The Chincha Islands War (Spanish: Guerra hispano-sudamericana) was a series of coastal and naval battles between Spain and its former colonies of Peru and Chile from 1864 to 1866. The conflict began with Spain’s seizure of the guano-rich Chincha Islands in one of a series of attempts by Spain, under Isabella II, to reassert its influence over its former South American colonies. The war saw the use of ironclads, including the Spanish ship Numancia, the first ironclad to circumnavigate the world.
Under the rule of Isabel the II (1843-1868) Spain faced one of the most interesting and turbulent years of its history. When the young Queen was crowned, she found a weak country that was far beyond from being the great power of the past. She also found that the formerly powerful Spanish Armada had only three main warships, all of them built during the XVIII century and a couple of frigates and steamers, which was a clear contrast with the 177 warships that the country had in 1790.
Isabel tried to recover the military prestige that the Kingdom had until the battle of Trafalgar, in which the British wiped out its impressive armada. She encouraged the construction of a modern and powerful fleet, which in few years turned Spain into the world’s fourth naval power. Between 1859 and 1860, 170 million of pesetas, an enormous amount for those days, were allocated for the construction of new warships. The result was a mighty squadron composed of six iron-protected frigates, eleven first class frigates and twelve steam corvettes, plus dozens of transports and smaller warships. Few times in her history Spain had assembled such an important and respectable fleet.
Despite her internal problems, Spain became again a colonial power, and backed by her naval might, by the end of the 1850´s the kingdom was participating in several overseas interventions and internal conflicts. During the second Government of former Governor of Cuba, Leopoldo O´Donnell (1858-1863), Spain engaged in a war against Morocco (Tetuan), in a conflict in Indochina (Vietnam), in the French-lead invasion of Mexico and in the brief annexation of the Dominican Republic.
Soon it was the turn of South America.
At the end of 1862, the Spanish Queen approved the sending of a so-called “scientific expedition” to Latin American waters. The expedition was placed under command of Rear Admiral Luis Hernandez Pinzon –a direct descendant of the Pinzon brothers who accompanied Christopher Columbus in the discovery of the New World- and was escorted by three warships: The twin steam frigates Triunfo and Resolucion and the schooner Virgen de Covadonga. However, beside scientific research, one of the purposes of the trip was to support the claims of Spanish citizens living in the Americas.
On April 18, 1863, the Spanish fleet arrived at the Chilean port of Valparaiso. While in Chilean waters the officers and men were cordially received and the Spaniards responded in kind. But in July of that year, once in Peru, the problems started. At that time Spain did not have diplomatic relations with Peru neither had recognized its independence obtained in 1821. Despite this situation, the expedition was received with friendly demonstrations by the authorities. Unfortunately, on August 2, and for reasons still not clear, an incident occurred in the northern Hacienda of Talambo between Spanish Basques immigrants and Peruvian nationals. As a result, one Spaniard was killed and four others injured.
Informed about this, Pinzon, who was on his way to San Francisco, California, returned to Peru with his fleet. The Spanish commanding officer attempted to interfere in what many Peruvians thought was an internal affair and requested reparations for the incident. Later, the Government in Madrid also demanded the immediate solution of some pending issues, such as the payment of debts originated in the wars of independence. To negotiate these issues, a special emissary, Eusebio Salazar y Mazaredo, invested as a Royal Commissioner, was sent to deal with the Peruvian Government. Peru resented the title of Mazaredo, since a Commissioner was supposed to be a colonial officer and not an Ambassador, which was the proper title for a diplomatic envoy to a free and Sovereign State. Mazaredo, who arrived in Peru on March 1864, tried unsuccessfully to reach an agreement with the Peruvian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Juan A. Ribeyro.
In response, on April 14th, 1864, the Spanish squadron moved from Callao towards the islands of Chincha, the major source of Peruvian guano fertilizer. The small Peruvian garrison was forced to surrender and at 16:00 hours, a detachment of 400 Spanish marines seized the islands, raised their flag and placed Governor Ramon Valle Riestra under arrest aboard the Resolucion. To have an idea about the importance of those islands to Peru, it must be said that nearly 60% of the Government expenditures came from the custom duties from guano. Spain wanted to use the rich islands as a bargaining tool for their demands, and even an ambitious Spanish Minister back in Madrid proposed to swap them with the British for Gibraltar.
