Total War in Indigenous Territories

The Impact of the Great War

By Milda Rivarola

Paraguayan prisoners (women and children). Photo courtesy of Milda Rivarola.

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The War of the Triple Alliance (1865-1870) was the first total war on the American continent. Whether one uses the technical definition of German general Erich Ludendorff that involves a complete subordination of politics to war, leaving Paraguay with only two alternatives, victory or utter defeat, or if one uses the more ample definition of a total war as affecting the whole of society, economy and territory of a country, this war, also known as the Great War, engulfed the region.

Although it started and ended in indigenous ancestral territories, and directly or indirectly concerned a dozen pre-Columbian nations, studies on the Great War have forgotten these protagonists. Without taking any military initiative, the indigenous peoples ended up being the biggest losers of the tragic campaign.

This war pitted small Paraguay against the two South American powers—the former Brazilian Empire and the Argentine Confederation—and another small country, Uruguay. On December 1864, Paraguayan forces attacked Mato Grosso (1 on map, p. 64), with its small Brazilian towns (Corumbá, Miranda, Albuquerque) surrounded by Indian villages Kadiweu-Guaycurú, Xané-Guaná and Guato.

The war ended five years later in March 1870, with the defeat of Paraguay in Cerro Corá, state of Amambay, a wild region with hundreds of Guarani villages from the Mbyá Guarani, Avá Guarani and Paï Tavyterá tribes (4 on map). Unlike Mato Grosso Indians—who had casual encounters with the Portuguese—these Guarani had no contact with Paraguayan society except for clashes with yerba mate (Ilex Paraguayensis) harvesters, who had ventured into the region since the early 19th century.

Two other disputed areas, where there had been small battles, were also populated by natives. Large Nivaklé and Toba groups were living in the lower Chaco (2 on the map), from the banks of the Pilcomayo to the Bermejo River. The area did not experience Spanish (criollo) occupation until 1870. Guarani villages had also been settled in Candelaria on the left bank of the Paraná (3 on map) since the times of the Jesuit Missions.

After the war, both of these areas were left under Argentine rule. Even before the Paraguayans started selling public lands (1885-1890), the government of Buenos Aires sold land for the benefit of large producers of sugar, tannin essence and yerba mate.


In anachronistic readings, nationalistic writers boasted about how “their natives”  identified with the “national cause.”   However, the few military memoirs mentioning indigenous people provide a different account. Indeed, given that the emerging nation-states from the Rio de la Plata would be consolidated only after—and in part thanks to—this international conflict, it seems unlikely that the various indigenous communities, harassed like animals or in a fragile truce with local authorities, could feel any kind of patriotism.

On the Paraguayan side, the matter was even more complicated because of the Allied propaganda campaign, which described the enemy—Paraguay—in newspaper articles and campaign reports as “wild,” “Indian raiders,” or as an “Indian camp” army. More scholarly accounts explained the “blind submission” of the troops to Marshal Francisco Solano López as a consequence of the Guarani servitude in the Jesuit Missions.

Offsetting these allegations, Paraguay didn’t claim that indigenous people provided military support. However, some memoirs—such as those of Frenchwoman Dorotea Duprat de Lasserre, Brazilian Viscount Alfredo d’Escragnolle Taunay and Paraguayan geographer Hector F. Decoud—did describe contacts with the Guarani during the final stages of the war.

Uncontacted Guarani indigenous tribes living in the jungle were called Cainguá—without further distinction—by the Paraguayans. López established confinement camps for women such as Panadero (in what is now Canindeyú state) or Espadín in Mbya and Avá-Guarani territory. The Cainguá approached these camps to barter food with these starving women for clothes, jewelry and utensils. They also guided those who managed to escape from these camps to the Brazilian encampments.

At the same time, in exchange for substantial gifts, some individuals served the retreating Paraguayan army as skillful local guides (baqueanos) and spies (pomberos) in jungle trails that led to areas occupied by the Allies. During the last part of the journey (that took place in the forests and hills of what is now Amambay state), the Paraguayan army had to employ Paï Tavyterá guides from another large Guarani tribe also known as Kaiowá in the Brazilian Mato Grosso.

Some Indians from the Chaco region—such as the Guaycurú (Qom), traditional owners of the Paraguay River—had been providing services to the Paraguayan government since the times of the dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, who ruled the country from 1814-1840. In their fast canoes, they also served as postmen between the fortress of Humaitá and Asunción in the early years of the conflict.

The role of indigenous people has been better documented in Brazil. Since the 18th century, the Mbayá-Guaycurú (Caduveo or Kadiweu) and the Chané-Guaná (Terena, Guaná) from southern Mato Grosso fought against the Portuguese occupants of the Pantanal. But after a hard initial resistance, the Guaycurú agreed to a peace treaty with them at the end of the colonial times. 

