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).


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The Huascar didn't sink. After the peruvians surrender, the chileans took control of the ship and sailed to Antofagasta. The ship is still afloat in the Chilean port of Talcahuano, and is part of the Chilean Navy Ship List as an Historic Museum.
    After some remodeling works, its total restoration started in 1951 in order to manage the appearance that had turned it into such a glorious boat and to convert it into a place of tribute to the Chilean and Peruvian naval glories.