The Spaniards also blockaded Peru’s major port and placed the country into turmoil and anger. Even if during a first stage the Spanish Government of the new Prime Minister Jose Maria Narvaez did not approve the unilateral action taken by Pinzon and Salazar, over the next months he changed his mind and sent four more warships to reinforce the squadron. Narvaez also replaced Pinzon with the more capable Rear Admiral Juan Manuel Pareja, a former Minister of the Navy who, coincidentally, was born in Peru. His father, an army officer, was killed during the wars of independence, and Pareja disliked the “rebels” for that.
Admiral Pareja arrived on Peru on December 1864 and engaged in intense diplomatic negotiations with retired General Manuel Ignacio de Vivanco, the special representative of the Peruvian President. The negotiations concluded on January 27, 1865, with a preliminary agreement signed aboard the Spanish frigate Villa de Madrid. However, most of the population rejected the Vivanco-Pareja Treaty because it was very humiliating for Peru. Congress did not ratify it and a revolution against the Pezet Government exploded in the city of Arequipa months later.
Meanwhile, anti-Spanish sentiments in several South American countries such as Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador were increasing. It was obvious that the Spaniards had no intention to conquer again their former colonies. Neither they had the strength, nor the resources to do it, but it was possible that the Government of Madrid, while presenting a crusade of honor in the Pacific was trying to distract attention from domestic problems. It was understandable that after what had happen in Mexico and Santo Domingo, Peru and its neighbors were suspicious about the possibility of the re-establishment of the Spanish Empire. For this reason it was not surprising that when the Spanish gunboat Vencedora stopped at a Chilean port for coal, the President of that country declared that coal was a war supply that could not be sold to a belligerent nation. However, from the Spanish point of view such embargo could not be taken as proof of Chilean neutrality since two Peruvian steamers –one of them the Lerzundi- had left the port of Valparaiso with weapons and Chilean volunteers to fight for Peru. In consequence, Admiral Pareja took a hard line and demanded sanctions against Chile, even heavier than those imposed upon Peru. He then headed with part of his squadron composed of four wooden ships to Chile, while the Covadonga and the Numancia remained to guard Callao.
On September 17th, 1865, Admiral Pareja anchored his flagship, the Villa de Madrid, at Valparaiso and demanded that his flag be saluted with 21 guns. Under the circumstances the proud Chileans refused to salute Pareja’s Insignia and war was declared one week later. Leopoldo O´Donnell, who was again Spain’s Prime Minister, backed Pareja. Since the Spanish Admiral had no troops with which to attempt a landing he decided to impose a blockade of the main Chilean ports. Even so, his plan was ridiculous, for in order to blockade Chile’s 1,800 miles of coastline, Pareja would have needed a fleet several times larger than what he had at his disposal. The blockade of the port of Valparaiso, however, caused great damage to Chileans and neutrals.
On November 8th, 1865, Peruvian President Juan Antonio Pezet was forced to resign from office and was replaced by his Vice President, General Pedro Diez Canseco. However, Diez Canseco also tried to avoid a collision with Spain, and on November 26th General Mariano I. Prado, leader of the nationalist movement, deposed him. Prado immediately declared his solidarity with Chile and a state of war with Her Catholic Majesty’s Government in order to restitute the nation’s honor and confront Pareja´s insults and humiliations.
Ironically, that same day Admiral Pareja committed suicide. During the last weeks he had been suffering a series of setbacks. He could make no positive advances in his war with Chile, his blockade deteriorated and was ineffective and the crews of the ships were demoralized. The proud Admiral was unaware that the Chileans, in a brilliant naval action, had captured the gunboat Virgen de Covadonga and that during the fight the Spaniards had 4 men dead and 21 wounded (1). When on November 25 the American Consul casually mentioned it to him, the Admiral suffered a nervous collapse. It was too much for him. The Covadonga was the second warship lost by Spain in enemy waters after a fire destroyed the Triunfo a year ago. The next day Pareja dressed in his best uniform, laid down on his bed, and shot himself in the head.
Back in the Peninsula, the Spanish public opinion was enraged and demanded revenge. Because of the loss of the Virgen de Covadonga, one newspaper wrote:
“Let our squadron perish in the Pacific if necessary, only let our honor to be saved”
After Pareja´s death, the command of the Spanish squadron went to the Captain of the Numancia, Commodore Casto Mendez Nuñez.
On December the 5th 1865, Chile and Peru formally signed an alliance to fight against Spain. The treaty was ratified on January 12, 1866. Two days later Peru declared war on Spain. Immediately a squadron of the Peruvian navy under command of Captain Lizardo Montero, composed by the steam frigates Amazonas and the Apurimac, sailed towards Valparaiso to join the Chilean fleet. Once there the allied command was placed under orders of Chilean Admiral Manuel Blanco Encalada, an old but capable officer.
