Friday, January 1, 2016

War of the Pacific (1879–1884)

Ignacio Carrera Pinto and other Chilean soldiers in Concepción

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Chile vs. Bolivia and Peru
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Atacama Desert region and adjacent sea
DECLARATION: Chile against Bolivia and Peru, April 5, 1879
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Control of this nitrate-rich region
OUTCOME: Chile triumphed, winning important portions of the Atacama region from the Peruvian-Bolivian alliance.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Chile fielded as many as 25,000 troops and had a reserve of 50,000; Peru, 9,680 plus 30,000 reserves; Bolivia, 7,959
CASUALTIES: Chile, 3,276 killed, 5,610 wounded; Peru, 9,672 killed, 14,431 wounded; Bolivia, 920 killed, 1,210 wounded
TREATIES: Treaty of Ancón (Chile and Peru), October 20, 1883; Treaty of Valparaiso (Chile and Bolivia), April 4, 1884

The War of the Pacific ranks with the PARAGUAYAN WAR as one of the two greatest international conflicts in 19th-century South American history. Here Chile waged war against Peru and Bolivia for control of the guano and nitrate deposits (vital in the manufacture of fertilizer, explosives, and economically important chemicals) found in the Atacama Desert. Although Chile claimed Tacna, Arica, and Tarapacá, and Bolivia Antofagasta, the boundary between the two was uncertain, despite the fact that they had settled on the 24th parallel as the dividing line in 1866. Chilean-financed mining concerns took advantage of the instability. They swarmed into the region, threatening both Peruvian and Bolivian holdings. In response, these two nations signed a secret accord in 1873, pledging to assist one another in defense of their Atacama territory. In 1875, Peru seized the property of Chilean mining companies. Three years later, Bolivia made seizures of its own in 1878. Chile responded in turn. Its president, Aníbal Pinto (1825–84), dispatched 200 troops to take and occupy the port of Antofagasta in February 1879, and on April 5, 1879, Chile declared war on Bolivia and Peru.

The war began at sea, when Chilean warships blockaded Peruvian and Bolivian ports. Peru dispatched its ironclad Huáscar to attack the blockading vessels, which it did with considerable success until it was sunk in the Battle of Antofagasta on October 8, 1879. Not only did Peru lose one of its two ironclads, but one of its important naval officers, Admiral Miguel Grau (1838–79), perished along with most of his crew.

After the sinking of the Huáscar, the action shifted to land. The Peruvian and Bolivian armies were ill-trained and poorly armed, possessing none of the modern weapons to match those boasted by Chile’s well-drilled infantry armed with Gras rifles, its veteran Winchestertoting cavalry, or its formidable artillery, equipped with Krupp and Armstrong field guns and a smattering of Gatlings and Nordenfelts. Thus it was a confident Chilean army that staged a counteroffensive against the combined forces of Peru and Bolivia in the Tarapacá region during the closing months of 1879. Chilean forces took and occupied both Antofagasta and Tarapacá, then invaded Arica and Tacna. These towns would fall to Chile by June 1880.

Bolivia reeled in defeat, but Peru stayed in the fight, determined to regain Tarapacá. However, while this fighting continued, peace negotiations were opened. Chilean leaders took advantage of the ongoing negotiations to increase the pressure on Peru by invading that country, at Pisco, with some 25,000 troops. Outnumbered, the Peruvian defenders fell back, and the Chilean army marched north. At the village of Concepción on June 9–10, 1883, a company of 77 Chileans went down bravely fighting some 1,800 Peruvians in a battle that came to represent for Chile what the Alamo represented for Texans or Thermopylae for the Greeks. More determined than ever, the Chilean soldiers redoubled their efforts, the Peruvian resistance collapsed, and the government itself tottered. On December 17, 1879, Peru’s capital, Lima, fell. It proved a decapitating blow. A cease-fire was declared, and, on October 20, 1883, Peru and Chile concluded the Treaty of Ancón, by which Peru ceded Tarapacá to Chile. Peru was to retain Tacna and Arica for a period of 10 years, after which possession would be decided by plebiscite. On April 4, 1884, Chile and Bolivia concluded the Treaty of Valparaiso, by which Bolivia ceded to Chile the city and the province of Antofagasta. Diplomatic wrangling delayed formal implementation of these terms for many years, until 1904.

Further reading: Robert N. Burr, By Reason or Force: Chile and the Balancing of Power in South America, 1830–1905 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965); Bruce W. Farcau, The Ten Cents War: Chile, Peru, and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific, 1879–1884 (New York: Praeger, 2000).

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Chincha Islands War

The Chincha islands of Peru, being occupied by Spanish sailors on April 14, 1864.

The Chincha Islands War (Spanish: Guerra hispano-sudamericana) was a series of coastal and naval battles between Spain and its former colonies of Peru and Chile from 1864 to 1866. The conflict began with Spain's seizure of the guano-rich Chincha Islands in one of a series of attempts by Spain, under Isabella II, to reassert its influence over its former South American colonies. The war saw the use of ironclads, including the Spanish ship Numancia, the first ironclad to circumnavigate the world.

Under the rule of Isabel the II (1843-1868) Spain faced one of the most interesting and turbulent years of its history. When the young Queen was crowned, she found a weak country that was far beyond from being the great power of the past. She also found that the formerly powerful Spanish Armada had only three main warships, all of them built during the XVIII century and a couple of frigates and steamers, which was a clear contrast with the 177 warships that the country had in 1790.

