IQUIQUE – On May 21, 1879, a Chilean navy corvette clashed with a Peruvian warship off the shores of Iquique. Chileans are being taught that commander Arturo Prat died a hero because he boarded the enemy ship as a last show of patriotism. While Chile lost the battle, Prat’s death would rally the nation against Peru, so the date is remembered as the turning point in the War of the Pacific, changing not just Chile.
The Battle of Iquique was one of the first battles in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) in which Chile fought the Argentina-backed Bolivia-Peru alliance. This war was not just about the mineral-rich territories but also about expanding borders and power, especially for Argentina.
Territory between Chile and Bolivia was contested as the withdrawing Spanish Empire left blurry borders. An 1866 treaty defined the area as a “mutual border,” meaning both countries would share the revenues of the saltpeter mines and not raise taxes on the commodity. Bolivia, however, sought an advantage – considering the danger of a looming Chile-Brazil alliance – by raising taxes in 1878. The Aníbal Pinto administration then faced immense pressure from Chile’s business community and reacted by invading Antofagasta.
On Mar. 14, Bolivia declared war on Chile. And when in response the Chilean representative in Lima urged Peru’s president to remain neutral, the leader informed him of a secret alliance with Bolivia. Chile would have to fight both.
Just nine days later Chilean and Bolivian troops clashed in Calama in the first battle of the war, resulting in Pinto declaring war against the alliance on Apr. 5.
Battle of Iquique
Conquering maritime territory was key to winning the war, and since Bolivia didn’t have a navy, Peru’s and Chile’s would go head to head.
The day Pinto declared war, Chile’s navy blockaded Iquique, then belonging to Peru, to provoke an enemy attack. About a month later however, Peru’s navy was still in Lima. On May 16, the Chilean fleet left Iquique to seek the enemy, leaving only two wooden ships, the Esmeralda and the Covadonga, behind. Arturo Prat, as the commander of the Esmeralda, was put in charge of the bay.
In an unexpected turn, Peru’s fleet left Lima that day to bring supplies to the troops in Arica. Both fleets unknowingly passed by each other. When the Peruvians reached Arica, they got wind of the paltry enemy force in Iquique and sent the Huáscar and Independencia ironclad steamships to seize the opportunity.
Early morning on May 21, the Covadonga’s lookout saw smoke on the horizon. Soon after, the ship’s captain, Carlos Condell, had a cannon fired to warn the Esmeralda. But the Huáscar fired a cannonball that missed both ships by only an inch, sparking the battle.
While the Chilean vessels stayed close to the shore to make the enemy hesitate to fire out of fear of hitting the city, they exposed themselves to attacks from Peruvian troops on land.
Despite deploying all weapons at their disposal, neither the Esmeralda’s nor the Covadonga’s ammo could penetrate the enemy vessel’s iron armor. After a direct hit from the Huáscar, the Covadonga retreated and was pursued by the Independencia. The smaller Chilean ship outmaneuvered the big and bulky Peruvian vessel, which ran aground in shallow waters, exposing it to a devastating attack from the Covadonga.
Meanwhile, Prat had the Esmeralda leave the bay to prevent further damage from the shore. But the move caused one of its engines to blow out. Too slow to escape, the Huáscar could ram the Esmeralda and fire its cannon at close range, killing at least 50.
According to Chile’s national narrative, Arturo Prat – on the sinking Esmeralda – shouted “let’s board, boys!,” jumping onto the Huáscar. But only one subordinate followed. The rest refused the order, which under Chile’s military code back then would dishonor them and was punishable by death. This refusal also raises questions about Prat’s connection with his troops, and how effective he must have been as commander. Consequently, the national narrative doesn’t focus on such details and remains incomplete.
Prat could get to the enemy captain but was promptly shot.
After his death, the Huáscar allowed the Esmeralda to surrender. Prat’s second in command took control and ordered the Esmeralda to be sunk, either so it wouldn’t fall to the enemy or to acknowledge defeat. Of its 200 sailors, only 57 survived, largely because the Huáscar – much to their confusion – rescued them.
En estos momentos, nos fundimos en un abrazo con los herederos de la gesta heroica del Capitán Arturo Prat Chacón y sus hombres de la corbeta Esmeralda, quienes, hace 141 años, grabaron su nombre en la historia, al entregar su vida por Chile. pic.twitter.com/CMjgFqfgrA
— Ejército de Chile (@Ejercito_Chile) May 21, 2020
Prat’s enemy, admiral Miguel Grau Seminario, ordered the Chileans to be buried in Iquique. He also had Prat’s diary, uniform and sword sent to his widow, along with a personal letter in which he praised Prat’s bravery.
The public would learn of these events in the following weeks and the tale inspired thousands. It also turned the public’s opinion about the war. While at first most saw the war as a defense of big business, Prat’s death made it personal. Many wanted to avenge the death of a hero and signed up for service. Newspapers, already in the hands of an oligarchy, would refer to Prat’s “Pratiotism” instead of patriotism.
Despite having won the battle, Peru didn’t come out unscathed. It lost the Independencia, which was a prime war asset. Chile only lost the old Esmeralda.
During the Battle of Angamos on Oct. 8, Chile captured the Huáscar, Peru’s last naval asset. Chile’s superior warships then dominated the area, and its navy became one of the most powerful in the region.
In 1883, Chilean troops occupied Lima, after which the three parties signed the Treaty of Ancón. Under this treaty, Chile gained Tarapacá, and temporarily Arica and Tacna. Argentina was the biggest winner though. The war weakened Chile to a degree that forestalled a powerful alliance with Brazil, which would have threatened Argentine security. By encouraging the Peru-Bolivia alliance to fight Chile, but without committing troops, Buenos Aires also preempted the rise of two potential challengers, turning them into markets instead.
And the post-war geopolitical constellation enabled Argentina to threaten Chile, leaving Santiago no choice but to cede swaths of Patagonia. Negotiations in 1929 led to Chile returning Tacna to Peru but keeping Arica. This treaty also cemented Bolivia’s status as a landlocked country and remains the source of geopolitical tensions.
Diego Rivera is currently a senior in University, finishing up his audiovisual degree. You can find him on Twitter as @Piover45.