José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia

Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco

Three-quarter-length drawing of a middle aged man with hair pulled back, in a heavy coat with large cuffs.

Lithograph of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia with a gourd of mate and its respective bombilla
Consul of Paraguay
In office
October 12, 1813  February 12, 1814
Preceded by Fulgencio Yegros
Succeeded by Fulgencio Yegros
In office
June 12, 1814  September 20, 1840
Preceded by Fulgencio Yegros
Succeeded by Manuel Antonio Ortiz
Personal details
Born (1766-01-06)January 6, 1766
Yaguarón, Paraguay
Died September 20, 1840(1840-09-20) (aged 74)
Asunción, Paraguay
Nationality Paraguayan
Political party Independent

Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco (January 6, 1766 – September 20, 1840) was a Paraguayan lawyer and politician, and the first dictator (1814–1840) of Paraguay following its independence from the Spanish Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. His official title was "Supreme and Perpetual Dictator of Paraguay", but he was popularly known as El Supremo.

He is considered to be the chief ideologue and political leader of the faction that advocated for the full independence of Paraguay from the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata and the Empire of Brazil.

Early life and education

Francia was born in Yaguarón, in modern-day Paraguarí. Francia's father was an officer turned tobacco planter from São Paulo, Brazil, and his mother was a Paraguayan descended from Spanish colonisers. He was christened Joseph Gaspar de Franza y Velasco, but later used the more popular name Rodriguez, and changed Franza to the more Spanish Francia. Although his father was simply García Rodríguez Francia (Portuguese: Garcia Rodrigues França), the dictator inserted the particle de to style himself "Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco".

He studied at the monastery school of San Francisco, Asunción, originally in training for the Catholic priesthood, but never entered it. On April 13, 1785, after four years studying, he became a doctor of theology and master of philosophy at the College of Monserrat at the National University of Córdoba,[1]:21 in what would soon become Argentina.

Although he was dogged by suggestions that his father, a Brazilian tobacco exporter, was a mulatto, Francia was awarded a coveted chair of theology at the Seminary of San Carlos in Asunción in 1790. His radical views made his position as a teacher there untenable, and he soon gave up theology to study law. Eventually, he became a lawyer and learned five languages: (Guarani, Spanish, French, Latin and some English).

During his studies, he was influenced by the ideas of Enlightenment and later the French Revolution. Francia was disgusted by Paraguay's class system imposed by Spain, and as a lawyer would defend the less fortunate against the affluent. A devotee of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, a keen reader of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the French Encyclopedists, Francia had the largest library in Asunción. His interest in astronomy, combined with his knowledge of French and other subjects considered arcane in Asunción, caused some superstitious Paraguayans to regard him as a wizard capable of predicting the future.

As a lawyer, he became a social activist and defended the less fortunate against the affluent. He demonstrated an early interest in politics and attained with difficulty the position of alcalde del primer voto, or head of the Asunción cabildo, by 1809, the highest position he could aspire to as a criollo.[2]

Political career

Depiction of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia.

He demonstrated an early interest in politics. He became a provincial cabildo member in 1807, fiscal officer in 1808 and attained with difficulty the position of alcalde del primer voto, or head of the Asunción cabildo, by August 1809, the highest position he could aspire to as a criollo. He had tried before, in 1798 but failed because of his humble background.[1]:22 Other significant members included Fulgencio Yegros, Pedro Juan Caballero, Manuel Atanasio Cabañas and the last colonial governor, Bernardo de Velasco.

After the May Revolution in Buenos Aires, governor Velasco convened the Congress of province on 24 July 1810. Francia shocked the other members by saying it was irrelevant which king they had. When Paraguay's independence was declared on 15 May 1811, he was appointed secretary to the three-man ruling junta and included in the five-man governing junta by Congress meeting on June 17, 1811. On 1 August, he resigned because of the army's dominance over Congress. He retired to the countryside, where he spread rumours that the country was going to be betrayed by the incompetent government. He was one of the few men in the country with any significant education, and soon became the country's real leader. Only one other Paraguayan had a doctorate: Juan Bogarin, one of the five junta members.

From his retirement in his modest chacra (farm or country estate) at Ibaray near Asunción, he told countless ordinary citizens who came to visit him that their revolution had been betrayed, that the change in government had only traded a Spanish-born elite for a criollo one, and that the present government was incompetent and mismanaged. He returned to the junta in October on condition that Bogarin was removed, and resigned again on December 15. He did not return again until November 16, 1812, and then only if he was in charge of foreign policy and half the army.

Paraguayans often referred to him simply as "Dr. Francia" or Karaí Guazú ("great lord" in Guaraní). A few Indians meanwhile believed he had supernatural powers: when some saw him measuring the stars with his theodolite, they thought he was talking to night demons.[3] Francia would later use it to straighten the streets of Asunción.

On 1 October 1813, Congress named Francia and Fulgencio Yegros as alternate consuls for a year, Francia taking the first and third four-month periods. Each controlled half the army. On October 12, 1813 Paraguay declared independence from the Spanish Empire.

In March 1814, Francia banned Spaniards from marrying each other; they had to wed Indians, blacks, or mulattoes.[1]:39


On 1 October 1814, Congress named him as sole consul, with absolute powers for three years. He consolidated his power to such an extent that on 1 June 1816, another Congress voted him absolute control over the country for life. For the next 24 years he ran the country with the aid of only three other people. According to historian Richard Alan White, these congresses were actually very progressive for the era; all men over 23 could vote for them. From 1817 he appointed cabildo members, but on 1825 decided to close it.[1]:50


Dr. Francia.

One Latin American scholar summarised Francia's rule as follows:

"As time went on he appears to have grown more arbitrary and despotic. Deeply imbued with the principles of the French Revolution, he was a stern antagonist of the church. He abolished the Inquisition, suppressed the college of theology, did away with the tithes, and inflicted endless indignities on the priests. He kept the aristocracy in subjection and discouraged marriage both by precept and example, leaving behind him several illegitimate children. For the extravagances of his later years the plea of insanity has been put forward."[4]

Francia aimed to found a society on the principles of Rousseau's Social Contract,[5] and was also inspired by Robespierre and Napoleon. To create such a utopia, he imposed a ruthless isolation upon Paraguay, interdicting all external trade, while at the same time he fostered national industries.

He became known as a caudillo who ruled through ruthless suppression and random terror.[6]

1820 uprising and police state

Fulgencio Yegros, first Consul of Paraguay and Francia's nemesis

In February 1820, Francia's political police called the Pyraguës ("hairy feet") uncovered and quickly crushed a plot by the elites and many leading independence figures to assassinate him. Juan Bogarin, the only conspirator still free, confessed the plot to his priest, then Francia. Francia arrested almost 200 prominent Paraguayans, executing most of them. On June 9, 1821, a letter detailing an anti-Francia conspiracy was found by two slaves, as well as Francia's priest, who had knowledge of the plot from the confessions of a conspirator. Francia had all 300 Spaniards arrested, and made them stand in the plaza whist he read the letter out. They were only released 18 months later, when they had paid 150,000 pesos (by comparison, the 1820 budget was 164,723 pesos).[7] The arch-conspirators, Fulgencio Yegros and Pedro Caballero, were arrested and imprisoned for life; Caballero committed suicide on July 13, 1821, and Yegros was executed four days later.

Francia outlawed all opposition, and established a secret police force. His underground prison was known as the 'chamber of truth', and most of Paraguay's manufactures were made with prison labour. He abolished flogging, but his implementation of the death penalty was brutal, as he insisted all executions be carried out at a banquillo ("stool") under an orange tree outside his window. So as not to waste bullets, most victims were bayoneted, while their families were not allowed to collect the corpses until they had been lying there all day, to make sure they were dead.[8]

Many prisoners were also banished to Tevego, a prison camp 70 miles away from any other settlements,[9] surrounded by an endless swamp on the east,[10] and by the Gran Chaco desert on the west. Upon his death, there were 606 prisoners in Paraguay's jails,[11]:116 who were mainly foreigners.

In 1821, Francia ordered the arrest and imprisonment of famous French botanist and explorer Aimé Bonpland, who was running a private farm harvesting Yerba mate on the banks of the Paraná, thus making seem to be a threat to the Paraguayan economy. Francia later granted Bonpland clemency because of his value as a physician, and allowed him to live in a house on the condition that he acted as a doctor to the local garrison[12]


Francia believed the states of Latin America should form a confederation based on equality of nations and joint defence.[13] He created a small but well-equipped army, equipped largely with the confiscated Jesuit arsenal. The size of the army varied compared to the magnitude of the threat. In 1824 for example, the army had over 5,500 troops, but in 1834, only 649.[14] Francia deliberately misled foreigners into thinking that the army was over 5,000 strong, when in fact it rarely exceeded 2,000. He maintained a large militia of 15,000 as reservists. The first Paraguayan-built warship was launched in 1815, and by the mid-1820s, a navy of 100 canoes, sloops and flatboats had been built. People had to remove their hats when meeting any soldier; many Indians who could not afford headgear wore nothing but a hat brim so they could obey this rule. Cash could only be exported in exchange for arms and ammunition, and in 1832, 2000 muskets and sabres were imported from Brazil.[11]:113

While no wars were fought, there were disputes over Candelaria with Argentina. Francia initially abandoned it in 1815, then in 1821 built a fort on the border, followed by another one the next year, and a third in 1832.[11]:110 In 1838, the army again occupied Candelaria, on the grounds that Francia was protecting the native Guaraní people living there.

Paraguayan soldiers only saw action on the outposts of the frontier, which frequently came under attack from Guaycurú Indians. In 1823, Francia allowed Brazilian merchants to trade in Candelaria. Francia would spend most of the state's budget on the army, but soldiers were also used for labour on public projects.


Gaspar Francia.

Francia abolished higher education on the grounds that it was the nation's financial priority to fund the army, and that private study could be freely conducted in his library. Francia closed the country's only religious seminary in 1822, mainly due to the bishop's mental illness (and from his purge of the power of the Church). Nevertheless, he made state education compulsory for all males in 1828, but he neither helped nor hindered the private schools. Even after this, the pupil-teacher ratio grew and there were less illiterate, with one teacher to 36 pupils by 1825 according to Richard Alan White. In 1836, Francia opened Paraguay's first public library, stocked with books confiscated from his opponents.[15] Books were one of the few duty-free items (munitions being another).


In October 1820, a plague of locusts destroyed most of the crops. Francia ordered a second harvest planted. It proved abundant, so from then on Paraguay's farmers planted two crops a year. Through the decade, Francia nationalised half the land in four stages. First he confiscated the lands of traitors, then clerics (1823–4), squatters (1825) and finally unused land (1828). The land was either run directly by soldiers for making their own supplies or leased to the peasants. By 1825 Paraguay was self-sufficient in sugar cane, and wheat was introduced. At the end of his life, Francia ruthlessly confined all the cattle at Ytapua to stop a plague spreading from Argentina until it died out.


Contrary to popular belief, Paraguay at the time was not completely isolated, Francia welcomed political refugees from various countries. José Artigas, hero of Uruguay's independence, was given asylum in 1820 along with 200 of his men. He stayed in Paraguay even after Francia's death on a pension of $30 a month.[16] He was pursued by Francisco Ramírez, who saw one of his warships also desert to Paraguay. In 1820, Francia ordered that runaway slaves were to be given refuge and refugees from Corrientes were to have canoes and land. In 1839, a whole company of Brazilian deserters were welcomed.[17] Many ex-slaves were also sent to guard the penal colony of Tevego.[18]

Nationalisation of the Church

In 1815 the Roman Catholic Church in Paraguay was declared independent of both Buenos Aires and Rome. Francia seized ecclesiastical properties, and appointed himself head of the Paraguayan Church (reminiscent of Henry VIII declaring himself Supreme Head of the Church of England). Pope Pius VII excommunicated him for doing so; Francia's reply on hearing this was: "If the Holy Father himself should come to Paraguay I would make him my private chaplain."

In mid-June 1816, all nighttime processions were banned except that of Corpus Christi. In 1819, the Bishop was persuaded to transfer authority to the vicar-general, while in 1820 friars were secularised. On August 4, 1820, all clergy were forced to swear allegiance to the state, and their clerical immunities were withdrawn. The four monasteries in the country were nationalised in 1824, with one later demolished and another becoming a parish church. The remaining two became an artillery park and barracks, while three convents also became barracks. He abolished the Inquisition, re-purposed confessional boxes as sentry posts, and had the hangings made into lancers' red waistcoats.

Personal life

Francia had a very liberal view of sexuality. He made marriage subject to high taxation and restrictions, and insisted he personally officiate over all weddings. Francia kept a ledger of all the women he slept with, and despite having no close relationships he sired seven illegitimate children, the oldest being Ubalda García de Cañete. When he caught her prostituting herself outside his palace, he declared prostitution an honourable profession and that all whores should wear golden hair combs. They thus became known as "peinetas de oro" (gold combs) in order to humiliate Spanish ladies, as it was a Spanish fashion.