Isabel tried to recover the military prestige that the Kingdom had until the battle of Trafalgar, in which the British wiped out its impressive armada. She encouraged the construction of a modern and powerful fleet, which in few years turned Spain into the world’s fourth naval power. Between 1859 and 1860, 170 million of pesetas, an enormous amount for those days, were allocated for the construction of new warships. The result was a mighty squadron composed of six iron-protected frigates, eleven first class frigates and twelve steam corvettes, plus dozens of transports and smaller warships. Few times in her history Spain had assembled such an important and respectable fleet.

Despite her internal problems, Spain became again a colonial power, and backed by her naval might, by the end of the 1850´s the kingdom was participating in several overseas interventions and internal conflicts. During the second Government of former Governor of Cuba, Leopoldo O´Donnell (1858-1863), Spain engaged in a war against Morocco (Tetuan), in a conflict in Indochina (Vietnam), in the French-lead invasion of Mexico and in the brief annexation of the Dominican Republic.

Soon it was the turn of South America.

At the end of 1862, the Spanish Queen approved the sending of a so-called “scientific expedition” to Latin American waters. The expedition was placed under command of Rear Admiral Luis Hernandez Pinzon –a direct descendant of the Pinzon brothers who accompanied Christopher Columbus in the discovery of the New World- and was escorted by three warships: The twin steam frigates Triunfo and Resolucion and the schooner Virgen de Covadonga. However, beside scientific research, one of the purposes of the trip was to support the claims of Spanish citizens living in the Americas.

On April 18, 1863, the Spanish fleet arrived at the Chilean port of Valparaiso. While in Chilean waters the officers and men were cordially received and the Spaniards responded in kind. But in July of that year, once in Peru, the problems started. At that time Spain did not have diplomatic relations with Peru neither had recognized its independence obtained in 1821. Despite this situation, the expedition was received with friendly demonstrations by the authorities. Unfortunately, on August 2, and for reasons still not clear, an incident occurred in the northern Hacienda of Talambo between Spanish Basques immigrants and Peruvian nationals. As a result, one Spaniard was killed and four others injured.

Informed about this, Pinzon, who was on his way to San Francisco, California, returned to Peru with his fleet. The Spanish commanding officer attempted to interfere in what many Peruvians thought was an internal affair and requested reparations for the incident. Later, the Government in Madrid also demanded the immediate solution of some pending issues, such as the payment of debts originated in the wars of independence. To negotiate these issues, a special emissary, Eusebio Salazar y Mazaredo, invested as a Royal Commissioner, was sent to deal with the Peruvian Government. Peru resented the title of Mazaredo, since a Commissioner was supposed to be a colonial officer and not an Ambassador, which was the proper title for a diplomatic envoy to a free and Sovereign State. Mazaredo, who arrived in Peru on March 1864, tried unsuccessfully to reach an agreement with the Peruvian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Juan A. Ribeyro.

In response, on April 14th, 1864, the Spanish squadron moved from Callao towards the islands of Chincha, the major source of Peruvian guano fertilizer. The small Peruvian garrison was forced to surrender and at 16:00 hours, a detachment of 400 Spanish marines seized the islands, raised their flag and placed Governor Ramon Valle Riestra under arrest aboard the Resolucion. To have an idea about the importance of those islands to Peru, it must be said that nearly 60% of the Government expenditures came from the custom duties from guano. Spain wanted to use the rich islands as a bargaining tool for their demands, and even an ambitious Spanish Minister back in Madrid proposed to swap them with the British for Gibraltar.

The Spaniards also blockaded Peru’s major port and placed the country into turmoil and anger. Even if during a first stage the Spanish Government of the new Prime Minister Jose Maria Narvaez did not approve the unilateral action taken by Pinzon and Salazar, over the next months he changed his mind and sent four more warships to reinforce the squadron. Narvaez also replaced Pinzon with the more capable Rear Admiral Juan Manuel Pareja, a former Minister of the Navy who, coincidentally, was born in Peru. His father, an army officer, was killed during the wars of independence, and Pareja disliked the “rebels” for that.

Admiral Pareja arrived on Peru on December 1864 and engaged in intense diplomatic negotiations with retired General Manuel Ignacio de Vivanco, the special representative of the Peruvian President. The negotiations concluded on January 27, 1865, with a preliminary agreement signed aboard the Spanish frigate Villa de Madrid. However, most of the population rejected the Vivanco-Pareja Treaty because it was very humiliating for Peru. Congress did not ratify it and a revolution against the Pezet Government exploded in the city of Arequipa months later.

Meanwhile, anti-Spanish sentiments in several South American countries such as Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador were increasing. It was obvious that the Spaniards had no intention to conquer again their former colonies. Neither they had the strength, nor the resources to do it, but it was possible that the Government of Madrid, while presenting a crusade of honor in the Pacific was trying to distract attention from domestic problems. It was understandable that after what had happen in Mexico and Santo Domingo, Peru and its neighbors were suspicious about the possibility of the re-establishment of the Spanish Empire. For this reason it was not surprising that when the Spanish gunboat Vencedora stopped at a Chilean port for coal, the President of that country declared that coal was a war supply that could not be sold to a belligerent nation. However, from the Spanish point of view such embargo could not be taken as proof of Chilean neutrality since two Peruvian steamers –one of them the Lerzundi- had left the port of Valparaiso with weapons and Chilean volunteers to fight for Peru. In consequence, Admiral Pareja took a hard line and demanded sanctions against Chile, even heavier than those imposed upon Peru. He then headed with part of his squadron composed of four wooden ships to Chile, while the Covadonga and the Numancia remained to guard Callao.

On September 17th, 1865, Admiral Pareja anchored his flagship, the Villa de Madrid, at Valparaiso and demanded that his flag be saluted with 21 guns. Under the circumstances the proud Chileans refused to salute Pareja's Insignia and war was declared one week later. Leopoldo O´Donnell, who was again Spain’s Prime Minister, backed Pareja. Since the Spanish Admiral had no troops with which to attempt a landing he decided to impose a blockade of the main Chilean ports. Even so, his plan was ridiculous, for in order to blockade Chile's 1,800 miles of coastline, Pareja would have needed a fleet several times larger than what he had at his disposal. The blockade of the port of Valparaiso, however, caused great damage to Chileans and neutrals.

On November 8th, 1865, Peruvian President Juan Antonio Pezet was forced to resign from office and was replaced by his Vice President, General Pedro Diez Canseco. However, Diez Canseco also tried to avoid a collision with Spain, and on November 26th General Mariano I. Prado, leader of the nationalist movement, deposed him. Prado immediately declared his solidarity with Chile and a state of war with Her Catholic Majesty’s Government in order to restitute the nation’s honor and confront Pareja´s insults and humiliations.

Ironically, that same day Admiral Pareja committed suicide. During the last weeks he had been suffering a series of setbacks. He could make no positive advances in his war with Chile, his blockade deteriorated and was ineffective and the crews of the ships were demoralized. The proud Admiral was unaware that the Chileans, in a brilliant naval action, had captured the gunboat Virgen de Covadonga and that during the fight the Spaniards had 4 men dead and 21 wounded (1). When on November 25 the American Consul casually mentioned it to him, the Admiral suffered a nervous collapse. It was too much for him. The Covadonga was the second warship lost by Spain in enemy waters after a fire destroyed the Triunfo a year ago. The next day Pareja dressed in his best uniform, laid down on his bed, and shot himself in the head.

Back in the Peninsula, the Spanish public opinion was enraged and demanded revenge. Because of the loss of the Virgen de Covadonga, one newspaper wrote:

“Let our squadron perish in the Pacific if necessary, only let our honor to be saved”

After Pareja´s death, the command of the Spanish squadron went to the Captain of the Numancia, Commodore Casto Mendez Nuñez.

On December the 5th 1865, Chile and Peru formally signed an alliance to fight against Spain. The treaty was ratified on January 12, 1866. Two days later Peru declared war on Spain. Immediately a squadron of the Peruvian navy under command of Captain Lizardo Montero, composed by the steam frigates Amazonas and the Apurimac, sailed towards Valparaiso to join the Chilean fleet. Once there the allied command was placed under orders of Chilean Admiral Manuel Blanco Encalada, an old but capable officer.

Rumors spread trough Europe and panic reached Spanish waters because two new powerful Peruvian ironclads had sailed from England and were said to be heading towards the port of Cadiz. The Spaniards were also afraid of hostilities against their merchant ships sailing in international waters. To prevent such actions Madrid dispatched to the Atlantic the frigate Gerona, which in time, near Madeira, would capture a 2000-ton disarmed Chilean cruiser of the “Super-Alabama” class built in England, and dispatched in secrecy under the code name “Canton”. The Spaniards will rename her “Tornado” (2). On the other hand, Peruvian warships will seize three Spanish transports off the coasts of Brazil while on their way to Chile. The Chilean Government on its part sent the steamer Maipu to the Straight of Magellan to intercept the Spanish transports "Odessa" and "Vascongada".


Most people in Spain thought that Peru and Chile were not worthy to fight against their glorious armada. Such a perception was based upon prejudices because both countries, as former colonies, were seen as inferior. Another reason was the lack of knowledge of the South American reality as well as the presumption by most Western powers of a moral and material superiority over other countries or territories of their time. For many Spaniards as most Europeans, there was no difference between Peru and Morocco or between Chile and the Dominican Republic and so they thought they could be easily defeated. That was a big mistake that would carry fatal consequences, as the lost of the Covadonga and the suicide of the gallant admiral Pareja. Their difficulties however, were just starting.

The order of battle of the Spanish and the allied fleets from the arrival of the scientific expedition to Callao in July 1863 to the naval encounters of February and May 1866 will go trough many changes because both navies were reinforced with new units.

The Spaniards had managed to assemble in South American waters a formidable squadron. It was composed of the following warships:

Iron-protected frigates

Numancia, at that time among the most powerful ships of the world (Built in France, 1863; Weight 7,500-tons; Speed 12 knots; weapons thirty-four 200-mm guns; Armor five and a half iron belt; Crew 620 men).

Steam frigates

Villa de Madrid, (Built 1862; Weight 4,478-tons; Speed 15 knots; Weapons thirty 200-mm guns, fourteen 160 mm-guns, two 120-mm guns, plus two 150-mm howitzers and two 80-mm guns for disembarks).

Resolucion, (Built 1861; Weight 3,100-tons; Speed 11 knots; weapons twenty 200-mm guns, fourteen 160-mm guns, one revolving 220-mm gun and two 150 mm-howitzers, two 120-mm guns and two 80-mm guns for disembarks).

Almansa, (Built 1864; Weight 3,980-tons; Speed 12 knots; armament thirty 200-mm guns; fourteen 160-mm guns and two 120-mm guns. She also had two 150 mm-howitzers and two 80-mm guns for disembarks). This ship would arrive to the Pacific on April 1866, days before the Dos de Mayo Combat.

