British in the war against Paraguay

Image: Yamil Manzur


A war, like any important event, should not be studied in isolation.

The rise of neoliberalism since the last decade of the XNUMXth century – and its counterpart in the methodological field, the postmodern approaches in several areas of science – consolidated, in certain academic circles, a premise presented as irrefutable: the British Empire, although hegemonic in the XNUMXth century, it had no interest in the War against Paraguay and, consequently, maintained a “strict neutrality” in the confrontation.

This controversy is recurring, but not idle. Many works, even though instigating and anchored in solid documentary research, are limited to sustaining, repeatedly, that the War was nothing more than a “regional conflict”. This insistence is used to oppose the so-called “imperialist thesis”, which advocates a supposed British role in the events that led to the War, defended by dependentista and Americanist historians in the 1960s and 1970s. problematic and reductionist, for adopting a geographical criterion that does not say or explain anything in depth. It is, moreover, a truism, because, superficially, all wars are conditioned by regional dynamics.

A war, like any important event, should not be studied in isolation. We cannot ignore, without incurring methodological errors, that since the sixteenth century there has been a world economy and politics, which have a greater or lesser impact on regional peculiarities. In this understanding, the biggest war in the history of Latin America, evidently, had a local context. It obeyed the disputes between interests of the national States, controlled by factions of the native bourgeoisies. However, this game of interests was never divorced from global dynamics. The question is to define in which world reality and trends this regional context was inserted.

With this methodological approach, I argue that the thesis of British neutrality is false. It is an interpretation – as such, derived from a certain ideological-political vision of the world – which unacceptably omits the documented facts.

At this point, it is possible that some colleagues and readers may be tempted to associate me with positions similar to those of Júlio José Chiavenato, Eduardo Galeano or other revisionists, or else with nationalist literature and even with certain caricaturists of Marxism, fond of the personality cult. of patriotic heroes in the defeated country. This would be a hasty and unfair conclusion.

My only agreement with some writers of the revisionist school consists in the need to denounce Triple Alliance aggression against a historically oppressed nation and to unravel British policy in big war.[I] That is all. I do not subscribe to exaggerations or interpretative schemes arising from conspiracy theories, always simplifying, to explain the causes of the War.

And more: any approach that, in an effort to denounce the British Empire, suggests that the Allied rulers did not have their own interests or that they acted as mere puppets, animated from London, is a reductionism that opens gaps that are impossible to seriously defend in the debate with the liberal apologists of the Triple Alliance. Nothing can atone for the atrocities committed by the “civilizing” governments of Paraguay, the main responsible for the destruction of that country.

That said, let's move on to the real debate.

The self-titled New Historiography, which found in the Brazilian historian Francisco Doratioto one of its most qualified spokespersons, maintains that the British Empire was neutral during the conflict.[ii] In fact, the author says that London was opposed to the war. In reality, Francisco Doratioto's thesis is not original. It is based on the postulates of British historians – such as Desmond Platt, Edward N. Tate and Leslie Bethell – who claim that the British Empire had a policy of “non-interference” in Latin America during the XNUMXth century.

We do not deny anyone the right to interpret the facts as they see fit. In the process, you can even distort them. But that won't change them; facts are often stubborn. And the facts show that London was neither indifferent nor neutral in the War against Paraguay. Not your bankers, not your government, not your parliament.

Let us return to the global context. The United Kingdom exercised semi-colonial economic and political domination in Latin America: the new states of the subcontinent, which emerged from Iberian colonialism, although they did not formally retreat to the status of colonies, did not resist the establishment of a financial, commercial and diplomatic dependence on London. This is not ideology, it is fact. The XNUMXth century, remember, became known as the “English century”.

Prussian General Clausewitz wrote that "War is the continuation of politics by other means". Bringing this premise to the terrain of the War against Paraguay implies studying the political position of the British ruling class – and, therefore, of its governments and State – and its relationship with the belligerent South American governments, before and during military action.

Between 1863 and 1871, the Court of Rio de Janeiro borrowed £14.278.520 from British banking through the House of Rothschild.[iii] This amount represented 60% of all foreign trade in Brazil in 1860.[iv] In that period, Paraguayan foreign trade barely exceeded £560.000. During the War, Pedro II transferred part of these resources to his Argentine and Uruguayan allies, in the form of loans. This is documented.

The Argentine government of Miter contracted 1,25 million pounds in 1866 and 1,95 million pounds in 1868, through Baring Brothers, to finance military operations in Paraguay.[v] These loans were in addition to £2,6m in debt previously taken on by London bankers.[vi]

These data should be conclusive. In the war between Paraguay and the Triple Alliance, British capital financed exclusively one side: the Triple Alliance. This is the fundamental fact. It is material proof of the political position of the British Empire.