Their attacks on Paraguayan criollos and Guarani Indians had no truce, however. Warlords and aggressive horsemen, they attacked Paraguayan villages regularly, stealing cattle and capturing slaves. The toponymy of the north (Apa, Aquidabán, Agaguigó) recalls its ancestral sovereignty. Hostility worsened with increased persecution by dictator Rodriguez de Francia and with the support of Brazilians who gave them guns and bought their loot such as cattles and horses. 

Some Guaycurú Indians, known as “Captain Lapagate’s men,” carried out a weak resistance to the 1864 Paraguayan invasion of Coimbra. Together with Brazilian villagers and slaves, a Guaná group from the Mission of Bom Conselho was captured and taken to Paraguay, where few survived the end of the war. This tribe also began ambushing and attacking Paraguayan convoys, stealing horses, weapons and food.  

The Guaná and Guaycurú harassed the new invader: in two clashes of 1865, the Terena took eleven Paraguayan lives and kept their cattle. That same year, an armed group of Kadiweo-Guaycurú commanded by a Brazilian officer plundered San Salvador, taking weapons, ammunition and women. The plunder was not—as noted by military chroniclers—the smallest of incentives for indigenous warlike fervor.

The group also led the displaced inhabitants of Miranda, Coimbra and Albuquerque to the hill ranges, helping them until the Imperial army could retake the area. The Kadiweo-Guaycurú and their Brazilian officer acted as expert guides and advance squads to the Brazilian military in a sparsely mapped area; their watchmen reported on Paraguayan troop movements and performed the toughest tasks such as digging trenches and graves, opening footpaths and loading war materials.

At the end of the war, the Kadiweo—equipped with modern weapons provided by the Empire—even protected the area of Rio Blanco (south of Coimbra) and Villa de Miranda, and were responsible for overseeing the banks of Alto Paraguay, amid fears that the remainder of the Paraguayan army could cross to the Mato Grosso.  


Indigenous peoples suffered many casualties during the war, but there were also tangential longer-term casualties. Smallpox swept the Brazilian troops in Mato Grosso, and soon there was a massive outbreak amongst their allies Terena and Guaycurú, who were physiologically more vulnerable to the disease. These communities experienced higher mortality, especially because frightened indigenous soldiers abandoned the battlefront, and carried the epidemic to their villages.

Two years after the end of the war, Brazilian reports mention the “remains” of the great Guaycurú nation on the left bank of the upper Paraguay River, the Chamacoco on the opposite bank, and a few Guato survivors on the banks of the San Lorenzo river. And only “remains” are mentioned because these “nations were cruelly decimated by the smallpox epidemic.” 

The Paraguayan War was a watershed for the Mato Grosso indigenous people. Brazilian criollos, led by former combatants of that same war, later colonized their vast territory. The ancestral territories Mbayá-Guaycurú and the Chané-Guaná were sold off, and these former nomads were forced to settle into indentured servitude (cativerio)  on cattle ranches and  rubber or yerba mate plantations, as well as railroad building.

An old Terena leader  said ironically that indigenous people were rewarded  for defending the borders of Brazil with “Tres botines, duas no pé e uma na bunda” (Three boots, two for the feet, and one in the butt [Eremites de Oliveira & Marques Pereira, 2007]).

In Paraguay, the war continued the expropriations begun by President López two decades earlier. At that time, he had issued a decree confiscating all the lands and communal cattle from 21 indigenous—mainly Guarani—villages. The uncontacted Cainguá, Guarani Indians living in the forests also suffered the permanent loss of their territories. From 1885 on, post-war governments did their cruel “civilizing” work, selling off that vast territory to the Industrial Paraguaya, Mate Larangeira and other yerba mate or livestock companies.

It wasn’t until a century later that the Paraguayan state would create an office to take care of indigenous affairs (INDI), securing small plots of land to Mbyá, Paï Tavyterá and Avá Guarani communities, negligible portions within their huge ancestral territory. On the outskirts of the place where the war ended (Yasuka Venda, 80 kilometers away from Cerro Corá) the Sacred Site of the Paï Tavyterá stands today. According to the Guarani cosmology, it was on that hill where the Father Creator Ñanderuvusú, in ancient times, gave rise to the world, now lost to them.

Milda Rivarola is a Paraguayan historian and political analyst. She is the author of several books, including Obreros, Utopías & Revoluciones, La Contestación al Orden Liberal, La Polémica Francesa sobre la Guerra Grande and Vagos, Pobres y Soldados.