War of the Pacific

views updated

War of the Pacific

War of the Pacific (1879–1884), an important conflict arising from a long-standing border dispute which pitted Chile against Bolivia and Peru. For years Bolivia and Chile had both claimed portions of the Atacama Desert. Then, in 1874, after years of bitter argument that threatened to precipitate a war, La Paz and Santiago settled the issue by having Chile relinquish its claims to the southern portion of the desert, in return for which La Paz promised not to increase the taxes on any Chilean corporation operating in the once-disputed territory.

In late 1878, the Bolivian dictator Hilarión Daza raised the export tax on a Chilean company mining nitrates in the Atacama. When La Paz refused to abrogate this impost, Chile, arguing that the Bolivian tax nullified the 1874 treaty, reoccupied the area it had once claimed. Daza responded by declaring war on Chile, but Santiago did not respond immediately. In April 1879, Chile officially learned that Peru had secretly signed an alliance promising to aid Bolivia if it went to war with Chile. When Peru stated that it would honor this obligation, Chile declared war on Peru and Bolivia.

Daza apparently adopted his truculent policy because his nation needed money and he believed that Santiago, already embroiled in a boundary dispute with Argentina, would not dare risk a two-front war. The Bolivian leader, however, miscalculated. Chile's president, Aníbal Pinto, although initially willing to negotiate, had little choice: domestic political and economic interests demanded that he act or be deposed.

Chile's declaration of war seemed foolhardy, since the combined Peruvian and Bolivian divisions outnumbered Chile's by two to one and Peru's fleet possessed four ironclads—including two top-heavy, and therefore unseaworthy, monitors—to Chile's two. In truth, because they all lacked a skilled officer corps, adequate weapons, and a technical infrastructure, none of the belligerents seemed prepared for war.

In order to attack their adversary and supply their troops once they went on the offensive, the two principals, Chile and Peru, first had to win control of the sea-lanes. Although the Chilean navy seemed better prepared, its commander, Admiral Juan Williams Rebolledo, adopted a passive strategy. Instead of attacking the Peruvian fleet at its home base of Callao, Williams blockaded the nitrate port of Iquique. Because this tactic deprived Peru of nitrate revenues, he believed that it would force the Peruvian fleet to attack him. Instead of complying, however, the Peruvian commander, Admiral Miguel Grau, reinforced Lima's southern garrisons and harried Chilean coastal shipping. Finally, stung into action by an angry public, Williams ventured north to attack Callao. When he arrived, he discovered that the Peruvian navy had gone south to Iquique, where it attacked the Chilean wooden ships, the Esmeralda and the Covadonga, that were blockading Iquique. During the unequal struggle, the Peruvians sank the Esmeralda but in the process ran one of their two ironclads, the Independencia, aground, leaving Admiral Grau with but one seaworthy ironclad, the Huascar. Thus, the battle off Iquique on 21 May 1879 altered the naval balance of power and the course of the war.

Grau, outnumbered, continued to attack Chile's coast. He even sent a vessel south to Punta Arenas to capture ships as they passed through the Strait of Magellan carrying war matériel to Chile. Williams did not respond until Peru's navy seized the Chilean troop transport the Rimac. Wounded by the ensuing public outrage, Williams quit. His replacement, Admiral Galvarino Rivera, working in conjunction with civilian officials to refurbish the Chilean fleet, then launched an offensive designed to destroy the Huascar. On 8 October 1879, off Point Angamos, Chile's two ironclads, the Blanco Encalada and the Cochrane, cornered the Huascar. Although outnumbered, Grau refused to strike his colors. Within minutes the Chilean gunner straddled the Huascar and killed most of its crew, including Grau. The surviving sailors attempted to scuttle the ship, but a Chilean boarding party captured the Huascar before it could sink.

Although the Chileans now controlled the sealanes, they did not know whether to strike at the Peruvian heartland, as they had in the 1836 war of the Peru-Bolivia Confederation, or to nibble away at the edges of their enemies' territory. Given the Chilean government's lack of confidence in its military, it decided to attack the southernmost Peruvian province of Tarapacá. In October 1879 the Chileans landed at Pisagua and Junín. Although Santiago's troops had to make a seaborne assault and scale well-defended bluffs, they subdued the enemy garrisons. After establishing a beachhead, Chilean commander General Erasmo Escala planned to advance inland, severing Iquique's supply lines to the interior of Peru. This tactic, in conjunction with a naval blockade, was designed to effect a Chilean takeover of the nitrate-rich province of Tarapacá.

Neither Peru nor Bolivia had remained passive while the Chileans were marshaling their forces. General Daza had ponderously marched his improvised, hastily raised army from the altiplano to Arica. The plans called for Daza to march his men south to a point where they would link up with a Peruvian army led by General Juan Buendía, who would advance from the south. Once united, the allied force would then supposedly drive the Chileans back into the sea from which they had so ungraciously arrived.

This grandiose operation never occurred as planned. The inept Daza led his ill-prepared and poorly equipped men into the desert, where they quickly succumbed to the heat and lack of supplies. Rather than persevere (not one of Daza's strong points), the Bolivian simply returned to Arica, without informing Buendía of his changed plans. Meanwhile, the Chileans penetrated the interior, capturing the oasis of Dolores.

Fortunately for Chile's Escala, an advance party from his force sighted Buendía's troops as they marched north. Thus aware of the Peruvian advance, the Chileans threw up hasty positions on a small mountain overlooking the coveted water supply. The combined Bolivian-Peruvian force launched their attack late in the afternoon of 19 November 1879. Their futile assaults in the face of determined Chilean opposition collapsed. The allied army fled to the interior.

Before the Chileans captured the province of Tarapacá, one more battle remained. One of Escala's subordinates, who believed the Peruvians to be demoralized, launched an attack on the city of Tarapacá. This audacious plan collapsed because of faulty intelligence and an unexpectedly quick Peruvian response. Although the Chileans lost heavily in that engagement, the remaining Peruvians retreated and within a matter of days Chile had occupied Iquique.

The Chilean military's poor performance in the Tarapacá campaign forced President Aníbal Pinto to act cautiously. He ordered his men to land in the province of Tacna, a strategy which he hoped would force the Peruvians to counterattack. When they did not, Pinto ordered an assault on Moquegua. The Chilean commander, Manuel Baquedano, easily captured the city but had to launch a brutal frontal assault to dislodge the Peruvians from the high ground. Regrettably from the Chilean point of view, this action did not inspire Peruvian commander Admiral Lizardo Montero to counterattack. Thus, Baquedano ordered his men to cross the desert and capture the city of Tacna.

This trek began on 8 April 1880. By early May the Chileans had advanced to within 23 miles of their objective. The allied army had dug in on a promontory commanding the road to Tacna. As before, Baquedano simply overpowered his outmanned enemy. While successful, this tactic proved costly in terms of men; some Chilean units suffered 30 percent casualties. Still, the assault carried Tacna and permitted the Chileans to take the port of Arica in a daring predawn assault. By June, Chile controlled Tacna.

Following an abortive peace conference, the Chileans planned to move on Lima. After the Chilean civilians raised an army of 20,000, Baquedano ordered General José Villagrán to secure a bridgehead at Chilca while Baquedano brought up the main portion of the army by sea. With some mid-campaign personnel changes the attack went as planned, so that by early December 1880 the Chilean army stood poised to attack Lima.

The Peruvian defenses consisted of two lines of hastily built fortifications anchored on low mountains and reinforced by the fleet's remaining monitor. Rather than flanking Lima's defense line, which would have allowed the Chileans to envelop their objective, Baquedano as always ordered a frontal assault. On 13 January 1881 the Chileans forded the Lurín River and, after bloody fighting, broke the enemy's line. Chilean discipline, however, collapsed: rather than pursuing the enemy, many troops looted the city of Chorrillos, allowing the enemy's army to flee to Lima. When an attempt to negotiate the surrender of the Peruvian capital collapsed, the Chileans again attacked, easily vanquishing the remaining defenders dug in along the Surco River. By 17 January, the Chileans had taken Lima.

Regrettably for Chile, peace did not follow. A newly formed Peruvian government proved hesitant to cede Tarapacá as well as Tacna to Chile. Moreover, the remnants of the Peruvian army continued to resist. Facing the possibility of a protracted war, in 1881 and 1882 the Chileans launched punitive expeditions to eradicate Peruvian reistance. The struggle dragged on, however, consuming Chilean treasure and blood. Only in 1883, when the Chilean army had vanquished the forces of Andrés Cáceres at Hua-machaca, did Peru capitulate and sign a peace treaty ceding Tarapacá to Chile and allowing it to occupy Tacna and Arica for ten years. When faced with the possibility of an invasion, Bolivia, which had withdrawn into the altiplano, accepted an armistice that gave the Atacama to Chile. By 1884, Chile had increased its size, acquired a monopoly of the world's supply of nitrates, and dominated the Southern Hemisphere's Pacific Coast.

See alsoAtacama Desert; Daza, Hilarión; La Paz; Pinto Garmendia, Aníbal; Williams Rebolledo, Juan.


Robert N. Boyd, Chili: Sketches of Chili and the Chilians During the War 1879–1880 (1881).

Mariano Felipe Paz-Soldán, Narración histórica de la guerra de Chile contra Perú y Bolivia (1884).

Gonzalo Bulnes, La guerra del Pacífico (1919).

Carlos Dellepiane, Historia militar del Perú, vol. 2 (1941).

Roberto Querejazu Calvo, Guano, salitre, sangre (1979); Historia del ejército de Chile, vols. 5 and 6 (1981).

Augusto Pinochet, La guerra del Pacífico (1984).

William F. Sater, Chile and the War of the Pacific (1986).

Additional Bibliography

Larraín Mira, Paz. Presencia de la mujer chilena en la Guerra del Pacífico. Santiago de Chile: Universidad Gabriela Mistral, 2002.

Méndez Notari, Carlos. Héroes del silencio: los veteranos de la Guerra del Pacífico, 1884–1924. Santiago: Ediciones Centro de Estudios Bicentenario, 2004.

                                        William F. Sater