked the transition among the settlers from conquerors to landowners. Irala kept up good relations with the Guaraní, pacified hostile Indians, made further explorations of the Chaco, and began trade relations with Peru. This Basque soldier of fortune saw the beginnings of a textile industry and the introduction of cattle, which flourished in the country's fertile hills and meadows. The arrival of Father Pedro Fernández de la Torre on April 2, 1556, as the first bishop of Asunción marked the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church in Paraguay. Irala presided over the construction of a cathedral, two churches, three convents, and two schools.

Irala eventually antagonized the Indians, however. In the last years of his life, he yielded to pressure from settlers and established the encomienda. Under this system, setlers received estates of land along with the right to the labor and produce of the Indians living on those estates. Although encomenderos were expected to care for the spiritual and material needs of the Indians, the system quickly degenerated into virtual slavery. In Paraguay 20,000 Indians were divided among 320 encomenderos. This action helped spark a full-scale Indian revolt in 1560 and 1561. Political instability began troubling the colony and revolts became commonplace. Also, given his limited resources and manpower, Irala could do little to check the raids of Portuguese marauders along his eastern borders. Still, Irala left Paraguay prosperous and relatively at peace. Although he had found no El Dorado to equal those of Hernán Cortés in Mexico and Pizarro in Peru, he was loved by his people, who lamented his passing.

The Sword of the Word

During the next 200 years, the Roman Catholic Church--especially the ascetic, single-minded members of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits)--had much more influence on the colony's social and economic life than the feckless governors who succeeded Irala. Three Jesuits--an Irishman, a Catalan, and a Portuguese--arrived in 1588 from Brazil. They promptly moved from Asunción to proselytize among the Indians along the upper Río Paraná. Because they already believed in an impersonal, supreme being, the Guaraní proved to be good pupils of the Jesuits.

In 1610 Philip III (1598-1621) proclaimed that only the "sword of the word" should be used to subdue the Paraguayan Indians, thus making them happy subjects. The church granted extensive powers to Jesuit Father Diego de Torres to implement a new plan, with royal blessings, that foresaw an end to the encomienda system. This plan angered the settlers, whose lifestyle depended on a continuing supply of Indian labor and concubines. The settlers' resistance helped convince the Jesuits to move their base of operations farther afield to the province of Guayrá in the distant northeast. After unsuccessful attempts to "civilize" the recalcitrant Guaycurú, the Jesuits eventually put all their efforts into working with the Guaraní. Organizing the Guaraní in reducciones (reductions or townships), the hard-working fathers began a system that would last more than a century. In one of history's greatest experiments in communal living, the Jesuits had soon organized about 100,000 Guaraní in about 20 reducciones, and they dreamed of a Jesuit empire that would stretch from the Paraguay-Paraná confluence to the coast and back to the Paraná headwaters.

The new Jesuit reducciones were unfortunately within striking distance of the mamelucos, the slave-raiding, mixed-race descendants of Portuguese and Dutch adventurers. The mamelucos were based in Sâo Paulo, Brazil, which had become a haven for freebooters and pirates by the early 1600s because it was beyond the control of the Portuguese colonial governor. The mamelucos survived mostly by capturing Indians and selling them as slaves to Brazilian planters. Having depleted the Indian population near Sâo Paulo, they ventured farther afield until they discovered the richly populated reducciones. The Spanish authorities chose not to defend the settlements.

Spain and Portugal were united from 1580 to 1640. Although their colonial subjects were at war, the governor of Rio de la Plata Province had little incentive to send scarce troops and supplies against an enemy who was nominally of the same nationality. In addition, the Jesuits were not popular in Asunción, where the settlers had the governor's ear. The Jesuits and their thousands of neophytes thus had little means to protect themselves from the depredations of the "Paulistas," as the mamelucos also were called (because they came from Sâo Paulo). In one such raid in 1629, about 3,000 Paulistas destroyed the reducciones in their path by burning churches, killing old people and infants (who were worthless as slaves), and carrying off to the coast entire human populations, as well as cattle. Their first raids on the reducciones netted them at least 15,000 captives.

Faced with the awesome challenge of a virtual holocaust that was frightening away their neophytes and encouraging them to revert to paganism, the Jesuits took drastic measures. Under the leadership of Father Antonio Ruíz de Montoya, as many as 30,000 Indians (2,500 families) retreated by canoe and traveled hundreds of kilometers south to another large concentration of Jesuit reducciones near the lower Paraná. About 12,000 people survived. But the retreat failed to deter the Paulistas, who continued to raid and carry off slaves until even the reducciones far to the south faced extinction. The Paulista threat ended only after 1639, when the viceroy in Peru agreed to allow Indians to bear arms. Welltrained and highly motivated Indian units, serving under Jesuit officers, bloodied the raiders and drove them off.

Victory over the Paulistas set the stage for the golden age of the Jesuits in Paraguay. The Guaraní were unaccustomed to the discipline and the sedentary life prevalent in the reducciones, but adapted to it readily because it offered them higher living standards, protection from settlers, and physical security. By 1700 the Jesuits could again count 100,000 neophytes in about 30 reducciones. The reducciones exported goods, including cotton and linen cloth, hides, tobacco, lumber, and above all, yerba maté, a plant used to produce a bitter tea that is popular in Paraguay and Argentina. The Jesuits also raised food crops and taught arts and crafts. In addition, they were able to render considerable service to the crown by supplying Indian armies for use against attacks by the Portuguese, English, and French. At the time of the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Spanish Empire in 1767, the reducciones were enormously wealthy and comprised more than 21,000 families. Their vast herds included approximately 725,000 head of cattle, 47,000 oxen, 99,000 horses, 230,000 sheep, 14,000 mules, and 8,000 donkeys.

Because of their success, the 14,000 Jesuits who had volunteered over the years to serve in Paraguay gained many enemies. They were a continual goad to the settlers, who viewed them with envy and resentment and spread rumors of hidden gold mines and the threat to the crown from an independent Jesuit republic. To the crown, the reducciones seemed like an increasingly ripe plum, ready for picking.

The reducciones fell prey to changing times. During the 1720s and 1730s, Paraguayan settlers rebelled against Jesuit privileges and the government that protected them. Although this revolt failed, it was one of the earliest and most serious risings against Spanish authority in the New World and caused the crown to question its continued support for the Jesuits. The Jesuit-inspired War of the Seven Reductions (1750-61), which was fought to prevent the transfer to Portugal of seven missions south of the Río Uruguay, increased sentiment in Madrid for suppressing this "empire within an empire."

In a move to gain the reducciones' wealth to help finance a planned reform of Spanish administration in the New World, the Spanish king, Charles III (1759-88), expelled the Jesuits in 1767. Within a few decades of the expulsion, most of what the Jesuits had accomplished was lost. The missions lost their valuables, became mismanaged, and were abandoned by the Guaraní. The Jesuits vanished almost without a trace. Today, a few weed-choked ruins are all that remain of this 160-year period in Paraguayan history.

Paraguay History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress