None of the three belligerents appeared ready for the war that enveloped them in 1879. Peru, with the largest population and land mass, stretched from approximately 3 to 21 degrees south as well as due east from the Pacific, across the Andes, and into the Amazon Basin. As in the case of Bolivia and Chile, the Andes dominated Peru’s geography. Three branches of the mountain range—the Cordillera Occidental, the Cordillera Central, and the Cordillera Oriental—had twisted much of Peru into series of troughs or mountain valleys running in all directions. The Cordillera Occidental, which hugged Peru’s coastline from its border with Ecuador south, often flowed literally into the Pacific Ocean. Normally, this coastal strip could not sustain agricultural activities, but centuries of the runoff from the Andes had dug east-west running gorges and alluvial plains that could be farmed. Unfortunately, only thirty valleys reached the ocean on Peru’s fourteen hundred miles of coastline. The Andes’ tendrils, moreover, so isolated some of the fertile valleys that they had to communicate with the rest of the nation via the sea rather than overland routes. Pushed upward, sometimes by volcanic activities, the coastal mountains rose inexorably eastward, often fourteen thousand feet in height, before forming a coastal high desert and a series of basins separated from the coast by the Cordillera Occidental and from the Amazon Jungle by the often twenty-thousand-foot, snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Oriental. Although some of these basins could sustain agriculture—generally only below fourteen thousand feet—the higher altitudes precluded most pastoral activities except for the raising of alpacas or llamas on ichu, a local grass.
In 1879 Peru covered 1.5 to 1.6 million square kilometers. Of its nearly 2.5 to 2.7 million inhabitants, 23 percent resided either in the port of Callao, the capital of Lima (100,000–120,000), and coastal cities such as Arica, Pisagua, Ilo, and Iquique or in those alluvial valleys that emptied into the Pacifi c Ocean. Almost three-quarters of Peru’s overwhelmingly Indian population resided in Andean highland settlements, and not surprisingly, given their distance from the coast as well as from other altiplano settlements, they spoke Aymara or Quechua, not Spanish.
Although mountains covered a large portion of Peru, it enjoyed certain advantages over its similarly configured neighbor Bolivia. Peru’s proximity to the sea facilitated the sale of its agricultural and mineral exports to the North Atlantic world. By 1879, moreover, Peru possessed a relatively developed transportation system: numerous railroads moved commodities from inland plantations or mines to the nearby ports. One rail line, the Central—an engineering marvel created by the genius of the American Henry Meiggs and the sweat of countless workers—connected the capital to the Andean city of Chicla, a railhead at thirteen thousand feet above sea level. Clearly hoping to facilitate the export of its cotton and sugar, the Peruvian government had invested a small fortune in its rail system. But the agrarian sector did not generate as much revenue as did Peru’s mines. Indeed, since the 1850s exports of guanoossified bird droppings found in Peru’s arid south and on the Chincha Islands offshore—financed the national government, its various public works, and, of course, its burgeoning bureaucracy. Fortunately for Peru, just as the deposits of guano began to disappear, prospectors discovered nitrates in the southern province of Tarapacá. Anxious to extract maximum profits from the sale of this commodity, the Peruvian government, in 1875, expropriated the largely foreign-owned mines. Thereafter the mining corporations dug out and processed the nitrates for a fee while the nation received most of the profits, part of which it used to pay off the debt Peru had incurred by nationalizing the mines and to fund the government.
Developing the nation’s resources proved difficult in no small part because of demographic problems: most Peruvians lived in the altiplano, where they eked out a frugal existence as subsistence farmers, not on the coastal plantations that produced commercially important crops such as sugar or cotton. The entrepreneurs’ need for a workforce to tend the nation’s rich valleys eventually prompted them to import slaves from Africa or “indentured servants”—quasi slaves, if there is such a condition— from China. The Asians, often chained together, also labored in the guaneras, where some preferred suicide to scrapping desiccated avian feces from the sunbaked and fetid Chincha islands. Further to the south, some nine thousand Chileans sweated in Peru’s salitreras in Tarapacá.
Southeast of Peru’s most southern province lay Bolivia’s Pacific littoral, a two- to three-hundred-mile stretch of cliffs, some fifteen to eighteen hundred feet high, that fronted on the Pacific Ocean. These coastal bluffs abutted the Atacama Desert, approximately seventy-two thousand square miles of uncharted, arid wasteland whose soil consisted either of sand and small stones or sand mixed with small seashells. Neither one provided a welcoming environment for agriculture, although happily for Bolivia, its miners had discovered substantial deposits of guano and nitrates both atop and beneath the desert floor. While five ports—Cobija, Mejillones, Antofagasta, Tocopilla, and Huanillo—provided access to the desert, only one, Antofagasta, enjoyed good connections to the Bolivian hinterland.
