Peru, Chile, and the War of the Pacific (1879–84) – Naval Warfare

 The Huáscar
With the US navy in serious decline, Chile became arguably the most formidable naval power of the Americas after defeating Peru in the War of the Pacific. The solidarity between Peru and Chile against Spain in the war of 1864–66 ended as soon as the Spanish navy steamed away. In 1866 Chilean miners discovered saltpeter near the port of Antofagasta on the coast of the Atacama Desert, igniting a dispute over nitrate mining rights in a region where the borders of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile had never been clearly defined. In 1872 a Chilean–Bolivian treaty established the border at the 24th parallel, just south of Antofagasta, and two years later Bolivia pledged not to raise taxes on Chilean companies operating between the 23th and 24th parallels for a period of twenty-five years. Meanwhile, Peru entered the picture in 1873, guaranteeing Bolivia’s territorial integrity and secretly pledging to support a future expulsion of Chile from the lucrative nitrate fields. Peru also nationalized all nitrate deposits in its share of the Atacama, the provinces of Tacna and Tarapacá where Chileans had been the most active miners. With the only ironclad warships on the Pacific coast of South America, Peru could afford to behave aggressively, at least until Chile purchased ironclads of its own. Relations promptly normalized in 1875, when the 3,370-ton casemate ships Almirante Cochrane and Blanco Encalada, designed by Edward Reed, arrived from Britain. The desert remained calm until February 1878, when Bolivia imposed a new export tax on saltpeter, in violation of the 1874 tax-freeze pledge. Chile’s leading mining company at Antofagasta refused to pay, and in January 1879 Bolivian authorities there arrested its president. Chile responded the following month by sending Rear Admiral Williams Rebolledo with the Almirante Cochrane, the Blanco Encalada, and a screw corvette escort to Antofagasta, where they landed 800 troops to seize the city. In March the squadron landed troops north of the 23rd parallel at the smaller Bolivian ports of Cobija and Tocopilla. By early April, Peru had come to the defense of Bolivia, and Chile retaliated with a blockade of Iquique, main port of the Peruvian province of Tarapacá. Most of the action on land and at sea in the ensuing “saltpeter war” centered around the nitraterich provinces in the disputed desert territory, but the War of the Pacific is deserving of its formal designation, for the naval action ranged along the entire 4,500-mile Pacific coast of South America. Peruvian warships cruised as far south as Cape Horn to intercept arms shipments bound for Chile from Europe, while Chilean warships ranged as far north as Panama to stop the flow of arms to Peru across the isthmus from the United States and Europe.

At the start of the war the Chilean navy had two casemate ships, five screw corvettes, and two smaller unarmored steamers, against the Peruvian navy’s 3,500-ton armored frigate Independencia, 2,030-ton turret ship Huáscar, the former American monitors Manco Capac and Atahualpa, one screw corvette, and five other unarmored steamers. Chile kept Argentina from adding its new (1874) Laird monitors La Plata and Los Andes to the enemy fleet by renouncing long-standing claims to Patagonia, and entered the conflict with a slight advantage because the two Peruvian monitors had not been maintained after their purchase in 1868 and were suitable only for harbor defense. The two navies spent the first month of the war convoying troop transports, the Chileans from Valparaíso north to Antofagasta, the Peruvians from Callao south to Arica, while the Chileans continued to blockade Iquique in-between. After the Peruvian army arrived safely at Arica, the Independencia and the Huáscar steamed south to challenge the Chilean blockade of Iquique and landings at Antofagasta. At the same time, Williams Rebolledo steamed north with most of the Chilean fleet to contest the transport of the Peruvian army from Callao to Arica, leaving the screw corvette Esmeralda and screw gunboat Covadonga to maintain the blockade of Iquique. After the two forces passed at sea without encountering one another, the Chileans arrived off Callao to learn that the Peruvian army had already landed at Arica. Meanwhile, the two Peruvian ironclads descended upon the two Chilean wooden steamers at Iquique. Williams Rebolledo hastened back to Iquique but arrived on the morning of 22 May, too late to save the Esmeralda and Covadonga, which had engaged the Peruvian ironclads in battle the previous day.

Chile still celebrates 21 May as a national holiday, and with good reason. On that morning Captain Arturo Prat of the Esmeralda refused to abandon his station at Iquique and engaged the Huáscar for over three-and-a-half hours, while the Covadonga (Captain Carlos Condell) escaped to the south with the Independencia in hot pursuit. The wooden hull of the 20-year-old Esmeralda took a terrific pounding but Prat refused to strike his flag. In the climax of the battle shortly after noon, Rear Admiral Miguel Grau of the Huáscar dealt the fatal blow to the corvette, ramming it amidships. Prat responded not by surrendering but by leading a charge from the deck of the sinking Esmeralda in an attempt to board and take the Huáscar. It was perhaps the greatest act of bravado in any naval battle since John Paul Jones took HMS Serapis from the deck of the sinking Bonhomme Richard a century earlier. This time, however, the bold boarding party failed to take its prize, and Prat was killed on the deck of the Huáscar. Minutes later the Esmeralda sank with flags flying; of its 200 officers and seamen, 146 perished in the battle. Meanwhile, the Covadonga steamed southward, hugging the coast, chased by the Independencia. At Punta Gruesa the shallow–draught steamer passed safely over a reef which trapped its far heavier pursuer. Condell then turned on the Independencia, positioned the Covadonga at its bow, out of reach of either broadside, and raked it until its commander surrendered. The engagements of 21 May made Prat a Chilean national hero and reduced by half the armored strength of the Peruvian navy.

Over the next five months the Chilean navy pursued Grau and the Huáscar up and down the coast. The ironclad had some success as a raider, sinking a Chilean army transport and several small coastal merchantmen. At Iquique on the night of 9–10 July, the Huáscar encountered just the screw corvette Magallanes maintaining the blockade. The ship’s captain, future admiral Juan José Latorre, emulated Prat’s earlier heroism, deliberately closing with the Huáscar and engaging it for forty-five minutes until the Almirante Cochrane arrived, prompting Grau to flee. Frustration over the navy’s inability to catch the Huáscar was at least one factor in the retirement of Williams Rebolledo in early August. In a subsequent shake-up Captain Galvarino Riveros took command of the squadron and Latorre received command of the Almirante Cochrane. On the morning of 8 October Latorre finally trapped the Huáscar off Punta Angamos, north of Antofagasta. The action featured the first use of armor-piercing Palliser shells, which the Almirante Cochrane’s 9-inch Armstrong guns fired with great effect especially after the ships closed to within 2,200 meters. The Blanco Encalada arrived on the scene forty-five minutes after the fighting began, and the two casemate ships engaged the Huáscar for another forty-five minutes before it finally surrendered. British observers praised the gunnery of the Chileans, who fired a total of seventy-six rounds and scored a remarkable twenty-seven hits; in contrast, the guns in the hand-cranked turret of the Huáscar managed just three hits against its two opponents, causing no damage. The battle left Grau and half his crew dead, and Chile firmly in command of the sea.62 Unlike the Independencia, a total loss after running onto the reef at Punta Gruesa, the Huáscar was repaired and commissioned in the Chilean navy, and converted to a museum ship after leaving service in 1898. (The Huáscar remains the world’s only contested museum ship; as recently as August 1999 President Alberto Fujimori demanded its return to Peru.)

On 2 November the Almirante Cochrane and three unarmored warships escorted transports carrying 9,500 troops northward from Antofagasta to Pisagua, where they landed unopposed after a shelling by the warships. By the end of the month the army had marched inland to defeat an allied Peruvian–Bolivian army at Tarapacá (27 November), securing for Chile the southernmost Peruvian province of the same name. Meanwhile, on the coast, Rear Admiral Riveros deployed the Blanco Encalada to blockade Arica, where it captured the screw gunboat Pilcomayo (18 November), and the Almirante Cochrane to blockade Iquique, where it took the surrender of the Peruvian garrison (23 November). Thereafter, the allies regrouped at Arica, where the immobile Manco Capac served as harbor watch. On 27 February 1880 the old Peruvian monitor exchanged fire with the Huáscar when the latter arrived to shell the port. Riveros soon arrived with the two Chilean casemate ships, which joined in the bombardment. Chilean troops landed north of the city in March eventually cut off the garrison from resupply by land; they finally stormed Arica and captured it on 7 June. The previous day, the Manco Capac was blown up by its own crew to prevent its capture.