But, in addition to financing, there are other facts: (i) the series of reports hostile to Paraguay signed by British diplomatic agents in the region of the Rio de la Plata; (ii) the fact that London – through its representative Edward Thornton – expressed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Paraguay, in December 1864, that the Brazilian Empire had “the right to ask for satisfaction for the offenses that its subjects had to endure”[vii] in eastern territory, thus justifying the Brazilian aggression against Uruguay, a fact that, considering the previous official warning, was considered a casus belli by Paraguay; (iii) Thornton's participation in the meetings of Miter's cabinet on the Uruguayan problem, alongside the Brazilian diplomat Saraiva, as well as his knowledge of the resolutions of the secret session of the Argentine Congress, which ratified the secret Treaty of the Triple Alliance;[viii] (iv) the complaints of Cándido Bareiro, Paraguayan representative in Europe, to the British government, for the violation of the proclaimed “neutrality”, through shipment of weapons, construction of warships, transport of war material in ships flying the British flag through from the River Plate to supply the Allies, etc.[ix] If we add these elements of analysis to funding, it is evident that the actions of diplomacy – that is, of official representatives of the British government – ​​were favorable to the Allied cause.

British interference is undoubtedly neither the only nor the main cause or explanation for the War against Paraguay. However, it cannot be said that London was neutral in this conflict. The facts belie this premise.

As it is not possible to ignore this evidence, the New Historiography resorts to a subterfuge, stating that neither the loans nor the movements of British diplomats in the region were related to official British policy. In this sense, Francisco Doratioto argues: “capital has no ideology and seeks the best remuneration associated with the lowest risk”. And he concludes: “as for England, her government is to be distinguished from her bankers. The English government remained neutral in the conflict”.[X]

Let us then enter the interpretative debate. There was not, and could not be, a watertight separation between the government – ​​the British cabinet – and capital – the London bankers.

In any bourgeois state, from the most advanced to the most backward, governments act in the service of capitalists or, more precisely, factions of capitalists. Marx and Engels defined, in 1848, that “the government of the modern State is nothing more than a board which administers the common affairs of the whole bourgeois class”.[xi] In a society divided into social classes with antagonistic interests, there are no “apolitical” capitalists or without ideology, just as there is no “neutral” state apparatus. It is not governments that dictate the thinking or actions of capitalists – it is capitalists, or certain sectors of capitalists who hold power, who determine the domestic and foreign policies of states.

Therefore, the divorce between governments and capitalists is another mistaken premise of the so-called New Historiography.

Obviously, a banker or any other capitalist will always seek the highest profit. But it would be absurd to assume that this search does not follow political criteria. Is it serious to believe that, in a war, bankers will finance a side to which they are politically opposed, or that, on the contrary, they will deprive themselves of financing the side with which they politically identify their immediate or potential interests? Remember Clausewitz's maxim.

The fact that British bankers did not lend to the Paraguayan State, but to the Allies, has a political explanation, not merely based on calculations of greater or lesser financial risk.

For example, in March 1865, the Paraguayan Congress authorized Solano López to take out loans of up to 25.000.000 pesos in international markets, offering yerba mate and public lands as collateral.[xii] Cándido Bareiro was authorized to negotiate financing of up to 4.000.000 strong pesos in Europe.[xiii] No “non-political” banker lent them a penny. If this was due to the perception that lending to Paraguay was a more “risky” investment, how come, in 1871 and 1872,[xiv] With the country's economy destroyed and two-thirds of its population lost, did British banks agree to lend to post-war Paraguayan governments? If those who think that no one in their right mind would have lent money to Paraguay in 1865 were consistent with their own reasoning, they would be forced to conclude that the bankers who did so in 1871 had escaped from an insane asylum.

The British government and diplomacy officially declared themselves neutral. But what matters is that, in practice, they were not. They provided political cover for British bankers and other capitalists – on both sides of the Atlantic – who provided indispensable material resources for the Allied war effort.

Why did British capitalism collaborate in the defeat of Paraguay? Undoubtedly not because Paraguay in 1864 was a great “industrial power” or was in the process of becoming one. Nor was it because the Paraguayan economy was a threat to the British industry or commerce that dominated the region. This nationalist thesis lacks foundation.