Reina Blanca and Berenguela, (Each weighted about 3,800-tons. The first one had 68 guns while the Berenguela had 36 guns).


Virgen de Covadonga, (Built 1864; Weight 445-tons; Speed 8 knots; Weapons two revolving 200-mm guns at the sides and one revolving 160-mm guns at the prow). Spain however will lose the ship to the Chileans.


Vencedora, (Built 1861; Weight 778-tons; Speed 8 knots; weapons two 200-mm revolving guns and two 160-mm guns).

The squadron was reinforced with other small gunboats and transports, among them the Marques de la Victoria (armed with 3 guns), Maule, Consuelo and Mataure. It had combined artillery of 250 guns (3).

Among the two South American allies, Peru had the biggest fleet. Obviously it could not match the total tonnage and firepower of the Spanish squadron but neither it was, as some had thought, a third class flotilla that could be wiped out with a single of Mendez Nuñez ships. On the contrary, Peru had the most respectable naval squadron on the Western shores of the continent, managed by competent and professional sailors.

As Spain did in the 1850´s, Peru had renewed its navy trough the purchase of last generation warships in the best European shipyards, mainly British. When the crisis with Spain deepened, the Peruvian Government decided to increase its fleet in the event of war, and bought two former Confederate cruisers built in France and ordered the construction of two seagoing ironclads in England. It also decided to build ironclad of its own. By 1866 Peru had the following warships:


Apurimac, (Built UK, 1854; Weight 1,666-tons; Weapons forty four guns).

Amazonas, (Built UK, 1852; Weight 1,320-tons; Weapons twenty-six 32-pounders and six 64-pounders).

Richmond-Class casemated ram monitors:

Loa (Built, UK, 1854; redesigned and finished in Peru in 1865; Weight 648 tons; Weapons one 110-pounder and one 32-pounder. Protection iron armor 3-inch thick).

Victoria (Built Peru 1864; Weight 300 tons; Weapons one smoothbore 64-pounder. Protection iron armor 3-inch thick).

Union (Built France, 1864; Weight 1,600 tons; Speed 12.5 knots; Weapons two 100-pounder guns, two 68 pounders and 12 forty pounders)

America (Built France, 1864; Weight 1,600 tons; Speed 12.5 knots; Weapons two 100-pounder guns, two 68 pounders and 12 forty pounders)


Independence, casemate, central battery, ironclad steam frigate (Built UK 1865; Weight 2004-tons; Speed 12.5 knots; Weapons two 150 pounders, twelve 70 pounders, four 32 pounders and four 9 pounders. Protection 4-inch armor; Crew 260 men).

Huascar (Built UK 1865; Weight 1,130-tons; Engine 1,500 horse power; Speed 11.5 knots; Weapons, Two 300-pound Armstrong’s, two 40-pound pivots Armstrong at the sides and one 12-pounder at the stern. Protection 4.5 armor in the iron helmet amidships, 2.5 inches at the ends and 5.5-inches in the revolving turret. Crew 200 men).

Huascar was by all means an extraordinary warship. In theory, her 10-inch guns were capable of destroying any of the wooden Spanish frigates, whose most powerful guns were 68-pounders, number 2, incapable of piercing the armor or the Huascar or the Independence

Peru also had several other warships, including the Tumbes (carrying two rifled 70-pounders), Ucayali (two 32-pound guns, three 24-pounders and one 18-pounder), the Sachaca (armed with six-smoothbore 12-pounders) and the 850-ton General Lerzundi (six guns).

On September 1864 Peru also bought a brand new steamer in the United States, the Colon, armed with two-smoothbore 12-pounders. However, American General Irvin McDowell seized and held the Colon in San Francisco. The seizure of this ship was later approved by the U.S. Secretary of War and his additional orders provided that all war material was required for the use of the United States government, and nothing of the kind could be purchased or taken from the United States, especially on the Pacific coast. The Peruvian government protested against the seizure of the Colon and demanded that the vessel be released. The American government was slow to act and the order to release the Colon was not issued until March 14, 1865, more than six months after the seizure. In the meantime the case had been the subject of an investigation by a grand jury and an opinion rendered that there was no cause for the detention of the Colon. Nevertheless the ship was commissioned in the Peruvian Navy and arrived in time to fight against the Spaniards.

At the beginning of the conflict, the Chileans only had the Esmeralda, a 854 ton British-built corvette commissioned in 1854 and armed with 18 guns, and the Maipu, a 450 ton steamer built in the United Kingdom in 1855 armed with four 32 and one 68-pounder guns. Chile also was about to receive two Alabama class unarmored cruisers from the British, the Chacabuco and the O´Higgins, originally built for the navy of the “Confederate States of America”. Unfortunately for the allies those ships could not join the struggle because London seized them until the end of the war. The Chilean fleet however was increased with the 412-ton Spanish iron protected schooner Virgen de Covadonga and the 850-ton steamer General Lerzundi. The first one captured from the Spaniards and the second one bought from Peru in early 1866 and renamed as Lautaro.

. . . .

