Lynch, Eliza (1835–1886)

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Lynch, Eliza (1835–1886)

Irish-born mistress of the dictator Francisco Solano López, who was a major figure in the cultural and political development of Paraguay. Name variations: Elisa; Ella; Eliza Lynch López. Pronunciation: Linch. Born Eliza Alicia Lynch, possibly in County Cork, Ireland, in 1835; died in Paris, France, in 1886; youngest daughter of John Lynch (a medical doctor) and Adelaide (Schnock) Lynch; married Xavier Quatrefages (aFrench army surgeon), in 1850, but separated from him shortly before beginning a 17-year liaison with Francisco Solano López, in 1853; children: (with López) six sons and three daughters, most of whom survived to adulthood, including Juan Francisco (b. 1855); Enrique Venancio (b. 1858); Federico Noel (b. 1860); Carlos Honorio (b. 1861); Leopoldo Antonio (b. 1862); and Miguel Marcial (b. 1866); the daughters' names are not recorded.

Family barely survived the Irish famine of 1845; married French army doctor (1850); husband deserted her in Paris (1853), and she took a succession of lovers before meeting Francisco Solano López several months later; returned with him to Paraguay (1854) to live openly with him as his mistress; though never accepted by elite society in Asunción, as the lover of the son of the Paraguayan president, was nonetheless very influential: introduced the first pianos and sewing machines to Paraguayan society, was the leading force behind the construction of many public buildings, and helped improve the educational establishment of the country, especially after López assumed the presidency (1862); as de facto first lady, became the dominant force in Paraguayan cultural matters; as Paraguay entered a disastrous war against Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, joined López at the front (1864), and, according to some sources, actually commanded troops; five years later, accompanied what remained of the Paraguayan army as it retreated into the northern jungles; witnessed López's death in battle and buried him and their first-born son herself on the banks of the Aquidaban River (1870); at end of war, was deported, losing most of her wealth; spent the rest of her life unsuccessfully trying to reclaim her lost properties in Paraguay.

On the surface, the cold, windswept, and impoverished areas around County Cork, in Ireland, would seem to have little in common with tropical South America. But such are the ironies of history that it was precisely this locale that gave birth to Madame Lynch, a poor girl turned ingenue turned uncrowned queen of Paraguay. So many unpredictable twists and turns characterized her life that even from the distance of over a century her tale still has the ring of a romantic novel. And in such terms it is still recalled by schoolchildren in Asunción. But Eliza Alicia Lynch was far more than a romantic figure in an exotic country; she acted as a major cultural conduit, recreating a Parisian literary salon in the most rustic country in Latin America and overseeing, in some crucial ways, the modernization of Paraguay.

We know very little of Lynch's childhood. One commentator has gone so far as to suggest that she systematically destroyed the public records dealing with her birth and early life. She later claimed to have affluent antecedents. Her father John, she said, was the highest-placed physician in the district, with a practice that took him far and wide in Ireland. Her family mixed socially with members of the Anglo-Irish elite, and in all things her childhood was a happy one.

The reality was almost certainly different. Although clearly not a product of the lowest rung of Irish society, Lynch probably led a far more precarious existence in her early days than she would care to admit later. She was only ten years old when the famine of 1845 hit the island and left most of its inhabitants dead or in the greatest desperation. Lynch's burning ambitions, which expressed themselves in many ways great and small throughout her life, doubtless had their origin in this time of uncertainty and fear.

If, as a young person, Eliza Lynch worried deeply about her personal fate and even her day-to-day survival, by the time she reached her 15th year she knew what to do about it. When a French army surgeon, Xavier Quatrefages, offered his hand in marriage, she did not hesitate to accept. Soon, she was on her way to Paris.

Quatrefages was the scion of a respectable middle-class family. He was a career army officer with many years of experience behind him and was, to emphasize a point, old enough to be Eliza Lynch's father. That he should become entranced with her was understandable: the one picture we have of Lynch at this age reveals a young woman of surpassing beauty, with gray eyes, a fine figure, and a look of maturity far beyond her years. She displayed, moreover, a charm and a passion that might attract any man of substance and position.

These same qualities that led her so easily into marriage quickly led her out of it. A contretemps evidently took place involving Quatrefages' commanding officer in Algeria; the details of this affair remain hidden even today, but the inevitable result was that Lynch soon found herself cut free from her husband. She might return to genteel poverty in Ireland or England or she might take her chances in Paris. She chose the latter course.

Madame Lynch, as she was now called, became a full-time courtesan. Her flair for languages, her choice of fine furnishings and the best of wines, and a talent for gracefully flattering the most boring of gentlemen callers—all these attributes held her in good stead in the salons of the Second Empire. She knew Russian nobles, Parisian furriers, and the most exciting of military men of all nationalities. But she was constantly looking for a permanent protector, and finally, in 1853, she found him in the person of Francisco Solano López.

López in many ways fit the average Parisian's idea of a savage. Son of the Paraguayan president, he had come to Europe to "show the flag," to purchase armaments for his fledgling military, and to obtain modern machinery for public projects. To French eyes, though, he looked every bit the country bumpkin. Short and inclined to corpulence, with very bad teeth, he dressed grotesquely, yet his uniforms were always expensive and elaborately finished. He not only spent money but spent it carelessly and on people who could mean nothing to him. His behavior at court was extravagant if indelicate. He spoke of himself as being one with Napoleon III, and seemed absolutely heedless of the sneers and snubs that his presumption engendered. Finally, he found himself without any clear allies at court. This left him in a volatile mood. It was at this point that he met Madame Lynch.

The first encounter between the two has entered the history books in the most romanticized guise possible. Some commentators have said that she prostituted herself to him without delay. Whatever the exact circumstances of their first meeting, in short order Lynch joined López for the remainder of his European tour. Together they visited Spain and Italy (and one report even has it that they went to the battlegrounds in Crimea). Finally, at the end of 1854, they set sail for Paraguay. By then, she had become not only López's lover but his confidant, his chief adviser, and the only individual not afraid to forcefully disagree with him.

No record exists of Madame Lynch's feelings when, having crossed the Atlantic and made the 1,000-mile journey upstream to the center of the southern continent, she at last reached the tropical river port of Asunción. We do, however, know that the local Paraguayans were dazzled by her beauty and her Parisian finery. As one Briton who came on the scene a few years later noted:

I could well believe the story that when she landed in Asunción the simple natives thought her charms were of more than earthly brilliancy, and her dress so sumptuous that they had no words to express the admiration that they both excited. She had received a showy education, spoke English, French, and Spanish with equal facility, gave capital dinner parties, and could drink more champagne without being affected by it than anyone I had ever met with.

Whereas the average Paraguayan might have been deeply impressed with Lynch, the López family proved less than ecstatic over their son's choice of partner. The bishop of Asunción was Francisco Solano López's uncle, and he could hardly be expected to approve the relationship (Lynch, after all, was still married). Carlos Antonio López, the president, refused to receive her in his home, and forbade his eldest son from living outright with her. It was under-stood within the family, therefore, that Lynch would act only as semi-official consort, never as wife. And so she was legally regarded throughout her years in Paraguay. There was one fact, however, that no one could deny: when she arrived in Asunción, Lynch was pregnant. With the subsequent birth of their first son, Panchito, no one could doubt that the names Lynch and López would thereafter be forever linked.

López's European tour made a deep impression on him. More than anything else, it showed him how very backward his country was. An inland republic, Paraguay had managed to avoid the civil wars and petty squabbles that had characterized South America since independence—but at a price. Earlier regimes had imposed a shroud of isolation on the nation by closing the borders. This had to some extent protected Paraguay, but it had also taken it out of the mainstream of Latin American economic development. Primitive agricultural conditions, barter, and an archaic mercantilism were all still very much a part of Paraguayan economic life when López returned from Europe. Now he set out to change everything in as short a time as possible, and Lynch was there beside him.

