The main plaza in Arequipa, the city where Admiral Lizardo Montero established his headquarters and proclaimed himself president of Peru during the Chilean occupation.
Peru and the War of the Pacific
One of the most destructive events in modern Peruvian history was the nation’s ill-advised and ultimately catastrophic involvement in the War of the Pacific from 1879 to 1885. Not only did Peru lose militarily, it suffered a prolonged and aggressive invasion and occupation by Chilean forces, which in turn fragmented the Peruvian political leadership and economy even further. When the war finally ended, Peru had lost its southernmost nitrate-rich provinces, it had given up its guano income, and its remaining economy was shattered. Yet, in spite of the devastating consequences of the War of the Pacific, the nation recovered, and the final two decades of the 19th century brought Peru closer to its goal of modernization by establishing new patterns of trade and regional economic production.
The War of the Pacific
When Bolivian president Hilarión Daza in 1878 impetuously attempted to seize Chilean-owned nitrate producing companies in the Antofagasta region of the Atacama desert, he plunged his nation and Peru into a war with their powerful neighbor to the south. Bound by a mutual defense treaty with Bolivia, Peru entered the war. Neither Peru nor Bolivia had serious armed forces. Most commanders on the Peruvian and Bolivian side had no rigorous military training, and most soldiers were recently recruited Quechua-speaking Indians. Peru had what still appeared to be a strong navy, but advancing technology had made most of her warships obsolete and ineffective against the Chilean navy’s better-armed and better-protected ironclads. Moreover, as one historian has written, Chile was a relatively cohesive country with a strong national tradition, whereas Peru and Bolivia were “fractured nations” where mountain barriers divided their people physically “while an almost unspannable cultural chasm separated their Indian and non-Indian citizens” (Wehrlich 1978, 112).
The military campaign opened with a series of naval engagements, the most serious of which was the Battle of Iquique Bay in May 1879 when the Chileans defeated the Peruvian flotilla. Though the Peruvian navy’s most powerful vessel, the Huascar, escaped to fight on for a while as a raider, this victory allowed Chile to control the sea routes along the Pacific coast. These were vital to fighting the land war, since supplying or transporting armies on inland roads was nearly impossible. The Chilean navy could enforce a blockade when and where it wished from this point forward, and it could land and supply its own armies wherever it desired.
The first battles of the land war also proved disastrous for the Peruvian and Bolivian armies that attempted to defend the contested southern nitrate provinces of Arica, Tacna, and Tarapacá. After temporarily checking the Chilean forces in Tarapacá in November 1879, the Peruvian and Bolivian armies were crushed in a series of losses to the much better equipped and trained Chileans in Tacna and Arica. The victors took complete control of what had been Peru’s southern provinces, and all resistance there collapsed. President Daza of Bolivia deserted his armies, forfeited his office, and fled the country. Peruvian president Mariano Ignacio Prado (1826–1901), elected in 1876, fared scarcely better. After commanding troops in the south, he returned to Lima, handed over the government to Vice President Antonio de la Puerta, and left for Europe, claiming he was going to seek help in the war effort; in fact he deserted, too.
Peruvian national leadership disintegrated with the military defeat at the hands of the Chileans and, over the following months and years, became a tangle of competing figures who tried to seize office. Nicolás Piérola, for example, ousted the vice president and proclaimed himself president in December 1879. After peace talks arranged by the United States failed, the Chileans landed a large army south of Lima and advanced on the city, which surrendered in January 1881 after two bloody Peruvian losses in the suburbs of San Juan and Miraflores. Piérola fled to the mountains, and the Chileans occupied Lima, bringing havoc and destruction. They looted the national library and even carted off the animals from the zoo in addition to seizing property and extorting cash from the residents.
The degree to which Peru’s popular classes participated, willingly or unwillingly, in the war is a matter of debate, and so is the role played by the military and political leaders. Chilean officials received strict orders not to interfere with Peruvian Indian peasants, letting them know that this was not their war, thus avoiding that Indians sided with regional and national white elites. How deep-seated racial cleavages still were after more than a half century of political independence from Spain is evidenced by the conflicts between racial groups during the War of the Pacific. The collapse of national order brought on domestic chaos and violence, most of it motivated by class or racial divisions. Chinese and black laborers took the opportunity to assault haciendas and the properties of the rich in protest of the mistreatment they had suffered in previous years, Lima’s masses attacked Chinese grocery stores, and Indian peasants took over highland haciendas.
The lack of national cohesiveness was most sharply demonstrated in the confusion and confrontations among Peru’s would-be wartime leaders. Over the course of the next 10 years (1879–89, approximately), they often were as much in conflict among themselves as with the invaders. Piérola, for example, withheld support from some Peruvian troops and commanders in order to forestall future challenges to his own power. In some places, however, such as the central highlands, opposing racial-ethnic groups joined forces to fight for Peru, resisting Chilean troops with a more united front. As a result, an incipient sense of nationalism emerged in the wake of the war.
Since they did not want to negotiate with him, the Chilean occupiers did not recognize Piérola’s claim to the presidency. Instead, with the assistance of a group of “notables” from the Partido Civil, they designated the lawyer Francisco García Calderón (1834–1905) as the new president. The Chilean generals declared the Lima barrio of La Magdalena as neutral territory and allowed García Calderón to set up a government there. García Calderón’s nomination deepened civil strife: Piérola had widespread popular support as well as support from among the Civilistas. In the following months neither president showed much interest in facing the enemy. They were more concerned with their own power struggle, while the Chilean army controlled the capital and most of the Peruvian coast.
