The Aztec In Their History

I have long admired Hernán Cortes, conqueror of the Aztecs. He may not have gotten to Heaven, though who can say, but he exemplified the spirit of the West, that which from Charlemagne to Frémont drove the world forward. Fifth Sun would have us stop and shed a tear for the Aztecs, considering them on their own terms. It’s a modest request, and when done is modestly interesting. But we should remember that unlike the Spanish, the Aztecs never accomplished anything notable, and never would have accomplished anything notable. Which raises the question—what price glory?

It helps the reader of this book that the author, Camilla Townsend, is a very good writer. Her method is to use post-Conquest writings of descendants of the Aztecs, combined with a small number of plausible fictional vignettes, to attempt to recapture the history of pre-Conquest Mexico, to “conjure the world of [the] long dead.” (The book’s title comes from the Aztec creation myth, in which the cyclical rebirth of the Sun is triggered by an ordinary man choosing to sacrifice himself to the gods.) This method is more successful that it sounds it should be, but its accuracy is open to question. Nonetheless, I think it lets us get as much of a handle on the Aztecs as is worthwhile. Townsend further offers a good deal of detail about how she conducted her scholarship, her different sources, and an extensive bibliography, all of which are interesting in their own right.

Why are there few writings of Aztecs prior to the Spanish conquest of 1519, that Townsend could have used instead? Townsend says in passing that many were burned by the Spanish, although many also simply decayed, being composed on plant material. But the far more important reason, which Townsend at no point specifically admits, is that the Aztecs didn’t have any writings in the modern sense, that would allow real transfer of information, because they lacked an alphabet. Their “writings” were mere pictographs, and Aztec culture an oral one, like primitive cultures the world over. We might learn a little if we had more of their pictures, but not likely much. Townsend claims the Aztecs used these pictographs as “records of business decisions and chains of authority,” but that seems very unlikely; certainly surviving pictographs don’t allow any such precision.

Moreover, Townsend faces two problems as regards accuracy of the post-Conquest writings she uses (none of which are newly-discovered, despite breathless claims made on the book’s blurb). First, those recording what supposedly happened decades before they were born are very likely to introduce distortions, either by choice or as a result of being given bad information by informants. Townsend claims to be able to tease out the truth; maybe she’s right, but probably not, in many instances. Second, those recording here were not Aztecs, nor were they, as the blurb also claims, “indigenous people”; they were Spanish subjects, largely or completely Hispanized, most or all devout Roman Catholics, some of them of mixed parentage. Townsend assumes that when criticizing the Aztecs, they were lying or exaggerating, and when saying something positive, they were recording accurately. When writing a revisionist history, this approach gives the desired result, but it’s not objective. And much of what these writers wrote are obvious tall tales and legends, so again, where the precise truth lies is open to question. On the other hand, this is often the historian’s lot. One cannot uncritically rely, either, on Spanish reports contemporaneous with the Conquest, in particular reports to the King or his ministers, and much Spanish history of Mexico in this period was also written well after the fact.

Townsend is most of all keen to dispel what she claims are simplistic myths about the Aztecs at the time of the Conquest, such as that their leader when Cortes arrived, Moctezuma II, believed the Spanish to be the returning god Quetzalcoatl (a story I learned as a child). This notion only appeared a few decades after the Conquest, and Townsend makes a strong case it is a fiction. The Aztecs were primitive, not dumb, and as I have said before, it is a great error to believe that people who came before us were stupid—in fact, they usually had to be smarter than modern people. When the Aztecs captured cannon or crossbows, they couldn’t use them, but they didn’t consider Spanish technology magic. As with all peoples of the Americas, when the Europeans arrived, they simply lacked good choices. That’s not some great tragedy; it’s the normal course of all human history. Reading books like this isn’t, or shouldn’t be, some call to a ludicrous irredentism, merely a way to learn more about the human story.

Townsend proceeds chronologically, covering events pre-Conquest, during the Conquest, and for a hundred years after the Conquest. In general, Townsend spends more time than I would have liked on trying to reconstruct Aztec lineages and politics, and not as much as I would have liked on Aztec daily life. But it’s her book. Other than a few ideological blind spots, she tries hard to not blur the truth, as when discussing population she calculates that the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, might have had a maximum of 50,000 people. She says claims for populations greater, up to 400,000, are “wild exaggerations,” and obviously so, because they claim a density greater than modern Manhattan for a clearly-defined area composed of single-story homes.

The Aztecs, whose youthful minor empire was centered on what is now Mexico City, had only arrived in the Valley of Mexico recently, and had cemented their power less than a century before the Spanish arrived in 1519. The Mexica, as they called themselves (though that covered their enemies, too, and those in Central Mexico were collectively the Nahua), came from the north; where exactly we do not know (although maybe this is one of the many historical questions DNA evidence will answer). Migrations of nomadic peoples are the norm throughout history, and the same was true in the Americas. They were farmers, after a fashion. In the Americas, farming arose millennia after it did in the Old World, and was considerably cruder than in the Old World, as well as always combined with hunter-gatherer activities, but still often provided enough surplus to allow stratified societies.

Aztec social organization was complex, with extended families sharing power. Constantly shifting alliances with other tribes and groups, combined with continuous warfare, was the norm in Mexico. Within the Valley, links of kinship and marriage bound most or all of the tribes, sometimes to a degree that prevented war, sometimes causing war as an ambitious man sought the main chance. Crucially, with polygamy and an extractive society that ensured the nobility was well-fed, along with wars that killed few because of crude weaponry and cultural dictates, elite over-production very rapidly became a problem; the cracks were showing in the Aztec edifice before the Spanish arrived.

The upper classes kept the lower classes down. Slavery was extensive. As Townsend delicately concedes, Aztec slavery is rarely mentioned today, but as with all ancient non-nomadic societies, it was a key part of the social structure. “Because the Aztecs were disparaged for so long as cannibalistic savages, serious scholars have been loath to write anything that might be perceived as detracting from their moral worth.” In other words, any “scholarship” about the Aztecs from the past sixty years or so should be considered prima facie unreliable, because edited by the authors to present the Aztecs in the desired positive light.

And, in fact, the Aztecs were cannibalistic savages. There’s no getting around that. They were cannibalistic, certainly, and they were savages in two ways. They behaved barbarously, famously engaging in massive amounts of human sacrifice, including of children, something Townsend tries to downplay but does not deny. And they were quite primitive, even by pre-modern standards, using only modest technologies (no smelted metal; no wheels) and developing none themselves. As extractive top dogs in the Valley, for a few decades, they were able to buy shiny baubles from far away (turquoise, feathers) and to use slave labor to build reasonably impressive temples, but that’s about it.

Townsend tries to claim that had agriculture existed in Mesoamerica for longer, the Aztecs would have been the equal of the Europeans, but that’s silly. The Europeans were unique in world history; as I like to say, without Europe, the world we live in would be the world of the sixteenth century, or before. How long the ground had been cultivated had nothing to do with it. Even by non-European, pre-Christian Old World standards the Aztecs were primitives. If not for the Spanish, we would probably know next to nothing about the Aztecs, as we know next to nothing about the other Mesoamericans who preceded them, whom they conquered or exterminated, because they would have been conquered or exterminated in their turn.