Given carte blanche by his father, López began a quick-paced program for the modernization of Paraguay. He hired British engineers and machinists to construct a wide array of public works, including an iron foundry, an arsenal, a merchant fleet, and a railroad. He saved his greatest energies, however, for the expansion of the military. He imported cannon, shot, and the latest weaponry. His engineers constructed a massive fortress, Humaitá, overlooking a bluff at the confluence of the Paraná and Paraguay rivers. This redoubt, often compared to that of Sebastopol, was designed to withstand any force that any foreign power might send against Paraguay by river. Its garrison amounted to tens of thousands of native recruits, all ready to die for López and for Paraguay. Within a few years, López had forged a formidable army, perhaps the largest in South America. Now even Napoleon III would hesitate to scoff at the man whom many had called savage.

Lynch, for her part, attempted to crash into the elite society of Asunción like a thunderbolt. López had showered her with money, properties, and luxuries of all kinds. Soon, she was demonstrably the richest woman in Paraguay. But it was not enough, for she craved the recognition and acceptance that the conservative society women of Asunción withheld from her. She might be good enough to bear López's "bastards," but she was not good enough for those women to dine with. Their snubs she would later repay. Meanwhile, she busied herself with her children, and with promoting education in the country. She had the government hire instructors and cultural advisers from Europe. She sponsored literary contests and advised journalists. She created a salon in Asunción that included many, though not all, of the members of the foreign community.

Eliza Lynch influenced Paraguayan culture in some basic ways. She introduced jewelled coiffures, straw hats decorated with flowers, imported perfumes, tulles and belts. Her dress broke away from traditional lines. The open way she flaunted her differences made the younger generation aware that they might express their prosperity in ways undreamt of by their parents. Members of the Paraguayan elite began to see themselves almost as Europeans—and they began to have European ambitions.

These ambitions sometimes went beyond the drinking of champagne and the wearing of Parisian fashions. In the case of López, they included making a major political impact within South America. In 1862, he succeeded to the presidency after the death of his father and soon thereafter began to flex his muscle.

Brazil had constantly encroached upon Paraguayan territory, and in 1864 López decided to retaliate by occupying the Brazilian province of Mato Grosso. In the following year, he rashly sent an expeditionary force across Argentine territory to attack southern Brazil, thereby bringing into existence against him a triple alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay (at that time a Brazilian dependency). The bloody war that followed lasted until 1870.

Critics of Eliza Lynch have argued that she encouraged López to provoke the war in the expectation that Paraguay would emerge from it as an acknowledged Great Power, with her lover as emperor and their children—she had nine—assured of princely futures. There seems to be little to this tale. And, in any case, things did not turn out so well for Paraguay and its army. After a short offensive phase, López's troops were forced to retreat to Humaitá where they spent nearly four years under constant siege by the allies.

The campaign was the worst ever seen in South America. The sufferings of the uncomplaining Paraguayans assumed terrible proportions. Food was always scarce and became more so as time went on. Women were mobilized for agriculture and to weave the native cotton, a craft that just before the war had been almost given up because of the cheapness of English cotton goods. The carpets from the railway station in Asunción were cut up into ponchos for the soldiers. Supplies of iron were obtained by melting down church bells and quantities of Brazilian shell fired into the earthworks at Humaitá. Battles around the fortress exacerbated the losses still further. As at Fredericksburg during the American Civil War, thousands of men died in single engagements. Then, in 1867, epidemic disease—smallpox, cholera, and measles—struck both the Paraguayan and Brazilian lines simultaneously. The pestilence was soon communicated to the civilian population, with horrendous results. Almost half of the Paraguayan population of 500,000 died.

It is enough to see her ride by, gracefully and easily, firmly seated and handling her spirited horse with all the coolness of a woman who has overcome fear, to realize that she is like the women riders of gay background who ride daily in Regents Park and the Bois de Boulogne.

