Thursday, April 23, 2009

Comparing the Navies

The famous Huascar

Evaluating the relative strengths of the belligerents’ fleets just prior to the outbreak of the War of the Pacific is a vexing task. Chilean and Peruvian historians, for example, traditionally pronounced their nations’ ships as barely seaworthy and belittled their crews’ professional skills, while exaggerating their opponents’ prowess. This rite of self-effacement had a clear purpose: by depreciating their prewar flotillas, and those who served in them, the writers could rationalize their nations’ defeats while elevating their victories to the level of the miraculous. Real problems did exist. But although budgetary problems forced the Chilean government to reduce naval expenditures, it was the questionable judgment and misguided priorities of Juan Williams Rebolledo, the Chilean navy’s commander, not material deficiencies, that limited his flotilla’s performance. Conversely, the skill and dedication of Adm. Miguel Grau, the commander of the Peruvian fleet, allowed his nation’s fleet to compensate for the loss of some its equipment and hold back the Chilean armada for the first six months of the war.

Learning the Lessons of Sea Power

Chile’s navy first took to the seas in 1818, when an embryonic fleet, under the command of the Scotsman Lord Thomas Cochrane, sailed north from Valparaíso to liberate Peru and Bolivia from Spanish rule. Some of the British naval officers who served in Cochrane’s armada remained in Chile’s fleet, thus explaining the presence of so many sailors with English surnames: John Williams, Santiago Bynon, Roberto Forster, Roberto Henson, Guillermo Wilkinson, Robert Simpson, Jorge O’Brien, Raimundo Morris (a few Americans, such as Charles Wooster, also served in Chile’s navy). Some, like Robert Simpson and Juan Williams Wilson, even sired a second generation of Chilean naval officers, including three who rose to the rank of admiral. Recognizing the vulnerability of the nation’s economy and its coastal population to a seaborne attack, Chile’s leaders early realized the need for a strong fleet. The government used this navy to vanquish the Peruvian- Bolivian Confederation in 1836. Domestically, the fleet helped suppress the abortive 1851 and 1859 revolutions. But after 1860, perhaps lulled by the lack of foreign and local enemies, Chile neglected its navy. The error of this policy became painfully apparent in the mid-1860s, when Chile and Spain went to war and a Spanish naval squadron subjected Valparaíso to a three-hour bombardment that inflicted fourteen million pesos in damage to the port. This Spanish incursion taught the Moneda that it needed a strong navy, especially since Peru’s fleet, reinforced by some recently purchased ironclads, now dwarfed that of Chile. In furtherance of this policy, Santiago bought two British-built corvettes, the Chacabuco and the O’Higgins, in 1866 and 1867. Two years after Peru responded by acquiring the Oneota and the Catawba, surplus U.S. riverine monitors, the Chilean government ordered two oceangoing ironclads from British shipyards. It also obtained two additional wooden corvettes, the Magallanes and the Abtao, as well as a transport. Anxious to achieve naval parity with Chile, the Peruvians wanted to buy more armored ships. Its legislature even allocated approximately four million soles for their purchase. The onset of a worldwide economic recession in the mid-1870s forced Lima to abandon its naval expansion program. Infected by the same economic malaise, Chilean officials became so desperate that they even considered selling the fleet’s ironclads for four million British pounds. Fortunately for the Chileans, their government could find no takers. Consequently, until onset of the War of the Pacific, the composition of the Peruvian and Chilean navies remained relatively stable.

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