García Calderón failed to win support outside his small enclave, but he did manage to obtain diplomatic support from the United States, which offered to help him attain peace without territorial concessions to Chile. This offer mainly was prompted by the belief of the U.S. ambassador to Peru that the country might be ripe for U.S. annexation; furthermore, U.S. Secretary of State James Blaine believed he could benefit financially from a settlement. Both U.S. officials were frustrated in the end, and U.S. involvement in the negotiations collapsed (Manrique 1995, 167).
García Calderón initiated peace talks with Chile, and he proved to be a tough negotiator. He was willing to pay for a lost war; however, he was unwilling to cede any territory to Chile, although Chile claimed by right of conquest the southern province of Tarapacá, where Peru’s richest nitrate fields were located. In response to García Calderón’s hard line, the Chileans in November 1881 dissolved his government and exiled him to Chile. After much maneuvering from his position in the highlands, Piérola gave up and left for Europe. In their places Admiral Lizardo Montero declared himself president from his base in Arequipa. His authority was challenged, however, by General Andrés Cáceres (1833–1923), who had organized resistance forces in the highlands.
Emergence of Cáceres
Cáceres had hidden for three months in Lima after the Chilean invasion, nursing wounds suffered in the Battle of Miraflores. He escaped to the central highlands in April 1881 to join Piérola. Piérola feared Cáceres as a rival for power but named him the military chief of the central departments before fleeing to Europe. Over the next two years Cáceres created a 5,000-man army and won a sequence of victories against the Chileans in the Breña Campaign in July 1882 in the Mantaro Valley at Pucará, Marcavalle, and Concepción. The Chilean army lost 20 percent of its soldiers and Chilean troops were forced to retreat to Lima.
Cáceres’s successes in the central highlands had much to do with how the relationships between haciendas and peasant communities had developed in earlier decades, and the relative strength of its peasant population. The Mantaro Valley was ethnically more heterogeneous than other places in Peru, and it was more commercially advanced, with long-standing links to urban cities, especially Huancayo and Lima. Cáceres’s military talents were also a part of his success. He was a skillful strategist, and, perhaps more important he was a landowner and fluent Quechua speaker. Peasants referred to him as tayta (“father” or “protector” in Quechua).
In spite of his promising start, Cáceres was unable to stand up to new Chilean offensives, in part because of the emergence of a new claimant to Peruvian leadership, the northern hacienda owner Miguel Iglesias (1830–1909) from Cajamarca, who had lost a son in the battles for Lima. The Chileans recognized Iglesias as president because they thought he would negotiate with them for peace. This turned out to be correct, and in October 1883 Iglesias signed the Treaty of Ancón, which technically ended the War of the Pacific. Under the terms of the treaty Peru gave up Tarapacá province immediately. Chile was to administer Tacna and Arica for 10 years, at which point a vote of the people of these provinces would determine which country they belonged to; the loser would receive 10 million pesos as compensation. Through the treaty the Chileans not only got Peru’s rich nitrate fields but also its remaining guano reserves.
Iglesias was able to represent himself as the sole negotiator for Peru because at the time Cáceres was not in a position to contest his claims. When the central highland provinces had begun to show signs of economic exhaustion and it became increasingly difficult to sustain a standing army, Cáceres had decided to march north to attack Iglesias, in an attempt to restore a unified political leadership. However, Chile had mobilized all its available resources to simultaneously defend Iglesias and attack Cáceres’s remaining troops in the central highlands. Iglesias had not hesitated to provide the Chilean army with all the information and resources they needed in order to administer a crushing defeat to his rival Cáceres at the Battle of Huamachuco in July 1883.
Meanwhile Admiral Montero had installed his government of Peru first in Cajamarca and then, in August 1882, in Arequipa, where he stayed until 1883. He refused support to Cáceres, in spite of promises to do so. In fact, when the victorious Chilean army reached Arequipa after the Battle of Huamachuco, it found a large cache of arms and other military items sent from Bolivia that Montero had withheld from Cáceres; consequently Cáceres’s men fought the invaders wearing ojotas (Indian sandals) and brandishing obsolete rifles. With the arrival of the Chilean army Montero fled Arequipa across Lake Titicaca, going first to Argentina and then to Europe. While crossing the lake he appointed Cáceres president.
In June 1884 Cáceres finally recognized the peace treaty signed by Iglesias, and this meant new civil strife. Cáceres and Iglesias led their armies against each other until Iglesias, still the president, was defeated in December 1885. Cáceres, then, won the elections in June 1886. War against Chile was no longer feasible. Cáceres demanded that Chilean troops leave Peru and allow Peruvians to resolve their disputes themselves without foreign interference. Chilean occupation had lasted three years, during which coastal hacienda owners and city-based merchants had had to pay cupos (cash reparations) to the Chilean army under the threat of destruction of their properties. Chilean generals drew up a list of the 50 most prominent members of Lima’s society and forced each to pay 20,000 pesos a month, an amount that was six times the monthly salary of Peru’s president. The last Chilean troops pulled out of Peruvian territory in August 1884, leaving the Peruvian state economically and politically bankrupt.