Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Battle of Paraguarí

Today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Paraguarí. If you aren't Paraguayan, or connected to Paraguay in some way, the chances are good you haven't heard of Paraguarí and even better that you didn't know there was a battle fought there on January 19th, 1811.

Cerro Porteño, the smaller hill to the left, with Cerro Acahay in the background, as seen from my yard. The Battle of Paraguarí was fought on the plain to the right.
General Manuel Belgrano, sent by the government in Buenos Aires to deal with the rebellious Paraguayan province, had far superior arms and led professional soldiers. But the Paraguayans outnumbered the Porteños—the term still used to describe people from Buenos Aires. In addition, they were passionately defending their homeland.

They met each other in the valley between Paraguarí and Cerro Mbaé, or, as it is known today, Cerro Porteño. We can see this hill and the valley from our house, located on the south side of the range of hills called Cordillera de los Altos. The battle is also called the Battle of Cerro Porteño.

The Paraguayans won the day, both on the 19th of January and 50 days later further south at Tacuary. These victories were key events that led to Paraguay's declaration of independence from Spain on May 14th of that year. This year Paraguay celebrates its 200th anniversary.

Perhaps just as important as Paraguay's military victory at Paraguarí was the custom of officers of both sides getting together before and after the battles and shooting the breeze. Many of them knew each other—several of Belgrano's officers were even Paraguayan!—and they came from the same privileged class. Through this fraternization the Paraguayan officers learned that Napoleon Bonaparte had replaced Spain's king with his own brother.  Napoleon wanted to retain Spanish possessions in the Americas and the Philippines, but Paraguay now realized that the new reality gave them the opportunity to break once and for all from Spain.

So it became one of the first in the series of South American provinces to declare independence between 1809 (Ecuador) and 1825 (Uruguay). Basically the Spanish empire in the New World disintegrated within 16 years, although Cuba and Puerto Rico still belonged to Spain until the Spanish-American war in 1898. (Guyana didn't get independence from the United Kingdom until 1966 and Surinam separated from the Netherlands in 1975. French Guiana continues to be an overseas department of France.)

There might even be an argument that the events that took place two hundred years ago out in the valley I can see from my front window contributed to the eventual fall of Napoleon. I might need some help from the historians to make my case, though. At the very least, one of Paraguay's most popular soccer teams, Cerro Porteño owes its name to the feeling of victory Paraguayans feel when they remember January 19th 1811.