Francia took several precautions against assassination. He would lock the Palace doors himself, unroll the cigars his sister made to ensure there was no poison, prepare his own yerba mate, and sleep with a pistol under his pillow. Even so, a maid tried to poison him with a piece of cake.[16] No one could come within six paces of him, or even bear a cane near him. Whenever he would go out riding, he had all bushes and trees along the route uprooted so that assassins could not hide; all shutters had to be closed, and pedestrians had to prostrate before him as he passed.

Francia lived a spartan lifestyle, and apart from some books and furniture, his only possessions were a tobacco case and a pewter confectionery box.[19] Francia left the state treasury with at least twice as much money in it as when he took office, including 36,500 pesos of his unspent salary, the equivalent of several years' pay.

Final years and death

Francia died on 20 September 1840. Sensing his mortality, he destroyed all his papers and refused medical aid, even lashing out at a physician with his sabre. His daughter later burnt all his furniture after his death. He was given a state funeral where the priest eulogised him. Some old Spanish families later stole his corpse, dismembered it and threw it into a river, making later efforts to retrieve his remains unsuccessful.


His reputation abroad was negative: Charles Darwin, for one, hoped he would be overthrown, though Thomas Carlyle (himself no friend to democracy) found material to admire even in the publications of Francia's detractors. He wrote in an 1843 essay that "Liberty of private judgement, unless it kept its mouth shut, was at an end in Paraguay", but considered that under the social circumstances this was of little detriment to a "Gaucho population ... not yet fit for constitutional liberty."[20]

Francia imbued Paraguay with a tradition of autocratic rule that lasted, with only a few breaks, until 1989. He is still considered a national hero, with a museum dedicated to his memory in Yaguarón. It contains portraits of him and his daughter as well as his sweets box, candlestick and tobacco case.[21] Paraguayan author Augusto Roa Bastos wrote an ambivalent depiction of the life of Francia, a novel entitled Yo el Supremo (I, the Supreme).

Timeline of Francia's life


  1. 1 2 3 4 Williams, John Hoyt (1979). The Rise and Fall of the Paraguayan Republic, 1800-1870. University of Texas Press.
  2. "Paraguay - Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia". Library of Congress. Retrieved 3 March 2016.  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  3. Nigel Cawthorne, Empress of South America, p. 29
  4. Antonio de la Cova. "Jose Gaspar Rodriguez Francia". Retrieved 2012-08-16.
  5. War of The Triple Alliance Retrieved November 14, 2010
  6. Shaw, Karl (2005) [2004]. Power Mad! [Šílenství mocných] (in Czech). Praha: Metafora. pp. 27–28. ISBN 80-7359-002-6.
  7. Richard Alan White, Paraguay's Autonomous Revolution, p. 89.
  8. Nigel Cawthorne, Empress of South America, p. 33
  9. "Map at" (in Spanish). Retrieved 2012-08-16.
  10. John Parish Robertson; William Parish Robertson. Letters on Paraguay: comprising an account of a four years' residence. Retrieved 2012-11-08.
  11. 1 2 3 Williams, John Hoyt (February 1972). "Paraguayan Isolation under Dr Francia: A Reevaluation" (PDF). The Hispanic American Historical Review. 52 (1). Retrieved 2012-08-16.
  12. "Bonpland, Aimé". The American Cyclopædia. 1879.
  13. "Permanent Council of the OAS". Retrieved 2012-08-16.
  14. Terry Hooker, "The Paraguayan War" in Armies of the 19th Century: The Americas, p. 171
  15. Jerry Cooney, Education in the Republic of Paraguay, History of Education Quarterly, 1983.
  16. 1 2 Nigel Cawthorne, Empress of South America, p. 34
  18. Luis Veron, Pequeña Enciclopedia de Historias Minúsculas del Paraguay
  19. John Gimlette, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels through Paraguay, p. 161
  20. Thomas Carlyle, "Dr. Francia", in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, pp. 253–312.
  21. John Gimlette, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, page 161

Further reading

Political offices
Preceded by
Fulgencio Yegros
Consul of Paraguay
Succeeded by
Fulgencio Yegros
Preceded by
Fulgencio Yegros
Consul of Paraguay
Succeeded by
Manuel Antonio Ortiz
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