Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

Francia the Dictator, the Louis XI of Paraguay

Among the varied countries of South America the little republic of Paraguay, clipped closely in between Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil, presents the most singular history, this being due to the remarkable career of the dictator Francia, who ruled over it for a quarter of a century, and to the war-like energy of his successor Lopez. The tyranny of Francia was one of the strangest which history records, no man ever ruling with more absolute authority and more capricious cruelty. For many years Paraguay was completely cut off by him from the rest of the world, much as Japan was until opened to civilization by Commodore Perry. Unlucky was the stranger who then dared set foot on Paraguayan soil. Many years might pass before he could see the outer world again. Such was the fate of Bonpland, the celebrated botanist and companion of Humboldt, who rashly entered this forbidden land and was forced to spend ten years within its locked confines. Such is the country, and such was the singular policy of its dictator, whose strange story we have hero to tell.

In May, 1811, Paraguay joined the other countries of South America in the general revolt against Spain. There was here no invasion and no bloodshed; the armies of Spain were kept too busy elsewhere, and the revolution was accomplished in peace. A governing committee was formed, with Fulgincio Yegros for its chairman and Jos Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia for its secretary. The first was a man of little ability; the latter was a man whose powers will soon be seen.

The committee decreed the independence of Paraguay. Two years later a new convention was held, which dissolved the committee and elected two consuls, Yegros and Francia, to govern the country. Two chairs were made for them, resembling the curule chairs of Rome, and called Csar's and Pompey's chairs. On entering office Francia coolly seated himself in Csar's chair, leaving that of Pompey for his associate. This action showed the difference in force of character between the two men.

In fact, Francia quickly took possession of all the powers of government. He was a true Csar. He appointed a secretary of state, undertook to reorganize the army and the finances, and deprived the Spaniards in the country of all civil rights. This was done to gain the support of the Indian population, who hated the Spaniards bitterly. He soon went farther. Yegros was in his way and he got rid of him, making the simple-minded and ignorant members of the congress believe that only a sovereign magistrate could save the country, which was then threatened by its neighbors. In consequence, on the 8th of October, 1814, Francia was made dictator for three years. This was not enough to satisfy the ambitious ruler, and he played his cards so shrewdly that, on the 1st of May, 1816, a new congress proclaimed him supreme and perpetual dictator.

It was no common man who could thus induce the congress of a republic to raise him to absolute power over its members and the people. Francia at that time was fifty-nine years of age, a lean and vigorous man, of medium stature, with piercing black eyes, but a countenance not otherwise marked. The son of a Frenchman who had been a tobacco manufacturer in Paraguay, he was at first intended for the church, but subsequently studied the law. In this profession he had showed himself clever, eloquent, and honorable, and always ready to defend the poor and weak against the rich. It was the reputation thus gained which first made him prominent in political affairs.

Once raised to absolute power for life, Francia quickly began to show his innate qualities. Love of money was not one of his faults, and while strictly economical with the public funds, he was free-handed and generous with his own. Thus, of the nine thousand pesos of annual salary assigned him, he would accept only three thousand, and made it a strict rule to receive no present, either returning or paying for any sent him. At first he went regularly every day to mass, but he soon gave up this show of religious faith and dismissed his private chaplain. In fact, he grew to despise religious forms, and took pleasure in ridiculing the priests, saying that they talked about things and represented mysteries of which they knew nothing. "The priests and religion," he said, "serve more to make men believe in the devil than in God."

Of the leading principle of Francia's political system we have already spoken. It had been the policy of the old Jesuit missions to isolate the people and keep them in strict obedience to the priesthood, and Francia adopted a similar policy. Anarchy prevailed without, he said, and might penetrate into Paraguay. Brazil, he declared, was seeking to absorb the country. With these excuses he forbade, under the severest penalties, intercourse of any character between the people of Paraguay and those of neighboring countries and the entry of any foreigner to the country under his rule.