Traveling the 750 miles from Bolivia’s capital of La Paz, located over thirteen thousand feet high in the Andes, to the Pacific Coast required enormous effort and time in the post-1850 period. In 1879, for example, the army of Gen. Hilarión Daza spent twelve to thirteen days marching the 280 miles from La Paz to Tacna, an inland city in the southwestern corner of the Atacama Desert, and an additional eleven days trudging from Tacna to Pisagua, a port on the Pacific. The Bolivian soldiers would still have had to march south 250 more miles before reaching Antofagasta, a town that bordered on Bolivia’s Pacific Coast. In short, any traveler using the most direct route, which was not the one the soldiers followed, required almost a month to cover the distance to the Pacific from La Paz. Given these geographic limitations, Antofagasta looked to the sea for its water, which it desalinated, and sustenance.
Traversing the Atacama, while difficult, was perhaps the least of the many problems Bolivians had to surmount. As one moves inland from the coast, the hills become the Cordillera de la Costa, or the Andes’ Cordillera Occidental, a chain of mountains that juts upward thousands of feet into the air. East of the Cordillera Occidental but west of the Andes’ Cordillera Oriental lies a valley some twelve to thirteen thousand feet above sea level and approximately four hundred miles wide that contains the world’s highest inland body of water, Lake Titicaca. On the eastern side of Bolivia’s altiplano stands another chain of mountains, many more than twenty thousand feet high, which eventually subside into the tropical lowlands that comprise Bolivia’s eastern borderlands. Clearly, the Andes constitute Bolivia’s defining feature: offshoots of the mountain chain do not simply split the country along a north-south axis but also divide it east to west into a series of often isolated valleys. From the air, Bolivia resembles a Byzantine maze of intersecting mountains that in the late nineteenth century left the nation’s population cut off from each other, let alone the world.
Containing little arable land, Bolivia could, at best, manage to feed itself. Happily for the country, beneath its soil lay enormous reserves of silver and industrial minerals. The discovery of nitrates and guano in Bolivia’s littoral seemed to open new possibilities for generating wealth, although the stench from Mejillones de Bolivia’s guaneras assailed the seaborne visitor’s nose long before he laid eyes on the city. This aesthetic limitation did not inhibit the miners from flocking to the littoral. Nor did the vagaries of nature: the earthquakes, fires, and tidal waves that periodically ravaged Bolivia’s coastal cities, casting oceangoing vessels over a mile and a half into the desert and, in 1877, literally erasing Antofagasta’s hospital. Even three years after the disaster, “scarcely a house remain[ed]” in nearby Cobija, which looked as if the port “had been exposed to a severe bombardment.” One observer wrote, “We initially imagined that we were viewing the effects of the war.” Despite the potential danger to life, limb, and olfactory organs, so many foreigners moved to the Atacama that a Frenchman, Charles Weiner, calculated, “Of every twenty inhabitants, seventeen are Chilean, one a Peruvian, one a European, and one a Bolivian colonel.” There was, according to Weiner, a rough division of labor: “The Chileans work, the Europeans trade, and he [the Bolivian colonel] commands.” What Weiner either tactfully failed to mention or did not know is that so many of the Atacama’s Chilean residents resented the Bolivian colonel’s heavy hand that they formed “patriotic societies” such as La Patria, which sought to fuse the desert province with Chile; others appealed to their countrymen for relief from what they perceived to be Bolivia’s arbitrary misrule. In 1879 these Chilean groups’ petitions seeking relief from Santiago would help precipitate the War of the Pacific.
Bolivia encountered difficulties administering its littoral because it lacked the infrastructure to do so. As a French engineer reported, “What is called a road in this country is not more than a trail without bridges, passable only for those who walk, ride atop a horse, or a beast of burden.” Without all-weather roads and domestic railroads, moving items within Bolivia proved extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible: if a visitor in the 1870s required five to six days to travel from Sucre to Cochabamba, a distance of approximately 150 miles, the export of raw materials proved substantially more complicated and expensive. Thanks to the 1874 completion of a railroad in nearby Peru, goods could flow from the La Paz in northwest Bolivia into Peru’s Puno region, then west to the port of Mollendo and from there to the port of Valparaíso or to the port of Callao. Bolivian merchants also managed to send their exports into Argentina. But the nation needed more than these few paltry outlets. Logically, Bolivia should have developed rail lines to carry its goods from its highlands to harbors such as Arica. But as Henry Meiggs had demonstrated, constructing railroads in the Andes required great expertise and greater amounts of money. Regrettably, Bolivia lacked both. And since few foreign creditors appeared willing to invest in such a politically volatile nation, Bolivia’s economic future did not seem particularly bright. Bolivia, in fact, would not develop railroads until the late nineteenth century, and it would be approximately twenty years more until rail lines would connect its important cities. This same lack of domestic roads or rail lines restricted the government’s authority to La Paz and its immediate environs. Indeed, a simple equation seemed to govern Bolivian politics: the greater the distance from the capital, the more dubious the state’s authority.