(1) The Tornado was apparently launched at Clydebank in 1863. The vessel had a protective 4" armor belt surrounding her engines and boilers. She was armed with one 220mm (7.8") muzzleloading Parrott guns, two 160/15 cal. muzzleloading guns, two 120-mm bronze muzzleloading guns, and two 87- mm/24 cal. Hontoria breechloading guns. She had a crew complement of 202 men. The Tornado has been built a commerce-raider for the North American Confederation. Seized by the British Government in 1863, and acquired in 1865, she was purchased by Chile for 75,000 Pounds through Isaac Campbell & January or February of 1866. According to some sources the vessel was renamed Pampero. Was captured off Madeira by the Spanish frigate Gerona on August 22, 1866 and renamed Tornado. Commissioned in the Spanish Navy, she was rated as screw corvette in 1870. She was converted to a torpedo-training vessel in 1886. Her hulk was sunk in Barcelona by Nationalist air raid during Spanish Civil War. She was finally broken up after 1939.

(2) St. Hubert Ch. “The Early Spanish Steam Warships 1834-1870” Warship International 1983. - # 4. - P.338-367; 1984. - #1. - P. 21-44.

(3) This episode was known as the Battle of Papudo and was fought 55 miles north of Valparaiso. The Chileans, following a threat used by Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane 45 years before, hoisted a British flag on the Esmeralda, and when they were close enough to Covadonga, they raised their own flag and unmercifully bombarded the Spanish ship until her surrender. Beside the casualties, seven Spanish officers and 115 sailors were taken prisoners.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Nitrate King: A Biography of "Colonel" John Thomas North (Studies of the Americas)

The first book-length biography of John Thomas North (1842-1896), known as 'Colonel North' in Britain and throughout the world as 'The Nitrate King,' this book utilizes sources in Britain and Chile and traces North's spectacular life from a mechanic in Leeds through his thirteen years in Peru and Chile culminating in his status as one of the richest and best-known men of his generation. North is today almost completely forgotten in Britain and remembered in Chile only to be vilified as the archetypal predatory capitalist. This book calls for a revaluation of North and examines several controversies—principally the enduring allegations that North manipulated the War of the Pacific and the Chilean Civil War of 1891. The book describes North's business activities; his re-invention as country gentleman at Avery Hill mansion; and his generosity, including the gift of Kirkstall Abbey to the city of Leeds.


"Well-written . . . and contributes new information about North’s life and the relation of that life to the economic development of Chile."--Michael Monteón, Professor of History, University of California, San Diego

"A revealing, entertaining, and long-needed biography of one of the nineteenth-century’s most flamboyant and controversial international capitalists--'Colonel' John Thomas North. Edmundson adeptly exploits previously unknown archival materials, the contemporary press, and a vast academic literature on the nitrate industry and Chilean politics to bring the 'Colonel' back to life in all his complexity."--Brian Loveman, Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, San Diego State University and author of Chile: The Legacy of Hispanic Capitalism and No Higher Law: American Foreign Policy and the Western Hemisphere since 1776

"The author's research, conscientiously carried out in English archives, and the collaboration of experts in information and of libraries, not only proves the seriousness of Edmundson’s work, but also the tireless idea of unraveling the life and actions of North in Chile and in other countries where he made investments." ‘El regresso de John Thomas North,’ Diario 21, Iquique, Chile. May 2, 2011 (trans.), Dr. Pedro Bravo-Elizondo (Ret.), Professor of Latin American Literature, Wichita State University.

From the Author

This is the first book-length biography of John Thomas North (1842-1896), known as 'Colonel North' in Britain and throughout the world as 'The Nitrate King'. I have used sources in Britain and Chile to trace North's spectacular life from mechanic in Leeds, through thirteen years in Peru and Chile, to become one of the richest and best-known men of his generation, and the first Honorary Freeman of Leeds. While writing my previous book - A history of the British presence in Chile - I was struck by the fact that North is today almost completely forgotten in Britain, and remembered in Chile only to be vilified as the archetypal predatory capitalist. My book calls for a revaluation, and examines several controversies--principally the enduring allegations that North helped manipulate the War of the Pacific, and was active in triggering the Chilean Civil War of 1891. The book describes North's business investments; his re-invention as country gentleman at Avery Hill mansion; and his generosity, including the gift of Kirkstall Abbey to the city of Leeds. 


STOP-PRESS: 'The Nitrate King' has been nominated by Palgrave-Macmillan for the PROSE Award 2011 - The American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence.

William (Eddie) Edmundson works as a consultant in Recife, Brazil, following a career in teacher training and management with the British Council that has taken him to Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and his most recent appointment as Director Cuba. He has a B.A. (Hons.) in English literature from Leeds University, a postgraduate certificate in education (Bangor University), and a masters in linguistics (Reading University). His first book focusses on Chile: 'A history of the British presence in Chile' (Nov. 2009). His second book is a biography of 'The Nitrate King' - John Thomas North - who was born in Leeds and made his first fortune in Chile. This book is available from April 2011 in the US, and May 2011 in the UK.

Born in Leeds in 1842 Colonel North was an engineer who was sent to Chile in 1869 to deliver a consignment of British equipment. He spotted the possibilities in the undeveloped Chilean / Peruvean nitrate fields and by various means gained control of a significant proportion of them. He also set up shipping resources to provide water for the industry and its workers, and invested in a mineral railway. He took advantage of the War of the Pacific in 1879, which led to Chile taking the nitrate-bearing territory from Peru and Bolivia, to buy up ownership at an advantageous rate, and, along with his co-investors, made a massive fortune, and returned to England as a tycoon. He was a famous celebrity in his day, although considered by some newspapers as a rogue who fleeced his investors, and was heading for trouble when he died unexpectedly at a relatively young age in 1896. He invested widely, in Australia, the Congo, Belgium and South Wales, where his name still adorns buildings in my home town. Several of his concerns continued into the 20th century, although many of his investors lost money, as so many did in 19th century get-rich-quick investment schemes, this was due to the continuous fluctuations in nitrate demand. His non-nitrate investments had a better track record. Many Chilean historians, and several left-wing ones see him as a robber baron, who stripped Chile of its wealth, but current reappraisals see it slightly differently, as he invested in and modernised the nitrate industry. The chapters in this book look at different aspects of his life and career. The contents are -