In 1826 he decreed that any one who, calling himself an envoy from Spain, should dare to enter Paraguay without authority from himself should be put to death and his body denied a burial. The same severe penalty was decreed against any native who received a letter speaking of political affairs and did not at once present it to the public tribunals. These rigid orders were probably caused by some mysterious movements of that period, which made him fear that Spain was laying plans to get possession of the country.

In the same year the dictator made a new move in the game of politics. He called into being a kind of national assembly, professed to submit to its authority, and ratified a declaration of independence. Just why this was done is not very clear. Certain negotiations were going on with the Spanish government, and these may have had some-thing to do with it. At any rate, a timely military conspiracy was just then discovered or manufactured, a colonel was condemned to death, and Francia was pressed by the assembly to resume his power. He consented with a show of reluctance, and only, as he said, till the Marquis de Guarini, his envoy to Spain, should return, when he would yield up his rule to the marquis. All this, however, was probably a mere dramatic move, and Francia had no idea of yielding his power to any one.

The dictator had a policy of his own—in fact, a double policy, one devoted to dealing with the land and its people; one to dealing with his enemies or those who questioned his authority. The one was as arbitrary, the other as cruel, as that of the tyrants of Rome.

The crops of Paraguay, whose wonderful soil yields two harvests annually, were seized by the dictator and stored on account of the government. The latter claimed ownership of two-thirds of the land, and a communal system was adopted under which Francia disposed at will of the country and its people. He fixed a system for the cultivation of the fields, and when hands were needed for the harvest he enlisted them forcibly. Yet agriculture made little progress under the primitive methods employed, a broad board serving for a plough, while the wheat was ground in mortars, and a piece of wood moved by oxen formed the sugar-mill. The cotton, as soon as picked from the pods, was spun on the spinning-wheel, and then woven by a travelling weaver, whose rude apparatus was carried on the back of an ox or a mule, and, when in use, was hung from the branch of a tree.

Commerce was dealt with in the same way as agriculture. The market was under Francia's control, and all exchange of goods was managed under rules laid down by him. He found that he must open the country in a measure to foreign goods, if he wanted to develop the resources of the country, and a channel of commerce was opened on the frontier of Brazil. But soldiers vigilantly watched all transactions, and no one could act as a merchant without a license from him. He fixed a tariff on imports, kept them in a bazaar under military guard, and sold them to the people, limiting the amount of goods which any of his subjects could purchase.

As a result of all this Francia brought about a complete cessation of all private action, the state being all, and he being the state. All dealing for profit was paralyzed, and agriculture and commerce alike made no progress. On the other hand, everything relating to war was developed. It was his purpose to cut off Paraguay completely from foreign countries, and to be fully prepared to defend it against warlike invasion.

Of his books, the one he most frequently consulted was a French dictionary of the arts and industries. From this he gained the idea of founding public workshops, in which the workmen were stimulated to activity alike by threats and money. At one time he condemned a blacksmith to hard labor for awkwardness. At another, when he had erected a gallows, he proposed to try it on a shoemaker if he did not do his work properly, while promising to richly reward him if he did.

Military roads were laid out, the capital and other cities were fortified, and a new city was built in the north as a military post to keep the savage Indians under control. As for the semi-civilized Mission Indians, they were gradually brought under the yoke, made to work on the land, and enrolled in the army like other citizens. In this way a body of twenty thousand militia and five thousand regular troops was formed, all being well drilled and the army supplied with an excellent cavalry force. The body-guard of the dictator was made up of picked troops on whose fidelity he could rely.

Indian spinning and weaving


Francia dwelt in the palace of the old Spanish governors, tearing down adjoining houses to isolate it. Constantly fearful of death and danger, he did not trust fully to his vigilant body-guard, but nightly slept in a different room, so that his sleeping apartment should not be known. In this he resembled the famous Louis XI., whom he also imitated in his austerity and simplicity of manners, and the fact that his principal confidant was his barber,—a mulatto inclined to drink. His other associate was Patinos, his secretary, who made the public suffer for any ill-treatment from his master. The remainder of the despot's household consisted of four slaves, two men and two women. In dress he strove to imitate Napoleon, whom he greatly admired, and when drilling his troops was armed with a large sword and pistols.