Sadly, Bolivia’s political institutions were as underdeveloped as it infrastructure: since the government conducted its last census in 1854, no one knew how many citizens La Paz ruled nor where they lived. One geographer reckoned that 2.3 million Bolivians, 80 percent of whom were Indians, inhabited a nation that covered 1.3 million square kilometers. An Italian visitor refined these population statistics, estimating that seven-eighths of the population resided in La Paz, Oruro, Cochabamba, Sucre, and Potosí. These provinces, plus the more lightly populated Cobija, Tarija, Santa Cruz, and Beni, covered about 801,000 square kilometers. The same natural barriers that divided Bolivia into regions also split the nation into separate linguistic and cultural groups: the Aymara Indians, who populated the area south of Lake Titicaca, and the Quechua, who resided to the southeast. Predictably, this unhappy convergence of geographic obstacles and language differences fostered a strong sense of identification with a region rather than with the nation-state.
The same topography that stunted Bolivia’s economic growth, fomented regionalism, and undermined the central government’s authority also starved the state of the revenues it required to govern. As late as 1846 Bolivia’s government gleaned 51 percent of its income from Indian tribute and the impost on coca. The discovery of the Caracoles silver deposits, located in the mountains ten thousand feet high and about 160 miles northeast of Antofagasta, and the Huanchaca mine appeared to offer new hope to the Bolivian economy. Still, although the taxation of Bolivia’s silver mines ultimately replaced the levy on the Indians and coca, the regime’s 1879 income—adjusted for inflation—remained at the same level as that of 1825. Worse, as more countries turned from bimetallism to the gold standard, the international price for silver contracted, and therefore so did Bolivia’s revenue. Clearly, the nation needed to develop a more reliable source of income, preferably in a geographical region that enjoyed access to transportation, thus reducing the cost of production.
The discovery of the guano and nitrates located in its littoral, promised to cure Bolivia’s economic anemia. Perhaps for the first time geography would not stunt Bolivia’s development: not only did the nation’s vast deposits of nitrates lie close to the surface of the Atacama Desert, but only a few miles of flat pampa stood between the salitreras and the port of Antofagasta. Bolivia did not have to wait long to savor the economic fruits: by 1879 La Paz derived approximately 50 percent of its revenue from the taxes on the Atacama’s mines. Clearly, Bolivia had finally found the Atahualpa’s ransom it required to end its economic underdevelopment. Unfortunately, Bolivia’s leaders had committed, inadvertently, a dangerous sin of omission: as Adolfo Ballivián, Bolivian envoy to Britain, noted, “The nation for who [sic] there is opened by chance at the edge of the sea, a wide door on incalculable riches and future fortune should either close it or guard it well against the envy and rapacity [sic] of violence. He who cares for coasts, ports, and railways should not neglect the responsibilities which they entail.” But the Bolivian government failed to heed Ballivián’s caution: attracted by the allure of jobs in the mining industry, more than ten thousand Chileans had flooded into the Atacama. In many respects, Bolivia replicated Mexico’s folly vis-à-vis Texas: by permitting large numbers of foreigners to settle in its territory, La Paz had created a demographic imbalance that favored the Chileans. And although a Santiago newspaper, El Ferrocarril, warned that various Bolivians living in the Atacama might prefer Chilean rule, “Chile,” wrote the Chilian Times, “would never take their [the Bolivians’] territory at the price of war; and it is doubtful if she would take its turbulent inhabitants at any price.” Both journals proved egregiously wrong.
Of the three participants, Chile was, if not the poorest, then certainly the smallest in terms of area and population: its approximately 2.25 million residents populated 362,000 square kilometers. Some argued that only whites comprised Chilean society, but as an American schoolteacher unkindly retorted, the “Araucanian Indians have, by intermarriage, disseminated their blood, as well as their slovenly habits, among the lower classes largely throughout the nation.” Doubtless, the truth about Chile’s racial composition lay somewhat between those extreme statements.
Although the smallest in area, Chile’s land mass was not more compact than its neighbors. An elongated sliver of territory, approximately 880 miles separated Chile’s northern frontier with Bolivia from its central valley, the area where most of that nation resided and that produced most of the country’s food, consumer goods, and services. Theoretically, Chile’s sovereignty included the Strait of Magellan, but Santiago’s hold on the land between Punta Arenas and the Bio Bio River was tenuous and intermittent.