P001: Introduction
P007: We Had Adventures of All Sorts
P015: I Was Better Acquainted Than Any Other Foreigner
P025: Don Juan Thomas North
P037: The Nitrate King
P057: The Grand Promotion Army
P075: Colonel North
P097: The Sensation of the Hour
P107: A Visit to the Nitrate Kingdom
P129: A Millionaire Stripped Bare

This is a readable book, well-written, and although short, covers its subject in sufficient detail - worth getting from the library, as I did, if you are interested in Victorian entrepreneurs and engineering.
G. Simon

ROYAL NAVY AND THE PERUVIAN-CHILEAN WAR 1879 - 1881, THE: Rudolf de Lisle's Diaries and Watercolors

Gerard de Lisle

This beautifully presented book captures the spirit of a little known war where the Royal Navy played a peripheral but crucial role. The power of the British Empire was at its height, thanks to the reach of the Royal Navy and officers from that service who often found themselves far from home and in positions of power way beyond their rank.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011


From 1874 to 1879, the South American nation of Chile experienced a depression caused by falling copper and wheat prices, a dropping off of exports, and rising unemployment. The only bright spot in the economy was the expanding nitrate business, but its mining eventually caused war between Chile and its neighbors, Peru and Bolivia. Nitrates were mined in the Atacama Desert along the Chile-Bolivia border. Most of the work was done by Anglo-Chilean companies, which operated in the Bolivian province of Antofagasta and the Peruvian province of Tarapaca. An 1866 treaty between Bolivia and Chile set their border at the 24th parallel, with both countries able to mine nitrates between the 23rd and 25th parallels; tax revenue collected by either country along the frontier would be split with the other country. This taxation arrangement was altered in 1874 when Chile agreed to give up its share of Bolivian tax revenue in return for a promise that taxes on Chilean profits in Bolivia would not be raised for 25 years.

Though Chile had no border with Peru, aggressive Chilean miners pushed into the Peruvian desert to mine nitrates. By 1875, some 10,000 people were employed in mining and subsidiary operations in the Peruvian Tarapaca desert region. Peru had thus far said little about the Anglo-Chilean operations in its province, but in 1875 a faltering economy forced the Peruvian government to nationalize the nitrate companies. The Peruvian government paid for the companies with government bonds paying 8 percent, payable in two years. When the bonds came due, the Peruvians were unable to honor their financial commitments and the bonds’ value plummeted. The Anglo-Chilean companies were able to absorb the loss of the Peruvian assets, but 151 when the Bolivians decided in 1878 to raise taxes on the Chileans along the frontier in violation of the 1876 agreement, the loss of profits was too much to take. Chile refused to pay the higher taxes even when Bolivia threatened to nationalize the operations as the Peruvians had done. According to the 1876 agreement, an arbitrator should have been called in to handle the dispute, but Bolivia refused. The Bolivian government felt secure in its ability to back up its threats because of an 1874 secret mutual-defense treaty with Peru, but the Bolivians failed to consult the Peruvians in advance. In February 1879, Bolivia nationalized the mining companies, and Chilean troops went into action. On 14 February, they occupied the port of Antofagasta against no opposition; soon they were in control of the entire province. Not wanting to get involved in the fighting, Peru offered to mediate a peace settlement. Chile then learned of the secret treaty and, accusing the Peruvians of duplicity, declared war on them on 5 April 1879.

The combined Bolivian and Peruvian effort appeared daunting, especially since they had a combined population twice that of Chile, and Peru had a fairly good navy. However, Chile had a stronger and more stable central government, a more motivated population, a well-trained army, and a navy armed with two modern ironclads. Also, the main theater of operations was handier to Chile; the Bolivians had to cross the Andes, and the Peruvians had to cross the desert. All three countries were in economic trouble, but Chile was in the best financial shape and had the assistance of the British because the mining operations were mainly theirs. Both Bolivia and Peru had defaulted on British loans and angered the British by nationalizing the companies, so they had no qualms about supporting Chile.

The key battle of the war took place at sea on 8 October 1879, when the Chilean ironclads captured a Peruvian commerce raider, the Huascar, that had been hurting their trade and logistical operations. With control of the sea, Chile could supply its troops more efficiently, and the army was soon marching through Bolivian territory into Peru. Bolivia withdrew from the conflict in mid-1880 when Chilean troops occupied large parts of Peru. After a difficult battle, the Chileans captured the capital city of Lima in January 1881, effectively winning the war. Peruvians continued to fight a guerrilla war for two years, but on 20 October 1883 they gave up and signed the Treaty of Ancon. The treaty gave Chile the province of Tarapaca forever and two other provinces for 10 years, after which a referendum was to be held to determine their nationality. The referendum never took place, but in 1929 the two countries agreed to return the province of Tacna to Peru, while Chile kept the province of Arica.

The Bolivians signed an armistice with Chile in April 1884, in which they ceded the province of Antofagasta to Chile, but cession was not official until 1904, when a treaty was finally signed. That treaty obliged the Chileans to pay an indemnity and build a railroad from the Bolivian capital of La Paz to the coast of Arica. The railroad was completed in 1913.

With their army already mobilized, the Chilean government decided to use it to deal with the Araucanian Indians, a tribe that had been fighting for their land since colonial times. Hopelessly outnumbered and outsupplied, after two years the Indians were forced to sign a treaty in 1883 that placed them on reservations, though they were allowed to maintain tribal government and laws. Chile consolidated the rugged territory that had been the Araucanian homeland. With Peru bankrupt and Bolivia isolated, Chile became the strongest nation on South America’s west coast. Control of the area’s copper and nitrate meant an improving income, but close ties to Britain kept them from enjoying it totally. Chile decided to honor the Peruvian bonds issued when the Tarapaca mines were nationalized, and British speculators had been buying them up ever since Peru could not fulfill them. Thus, the British were able to control 70 percent of the nitrate production by 1890, as well as profit from their own construction of banks, railroads, and subsidiary businesses. Longstanding ties between Britain and the Chilean upper class made the British acquisition smoother, and some Chileans were able to profit from investments in British concerns.

References: Keen, Benjamin, and Mark Waserman, A Short History of Latin America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984); Loveman, Brian, The Legacy of Hispanic Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); Sater, William, Chile and the War of the Pacific (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986).

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Ten Centavos War

The War of the Pacific was popularly dubbed the “Ten Centavos (cents) War.” In 1877, after a devastating tidal wave destroyed much of the port of Antofagasta, the municipal council there passed a reconstruction tax. In 1878, President Hilarión Daza and the Bolivian Congress approved the modest 10¢ tax on every 100 pounds of nitrates exported from Bolivian territory. This law directly violated the 1874 treaty, and the Chileans and foreign investors were outraged. The British and Chilean–owned Nitrates and Railroad Company of Antofagasta refused to pay the tax, and tensions mounted.

At first, cooler heads prevailed. President Daza temporarily suspended the tax, and the company agreed to an annual voluntary contribution. But then Daza ended the moratorium and demanded that the tax be paid retroactively. Once again, the foreign company refused to comply. The Chileans responded with gunboat diplomacy, and anchored an ironclad in Antofagasta harbor and mobilized their entire fleet.

This time, President Daza refused to back down. With Bolivian sovereignty seemingly besmirched, Daza canceled the mining contract of the British-Chilean consortium. On February 14, 1879, Chile occupied Antofagasta—home to 5,000 Chileans and fewer than 600 Bolivians— and issued an ultimatum: Bolivia had 48 hours to accede to international arbitration of the dispute. President Daza ignored the deadline and insisted that the port first be liberated. He also withheld news of the Chilean landing for a week until after the conclusion of the popular carnival festivities then under way.

In no mood for more wrangling, Chile occupied Bolivia’s Antofagasta province and the entire Pacific coast south of the 23rd parallel in March. On March 14, Bolivia announced a formal declaration of war, but war still might have been averted if Peru’s last-minute conciliatory diplomacy had succeeded, or if Peru had not honored its defensive alliance with Bolivia. By this time, however, word of the Bolivian declaration of war had reached Santiago, and therefore, on April 5, Chile formally declared war against Bolivia and Peru.

Defeat and Loss of the Seacoast

Bolivia was totally unprepared for war, especially one so distant from its population centers and resource base, and suffered from grossly irresponsible leadership. Despite his patriotic bluster, President Daza was inept in the military campaign. On the battlefield, he proved cowardly, self-motivated, and (according to some accounts) often drunk. Daza withdrew his crack Bolivian regiments from the field and left the allied forces to be defeated by the Chileans in the Battle of San Francisco. Although the remaining allied forces were victorious days later in the indecisive Battle of Tarapacá, President Daza’s desertion became a great national embarrassment to Bolivia.

Historians have argued that Daza wanted to protect his prized regiments as a hedge against coup attempts, but on December 27, 1879, in a clever and meticulously timed plot, officers at the front and Colonel Eliodoro Camacho, the chief of staff, overthrew Daza, and the expresident fled into exile in Europe.

In January 1880, General Narciso Campero, a distinguished career officer and division commander, was appointed Bolivia’s provisional president and assumed command of the allied forces in the field as by then both the Bolivian and the Peruvian presidents had effectively deserted command of their armies. Campero’s Bolivian-Peruvian force was decisively defeated by the Chileans in May, and Campero and his exhausted troops retreated toward La Paz. At the head of one column of survivors, Campero was met with the news that the National Assembly had formally elected him president on May 31. As the marauding horde of desperate soldiers approached the Bolivian border, a cavalry force from La Paz intercepted and forcibly disarmed them. The government feared violence when the wounded and exhausted returnees learned that they would not receive the back pay owed them. For Bolivia, the shooting war was over, although hostilities between Peru and Chile continued for three more years while Bolivia watched from the sidelines, hoping for a favorable resolution.

On April 5, 1884, Bolivia signed the Truce of Valparaiso, which gave Chile control, but not permanent transfer, of Bolivia’s coastal territory. A peace treaty was finally signed in 1904, whereby Chile formally annexed Bolivia’s Atacama province (called Antofagasta today). Bolivia was guaranteed the right to import and export its goods through the ports of Arica and Antofagasta and to set up customs stations. Duties on imports were to be divided, providing Bolivia 75 percent and Chile 25 percent.

Thus, with the stroke of a pen, Bolivia lost a fourth of its territory and became the landlocked nation that it is today. The War of the Pacific was officially over, but not Bolivia’s relentless quest to regain a seacoast.

Bolivia - On the Eve of the Great Pacific War

No war breaks out over guano, of which little remains. It is saltpeter that throws the Chilean army into the conquest of the deserts, against the allied forces of Peru and Bolivia. Eduardo Galeano (1987, 218)

 The War of the Pacific was a war over resources, although territorial rivalry was its most immediate cause. The conflict also involved geopolitics, economic rivalry, greed, corruption, and personal ambitions. Indeed, the basic ingredient of the war—rivalry for power and economic dominance—first came into play with Bolivian independence. Because of this endemic regional rivalry, some historians have argued that the War of the Pacific was inevitable.

In the 1870s, the conflict of national interests and increasing disparities in economic and political power among the three neighboring South American countries of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru reached a critical climax. The new power distribution greatly favored Chile, and Chilean statesmen seized this opportunity to consolidate and further expand their nation’s influence and control along the Pacific coast.

Since its founding as a sovereign nation, Bolivia’s survival had been tentative. At first, Lima and Buenos Aires considered Bolivia’s very existence suspect. Bolivia, after all, had been capriciously carved out of the colonial audiencias that they had jealously controlled. Once established, Bolivia was troublesome and unstable. The new country seemed unable to rule itself, much less populate and effectively administer its vast and dispersed territory. Bolivia’s rich natural resources were the constant envy of its more powerful and aggressive neighbors in the Southern Cone. Debilitated by corruption and instability, Bolivia dismally failed to preserve its territory and resources when challenged by Chile.

In great part Bolivia’s geopolitics and unique national conditions facilitated this disastrous war and the loss of its Pacific seacoast. As late as the 1880s, the altiplano region remained the geopolitical center of the shaky new republic. The majority of the country’s territory, however, was neglected and isolated from the highland by formidable natural barriers—impassable and hostile mountain ranges, rivers, deserts, and jungles. Bolivians in these frontier regions were forced to fend for themselves. Moreover, Bolivia’s population was largely indigenous with only a thin upper crust of Spaniards and other Europeans. Neither social group had the necessary mobility or motivation to migrate to the less hospitable parts of the country.

These factors had a devastating impact on settlement of Bolivia’s Atacama province. Even after the discovery of guano and nitrate deposits in the Atacama Desert, which stretched from Peru in the north to Chile in the south, the Bolivian government was unable to incorporate and fortify this distant, sparsely populated coastal province. The unexpected bonanza in natural fertilizers brought a sudden influx of new settlers, prospectors, and entrepreneurs to the region; however, this population increase only compounded Bolivia’s problems since Bolivian citizens were now outnumbered 10 to one by Chileans and other immigrants, including thousands of Chinese coolies brought here by Peru and Chile as cheap, captive laborers.

With other nations and foreign firms competing for the profits from the bird droppings and saltpeter, Bolivia’s share of the bonanza steadily shrank. The remainder was squandered by the corrupt caudillos on profligate living and ill-advised foreign concessions and loans. Bolivian entrepreneurs’ resources were depleted or invested elsewhere, primarily in the highland silver mines. As a last resort, with the economy stagnant and the country heavily indebted, Bolivian governments permitted and encouraged British and Chilean capital to exploit the desert windfall on their behalf. In short, Bolivia’s inherent political and economic weaknesses directly contributed to the outbreak of the war.

Chile, on the other hand, stood in a position of relative strength. Unlike Peru or Bolivia, Chile’s exceptional political stability and economic growth since 1830 had helped make it the dominant power in the region. Chileans held regular elections for civilian governments and enticed foreign investors by the credibility of their sound political and financial systems. Chile’s cities were modern, and its people were mostly European immigrants, rather than Indians. Its economy was more diversified, and its territory was more integrated and cohesive. Chile had what both Peru and Bolivia lacked. Indeed, one Chilean president boasted in 1858 that the country had “the honor to have proved to the world that the Spanish American people can govern themselves by their own unaided efforts and can continue to prosper” (Bader 1967, 25).

This is not to say that all was well in Chile at the time. The country had its share of shortcomings and crises, and it was precisely a national crisis—the depression of 1878—that pushed Chile closer to war. By the mid-1870s, Chilean progress had come to a halt. Chilean exports had declined and the foreign debt had skyrocketed at the same time that droughts and diseases ravaged the country. Upward of 50,000 Chileans—mostly rotos, or landless peasant farmers of European descent—were forced to emigrate. Many would slave in the grueling guano and nitrate operations in Bolivia’s Atacama Desert.

Chile’s economic decline was an incentive to resolve the territorial dispute with Bolivia aggressively. Chile saw in the great riches of the coastal desert an immediate solution to the 1878 financial crisis and reliable long-term financing for the national debt and future commercial and territorial expansion. Decades later, Chile’s foreign minister, Abraham Köning, dissected Chilean motivations succinctly: “The area is rich and worth many millions” (Siles Guevara 1960, 68). Indeed, in the 20 years from 1880 to the end of the century, the gross value of the nitrate exports from the conquered regions reached nearly 3 billion pesos. On the eve of the war, corruption in Peru and Bolivia and the economic crisis in Chile had diminished the military preparedness of all three future belligerents. Chile, nevertheless, was relatively more prepared. For several decades Chile had been locked in a fierce military and commercial rivalry with Peru and had competed fiercely over control of the western seacoast. Now, Peru, like Bolivia, was virtually bankrupt, in political chaos on the eve of the war, and outclassed militarily by Chile. War decided this rivalry and assured Chilean hegemony on the Pacific coast.