After I finished the legwork that went into the last two posts, I discovered two other scholars had gotten there first. In 1988, Vera Blinn Reber took on the idea that Paraguay had lost more than half its population. Her evidence fell into four buckets:
- We have four decent censuses: 1792, 1846, 1886 and 1899. The intercensal growth rates are 1.7%, 0.8%, and 3.1%. The censuses distinguish between native-born and foreign-born populations, so we can strip out immigration, which was anyway near negligible. The numbers given imply a slowdown between 1846 and 1886, but not a catastrophe;
- The 1857 census that gave a population of 1.3 million does not exist. It appears to have been a Stalinesque propaganda ploy by the Paraguayan government to frighten its enemies.
- Once the war broke out, the Paraguayan government undertook a series of annual household surveys for the purposes of taxation and conscription. If we assume a household size of 6.98 people (which is very high by the standards of contemporary Latin American countries, but about what the 1846 census showed) then the population was 370,073 in 1864. It declined to 304,824 by the end of 1867, but that could have been evasion combined with the fact that much of the male population was at war.
- Finally, biannual figures on crop production (Paraguay had a remarkably well-organized war economy) show no declines between 1863 and 1867.
While she effectively debunked the genocidal claims, her conclusion that Paraguay lost most likely 8% of its population is still largely conjecture. For example, roughly 80,000 Paraguayan men cycled through the armed forces during the war. She posited that it was unlikely that casualty rates could not have been much higher than 24,000; roughly 30% of everyone who served.
I am not so sure. For example, the standard figures for Confederate military mortality (including disease) in the U.S. Civil War ranged from 23% to 38%. But when J. David Hacker (Binghampton) used census records to estimate excess male mortality for the 1860s, he found numbers that were more in line with mortality rates of 33% to 54%. Considering the sex imbalances in the 1886 census, I do not find 50% mortality among Paraguayan soldiers to be inherently unbelievable.
Her doubt comes from the fact that the size of the Allied forces arrayed against Paraguay has been greatly exaggerated. For example, there are claims that Brazil fielded an expeditionary force of 100,000. The problem is that we know that it took the Brazilians a full 49 steamships to move a single brigade consisting of 5,445 enlisted men up the Paraná river and the Brazilians never possessed that sort of logistical capability. That said, however, even if Allied forces never much exceeded 43,500, there is no reason to believe that they could not have inflicted much higher casualties upon the Paraguayan defenders through a combination of disease and malnutrition inflicted via the astute use of strategic interdiction.
Given the evidence from 1872 and 1886, I would lean towards her high estimate of 18% total losses including a net refugee outmigration around 3% of the prewar population), simply because the military mortality rates that she considered too high for a 19th century war are not in fact outside the bounds of historical reality. (Disease made many 19th century wars more dangerous for soldiers than their early 20th century equivalent; in the later half of the 20th century advances in body armor, medevac technology, and trauma medicine produced a second prolonged decline. Consider, as evidence, the below graph of the wounded-to-killed ratios in various wars (available here):
But 18% is still a far cry from over half.
In 2002, two scholars attempted to resurrect the vision of a devastated Paraguay using evidence from an 1870 population survey. Their attempt was terrible. So terrible that it is almost not worth discussing. But I will! So stay tuned.
Meanwhile, any thoughts before we turn to the political implications of the conflict?