An Irish Girl on the Make: Eliza Lynch [1835 CE – 1886 CE]

George MacDonald Fraser, in his entertaining light history of Anglo-Scottish border reivers The Steel Bonnets, refers to the awesome spectacle of a Scotsman on the make.  For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, ambitious Irish men and women could inspire similar dread and wonder.  Epitomized in literature by Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon, fiction, as so often, is less strange than reality, as a brief summary of the career of Eliza Lynch makes clear.

She was born in Cork County in 1835 CE but emigrated at the age of 10 with her family to France to escape the Irish Potato Famine [1845 – 1852].  After a brief marriage to a French officer who took her to Algeria, she set herself up in Paris as a courtesan at the age of eighteen, and was becoming established as one of the grandes horizontales of the era when she met Francisco Solano López in 1854.  He was the son of the President of Paraguay, at that time a prosperous country.  She followed him upon his return to Paraguay that year, obviously pregnant with the first of their seven children.

They never wed, though Eliza prudently had her marriage to the Frenchman annulled.  She learned the indigenous Guaraní tongue, commonly used throughout the country.  Most Europeans in Paraguay did not bother.

She soon embarked on an ambitious building program, littering the capital with unfinished and uninhabited palaces and unused theaters while carefully accumulating considerable quantities of gold and jewels, which were smuggled to Europe on her behalf, as well as 32 million hectares [approximately 79,074,000 acres] of Paraguayan land, which she purchased at scandalously low prices.

López took power in 1862 upon the death of his father.  In 1864 he instigated the Paraguayan War [1864 – 1870, which is often called The War of the Triple Alliance], eventually involving Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay.

Eliza accompanied López on his campaigns, bringing her piano with her.  Critics of Madama Lynch claimed she encouraged López to fight.  She protested she did not, after the war was effectively lost.  Less deniable was the charge that she had personally profited from the conflict.  In its closing stages, she had posited that she could appropriate the costly gems adorning church statues as long as she replaced them with costume jewelry, as it was the faith of the donors and not the intrinsic value of the items that made them effective offerings. Attempts to debate the theological merits of her argument were peremptorily cut short.

López became increasingly unhinged as the war proceeded, ordering the assassination of, among others, his mother.  After insuring Paraguay’s defeat and ruin, López was run to ground by Brazilian troops.  Refusing to surrender, he attacked a group of enemy soldiers with his sword, declaring “¡Muero con mi patria!” (“I die with my homeland!”).  The Brazilians shot him dead.  His eldest son, 15 years of age and a colonel, also refused to surrender and was also shot down.  There are stories that Eliza Lynch covered both with dirt using her bare hands.

More than 400,000 combatants died, but the conflict had degenerated into brutal guerilla raids and suppression after Paraguay’s army and navy had been defeated, resulting in the deaths of a huge number of civilians.

Estimates of total Paraguayan losses range from 300,000 to 1,200,000, probably 60% to 70% of its population, though some run up to 90%.  Establishing accurate information about the conflict was made more difficult when Brazilian troops captured Paraguayan government records, which were taken to Brazil where they are still inaccessible.

Few adult male Paraguayans remained: some informed estimates indicate they constituted about 12% of the post-war population of the country, leading to some interesting social coping innovations as female to male ratios within the land ranged from 4 to 1 to as high as 20 to 1 in severely affected regions.

Eliza Lynch returned to France with her surviving children and more than $500,000 worth of jewels, gold, and cash.  All of her land was confiscated.  She attempted to go back to Paraguay once only to be arrested and formally banned from ever re-entering the country.  She died in 1886 and was buried in France.

In 1961 the dictator Alfredo Stroessner [ruled 1954 -1989] declared Eliza a national heroine and started the process by which her remains were exhumed and reinterred in Paraguay.

Further Reading:

  • Thomas Whigham’s The Paraguayan War is by far the best treatment of the conflict in English: one of two planned volumes has been published at the time of this writing.
  • Eliza Lynch’s life has been presented in numerous biographies of widely varying quality: Nigel Cawthorne’s The Empress of South America, Siân Rees’s The Shadows of Elisa Lynch and Michael Lillis and Ronan Fanning’s The Lives of Eliza Lynch provide useful introductions to the myth and the history, though Cawthorne’s lack of footnotes and bibliography and his occasional error are almost as irritating as other authors’ attempts to whitewash her actions.
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