One hundred and thirty-four years ago today, the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) began, pitting Chile against Peru and Bolivia in a war that would see Peru lose its southern-most provinces, Bolivia lose its access to the Pacific Ocean (thus becoming the second land-locked country in South America), and Chile gain control over the nitrate-rich region of the Atacama desert.
The war had its roots in the growing value of nitrates on the global market and nationalist tensions between the three countries. The Atacama was a region rich in nitrates that could be converted into fertilizer. As Europe enjoyed a “green revolution” that saw intensified agricultural output thanks to technological innovations, the nitrates became an increasingly valuable commodity, useful in producing fertilizer. As Peru’s guano deposits dried up, the nitrates of the Atacama became increasingly appealing. Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite in 1867 only added to the profitability of nitrates. Although the deposits rested largely on Peruvian and Bolivian soil, it had been Chilean private enterprise that had invested heavily in the region. Needing to find an alternate source of income to replace guano (which had provided the Peruvian government with 80% of its revenues at its peak), Peru nationalized the nitrate mines, while Bolivia decided to levy a 10-cent tax on the railways that transported nitrates to the Pacific ports. Feeling its economic interests threatened, and still bearing some suspicions of Peru and Bolivia dating back to the Peruvian-Bolivian Federation of 1836-1839, Chile decided to occupy Antofagosta, Bolivia’s largest port, on February 14, 1879. Peru tried to mediate, but Chile refused such offers, declaring itself to be at war with Bolivia; the latter country asked Peru to respect treaties and join Bolivia. Though Peru was hesitant to go to war, it was also hesitant to declare neutrality, leading Chile to declare war on Peru as well.
The war began with naval battles between the Chilean and Peruvian navies. While Peru’s navy had initial successes against the Chilean navy, by October of 1879, Chile controlled the ocean along the borders of all three countries, allowing it to begin land operations to occupy Bolivia and Peru. Although Peru ultimately built the first functioning submarine in South American military history, the Toro, it never saw battle, and was scuttled by the end of the war.
Controlling the seas, Chile began to occupy the three southern-most provinces of Peru – Tarapacá, Tacna, and Arica – where the nitrate holdings were. Although Peru again initially defeated Chilean forces, the Peruvian army nonetheless was unable to maintain its territorial control and retreated from the field, leaving Tarapacá, with its 200,000 citizens (roughly 10% of Peru’s total population) and 28 million English pounds worth of nitrates, to the Chileans. Chile continued to advance, even while riots broke out in the capital of Lima and the Peruvian government tried to negotiate deals for more weapons and warships. By January of 1881, the Chilean army had entered Lima. However, Peruvian forces managed to escape, laying the groundwork for widespread resistance and guerrilla warfare that would continue for another two years.
Meanwhile, in Bolivia, troops fell quickly. Although they outnumbered the Chileans, those forces stationed in Iquique had retreated by the end of 1879. While the outcome was far from inevitable, the fact remained that Chile had better, German-made weapons and better training at its disposal. Additionally, Bolivia had contended with nearly 40 years of political instability and economic weakness after Chile defeated the Bolivian-Peruvian confederation, even while the Chilean state and its institutions had enjoyed relative stability. By 1880, Chilean troops maneuvered with general ease in Bolivian territories.
In spite of Chile’s quick successes, the war dragged on through guerrilla struggles and grassroots opposition in both Peru and Bolivia for several years. There were several efforts to resolve the issue in the international community. In October 1880, the US gathered Peruvian, Bolivian, and Chilean officials on the USS Lackawanna off the coast of Peru to hold negotiations after Chile had refused Ecuadoran attempts to negotiate the situation earlier in the year. However, Peru and Bolivia understandably demanded the withdrawal of Chilean troops from what they rightly viewed as their lands, and the negotiations broke down.
Peace finally arrived in 1883. Although Peru and Chile agreed to peace in October of that year, the terms of the treaty remained contentious for decades, and only in 1929, with Herbert Hoover’s administration mediating, did the two countries agree upon not only the cession of not only Tarapacá (originally agreed upon in 1883) but also Arica. Meanwhile, Bolivia signed a truce, but not a treaty, in 1884, ceding its entire Pacific coast to Chile (who needed the territory if it were to maintain continuity between its historical border and the newly-acquired territories in Peru). The terms of the 1884 truce became official in a 1904 treaty signing.
The War of the Pacific marked the last of the nineteenth-century international wars in South America (though Colombia and Chile both would still endure civil wars before the century was out). In total, over 13,000 people died in the war, with an overwhelming majority of them coming from Bolivia and Peru. The loss of life alone would have been damaging enough, but the territorial transformations only deepened the sense of loss. Peru, still seeking a source of revenue for its export-dependent state, lost out on the territories with some of the richer nitrate deposits, denying it revenue either from exports or from taxes that could have helped, even while Chile was able to generate money on taxes related to nitrate production. Most damaging, though, was Bolivia’s loss of a path to the sea. Indeed, the territorial loss is still a point of contention today. Bolivia and Chile still only retain consular ties, rather than full diplomatic ties, and social groups still periodically (and not unfairly) blame the lack of access to a port for economic crises in Bolivia (such as the 2003 “gas wars” in Bolivia). Indeed, the memorialization of the loss of land and life is visible in public spaces in both Bolivia and Peru even today, and while relations between them and Chile have thawed somewhat over years, the nationalistic tensions still run high, as a recent video of Chilean sailors’ chants reminded us. The War of the Pacific may have ended 130 years ago, but the social and political wounds from the war still run deep.
This is part of a periodic series on major dates in Latin American history. Other entries are available here, and include the launch of NAFTA and the Zapatista movement, and the beginning of the “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras. Other entries are available here.