There remains to tell the story of the cruelties of this Paraguayan Nero. With his suspicious nature and his absolute power, his subjects had no more security for their lives than those of old Rome. Plots against his person—which he identified with the state—served him as a pretext for seizing and shooting or imprisoning any one of whom he was suspicious. One of his first victims was Yegros, his former associate in the consulate. Accused of favoring an invasion of Paraguay, he and forty others were condemned to death in 1819.

More than three hundred others were imprisoned on the same charge, and were held captive for eighteen months, during which they were subjected by the tyrant to daily tortures. The ferocious dictator took special pleasure in the torment of these unfortunates, devising tortures of his own and making a diversion out of his revenge. From his actions it has been supposed that there were the seeds of madness in his mind, and it is certain that it was in his frequent fits of hypochondria that he issued his decrees of proscription and carried out his excesses of cruelty.

When in this condition, sad was it for the heedless wretch who omitted to address him as "Your Excellence the Supreme, Most Excellent Lord and Perpetual Dictator!" Equally sad was it for the man who, wishing to speak with him, dared to approach too closely and did not keep his hands well in view, to show that he had no concealed weapons. Treason, daggers, and assassins seemed the perpetual tenants of Francia's thoughts. One country-woman was seized for coming too near his office window to present a petition; and he went so far, on one occasion, as to order his guard to fire on any one who dared to look at his palace. Whenever he went abroad a numerous escort attended him, and the moment he put his foot outside the palace the bell of the Cathedral began to toll, as a warning to all the inhabitants to go into their houses. Any one found abroad bowed his head nearly to the ground, not daring to lift his eyes to the dictator's dreaded face.

It is certainly extraordinary that in the nineteenth century, and in a little state of South America, there should have arisen a tyrant equal in cruelty, in his restricted sphere, to the Nero and Caligula of old or the Louis XI. of mediaeval times. Death came to him in 1840, after twenty-six years of this absolute rule and in his eighty-third year. It came after a few days of illness, during which he attended to business, refused assistance, and forbade any one not called by him to enter his room. Only the quick coming of death prevented him from ending his life with a crime; for in a fit of anger at the curandero, a sort of quack doctor who attended him, he sprang from his bed, snatched up his sword, and rushed furiously upon the trembling wretch. Before he could reach his intended victim he fell down in a fit of apoplexy. No one dared to disregard his orders and come to his aid, and death soon followed. His funeral was splendid, and a grand mausoleum was erected to him, but this was thrown down by the hands of some enemies unknown.

Thus ended the career of this extraordinary personage, one of the most remarkable characters of the nineteenth century. Carlos Antonio Lopez, his nephew, succeeded him, and in 1844 was chosen as president of the republic for ten years, during which he was as absolute as his uncle. He continued in power till his death in 1862, but put an end to the isolation of Paraguay, opening it to the world's commerce.

He was succeeded by his son, Solano Lopez, whom we mention here simply from the fact that the war which Francia had so diligently prepared for came in his time. In 1864 the question of the true frontier of the state brought on a war in which Brazil, the Argentine Republic, and Uruguay combined to crush the little country in their midst. We need only say here that Lopez displayed remarkable powers as a soldier, appeared again and again in arms after seemingly crushing defeats, and fought off his powerful opponents for five years. Then, on the 1st of May, 1870, he was slain in a battle in which his small army was completely destroyed. Paraguay, after a valorous and gigantic struggle, was at the mercy of the allies. It was restored to national life again, but under penalty of the great indemnity, for so small a state, of two hundred and thirty-six million pesos.