Andrew Clem blog

War of the Pacific,

An excerpt from Chapter 3 of:

by Andrew G. Clem
Ph.D. dissertation, University of Virginia, January 2002
copyright by the author


Geopolitical rivalry afflicted much of Latin America during the early decades after independence from Spain in the early 1820s. Taking advantage of Peru's internal strife, Bolivian General Andres Santa Cruz led an army that conquered Peru in 1835. The formal union of these two countries in 1836 was regarded as a dire threat to the South American balance of power by Argentina's President Rosas, who declared war on the Peru-Bolivia Confederation in 1837. Under the de facto leadership of ambitious Minister of War Diego Portales, Chile followed suit and its forces occupied Lima from August to November 1838. Portales was later assassinated during an antiwar revolt that was fomented by Peru.

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Suffering acutely from the cutoff of foreign credits, in 1877 Bolivia unilaterally levied a special tax on the nitrate mines in the economic zone it shared with Chile, which retaliated by seizing Antofagasta and nearby nitrate mines in February 1879. President Prado sent an emissary to seek peace with Santiago, but Bolivia declared war on Chile and made known its “secret” alliance with Peru in March, provoking Chile into declaring war against Peru in April. Peru thus became involved willy-nilly in the War of the Pacific, against its own interests. Most Chileans blame the outbreak of the war on the secret treaty, but Davis wrote that the decisive factor in the war's outbreak were the dispossessed nitrate certificate holders (mostly Europeans and Chileans) who hated Peru for having nationalized the mineral deposits in 1875.

Major campaigns

The early stages of the war involved a see-saw naval campaign. Peru lost one of its two ironclad ships in May 1879 and the second one, the Huascar, was captured after its engine broke down during the Battle of Angamos in October. Admiral Miguel Grau died while defending his ship, thus creating a legend that has inspired martial valor in Peru ever since. Having gained complete control of the sea, Chile was able to stage a series of troop landings on the coast behind Peruvian frontlines, cutting off the vital supply lines to the troops deployed in the extremely arid Atacama Desert. The failure of the Bolivian army to relieve their isolated Peruvian allies at Iquique enabled the Chilean army to win a major victory there in November. This crucial turning point in the war gave rise to bitter recriminations between the two allies and has been a sore point in Peru's relations with Bolivia ever since.

Peru's ability to recover from these military defeats was crippled by the continued economic chaos which revealed the extreme fragility of the Peruvian state and made it very difficult to purchase new armaments. After President Prado traveled to Europe in a desperate attempt to buy new ships, former Treasury Minister Nicolas Piérola accused him of desertion and seized power in December 1879. Peru's abysmal credit record in Europe tended to favor Chile in the court of world opinion, and Pierola's issuance of worthless “inca” currency notes eroded investor confidence even further.

In part because of Pierola's distrust of Admiral Montero (who was commanding Army forces), Peruvian forces were dispersed, immobile, and lacked artillery where it was needed on the battle front. For this reason, the isolated Peruvian garrison at Tacna had no choice but to surrender in May 1880, leaving Chile in control of the south coast. After the Conference of Arica (October 1880) failed to achieve a compromise peace — in part due to inept U.S. diplomacy — Chilean landed troops near Lima and conquered the capital city in January 1881. Piérola fled Lima, after which a puppet regime governed at Chile's behest for several months, without exercising any real authority. For the next two years, General Andres Cáceres led a prolonged guerrilla war of resistance in the bush country of the mountains, frustrating Chile's attempt to vanquish the Peruvian nation.

Mediation, aftermath

Peru's thin hopes were raised briefly in March 1881, when the new Secretary of State James G. Blaine reversed the aloof policy of his predecessor William Evarts and set out to settle disputes in the Americas. This ambitious "enfant terrible of the Republican Party" envisioned the establishment of a U.S. naval base in Chimbote, Peru's finest natural harbor. Blaine sided with Peru and blamed Chilean aggression on British economic interests, but he resigned after President James Garfield died from an assassin's bullet in September. After it became clear that no U.S. support was forthcoming and as Chilean forces threatened to occupy the mountain city of Arequipa, Peruvian leaders ended their struggle. Under the terms of the Treaty of Ancon signed in October 1883, the nitrate-laden province of Tarapacá was permanently ceded to Chile, and the provinces of Arica and Tacna were to remain occupied for ten years, pending a plebiscite. As Mercado Jarrín concluded, "It was the lack of a strategic vision and inablity to foresee and politically direct the conflict that led us to inevitable defeat."

Losing the vast mineral deposits severely hampered Peruvian political and economic development, and it took years to overcome the burden of war reparations that were owed to Chile. The decade of the 1880s were a time of bitter disillusion in Peru, which developed an inferiority complex that became, in St. John's words, a vital part of its "myth-fantasy of nationalism." On the plus side, the agonizing self-criticism eventually gave rise to a new social reform movement led by Manuel Gonzalez Prada, the aristocratic "social conscience of Peru"; who defended Indian rights.

. . .

Peru’s overall foreign policy stance around the turn of the century could be described as assertive and prestige-focused, neither too aggressive nor submissive. In an attempt to achieve a final disposition of Arica and Tacna (which had been occupied by Chile since the War of the Pacific), Peru and Chile agreed to hold a plebiscite in those provinces in 1898. In 1900, however, Peru protested Chile's deliberate resettlement of the area as a blatant attempt to stack the vote outcome in Chile's favor.

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Legu¬ía initially counted on U.S. help in resolving disputes with its neighbors, but the terms of a settlement with Chile proposed by the United States in 1925 caused outrage in Lima. After a U.S. commission found that Chileˆïs resettlement policies had made it impossible to hold a fair plebiscite, and after a U.S. loan enabled Peru to purchase American-made submarines in 1926, Peru returned to the bargaining table. Under the terms of the Tacna and Arica Treaty signed in June 1929, Peru regained sovereign control over the city and province of Tacna, and was granted the use of port facilities at Arica, plus an indemnity of $6 million from Chile. The two neighbors were largely satisfied, but Bolivia was dismayed by the treaty's "Additional Protocol" declaring that there would be no transfer of the land in question to any third country without the other's agreement.

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In order to dissuade Bolivia from accepting an offer from Chile of a strip of land near the former Peruvian port of Arica, in July 1955 Peru signed a treaty with Bolivia that provided for building railroads and improving transportation across Lake Titicaca.


Percy Cayo Córdova and Raúl Palacios Rodríguez, El Mar de Grau y La Marina de Guerra del Perú. (Boulogne, France: Editions Delroisse, 1987)

William Jefferson Davis, Tacna and Arica: An Account of the Chile–Peru Boundary Dispute and of the Arbitrations by the United States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1931)

Edgardo Mercado Jarrín, Política y Estrategia en la Guerra de Chile. (Lima: n.p., 1974)

Ronald Bruce St. John, The Foreign Policy of Peru. (Boulder, CO: Lynn Rienner, 1992)