Friday, July 1, 2011

The Adventuress

By Leighton Gage

In more than five-hundred years of history, Brazil has only fought in three foreign wars. The costliest in terms of casualties was the so-called War of the Triple Alliance.

In that one, BrazilArgentina and Uruguay were all united against tiny Paraguay. The conflict, some say, was brought about by the actions of one woman. That woman was Eliza Lynch. Never heard of Eliza? Then let me enlighten you.

South America, like most other places, is rife with women who achieved fortune, fame, and even power, by their skill in the bedroom. The Marchioness of Santos comes to mind. And the two wives of Juan Peron, Evita and Isabelita. But, for my money, the most extraordinary was Eliza Alicia Lynch.

Eliza was Irish. In 1845, the Great Famine was in full bloom, and her family fled from Cork to Paris to escape it. She was ten years old, dirt-poor, uneducated, and illiterate. She spoke not one word of French. But she was hard-working and driven to succeed. Within five years, she’d bloomed into an attractive young woman with a full figure, a rich vocabulary and a passable accent in her now-fluent French.

After a short and unsuccessful marriage, which brought her to Algeria, and then back to Paris, she wriggled her way into the circle of Mathilde Bonaparte, the niece of Napoleon I – and set herself up as a courtesan. And then, in 1854, at the age of nineteen, she met the man who was to determine her destiny.

General Francisco Solano Lopéz, twenty-eight, was the son of Carlos Antonio Lopéz, president of Paraguay. He had two interests: women and war. He’d come to Paris to indulge them both. But his training with the French army was soon to be over, and he was scheduled to return home.

Eliza knew nothing of South America, spoke no Spanish, didn’t even know her new paramour that well – but, in an astounding act of courage for a woman of her time, she agreed to go with him. Their love affair was to last until Lopéz’s death, sixteen years later. They never married. She was to bear him six children.

In 1862, the president of Paraguay died, and his son succeeded him. The younger Lopéz was not a particularly ambitious man, but there’s no doubt that his girlfriend was – and she’d become the most powerful woman in the country.

Up to that time, Paraguay wasn’t much more than a buffer state between Brazil and Argentina.

But the country had grown rich from the production of maté tea, an immensely-popular beverage back then and one that, even today, you’ll often see the gauchos of BrazilUruguay and Argentina sipping from gourds through silver straws.

What the Paraguay of Lopéz’s day lacked to transform it into a full-fledged regional power wasn’t more money in the bank, they had enough of that. It was access to the sea. Eliza, her ambition outweighing her good sense, convinced her lover to try to get that access.

They began by invading Uruguay, which they might have gotten away with if they’d left it at that. But they soon bit off more than they could chew by making incursions into Argentina and Brazil as well.

It was a huge mistake. Eliza hadn’t done her homework. The people they’d attacked outnumbered them ten to one. And those people mounted a massive retaliatory response by sea and by land.

Lopéz and Eliza, to everyone’s surprise managed to hold out for five years against overwhelming odds. But by the time the inevitable defeat took place fully half of the total population of Paraguay was dead, and 26 percent of its territory had been lost, never to be recovered.

The final battle was at a place called Cerro Corá, nowParaguay’s largest national park. Virtually the whole male population of the country, still loyal to Lopéz, rallied about him. But to no avail. They were hopelessly outnumbered. Lopéz himself was run-through by a Brazilian lancer while trying to escape by fording a river.

After the Brazilians killed him, they moved on to capture the civilians who’d accompanied his army. Eliza was there. Her eldest son, Juan Francisco, 15 years old and recently promoted to Colonel, was there too. The Brazilian officers told him to surrender. "A Paraguayan Colonel never surrenders," he is recorded to have said. He didn’t. And they killed him.

Eliza was permitted to bury both father and son (she did it with her bare hands) before they took her away.She was banished from the nation and returned toEurope with the four children she had left (the youngest having died of dysentery while she was on campaign). There she lived on until 1886, dying at the relatively young age of 51. A little over a century later, her body was exhumed and brought back to Paraguay where it now lies in this tomb in the Cemetery of la Recoleta.

These days, she enjoys (if the dead can be said to enjoy anything) the status of “national heroine”, having been pronounced as such by another Paraguayan general who became a head of state (and government, and everything else) the dictator Alfredo Stroessner. 

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, was an adventuress. Don’t you think she makes Evita look like an amateur? Isn’t Eliza the one who really deserved to have Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice create a musical about her?


Jean Henry Mead said...

Fascinating history, Leighton. It's amazing that an ambitious young woman could cause so much death and distruction, with her backgrund during the 19th century.

Jaden Terrell said...

Leighton, I wish you'd been my history teacher.

Amazing that they consider her a heroine, even after she got half their people killed. And yes, it should would be a great play or movie, albeit a tragic one.

Leighton Gage said...

Hi Jean,
Hi Jaden,

I'm glad you enjoyed it.
And thank you for writing to say so.

I love this stuff!
I would love to have known that woman.
Can you imagine the stories she had to tell?
And, in an Irish accent, no less, which I've always had a weakness for.

Jaden Terrell said...

I'm also a sucker for an Irish accent. And a British accent, and a Scottish accent, and...