The explanation is that the war was a clash between two models of capitalist accumulation – not between capitalism and a supposedly “anti-imperialist” proto-socialism, as suggested by a very disoriented sector of the Latin American left –, but between a model that was based on the laissez faire and in foreign investment, seen as the engine of economic and cultural progress, and another, despite being controlled by the terrible dictatorships of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia and the two López, which consisted of a politically independent model, without external indebtedness, protectionist and statist.

Since the terminal crisis and the subsequent disintegration of the Iberian empires, London has promoted the first model, based on free trade and the sacrosanct principle of free private enterprise. Consequently, in the second half of the XNUMXth century, British capital had more interests in the Empire of Brazil – then the third largest consumer market for British products – and in Buenos Aires than in the small and “closed” Paraguay. The bourgeoisies of those countries were the main (minor) partners of the United Kingdom in the region. Not Paraguay.

In turn, these two regional powers had their own historical disputes with Paraguay: borders, free navigation, access to resources and rejection of “state monopolies”.

With Paraguay destroyed, British capital – as far as chaotic circumstances allowed – poured into the defeated country. But above all, it strengthened the preexisting ties of dependency in Brazil and Argentina, the exhausted victorious nations. In the years that followed, London's debt and investments grew exponentially in these countries.[xv]

If the main responsibility for the outbreak of the War and, above all, for its continuation until the complete destruction of Paraguay rests with the governments of Pedro II, Bartolomé Miter and Venancio Flores, who followed their own interests, it is also a proven fact that they did not support the war effort against the mighty British Empire.

Quite the opposite. The proven fact is that British funding – which secured a good deal of the Allied campaign – and other contributions were given to a single belligerent side, with the more or less disguised knowledge and approval of Her Majesty's Government. And this is the opposite of the British neutrality that adherents of the so-called “last word” in the study of war preach.

If the so-called left revisionists incur in the simplification of the “imperialist thesis”, many academics do the same, denying the totality of the world-economy and resisting to define the States according to their location in the international division of labor. Based on this bias, they conclude that the character of the War was merely “regional”, an impoverishing definition.

That liberal or neoliberal intellectuals justify or mitigate the crimes of past and present empires is understandable. But it is not the task of the left, much less of Marxism, to facilitate their task by assuming factual inaccuracies typical of nationalism.

*Ronald Leon Núñez holds a doctorate in economic history from USP. Author, among other books, of The War against Paraguay under debate (sundermann).

Translation: Raquel Polla.

Originally published in the newspaper ABC Color.


[I] In Paraguay, the war is known as Guerra Grande or Guerra Guasu, in the Guarani language.

[ii] DORATIOTI, Francis. Damn War. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2002.

[iii] FIGUEIRA, Divalte. Soldiers and traders in the Paraguayan War. São Paulo: Humanitas FFLCH-USP: FAPESP, 2001, p. 29.

[iv] BRUN, Diego A. La Guerra del Paraguay: three explanatory models. Paraguayan Magazine of Sociology. Asunción: CEPES, v. 26, no. 74, 1989, pp. 175-197; DORATIOTO, Francis. damn war…, op. cit., pp. 91, 458, 461, 462.

[v] BETHELL, Leslie. British imperialism and the Paraguayan War. Advanced Studies, 1995, Vol. 9, no. 24, p. 275.

[vi] BRUN, Diego A. The War of Paraguay: three explanatory models…, op. cit., p. 187.

[vii] DORATIOTO, Francis. damn war…, op. cit., p. 90.

[viii] Thornton to Russell, 25/05/1865, cited in: HORTON BOX, Pelham [1930]. Origins of the War of the Triple Alliance. Asunción: El Lector, 1996, p. 244.

[ix] Arms trafficking – always for the Allies – was also carried out via France and Belgium. And always with the “blind eye” of London and those European governments.

[X] LEAL, Bruno [2014]. New History of the Paraguayan War. Interview with Francisco Doratioto. Available in:>, consulted on 10/01/2023.

[xi] MARX, Karl; ENGELS, Friedrich [1848]. Communist Party Manifesto. Available in:>, consulted on 10/01/2023.

[xii] This, moreover, shows that the government of Solano López was not at all “anti-imperialist”.

[xiii] Official document of March 15, 1865. Available at:>, consulted on 10/01/2023.

[xiv] It was the first time, since the declaration of independence in 1813, that Paraguay contracted foreign debt.

[xv] During the Brazilian imperial period (1824-1888), 15 loans were contracted in London, 40% of which were agreed between 1865 and 1888. The Brazilian government spent, on the war effort, an amount equivalent to eleven times the national budget of 1864 .

The A Terra é Redonda website exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.
Click here and find how 

See this link for all articles