Rail lines connected the capital, Santiago, with some of the southern wheat-producing provinces. And a separate spur linked Santiago to Valparaíso, one of the Pacific Coast’s principal entrepôts and Chile’s premier port. But no railroads extended from Santiago to the north. (There were some in what came to be called the Norte Chico, but these connected the mining camps of the interior with ports such as Caldera, not with Chile’s heartland.) Although the country possessed a network of roads, these were too few, generally in wretched condition, and too underdeveloped to reach Chile’s Norte Chico, let alone the Atacama Desert miles to the north. Thus, the Chileans used the Pacific Ocean as the most efficient and least costly form of transportation.
Initially, the Chilean government received most of its revenues from a levy on imports. Eventually, the nation began to export wheat to South America’s Pacific Coast nations as well as to the United States and Great Britain. The discovery of silver in the Norte Chico shifted the economic locus to the mining sector. While initially exporters of raw materials, Chilean miners began to refine the ores they prized from the earth, thereby creating the beginning of heavy industries located in the capital, the extreme south, and the north. The majority of Chile’s population, however, inhabited the countryside, where they labored as tenant farmers, or inquilinos, on the large landed estates.
Chile’s political system appeared almost as developed as its economy. Like all the former Spanish colonies, the Captaincy General endured years of war. By 1830 two competing factions—the liberals and the conservatives—had emerged. Building upon their victory at the Battle of Lircay, the conservatives, led by their eminence gris, Diego Portales, visited upon Chile what came to be known as the “weight of the night,” a highly centralized authoritarian constitution that limited government office and the franchise to a handful of wealthy, literate, older men. Despite its deficiencies, the system worked: having submitted themselves to the rule of law, as embodied by the Constitution of 1833, the nation’s elites elected four men, who managed the nation for the next forty years.
These decades were not without strife: Portales would perish at the hands of rebellious troops in 1837, and two civil wars, both abortive, erupted in 1851 and 1859. Over the years, however, the republic’s political climate became more benign: an increasingly well educated elite created new parties that, by 1879, numbered four, including some seeking to create a more open and secular society. In 1870 the legislature amended the constitution to prohibit presidential succession. Henceforth the chief executive could serve only a single five-year term, and two men—Federico Errázuriz (1871–76) and Aníbal Pinto (1876–81)—did so largely without incident. In fairness, the legislative and presidential elections were not honest—they would not be so until well into the twentieth century—but they were not so wicked that they inspired the political opposition to resort to force. On the contrary, Chile’s elite engaged in an baroque charade: elections occurred as prescribed by the Constitution of 1833; the press could and did spew its political invective upon those it loathed, while each party, including splinter groups, employed a variety of tactics—stuffing ballot boxes, purchasing votes, miscounting, and the occasional use of force—to ensure their access to power. What resulted was not a true democracy but a political accommodation that permitted the peaceful transfer of power from one candidate to another.
If flawed, the Chilean political system still seemed preferable to that of either of its neighbors. Between 1823 and 1830, for example, Peru adopted and then rejected six different constitutions, and before 1836, when Peru and Bolivia temporarily merged into a confederacy, eight men ruled during a single ten-year span. Not until 1845 did a Peruvian president complete a full four-year term. The country embraced yet another constitution in 1856 that lasted for only four years. The political instability did not hurt the nation’s economy, which prospered thanks to the exports of guano. Unfortunately, the easy wealth encouraged the government to invest in extravagant public works projects, including the building of railroads, to pacify its friends and win allies. As Heraclio Bonilla observed, “the source of each caudillo-president’s power lay in the military capability of his followers,” who constantly vied for “power in order to plunder the resources of the state,” which, as the duke of Newcastle said of the old parliament, became “a pasture for the beasts to feed on.” The country’s first political party, the Civilista, did not appear until 1872, when its leader, Manuel Pardo, became president. Four years later another Civilista president, Gen. Mariano Prado, would make the fatal decisions that led Peru into war in 1879.
Bolivia’s political life was, if possible, more rudimentary than that of its ally, a predictable result, since as one of the nation’s founding fathers, Antonio José Sucre, observed, “the ground we are working is mud and sand, and on such a base no building can exist.” Rather than parties that, however imperfectly, espoused some ideology, personalist bands predominated. “Politics in Bolivia,” noted an English visitor, “are best described as purely personal, for the different political parties seem to spring up, change, and die out accordingly as some ambitious leader comes to the front, and soon gives place to a newer man.” Reflecting this situation, few presidents managed to complete their elected term of office. Indeed, between 1839 and 1876 eleven men served as chief executive, overseeing a nation that suffered more than one hundred revolutions. These upheavals, which consumed the nation’s civil leaders as well as its officer corps and military equipment, undermined Bolivia’s ability to defend itself.