Aguirre, Juan Francisco de (1758–1811)

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Aguirre, Juan Francisco de (1758–1811)

A Spanish naval officer, Aguirre is principally known in the early twenty-first century for a multivolume diary and official report of his observations along the Paraná and Paraguay rivers during the 1780s and 1790s. He was born August 17, 1758, into an aristocratic Navarese family in Donamaria, just outside of Pamplona, during the reign of Carlos III, a Bourbon monarch whose distinct interest in administrative reform brought many changes in the empire. Aguirre was destined to play a role in these changes. He entered the Real Compañía de Guardia Marinas in his teens, and served in the navy for some time before coming to the Río de la Plata in 1777. By the time his vessel, the Santísima Trinidad, reached Platine waters, the king had already confirmed his rank as teniente de navío, and the young officer could look forward to a distinguished career in the royal service.

Aguirre owed his presence in South America to the negotiations behind the signing of the Treaty of San Ildefonso between Spain and Portugal. This agreement, which attempted to define the boundaries between Brazil and the Spanish colonies, required border commissioners to scout and delineate the territories involved and submit their findings to higher authorities in Madrid and Lisbon. The viceroy of La Plata, Juan José de Vértiz y Salcedo, decided to divide the responsibilities of the Spanish commissioners, sending Félix de Azara and a large party of aides overland through the Argentine Mesopotamia (the provinces that lie between the Paraná and Uruguay rivers—Entre Rios, Corrientes, and Misiones) and into Paraguay. Aguirre, for his part, received orders to sail slowly up the Paraná past Santa Fe and Corrientes before entering the Paraguay River, taking hydrographic readings as he went, and studying the various communities and people he encountered, especially the Indians. In fulfilling this task, Aguirre left Buenos Aires in late December 1783. He reached Asunción four months later and was there welcomed by Governor Pedro Melo de Portugal, who put the entire provincial government at the lieutenant's disposal. Aguirre's stay in Paraguay lasted a full twelve years, during which time he incessantly wrote and rewrote his Diário, always adding more details and nuances to an already sophisticated account. At that particular juncture, Paraguay was undergoing an economic boom thanks to the growing trade in yerba mate, the green tea that commanded an impressive market in Buenos Aires and elsewhere in the southern reaches of the continent. Aguirre took all this in. He often traveled far afield from Asunción on horseback in order to assemble the most up-to-date information. His 1791 description of yerba operations in Caati, for example, is the only extensive analysis of Paraguayan tea extraction produced during the colonial period. To some extent, Aguirre's work paralleled that of Azara, but whereas the latter was especially enthralled with the flora and fauna of the country, the people and the economy interested Aguirre more and he wrote with great sensitivity in those areas.

After years of extensive labor, in which he received no help from either Madrid or his Portuguese counterparts, Aguirre finally requested leave to return to Spain in 1797. His health had been broken in the tropics long since, and though he was promoted to capitán de navío in 1805, he saw little active service thereafter. He died on February 17, 1811, at the time of the Peninsular War, evidently in French captivity. As for his long study of Paraguay, it received almost no attention during his lifetime and was published in its entirety only in the early 1950s.

See alsoRío de la Plata; Paraná River; Azara, Félix de; San Ildefonso, Treaty of (1777); Vértiz y Salcedo, Juan Joséde; Yerba Mate; Yerba Mate Industry.


Aguirre, Juan Francisco de. "Diário del capitán de fragata de la Real Armada …" Revista de la Biblioteca Naciónal de Buenos Aires 17-20 (1949–1951).

Brezzo, Liliana M. "Las exploraciones y los escritos del capitán de navío Juan Francisco de Aguirre en el Paraguay." Historia Paraguaya 43 (2005): 481-536.

Zubizarreta, Carlos. Cien vidas paraguayas. Asunción: Aravera, 1985.

                                 Thomas L. Whigham

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Aguirre, Juan Francisco de (1758–1811)

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