Unfortunately, one short section in Fifth Sun makes Townsend seem unserious, and casts doubt on the rest of her work. She pushes homosexuality among the Aztecs in an attempt to make them seem like good modern Americans. I know nothing about Aztec homosexuality, but Townsend’s claim is that for the Aztecs “there was a range of sexual possibilities during one’s time on earth, understood to be part of the joy of living, and it certainly was not unheard of for men to go to bed together in the celebrations connected with religious ceremonies, and presumably at other times as well.” Her footnote to this passage, however, lends exactly zero support to this contention, and Wikipedia, always aggressively curated to cosset sexual deviants, says (citing a Spanish-language source), “[Aztec] law punished sodomy with the gallows, impalement for the active homosexual, extraction of the entrails through the anal orifice for the passive homosexual, and death by garrote for the lesbians.” I’m putting my money on the impalement as the reality, not Townsend’s gauzy and unsupported fantasy. That elsewhere she notes that “Adultery, for example, was a crime for everyone, punishable by stoning or strangling,” suggests that in fact the Aztecs were very strict about sexual crimes. Once again, this sort of thing makes the reader wonder what else is being shaded.

The Aztecs were already tottering when Cortes arrived. Townsend admits that human sacrifice absorbed more and more of their energies and that “Moctezuma himself spent an exorbitant amount of time playing a sacrificial role,” so much that he couldn’t even attend battles. They also had innumerable bitter enemies surrounding them, and this, of course, is one important reason why Cortes was successful (the other reasons being steel, attitude, and the diseases the Spanish brought). Townsend insightfully points out that even had Moctezuma managed to defeat the Spanish, he still would have fallen, because the cost would have been enormous and the resulting weakness would certainly have led to the Aztecs being exterminated by their indigenous enemies. Thus, Moctezuma had to bargain, which is what he tried to do, but failed because he had nothing to offer the Spanish. He didn’t understand the bigger picture, that the Spanish had vastly more resources and power than he could ever hope to command.

Once they defeated the Aztecs, events Townsend describes relatively quickly and from the Aztec perspective, the Spanish only took a few years, less than a decade, to transform the Aztec capital into Mexico City. (Roma Agrawal’s Built describes in fascinating detail the engineering behind the five-hundred-year-old Cathedral of the Assumption, built by the Spanish on the site of a razed human sacrifice pyramid.) “By the early 1600s, Mexico City had become one of the wealthiest and most impressive metropolises in the world.” The Aztecs were, and are, nothing but a memory.

Would the Aztecs, and more broadly the Indians in Mexico, have been better off if the Spanish had never arrived? Not in the long run, and probably not in the short run, either, except for the upper classes. Switching suzerains has no moral component and little impact on most in a primitive society, and that’s what happened here. After all, the rest of the globe, disease and all, would have intruded sooner or later into Mesoamerica. Moreover, the Aztecs acted in an evil fashion; their human sacrifice alone made their destruction a virtue. It was less virtuous that the Spanish often mistreated the Indians, arguably worse than their own lords mistreated them, although to their credit they argued about it, and frequently undertook initiatives to curb the worst excesses. The Aztecs would have thought it bizarre to have an internal debate on how to treat their defeated enemies, and this debate shows how very different Christian Europeans were from any other human civilization (we retain some of these impulses, but they will soon be entirely gone).

The world is undoubtedly a better place, spiritually and physically, as a result of Cortes defeating the Aztecs. I shed no tears for their demise, any more than I shed tears for Neanderthals or the Hittites. In fact, less. The West was, before it fell in the twentieth century, an immeasurably superior civilization, and on balance, its expansion a high good in all the places to which it expanded. But what is the limiting principle in this conclusion? Or, as I asked at the beginning, what price glory?

Cortes, in the words of David Gress, “conquered Mexico for God, gold, and glory, and only a mundane imagination would distinguish these impulses, for they were one and the same.” But what acts should we allow to be washed clean by this goal? How much brutal seeking after gold, or more broadly material advantage and advancement, can or should we tolerate, if that is part of God and glory? Cortes was not a nice man, and although his sins have long been exaggerated, even in his own time, for propaganda purposes, they were real enough, as were those of his lieutenants, such as Pedro de Alvarado, who slaughtered the Aztec nobles while Cortes was absent. We retrospectively sanitize great men of the past, and yes, it is true that the past is a foreign country. Nonetheless, it can’t be that all violence and suffering inflicted on others is justified by the inseparable ends that drove Cortes. But if we can have “God, gold, and glory,” is that possibility, or its achievement, and the passage of time, enough to balance the scales of justice? I am not sure.

Certainly, for our own civilization to be renewed, or more likely a new one to be born, extremes of violence and cruelty will be commonplace, and the basest of motives compete eagerly with high motives. Such is the way of change, and the greater the change, the greater the sins in the transition, as men seek all of God, gold, and glory. I suppose my first-cut conclusion is that men being who they are, the evil will always accompany the good, and there is no cure for this. So we should accept it, as the price of necessary change. That, as with the Aztecs, what the West has become is truly evil makes this conclusion easier. We may not have racks of tens of thousands of skulls on display, but that’s just because we hide them in the abortionist’s dumpster, after we sell our children’s other organs for experimentation and profit. Therefore, we should accept the costs of renewal, and as the Spanish did, try to curb the worst excesses that result, both juridically and ad hoc, hoping to get to a more stable and less brutal future as quickly as possible.

No doubt that I ask these questions itself proves I will never be the Man of Destiny, yet who can tell, if participation is offered, and the exchange of God, gold, and glory for the death of globohomo is offered, whether I would yet not seize the brass ring? Probably I am too introspective, and ultimately fearful of judgment, and would rather participate in a secondary capacity. We will see, each of us, what our choices are, in the times ahead. With luck, they will be better choices than those faced by Moctezuma and his people.


Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.


The featured image shows Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec Feathered Serpent.

Restoring Balance: A Dominican Call To Arms

The Dominican Republic (DR) overcame a grave political-institutional crisis in 2020 – the incumbent president attempted to use undemocratic and fraudulent means to stay in power. Luckily, our polity graduated toward consolidated democracy and witnessed the peaceful transfer of power from that party to the current one. As political theory predicts, internal resistance from diverse political forces was essential to avoiding the perpetuation of the previous party’s hold on power: First in defending the constitutional limits on re-election, and then in preventing the imposition of a puppet candidate whose primary election was marred by rampant electoral fraud that drained any legitimacy he might have had. This movement constituted the expressed will of the Dominican people and the democratic forces organized for change in decayed institutions with the aim of preserving the freedoms won by our founding fathers. We must also recognize the help of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who warned the incumbent of the dangers of the ambition to perpetuate himself in power. Senators Bob Menéndez and Marco Rubio also played starring roles in providing international scrutiny.

Having overcome such a moment, the local party-political system faces another crisis in the form of a dead end. The current system is shot through with corruption and rent-seeking, if not openly mafioso. The major parties – which have historically gained power through forming broad coalitions with other parties and social movements – recently gave themselves advantageous rules for electoral competition, entrenching their dominance. At present, both “major” parties constitute expressions of leftist Latin American political forces. Both viable options for power in the DR are members of Lula’s Foro de São Paulo. Though important factions within them are not truly ideological (their power rests in patronage), this consolidation of leftism guarantees a bad result for the political right, no matter the victor in elections – with attendant consequences for such areas as relations with China and Venezuela.

Historically, most of the Dominican people have voted for moderate parties, with a strong preference for right wing ideology. The cycle of the post-civil war (1966-1996) was dominated by the Reformist party, now a rump minority faction. In 1996, for exceptional historical reasons to do with election rigging, a historic pact between the center-left and center-right brought Dr. Leonel Fernández to power, defeating the most important mass movement led by Dr. José Francisco Peña Gómez. This new cycle initiated by Fernández allowed his party to stay in power for 5 of the 6 terms from 1996-2020. In this period, the parties of the right were substantially weakened in electoral terms, having previously dominated the political scene. To cut a long story short, there is an unbalanced status quo where no conservative political organization retains the possibility of acceding to power, despite representing the views of a plurality or more of the citizenry.