—Hector Varela

As these events unfolded, López began to lose his grip on reality. Constantly suspicious of treachery, he ordered the torture and execution of many of his key collaborators. Anyone who seemed to doubt the wisdom of continuing the hopeless struggle against the allies was liable for the harshest treatment. Only Madame Lynch was able to calm his rage. For the most part, she had been with him at Humaitá during the fighting. She ministered to the sick and gave encouragement to the troops. Some have maintained that she operated an espionage organization among the soldiery and that she herself directed torture against suspected opponents. No evidence supports this calumny, though it is clear enough that Lynch remained a strong partisan of the Paraguayan cause long after it was obvious that López could neither win nor long continue the fight. She several times volunteered to command female troops, and though the offer was rejected, she still wore a uniform of sorts, complete with riding crop as symbol of authority.

More and more, the Paraguayan scene came to resemble a Greek tragedy. Asunción fell in January 1869 at about the same time the starving remnants of the garrison at Humaitá finally gave up. Lynch and López fled to the interior and watched from a distance while the Brazilians installed a provisional government in the Paraguayan capital. Though López now commanded only a tiny army of children and old men, he used these to effectively harass the allies over the next months. Eventually they grew tired of these raids and mounted a new and well-provisioned expeditionary force against López.

This sparked the final diaspora. Lynch and López, accompanied by a few faithful associates, continued to fall back into the jungles of northeastern Paraguay. During these months on the run, López, his fury grown uncontrollable, shot many of his remaining cohorts, including some of his own relatives. Even Lynch and the children, who were now malnourished, failed to calm his wrath.

Finally, at the beginning of March 1870, the Brazilians caught up with López near the bank of the Aquidaban river at Cerro Cora. Called upon to surrender by his pursuers, he defiantly shouted back at them: "I die with my country!" A cavalryman then lanced him, and he fell back into the shallow water to die. At this moment, Lynch was on a nearby trail escaping in a carriage together with Panchito, now at 15 a colonel in the Paraguayan army. The Brazilians approached, Panchito fired his pistol, and then, like his father before him, he was lanced to death. His mother, covered in his blood, was permitted to dig out a grave with her hands for both her first-born son and for López.

Lynch was treated with deference once she was delivered as a prisoner to officers of the Brazilian navy. But there was never any doubt as to what would be done with her. Crowds had gathered at Asunción to jeer her, and to demand that the allies force her to hand over to them the jewels and other properties that López had bestowed upon her. She denied that she had anything, aside from some minor pieces of luggage. She demanded, moreover, to face her accusers, among whom she knew were many who had once called her friend. The Brazilians refused. They did, however, permit her to return to Paris with her children.

Still a relatively young woman, Eliza Lynch might have resumed the life of a courtesan. She chose, instead, to spend the rest of her life trying to clear her name and that of López. Her children, she argued, should still gain their inheritances from their father, no matter what he had done. She even returned once to South America in 1875 with this mission in mind. She made little headway in reclaiming the vast lands that López had transferred to her name during the war. In the end, tired and depressed, she returned to Europe and left her remaining Paraguayan matters to her lawyers. She went for a time to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage but in the end came back to Paris, where, alone and largely forgotten, she died in 1886.

The story of Eliza Alicia Lynch might appear to outsiders as a minor ripple along the stream of history. But for Paraguayans, her historical role has been central. She came to their country at a crucial juncture, helped them gain a more modern understanding of the world and their place in it, and went loyally with them through the maelstrom of total war. This more than qualified her as a national heroine, and on that basis her remains were brought back to Paraguay in the 1960s. Even there, however, she still remains a controversial figure.


Brodsky, Alyn. Madame Lynch and Friend. NY: Harper and Row, 1975.

Pendle, George. "Eliza Lynch and the English in Paraguay, 1853–1875," in History Today. May 1954, pp. 346–353.

Pla, Josefina. The British in Paraguay, 1850–1870. Richmond: Richmond Publishing, 1976.

suggested reading:

Barrett, William E. Woman on Horseback. NY: Modern Library, 1952.

Kolinski, Charles J. Independence or Death!: The Story of the Paraguayan War. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1965.

Warren, Harris G. Paraguay: An Informal History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949.

Thomas Whigham , Professor of Latin American History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia