Paraguayan War casualties

Paraguayan corpses after the Battle of Boquerón del Sauce, 1866. An early instance of war photography by Bate & Cía of Montevideo.

The number of people who died in the Paraguayan War (1864–1870) is unknown; widely different estimates have been made. "Determining the size of Paraguay's population has always been an exercise in frustration."[1] However, there is a widespread impression that the casualties (military and civilian) were immense; there was also some population loss for non-lethal causes such as migration. The Dutch human geographer Jan Kleinpenning thought that Paraguay lost between a quarter and a half of its population, but much higher and lower estimates have been made. No academic demographic scholarship makes it less than 7% (including migration) or greater than 69%.

Traditional estimate

The traditional estimate was that the War cost Paraguay at least half its population including military and civilian casualties (the latter mainly owing to disease, dislocation and malnutrition) and that 90% of males of military age died.[2] If that was so the Paraguayan War must have been 10 to 20 times more lethal than the slightly earlier American Civil War. The traditional estimate was based partly on anecdotal evidence and partly on a supposed census of 1857 which gave Paraguay a population of about 1.3 million,[3] which, if correct, implied an utterly catastrophic decline in the subsequent War. The following extract from an unsigned article in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica:[4] is illustrative of the spurious precision of the era.[5]

During this warfare every male Paraguayan capable of bearing arms was forced to fight, whole regiments being formed of boys from 12 to 15 years of age. Even women were used as beasts of burden to carry ammunition and stores, and when no longer capable of work were left to die by the roadside or murdered to avoid any ill consequences occurring from their capture. When the war broke out the population of Paraguay was 1,337,439; when hostilities ceased it consisted of 28,746 men, 106,254 women above 15 years, and 86,079 children. During the retreat of the Paraguayans the dictator ordered every town and village passed through to be razed to the ground, and every living animal for which no use could be found to be slaughtered. When the end came the country and people were in a state of absolute prostration.

On those figures, since shown to be false, Paraguay lost 84% of its population.

In the modern mainstream media, the view that the loss in life was likely around half the population has been expressed by, among others, the current Encyclopedia Britannica entry[6] (last revised in 2001) and a 2012 article in The Economist.[7] In 2015, the BBC[8] and Reuters[9] stated Paraguay "lost more than half of its population", and the Los Angeles Times stated "at least 70% of Paraguay's male population was killed".[10]