There is hope. New generations have shown elevated interest in electoral participation under conservative and patriotic colors. Conscious of this reality and of the confrontations elsewhere in the region and the world, a group of organizations and movements with a long political tradition is exploring the best way to articulate the axioms of conservative thinking at this local level. At the same time, great efforts are being made to modernize the systems of communication and integrate new leaders and new blood. Some of these organizations are already part of the International Democratic Union (IDU), the Union of Latin American Parties (UPLA) and the Christian Democrat Organizacion of America (ODCA).
We are convinced that we are at a historic crossroads which, if we work together and ensure the means and resources necessary, we may constitute a viable option in 2024 and future elections, restoring the ideological balance this naturally right-wing country needs.

Among the first steps in our plans is the cohesion of a school of political training for leaders – an institution which by nature must have regional projection towards central America and the Greater Caribbean. We already have the spaces and installations suited for these ends and understand the necessity of opening digital communication channels to attract, integrate and unify participants who can fill important roles in implementing our values, ideas and policies.

The Dominican Republic must strengthen its national project. One of the most urgent changes to meet this goal is a change in the capitalist development model, reducing substantially the presence of the State in national livelihoods, while nurturing productive forces and creative energies within an export-oriented market economy. The Christian identity of our people, along with democratic, republican and liberal values in pursuance of the preservation of rights, must be at the center of this push.

For these ends we will appreciate any and all assistance of fellow-traveling organizations, especially those to do with communications, organization, capacity-building and political strategy. In the meantime, you know where you may find us: In the first city of America – Santo Domingo.


Don Pelegrín Castillo is the Vice President of the National Progressive Front, a patriotic and socially-conservative political party in the Dominican Republic. He is a former Cabinet minister, having held the portfolio for Energy & Mining in a past administration, as well as a former member of the Dominican lower house of Congress. He publishes widely in Spanish is affiliated to a number of issue-based groups such as the Dominican friends of Taiwan, the Cuban Democratic movement in exile.


The featured image shows, “Duarte contemplating the birth of the Republic,” by Luis Desangles; painted in 1890.

The Man Who Saved The Spanish Empire

Everyone knows about the unfortunate fate of the “Invincible Armada” of Philip II of Spain (1588), a defeat inflicted by the English, which was aided by circumstance – and in a determining way – by the anger of the sea. However, it is less known that the name “Invincible Armada,” of English origin, was given in derision to the Spanish “Grande y Felicísima Armada” (“the Grand and Most Fortuitous Armada”). In fact, during the Battle of Gravelines (August 8, 1588), no Spanish ship was sunk by the English. Rather, the very bad weather conditions, a few hours later, led to the sinking of several Spanish ships, forcing them to give up their plan to destroy the enemy naval forces. However, 87 ships out of 122, three quarters of the Spanish fleet, returned to Spain.

It is also not widely known that a year later, Queen Elizabeth I of England, in turn, sent an invading fleet against the Spanish king, and that this naval intervention also resulted in bitter failure. Commanded by Francis Drake and John Norreys, this “English Armada” had the triple mission of destroying the Spanish fleet on the Cantabrian coast, disembarking in Lisbon to stir up the population, and seize an island in the Azores. The operation, which took place from April 15 to July 10, 1589, ended in the rout of the Anglo-Dutch forces, which lost 40 ships out of 150, and 70% of their strength (nearly 13,000 men).

Of all the important events, which marked the war between the Spanish Empire and the Kingdom of England, it is however the epic of the Basque-Spanish admiral, Blas de Lezo, which has been forgotten the longest. This savior of the Spanish Empire, in Cartagena in 1741, has been paradoxically ignored by almost all historians for nearly two and a half centuries. It was only from the 2000s that we really started to take an interest in him and his brilliant tactics and innovation in weaponry.

From Young Officer To Severely Disabled

Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta was born on February 3, 1687, in Pasaia (Pasajes in Spanish) a port which, a few kilometers from San Sebastián, has the safest harbor of the Basque coast. It is from there that La Fayette set sail for America aboard La Victoire, on April 26, 1777, three years before the adventure of the Hermione, “frigate of freedom,” which brought the Marquis to join the American insurgents in the struggle for their independence.

Blas de Lezo’s career began very early. Barely a teenager, he became a sailor, like his ancestors and like so many of his compatriots from Gipúzkoa. At that time, Spain was plunged into a war of succession, which lasted from 1701 to 1713, and which saw the partisans of Archduke Charles III, from the House of Austria, clash with those of Philip V of Bourbon, the grandson of Louis XIV. During this war, dynastic solidarity led to the ranks and military charges of the army and navy of the Spanish Bourbons to be merged without distinction with those of the Bourbons in France.

Barely seventeen years old, Blas de Lezo was thus enlisted in the French squadron of the Count of Toulouse, Louis-Alexandre de Bourbon. While serving on the flagship, he took part in the important naval battle of Malaga (1704), which brought together the Franco-Spanish and Anglo-Dutch squadrons. During the fight, the young Blas was severely wounded in the left leg, which then had to be amputated below the knee. Reports from the time indicate that he remained stoic, impassive, during an operation which was then performed without anesthesia.

Brought back to health, he now had a peg-leg, and was soon given permission to set sail again, and we can follow him in Peñiscola, Valencia, Palermo and Genoa, then along the entire Mediterranean coast, and soon on the Atlantic coast.

Promoted to the rank of lieutenant in July 1707, he was assigned to the defense of the fortress of Saint Catherine of Toulon, where he fought against the forces of Prince Eugene of Savoy. But fate was cruel yet again – struck in the face by one of the countless shards of wood that a cannonball sent across the bridge, he lost his left eye. He was not a man to be discouraged and he now served as a lieutenant in the coast guard at the port of Rochefort. At twenty-five, he was promoted to captain of a frigate.

When the War of the Spanish Succession ended in 1714, he commanded the Nuestra Señora de Begoña, one of the main ships in charge of securing the blockade of Barcelona. At the forefront of the fight, urging on his men, he received a musket ball on the right forearm. At 27, Blas de Lezo was one-eyed, one-armed and one-legged. His men and fellow combatants nickname him with affectionate irony, “Patapalo” (in Basque “Anka Mot,” wooden leg) or “mediohombre” (half-man).

Blas de Lezo then took command of the galleon Lanfranco, a ship that was part of the Franco-Spanish squadron tasked with fighting against the corsairs and pirates raging in the southern seas (off Peru). For twelve years, from 1716 to 1728, he was Commander-in-Chief of the South Seas Armada. Married in 1725 to Josefa Pacheco, a Peruvian Creole, he went on to have seven children. In recognition of his services, the king made him a member of the Order of the Holy Spirit and of the Golden Fleece, the two most prestigious chivalrous orders of the French and Spanish monarchies.

As leader of the Spanish Mediterranean squadron, in 1731, he supported the Infante Don Carlos (later Charles III) in his campaign to recover the Duchies of Parma and Piacenza. He then went to the port of Genoa to demand payment of a debt to Spain, before taking part in the Spanish expedition to retake Oran. In 1736 he was Commanding General of the galleons responsible for the Atlantic trade. A year later, he was appointed Commander General of Cartagena de Indias on the coast of present-day Colombia. This is where he carried out his toughest mission and achieved his greatest feat of arms.

Defending Spanish America Against England

In the 18th century, Cartagena de Indias was a thriving and prosperous city of 20,000 inhabitants. It is a port in a sheltered bay, where all the riches of the viceroyalties of America flowed. It was also a strategic point particularly coveted by the enemies of Spain. In London, complaints from shipowners and traders were mounting. The action of the Spanish Coast Guard, tasked with combating smuggling, was considered to be intolerable. Tensions mounted between the two crowns.