In April 1880 Riveros blockaded Callao with a squadron led by the Blanco Encalada and the Huáscar. After the fall of Arica, the Almirante Cochrane and its unarmored escorts joined them. The hopelessly outnumbered Peruvians, taking their cue from the recent Russian campaign against the Turks in the Black Sea, used torpedo boats against the blockaders, the most active of which was the Independencia, named for the armored frigate lost the previous May. Peruvian torpedoes sank the armed transport Loa in July and the screw gunboat Covadonga in September. The Chilean navy soon had five torpedo boats of its own off Callao. The ensuing action in and around the harbor centered around the raids and skirmishes of the two torpedo flotillas, during which each side lost one torpedo boat. In late November Chilean troops landed unopposed at Pisco and began to march up the coast toward Lima. Shelling from Riveros’ squadron contributed to a decisive victory at Chorrillos (13 January 1881), after which the army occupied the Peruvian capital. The remnants of the Peruvian navy surrendered at Callao, but not before scuttling their last ironclad, the immobile monitor Atahualpa, on 16 January. The Chilean navy then secured the smaller Peruvian ports north of Callao, an operation completed when the Huáscar took the surrender of Paita in June.65 The naval campaign thus came to an end but not the war, as Peru and Bolivia refused to agree to terms. The Chilean government held the navy in such high esteem that it named a rear admiral, Patricio Lynch, commander of the army in occupation of Peru. Lynch, whose early career at sea had included service in the British navy during the First Opium War, commanded campaigns against pockets of Peruvian resistance in the interior, crushing the last of them in July 1883. Peru finally signed a treaty of peace three months later, ceding the provinces of Tacna and Tarapacá with the ports of Arica and Iquique. The Bolivians continued to hold out, unable to accept the loss of their Pacific coastal province and port of Antofagasta, but an invasion led by Lynch forced them to agree to a truce in April 1884. The Chilean army of occupation left Peru that August; Bolivia, never occupied, did not agree to a definitive peace treaty until 1904.

After the loss of the Independencia in May 1879, Peru made strenuous efforts to purchase armored warships in Europe. The fruitless quest came closest to success with the government of Austria–Hungary, whose three 3,600-ton casemate ships of the Kaiser Max class – roughly the equivalent of Chile’s Blanco Encalada and Almirante Cochrane – would have filled Peru’s needs. The opposition of the Austro–Hungarian naval leadership blocked the deal, and the Peruvian navy ultimately purchased just the 1,700-ton unarmored cruiser Lima, a merchantman converted in Britain in 1881, and a few torpedo boats. Only the latter made it to Peru in time to see action in the war. After the War of the Pacific, Peru never again attempted to be a regional naval power; for the next quarter-century the Lima remained its largest warship. Meanwhile, the postwar Chilean navy appeared destined for a place in the second rank of the world’s naval powers. The Huáscar was modernized by the addition of a steam winch for its turret, and all three of the fleet’s armored warships received new 8-inch Armstrong breechloading rifles. Before the capture of the Huáscar, when the outcome of the naval war was still in doubt, Chile ordered two cruisers from Armstrong’s Elswick shipyard, to be named after its newest naval hero and his gallant lost ship. In early October 1879 work began on the first of the pair, the 1,350-ton Arturo Prat, a nominally rigged steel-hulled vessel. Conceptually, the ship was a forerunner of the Esmeralda, the world’s first modern light cruiser, in combining impressive speed (16.5 knots) and heavy primary armament (two 10-inch guns) in an unarmored warship. After the Arturo Prat was launched in August 1880 the Esmeralda was laid down by the same builder, but the Arturo Prat was not ready for delivery until June 1883, the same month in which the Esmeralda was launched. With the naval action of the War of the Pacific having already ended two years earlier, Chile decided to sell the Arturo Prat to Japan and await delivery of the larger, more powerful Esmeralda.