Taking advantage of a minor incident, the British tried to seize Cartagena and destabilize the Spanish Empire. The incident was the seizure, in 1731, of a British merchant ship commanded by Captain Robert Jenkins. Called to testify in parliament, Jenkins said that the Spanish captain, Juan de Leon Fandiño not only confiscated his cargo, but cut off his ear with a saber while threatening him: “Go and tell your king that if he dares to do what you did, I will do the same to him.” The incident was soon regarded as an offense to the crown and to national honor. In October 1739, the “Jenkins Ear War” was declared on Spain.

To “avenge the affront,” England began arming the largest fleet ever assembled. Placed under the orders of Admiral Edward Vernon, it included 186 ships, equipped with more than 2,000 guns and carrying 25,000 men, which was soon reinforced by 4,000 American militiamen, commanded by Lawrence Washington, the half-brother of George Washington, the future President of the United States.

Opposing them, Blas de Lezo’s forces seemed paltry, with only a very limited number of troops – less than 3,000 troops, some 600 Indian auxiliaries and members of the crews and infantry troops of 6 ships. But Admiral “Patapalo” had two strengths, however: his good knowledge of the terrain and the tropical, humid and very rainy climate. From May, swarms of mosquitoes dangerously increased the risk of an epidemic.

Entering the bay of Cartagena, by sea, is only possible through two narrow straits: the Bocachica (small-mouth) and the Bocagrande (large-mouth). The first was defended by the forts of San Luis and San José, and the second by the forts of San Sebastian, Santa Cruz, San Juan de Manzanillo, Santiago and the Castillo of San Felipe. To ensure the defense of the city, Blas de Lezo had chains stretched across the Bocachica and deployed the six ships he had at the two mouths. Orders were given to scuttle them before they fell into enemy hands, with the hope that the wrecks would delay their advance.

Before attacking, Vernon wasted precious time. He did not want to divide his forces and feared being taken from the rear by the French squadron of the Marquis and Vice-Admiral d’Antin. He seemed unaware that this squadron, usually stationed at the harbor of Saint-Domingue, had only twenty-two warships. When he learned that the French, weakened by tropical diseases and without sufficient supplies, had been forced to return to France, he hurried to take advantage.

One Against Ten

On March 15, 1741, the English fleet deployed in front of Cartagena. The disproportion of force was enormous: there was one defender for every ten attackers. The bombardment of the Spanish forts began immediately. Blas de Lezo, responded from his flagship, El Galicia. He did this by using cannonballs that he had chained two-by-two to maximize damage to enemy ships.

After an intense cannonade, Admiral Vernon landed a small part of his troops. The Spaniards fell back and abandoned two forts, that of San José and Santa Cruz. At the mouths, Blas de Lezo sank his ships and ordered a retreat. Two of these ships were also set on fire, but in vain, because the English managed to tow one of them, thus freeing the passage and opening access to the bay. The Spaniards had no other option but to entrench themselves in their last three forts.

The English flagship entered the bay, with its flags fully displayed. Convinced that the battle was over, Vernon began to celebrate his triumph. A frigate was immediately dispatched to England to announce the victory. In London, the news was received with joy and parties were organized to celebrate the hero. A commemorative medal was engraved read; it read: “Spanish pride humiliated by Vernon,” and it showed Blas de Lezo on his knees, handing his sword to the English admiral.

But in Cartagena, events took an unexpected turn. To put an end to the Spanish resistance, Vernon decided to attack the castle of San Felipe. Rather than suffering heavy losses by engaging in frontal combat, he preferred approaching the rear. His men were therefore forced to go through the jungle, which was not without risks. The operation turned out to be more difficult than expected and resulted in the illness and death of many men. But once his troops got behind the fortress, Vernon could finally give the order to assault.

Two times, the English attacked the 600 Spaniards. The first attack resulted in the death of 1,500 English deaths. Before the second attempt, Vernon had scaling ladders made. Then, on April 19, British forces attacked again, but a surprise awaited them. The ladders turned out to be too short to reach the top of the walls. Warned at the last minute by a spy, “Patapalo” had the idea to dig a pit around the walls to increase their height. After a bloody struggle, the attackers were once again pushed back. This episode was crucial to the morale of the defenders. The British made many more attempts, but all proved unsuccessful. The city was bombarded by cannons for long days, but without success.

After two months, on May 20, 1741, Admiral Vernon was forced to lift the siege and return to England. A yellow fever epidemic and food shortage had significantly weakened his troops and undermined their morale. The toll was heavy: the English lost nearly 8,000 men, and 26 of their ships were set on fire, sunk or seriously damaged.

In London, the truth about the Cartagena de Indias affair would long remain unknown. The English authorities banned publication of any news relating to the lost battle. Paradoxically, Blas de Lezo, the main protagonist of the siege, was never to be rewarded by the Spanish.

Ingratitude Of The Spanish

Blas de Lezo ‘s relations with the viceroy of New Granada, Sebastian de Eslava y Lagaza, a fifty-six-year-old Navarrese, commander of the region, had been poor throughout the siege. They become execrable after the departure of the English. Blas de Lezo was a strong supporter of taking the offense, at least when possible. Eslava, instead, advocated caution and favored the defensive. Less than ten days after the victory, the viceroy sent Madrid an extremely negative report on Lezo’s attitude, demanding that he be immediately relieved of his duties and recalled to Spain.

Admiral de Lezo, who was wounded during the siege, was deteriorating rapidly. Abandoned by everyone except his family and a few friends, he passed away on September 7 at the age of 52 and it is not known where he is buried. Ironically, a month and a half later, on October 21, his dismissal and the order to return to Spain were approved by King Charles III. Conversely, Viceroy Eslava returned to Spain, where he was covered with honors and glory. Promoted to Captain General of the Armies, then Director General of the Infantry, he was subsequently appointed Minister of War in 1754, a position he held until his death in 1759.

The eldest son of Blas de Lezo finally did obtain the full rehabilitation of his father, but only in 1760, a year after the death of Minister Eslava y Lagaza. The defender of Cartagena then received, posthumously, the title of Marquis d’Ovieco for himself and his descendants. Only the Royal Spanish Navy continued to honor the memory of Admiral Blas de Lezo in the centuries that followed, always naming a ship after him.

But it was not until 2014 that the memory of the admiral, victorious over the English, was publicly honored. Two monuments were erected, one in Cadiz, the other in Madrid, on Piazza Columbus, and today there are Blas de Lezo streets in a dozen cities in Spain (Valencia, Malaga, Alicante, Las Palmas, San Sebastián, Cadiz, Huelva, Fuengirola, Renteria, Irún, Pasaia and Madrid).

Arnaud Imatz, a Basque-French political scientist and historian, holds a State Doctorate (DrE) in political science and is a correspondent-member of the Royal Academy of History (Spain), and a former international civil servant at OECD. He is a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, European populism, and the political struggles of the Right and the Left – all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles on the political thought of the founder and theoretician of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, as well as the Liberal philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Catholic traditionalist, Juan Donoso Cortés.

The image shows, “Admiral Blas de Lezo,” by an unknown painter, daited 1735.

Nicolás Gómez Dávila: An Authentic Reactionary’s Critique of Modernity

I.

The philosophical, political, and theological thought of Don Nicolás Gómez Dávila (Bogotá, 1913 – 1994), perhaps one of the few authentic reactionaries of our time, rises as a reaction – and a most authentic one – to an intellectual, religious and aesthetic crisis whose invariably dire consequences form the heart of his overwhelming critical discourse: That crisis is that of the twentieth-century, with all that it implies.

All of Dávila’s work is a serious and passionate attempt to root out some cursed codes that have upset the immutable essence of the human, down through the centuries (and, by extension, the essence of the divine). But at the same time, his work establishes a solid, intellectual alternative to the inanity of our present era.

Unfinished philosopher, or consistent thinker who renounced the fatuous pretense of getting on the pulpit of philosophical pontification, Dávila never finished – that is, in writing – a philosophical system properly speaking, if he even sought to make such a claim, which would not have ceased to be ironic in a thinker of his stature and clairvoyance, for there is nothing dogmatic or conclusive in his work, if read intelligently. It is simply lucid.

Like Nietzsche, like the best of Cioran, he resorted to the ingenious and flammable spark of the aphorism, capable of setting fire to the largest surface only with its friction. But instead of calling such outbreaks of genius aphorisms, he called them scholia (escolios), thus approaching Spinoza.

Though a thinker in fragments, Dávila offers, on the contrary, a philosophical discourse of absolute coherence and integrity, whose intellectual depth and paradoxical acuity is unparalleled among philosophers and thinkers in the area of contemporary Hispanicism (both in Spain and in Spanish America). His references, on the other hand, leave no room for doubt about the depth of thought that pervades his discourse: Thucydides, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Montaigne, Juan Donoso Cortés, Jacob Burkhardt, are some of his distinguished professed teachers.

A miniaturist of language rather than a writer, a thinker rather than a scholar, and an artist of words; better than a mere philosopher, Dávila exemplified, with his illustrious reactionary position, one of the most notable, coherent and fortunate examples of ethical, aesthetic dignity and, if you will, spiritual dignity to be remembered.

Ignored for decades, his silent and monastic life, removed from the madding crowd, from the petty intellectual environments, from the miserable academic trivialities, went far beyond such conventions – his repeated refusal to publish and rub shoulders with power; his greatness of mind and keen sense of duty towards one’s own self, led him to make of his existence a true aesthetic exercise, and that of an “authentic reactionary.”

Secluded in his mansion, within the walls of a fabulous library of thirty thousand volumes, he took advantage of being well-off and devoted his life entirely to the complex exercise of thought. The most visible result of such efforts was his magnum opus, recovered for our benefit today, thanks to the effort, it must be said, of people like Ernst Jünger, Botho Strauss or Franco Volpi, among other enthusiasts – and which, under the title of Escolios a un texto implícito (Scholia to an Implicit Text ), heralds one of the most prodigious, valuable and imperishable examples of the effort of human thought during the 20th-century.

If the “heart” of Dávila’s work is his Escolios, then the “brain” in his Textos – a strange but effective comparison: What the Escolios forcefully feel (the incendiary jolt of the aphorism), the Textos reason through (the discursive continuity of the prose). A satellite accessory for some, Textos I carries in its pages the “key” stone of construction; that is, the enigmatic implicit text, the standard of future battles. But that is how one of his best readers, Francisco Pizano de Brigard, saw this work – and as far as we are concerned, we will stick with this option, which is very well justified – for where else can we turn? To the Notes, those conclusive sketches? To the fragmentary Escolios, despite their fullness? Is it worth the redundancy, the fragmentariness? Or perhaps the marginal texts, such as, the article entitled “The Authentic Reactionary,” or the one entitled, “De jure,” which remains inaccessible? In the absence of an “obvious” philosophical text, or even that which is simply obvious, we will take the aforementioned implicit text as the starting point for our precarious, well-intentioned exposition. So, let’s get into the matter.

The first idea may seem simple to a reader wearied by established ideologies: Capitalism and communism have a similar goal in common. They are different masks that cover, therefore, the same face: The nature of man (displaced to the political realm). A broken dialogue, therefore, between two democracies, whose mimicry becomes a forced conflict: The bourgeois and the popular, eternal rivals: “If communism points out the economic contradictions (the alienation of man, abstract freedom, legal equality) of bourgeois societies – capitalism underlines, in parallel, the inefficiency of the economy, the totalitarian absorption of the individual, political slavery, the reestablishment of real inequality in communist societies.”

In effect, Dávila does not seem to take a position on either one side or the other, even though the biased reader may consider him prone “to the right, and even to the extreme right.” Big mistake: The author’s reactionary discourse, extremely lucid, and part of the contradiction that directs communism and capitalism towards supposedly antagonistic goals – when, in fact, their goal is the same: Property, an obstacle for the former, a stimulus for the latter, without assuming otherwise: Ownership after all.

Bourgeois ideologies and ideologies of the proletariat consequently rush towards the same common hope: Man – “If communism denounces the bourgeois fraud, and capitalism the communist deception, both are historical mutants of the democratic principle, both yearn for a society where man is, in short, lord of his destiny.”

The theological, political, cultural reading of Dávila thus ratifies democracy as an anthropotheistic religion; a theology of the man-god is thus categorized: “The divinity that democracy attributes to man is not a figure of rhetoric, a poetic image, an innocent hyperbole, in short – but a strict theological definition” – a theological definition inherent in the perverted nature of the modern, whose essential corruption is nothing but an unspeakable product of the fixed idea of the discourse of modernity: Progress.

Progress, which is theodicy of futuristic anthropotheism, otherwise justifies all the atrocities of man in the name of the progress of humanity. The process of progressive improvement cancels the time of man and restores the no-time of man-god. It is mechanistic and industrial orgy, which disrupts the useless human effort in the tedious transformation of matter. It is filthy monologue, which sacrifices perishable existences to its own ends in the name of the fixed idea, thus banishing the supreme value from itself, because as Dávila poetically affirms:

“Life is a value.
To live is to choose life.”

Consequently, it thus becomes a theory of values which rests on two filial concepts: Atheism and progress, in need of an adequately emphatic rhetoric to penetrate deep among their potential victims.

The mere play of matter thus implies a universal determinism whose product is none other than a rigid universe, emptied of all possibility, where the cult of technology is the verb of the man-god, the principle of the sovereignty of the modern state.

Even so, the democratic era, and with it, economic development that is inherent to it, has money as the only universal value, its first and last reason: “Money is the only universal value that the pure democrat abides by, because it symbolizes a useful piece of nature, and because its acquisition is assignable to human effort alone. The cult of work, with which man flatters himself, is the engine of the capitalist economy; and the disdain for hereditary wealth, for the traditional authority of a name, for the gratuitous gifts of intelligence or beauty, expresses the puritanism that condemns, with pride, what the effort of man does not grant itself.”

This terrifying fact degenerates, therefore, into economic robbery and petty individualism, generators of ethical indifference and intellectual anarchism that dominate the modern world.

Faced with such detritus, the only path that Dávila clings to is that of reactionary rebellion. His great work, Escolios, is about such a quixotic undertaking, an implicit text, putting into practice reactionary rebellion through his most powerful weapon: The word.

II.

Entering the immense garden of the Escolios – a Versailles on paper – is an arduous undertaking, although stimulating over time: Tasting its fruits, savoring them for the right time and extracting the nutritious pulp from them – that is, something that is not empty didacticism. But it will become a fruitful task of enlightened pleasure for the intelligent reader. In this sense, Scholia to an Implicit Text is a healthy elitist work, against the current, and very politically incorrect, aimed at reactionary minorities; or, failing that, at awakened minds whose thinking does not gravitate around the state of predetermined ideas.

But what an effort to synthesize – if something like that can even be done, to further synthesize the essence of the rose – would go far beyond the narrow margins that we have imposed on ourselves. Even so, Dávila’s thematic ambition transcends the heterogeneous and shapeless mélange, while advancing a compact mass, more or less consistent, and capable of standing up to a hypothetical attempt at analysis.

But as we say, it is that thematic ambition, that looking from various points of view through a gaze that is neither Manichean nor tendentious, which allows its author to carry out, in a subtle and distanced way, the most brilliant critical x-ray of modernity: Democracy, the nature of the politician, the essence of communism, the Marxist problematic, the Left and the Right, technology, liberalism, the idea of progress, life and death in modern society, art and literature, God and religion, the modern Church, culture, atheism, the bourgeoisie, the work of the historian, intelligence, youth, mediocrity, sex, Sade, Plato or Nietzsche, as well as the privileged figure of the reactionary, among many other philosophical questions of the first order appear and reappear like recurring milestones, closely linked to each other by a fine chain of ideas. Such accumulation, on the contrary, does not degenerate into a string of tedious evidence of a graphomaniac charlatan, but rather into a disturbing problem not without acute paradoxes. This makes Scholia to an Implicit Text a river-like book, always in motion, capable of tackling a profound (in the real sense of the word) question anywhere, without betraying its ultimate meaning.

Of course, one of the most violent and effective criticisms, which is not really effective, despite its abrupt reiteration, is that carried out against democracy, a democracy understood not in the abstract, but empirically in the light of facts, and therefore as fraud, as effective apotheosis of the dominant mediocrity: “The bigger a democratic country, the more mediocre its rulers have to be: They are elected by more people.” And these mass rulers are none other than politicians, obviously: “Politicians, in democracy, are the condensers of imbecility.” Imbecility inherent in the crowds themselves and the basis of the politician’s explicit speech: “The democrat only respects the opinion that a large choir applauds.”

This unquestionable statement the author rethinks throughout his discourse, with historical considerations: “Democratic killings belong to the logic of the system. The ancient massacres of man’s illogism;” and from this, the following scholium: “Democracy celebrates the cult of humanity on a pyramid of skulls.” Recently updated pyramid: A concert-tribute to the victims of terrorism? A commemorative statue for a certain defender of democracy? In the name of democracy… But what exactly does democracy play out, play at?

Dávila does not hesitate to point with his pen to the main subject, a subject annihilated at the root: The stupid or the insane, depending on the times: “Democracy, in times of peace, has no more fervent supporter than the stupid, nor in times of revolution a collaborator more active than the madman.” And to give consistency to his thesis, Dávila only has to look to the past: “Athenian democracy does not inspire, except those who ignore the Greek historians.” The colossal figure of Thucydides, once again, strides forth to meet him.

In the midst of this abject masquerade that is modern democracy, the parodic figure of the politician is reduced to his most apt, creeping position: “The politician may not be able to think any stupidity, but he is always capable of saying it,” because ultimately , even “the ‘politician’ with the most delicate conscience barely manages to be a modest whore.”

An impassive critic of both the right and the left, as a genuine reactionary, Dávila throws some of his sharpest, sarcastic darts at the left: “The leftist miraculously avoids stepping on the calluses of the authentically powerful. The leftist only vilifies the simulacra of power.” Dávila concludes that in any case “leftism is the banner under which the bourgeois mentality of the nineteenth-century maintains its hegemony into the twentieth.” But, in the end, “the left and the right have signed, against the reactionary, a secret pact of perpetual aggression.”

The critique of democracy thus finds a point of equilibrium in the critique of Marxism, whose illustrious exposition, once again, clings to historical-economic reasons, drawn even from the most prosaic daily life: “Marxists economically define the bourgeoisie, to hide from us that they belong to the bourgeoisie.” But his criticism does not end in the petty contradictions of the mundane, since as a current of thought, “Marxism did not take a seat in the history of philosophy thanks to its philosophical teachings, but thanks to its political successes.” Only a certain exception is allowed with the very promoter of the pseudoscience of yore: “Marx has been the only Marxist that Marxism did not abominate.”

After these brilliant meanderings, the reactionary attack on modern society manifests everywhere, like a constant leitmotif, a kind of insect – of an invertebrate idea – that never ceases to whine behind Dávila’s ear, even within the walls of his aristocratic library, there where he feels farthest from that despicable and sordid society composed of a violently homogeneous mob: “The anonymity of the modern city is as intolerable as the familiarity of current customs. Life should resemble a room of well-educated people, where everyone knows each other but where no one embraces.” The very product of that crude and democratic society, “the modern man tries to elaborate with lust, violence and vileness, the innocence of a hellish paradise.”

It is not necessary to illustrate it – it is enough to open our eyes and look around us to confirm what has been said, since it is true that “modern society has been progressively reduced to whirlpools of animals in heat,” while the two poles of the modern life are clearly business and sex. And in the midst of such nonsense, “recent generations circulate among the rubble of Western culture like caravans of Japanese tourists through the ruins of Palmyra;” mere dots. Such a terrifying and accurate panorama duly crystallizes into one of the author’s greatest scholium: “Modern society does not educate to live but to serve.”

In midst of such a desert of skulls, a mass grave where everyone fits but no one actually belongs – and that, and nothing else, is democracy in the long run – there is nothing left for man but to die gracefully. Here are truly authentic reactionary words: “When everyone wants to be something, it is only decent to be nothing.”

José Antonio Bielsa Arbiol is a writer, art historian and graduate in philosophy. His work has appeared in many media outlets.

This article appears courtesy of El Correo de España. It originally in two parts, in Spanish. Translation by N. Dass.

The image shows Poem of the Soul, 18, Reality by Louis Janmot.

Indeed, Let Us Apologize

It is not a good argument (and if we cannot offer another) to simply reject the recurring and very dire accusations about the Conquest of the Americas, by saying that the current Hispanic Americans are the descendants of conquerors and settlers of the 16th- and 17th-centuries. It is escapist and leads to a contradiction: If we do not acknowledge the bad, we will not be able to fully claim the good. And, by way of global analysis, there was a lot of good.

Thus, assuming “the account of grievances,” as the grandson of a Santanderian likes to say, and if it is a matter of proven historical facts, rather than demagogic talking points, we would like to offer the Mexican president something to really chew on. Why scold him like any other father might when he hears a spoiled child let loose some impertinence. Therefore, let us accept that ours is a more moral than genetic responsibility, as successors to the nation called Spain.

Therefore:

We apologize that in 1536 Fr. Juan de Zumárraga founded the College for children of Aztec nobles, paid for by Viceroy Mendoza. The institution was known as Colegio Imperial de Sta. Cruz de Tlatelolco. In it, worked Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún and Fr. Andrés de Olmos, and this College was replicated in Tepozotlán, Puebla, Guadalajara, Valladolid (Morelia), Texcoco.

Also, we apologize because in 1536, Zumárraga established the first printing press on the continent, in a building that still exists, near the Zócalo.

Likewise, we apologize for founding the University of Mexico, in 1551, under Royal Patronage and which followed the model of Salamanca and Alcalá, with studies in Philosophy, the Arts, Theology, Law, Medicine.

And we apologize for giving you Fr. Cervantes de Salazar – professor of Rhetoric in Mexico and author of México en 1554. Crónica de la Nueva España. Túmulo imperial de la gran ciudad de México – in which he brought to you the thought of Luis Vives, the great humanist.

And we apologize for the very gracious attempt by Vasco de Quiroga, Bishop of Michoacán, to establish Thomas More’s utopia, which still survives, like the olive trees, now hundreds of years old, that he planted in Tzin-Tzun-Tzan; the towns he founded to welcome and promote the Indians; and that wonderful altarpiece in the church of Tupátaro, from the 18th-century, indigenous coffered ceiling, square. with ocher and white arcades.

And we apologize for developing livestock, agriculture and mining, which brought about the rise of urban classes that, together with the clergy and the vice-regal bureaucracy, promoted the great public works and construction. And these they are still there, despite the deterioration – Mexico, Morelia, Puebla, Pátzcuaro, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Querétaro, San Miguel Allende, Veracruz – and which surpass Toledo, Madrid or Seville. In the 17th-century, Mexico City, being now a great economic pole, was home to more inhabitants than Paris, London or Rome. And in Mexico are found four of the most important works of the Baroque: The tabernacle of the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Jesuit College of Tepozotlán, the convent of Santa Rosa in Querétaro, and the parish church of Sta. Prisca in Taxco.

And we apologize for the greatest work of ethnography and archaeology of our 16th-century, in three languages (Latin, Spanish and Nahuatl), La Historia Universal de las cosas de Nueva España by Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún.

We apologize for the great Mexican scholar, Carlos Sigüenza y Góngora; for Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz; for Juan Ruiz de Alarcón from Taxco; for the book-poem by Bernardo de Valbuena, Grandeza mexicana (1604), where he establishes the “Story” of art, letters and prosperity of the city, visible, for example, in the Casa de Comedias by D. Francisco León (from 1597) in which three companies operated.

And we apologize for the Mercurio Volante (1693), the first newspaper in Latin America, (in 1737 it would be followed by La Gaceta de México); and for the Mexican School of Mining (1792), where worked Fausto de Elhúyar, the discoverer of tungsten, and Andrés del Río, the discoverer of vanadium. And there is no space to “relate” the admiration that the country aroused in Humboldt at that time.

And we apologize because the population of the viceroyalty of New Spain (almost six million), in 1776, doubled that of the English colonies of North America because of the economic, technical and cultural development in New Spain exceeded that of the English in all these areas.

So, draw your conclusions about this past that you do not want to remember and which you so carefully hide. Otherwise, it would be necessary to take responsibility for what has happened since 1821, and not place blame on distant conquerors. For example, instead of crying for the umpteenth time over Cholula, call out by name, General Jesús González Ortega, a good liberal, who in 1857 plundered the cathedral of Zacatecas, or who in the same city (in 1862) handed over the convent of San Agustín to the Presbyterians, who razed it to the ground.

We apologize for having instituted Nahuatl and Otomi as common languages for evangelization, which enlarged their role and rank, as well as their extension to lands that were previously alien to them.

Also, we apologize for having had a king (Philip II) who, opposed the calls of advisors and viceroys to exclusively impose Castilian, and instead agreed with the friars (who wanted to limit contact with the indigenous people) and favored missionary work to be only in the local languages (Royal Cedula 1565 to the bishops of New Spain), and who even issued this command: “It does not seem advisable to urge them to leave their native language…. Do not provide the parishes with priests who do not know the language of the Indians” (1596). And this was the case until the end of the 18th-century, when in view of the notable problems that multilingualism presented (in the diocese of Oaxaca alone, there were sixteen aboriginal languages) that the Mexican bishops, Fabián and Fuero from Puebla, Alvarez Abreu from Oaxaca and Lorenzana from Mexico, obtained the Royal Cedula of Aranjuez (May 1770).

We apologize for having been the main players in the global knowledge of the planet, facilitating the interrelation between its various parts, with the Discovery of the New World and with the first circumnavigation of the Globe and establishing communication between the various empires and nations of America that were previously completely isolated.

And, finally, we apologize for enjoying a mole poblano, a pozole taxqueño, some chilaquiles and a chilpachole of crab, although afterwards, given our Spanish stomach – we have to head to the hospital.

But we do not apologize for the disasters in which the triumphant creoles, in their independence, immersed their countries, by breaking the entire vice-regal commercial and administrative systems, to become cacique-holders of millions of square kilometers.

That is enough apologizing for today.

Serafin Fanjul of the Royal Academy of History, and Professor Emeritus at CEU San Pablo University.

Translated from the Spanish by N. Dass.

The image shows a portrait of Antonio Mendoza, Viceroy of New Spain, dated 1535, by an unknown painter.

The Chaco War

Paraguay, it turns out, owes much to Russia. Thanks largely to a few dozen Russian officers, the country emerged victorious in an almost unwinnable war, and doubled its territory in the process.

The Chaco War (1932-1935) between Bolivia and Paraguay was the bloodiest conflict in Latin America, in which well-over 100,000 lives were lost. It was also the first air-war fought in South America. It is a war little remembered now. A key role in the hostilities was played by Russian and German émigré officers on the two warring sides. It was, in effect, a continuation of WWI on another continent.

For decades, Paraguay and Bolivia had bickered over the vast region of Gran Chaco. Both considered it as its own, yet neither risked an open confrontation. That was until 1928, when geologists claimed that this sparsely populated, impassable territory could be a source of oil.

Asuncion and La Paz (the administrative capital of Bolivia) were soon at each other’s throats. And oil companies added literal fuel to the metaphorical fire. The sworn enemies Standard Oil (a U.S. company supporting Bolivia) and Royal-Dutch Shell (an Anglo-Dutch company backing Paraguay) saw great prospects in Gran Chaco.

The first clash occurred between a Paraguayan cavalry detachment and Bolivian police in August 1928. All-out war was prevented only through the intervention of the League of Nations. Four years later, however, the organization was powerless to do anything. On June 15, 1932, the Bolivian army launched a surprise attack on Paraguayan outposts in the disputed territory.

Tiny Paraguay seemed to have little hope against the far mightier Bolivia. Not only was the latter’s manpower 3.5 times larger, but just 60 years previously Paraguay had endured a brutal war against Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, which claimed the lives of up to 70% of its male population.

Moreover, the Bolivian armed forces had three times as much air power and an overwhelming advantage in terms of armored vehicles. The Paraguayans could not field a single armored vehicle against the Vickers Mk E light tanks and Carden Lloyd VI tankettes of Bolivia. Only in respect of artillery guns was a certain parity maintained.

In this dire situation, only a miracle could save the country, and one duly arrived in the form of several dozen Russian officers who had left their homeland after the Russian Civil War and found a new home across the ocean.

One of the émigré officers, Lieutenant General Nikolai Stogov, wrote: “There seems not to be a single area of military affairs that our Russian émigré officers in Paraguay have not contributed to in terms of know-how and experience.”

Even before the conflict began, realizing the invaluable experience of the Russian officers, Paraguay’s leadership actively engaged them in modernizing both the armed forces and the country as a whole. “Russian émigrés were a boon to Paraguay, which needed to restore its shaky economy. Bridges, roads, administrative buildings, barracks, etc. all started to be built. The country gradually came to life thanks to the help of Russian technical personnel,” said Russian architect Georges Benois, who visited Asuncion in the 1920s.

It was Russian advisers who insisted on adopting the Danish Madsen machine gun, which the Tsarist cavalry had used in WWI. It was far more effective and reliable than the Chauchat machine gun, which the French military mission gave the Paraguayans.

Thanks to the Russians, in 1932, Paraguay created its first cavalry division. In this regard, it outpaced Bolivia, where such a formation appeared only two years later. The Paraguayan cavalry was trained to carry out blitz raids on the enemy rear, and Major Nikolai Korsakov even translated Russian cavalry songs into Spanish to instill military spirit.

Meanwhile, 120 German officers had settled in Bolivia and were now serving in the national army, which had been remodeled along German lines and dressed in the uniform of the Reichswehr. WWI veteran officer Hans Kundt was appointed commander-in-chief, arrogantly asserting that he would easily deal with the Russians (meaning the Paraguayan army).

At that time, 86 Russian émigrés were serving in the ranks of the Paraguayan armed forces. Despite their small number, most were officers with invaluable combat experience, and almost all proved their considerable worth in their respective area of expertise.

Having completed 13 reconnaissance trips to Gran Chaco, General Ivan Belyaev had vast experience as both a cartographer of the region and an artilleryman. And as the head of the cartographic unit of the General Staff and adviser to the Paraguayan president, he was heavily involved in planning the offensive and defensive operations of the Paraguayan army.

Thanks to the deciphering of the Bolivian military codes at the very start of the war by the head of Paraguay’s military intelligence, Nikolai Ern, and Captain Sergei Kern, the Paraguayan military secured an invaluable advantage. They often knew about the enemy’s intentions before the Bolivian troops had even received their orders.

A major role in the organization of the Paraguayan air defenses was played by aviator Captain Sergei Schetinin. Through his efforts, Bolivian aviation became far more potent. On his advice, the Paraguayans created dummy artillery, which the Bolivian planes wastefully bombarded.

The culmination of the Bolivian-Paraguayan (as well as Russian-German) Chaco War was the second battle of Nanawa (a suburb of Asuncion) in July 1933. In this operation, Kundt concentrated 6,000 of his Bolivian men against 3,600 Paraguayans.

Under the cover of German-crewed tanks, led by a detachment of flamethrowers, the Bolivians advanced on the Paraguayan army’s positions. Thanks to the solid defenses set up by the Russian military experts (fortified areas equipped with mortars and machine guns, surrounded by minefields and barbed wire), eight enemy attacks were repelled, followed by a successful counterattack. The Bolivian army lost several tanks and around 2,000 men, against Paraguayan losses of just 448. Shortly after the failed operation, Kundt was removed from his post.

The following year, after several major victories, Paraguay finally gained the strategic upper hand. When its armed forces entered Bolivia, the latter turned to the League of Nations for assistance in concluding a peace.
Under the 1935 peace treaty, Paraguay received most of Gran Chaco, which almost doubled its territory. In an evil twist of irony, oil was discovered in the valley only 77 years later, in 2012.

The Paraguayans praised the Russian officers for their vital role in the Chaco War. The future president of Paraguay, Alfredo Stroessner, who had served under General Stepan Vysokolyan, had deep respect for both his commander and the entire Russian officer corps, calling them “people of honor.”

After the war, many of these Russian émigrés received all kinds of awards, were proclaimed national heroes, and occupied high positions in the country. To this day, six streets in Asuncion are named after the six Russian officers who were killed in the Chaco War.

How Ivan Belyaev Became Juan Belaieff (1875–1957)

Belyaev lost everything in his homeland after the Bolshevik revolution, so he moved to Latin America, chasing his childhood dreams – and became Juan Belaieff, Paraguay’s national hero.

Imagine your country just had a terrible civil war and the side you fought for lost. Your land is occupied by communists who killed your friends; you have nothing and are forced out to foreign lands. What would you do?

That’s the question all the officers and soldiers of the anti-Bolshevik White Army had to answer in the 1920s, after losing in the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922. Some settled down in Europe or the U.S., becoming successful bourgeois. Those less successful had to work as butlers or taxi drivers; some succumbed to alcoholism or committed suicide.

But General Ivan Timofeevich Belyaev (better known as Juan Belaieff), a hero of World War I and old-school Russian imperial officer, had a far more impressive and adventurous fate than any other emigre. He moved to Paraguay and tried to build a second home for Russian émigrés there, at the same time studying the South American Indians and becoming their hero. How so?

“My fate was decided by a completely minor event,” Belyaev wrote in his autobiography, Notes of a Russian Exile. “As a child, having a stroll with my aunt in St. Petersburg, I noticed a small book at a book market, with a picture of an Indian, named The Last of the Mohicans.”

After reading that adventure novel and many other, far more serious, stories, touching upon customs and civilization of American Indians, little Belyaev completely fell in love with this theme, becoming interested in Indians for the rest of his life. “Each night I was praying for my Indians,” he recalled of his childhood. Yet, it would take several decades and Russia’s national disaster to make Belyaev actually meet Indians.
He had another career ahead of him – born to a family where all men were in military service, Belyaev became an artillerist and devotedly served Russia.

By the time World War I began in 1914, Belyaev held a rank of colonel. When hearing the news that Russia had declared war on Austro-Hungary and Germany, he reacted simply: “Long live Russia, death to her enemies!” and headed to the front to fight.

“Artillery is a mother of a child who got sick,” he used to say. “We are to watch our infantry close, listen to its pulse, being always ready to help it.” Loved by his soldiers, Belyaev was a classic Russian officer of his time, conservative and brave.

At war, the colonel survived many dangers, but once – only by chance. A bullet came through his chest but didn’t reach his spine or guts. Wounded Belyaev was transferred to a hospital near Petrograd, where he met Empress Alexandra Fedorovna and was promoted to general. After recovery, Belyaev headed back to the front-line.

In his memoirs, Belyaev admitted that despite the bravery and efforts of the Russian army, by 1917, Russia was too exhausted with the war, losing its best sons. “The last of the decent drowned in a sea of blood, the last impulse to fight burned out,” he wrote. The chaos of revolutions made Russian people turn their weapons against each other – at first Belyaev refused to fight against Russians but then his monarchist views prevail.

The White Army lost the war. In the 1920s, Belyaev, as well as many other soldiers and officers, sailed away from the shores of Russia. Along with his family, he moved to Europe, but didn’t stay there either. He decided to find a new home in Latin America.

In the 1920s, Russian émigrés in Paris could find a strange Russian-language newspaper called Paraguay, published in France by Belyaev. Each issue read on the front page: “Europe failed the Russian hope. Paraguay is a country to build a future in.” The general called on his compatriots to go to Paraguay and help him to, basically, build a new small Russia there. As for him, he had already been living in Paraguay since 1924, and was known as, Juan Belaieff.

Why Paraguay? Even by Latin America’s standards, that poor and underpopulated country was hardly a popular destination – but that’s why the local authorities welcomed immigration. Ever since losing the Paraguayan War of 1864-1870 to the alliance of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, Paraguay remained weak and lacked military force – and inviting some Russian officers was a good option for the government.

Belaieff, along with 12 other White Army officers, entered Paraguayan military service in 1924, joining the General Staff. His interests, however, lied beyond just military – in Paraguay he became a scientist.

Belaieff led 13 expeditions to the Gran Chaco, a vast area in West Paraguay populated by indigenous Maká people. “They spoke their own languages and hardly communicated with the other Paraguayans,” historian Boris Martynov, author of Russian Paraguay, notes. Belaieff, fascinated by Indians since his childhood, immediately established close ties with them, helping with supplies and clothes, studying their ancient culture, opening schools and even theaters.

Paradoxically, the Russian officer became a bridge uniting the Maká with their more-Westernized compatriots. The Indians adored Belaieff, calling him the ‘White Father’.

Even though he enjoyed his communication with the Maká, Belaieff had bigger plans. “I’d like to find a corner where everything sacred that created eternal holy Russia could be preserved, as Noah’s Ark did during the flood until better times,” he recalled. With his help, several Russian settlements were founded in Paraguay, but Russian migration to the country didn’t become widespread, and internal conflicts condemned the idea of some kind of “new Russia” in Latin America.

Though disappointed, Belaieff considered Paraguay his second home and, along with many Russian officers, gladly supported it in the Chaco war of 1932-1935, when neighboring Bolivia attacked Paraguay. Wounded and infected with malaria, Belaieff could have died a dozen times – but he survived and his side, though outnumbered, prevailed, with the help of the Maká, who were loyal to Belaieff.

He never returned to Russia, living out the rest of his long life in Paraguay. When he died, the Maká transported his body to their area and kept it in a mausoleum, worshipping the spirit of the White Father as a deity. A fellow Russian émigré officer in Paraguay said to a friend about Belaieff: “We, perhaps, will be forgotten after we die, but not him.”

Boris Egorov and Oleg Yegorov write for Russia Beyond.

The image shows a colored drawing of a military telephone depot, by Juan Belaieff, dated 1935.