Rumors spread trough Europe and panic reached Spanish waters because two new powerful Peruvian ironclads had sailed from England and were said to be heading towards the port of Cadiz. The Spaniards were also afraid of hostilities against their merchant ships sailing in international waters. To prevent such actions Madrid dispatched to the Atlantic the frigate Gerona, which in time, near Madeira, would capture a 2000-ton disarmed Chilean cruiser of the “Super-Alabama” class built in England, and dispatched in secrecy under the code name “Canton”. The Spaniards will rename her “Tornado” (2). On the other hand, Peruvian warships will seize three Spanish transports off the coasts of Brazil while on their way to Chile. The Chilean Government on its part sent the steamer Maipu to the Straight of Magellan to intercept the Spanish transports “Odessa” and “Vascongada”.
Most people in Spain thought that Peru and Chile were not worthy to fight against their glorious armada. Such a perception was based upon prejudices because both countries, as former colonies, were seen as inferior. Another reason was the lack of knowledge of the South American reality as well as the presumption by most Western powers of a moral and material superiority over other countries or territories of their time. For many Spaniards as most Europeans, there was no difference between Peru and Morocco or between Chile and the Dominican Republic and so they thought they could be easily defeated. That was a big mistake that would carry fatal consequences, as the lost of the Covadonga and the suicide of the gallant admiral Pareja. Their difficulties however, were just starting.
The order of battle of the Spanish and the allied fleets from the arrival of the scientific expedition to Callao in July 1863 to the naval encounters of February and May 1866 will go trough many changes because both navies were reinforced with new units.
The Spaniards had managed to assemble in South American waters a formidable squadron. It was composed of the following warships:
Numancia, at that time among the most powerful ships of the world (Built in France, 1863; Weight 7,500-tons; Speed 12 knots; weapons thirty-four 200-mm guns; Armor five and a half iron belt; Crew 620 men).
Villa de Madrid, (Built 1862; Weight 4,478-tons; Speed 15 knots; Weapons thirty 200-mm guns, fourteen 160 mm-guns, two 120-mm guns, plus two 150-mm howitzers and two 80-mm guns for disembarks).
Resolucion, (Built 1861; Weight 3,100-tons; Speed 11 knots; weapons twenty 200-mm guns, fourteen 160-mm guns, one revolving 220-mm gun and two 150 mm-howitzers, two 120-mm guns and two 80-mm guns for disembarks).
Almansa, (Built 1864; Weight 3,980-tons; Speed 12 knots; armament thirty 200-mm guns; fourteen 160-mm guns and two 120-mm guns. She also had two 150 mm-howitzers and two 80-mm guns for disembarks). This ship would arrive to the Pacific on April 1866, days before the Dos de Mayo Combat.
Reina Blanca and Berenguela, (Each weighted about 3,800-tons. The first one had 68 guns while the Berenguela had 36 guns).
Virgen de Covadonga, (Built 1864; Weight 445-tons; Speed 8 knots; Weapons two revolving 200-mm guns at the sides and one revolving 160-mm guns at the prow). Spain however will lose the ship to the Chileans.
Vencedora, (Built 1861; Weight 778-tons; Speed 8 knots; weapons two 200-mm revolving guns and two 160-mm guns).
The squadron was reinforced with other small gunboats and transports, among them the Marques de la Victoria (armed with 3 guns), Maule, Consuelo and Mataure. It had combined artillery of 250 guns (3).
Among the two South American allies, Peru had the biggest fleet. Obviously it could not match the total tonnage and firepower of the Spanish squadron but neither it was, as some had thought, a third class flotilla that could be wiped out with a single of Mendez Nuñez ships. On the contrary, Peru had the most respectable naval squadron on the Western shores of the continent, managed by competent and professional sailors.
As Spain did in the 1850´s, Peru had renewed its navy trough the purchase of last generation warships in the best European shipyards, mainly British. When the crisis with Spain deepened, the Peruvian Government decided to increase its fleet in the event of war, and bought two former Confederate cruisers built in France and ordered the construction of two seagoing ironclads in England. It also decided to build ironclad of its own. By 1866 Peru had the following warships:
Apurimac, (Built UK, 1854; Weight 1,666-tons; Weapons forty four guns).
Amazonas, (Built UK, 1852; Weight 1,320-tons; Weapons twenty-six 32-pounders and six 64-pounders).
Richmond-Class casemated ram monitors:
Loa (Built, UK, 1854; redesigned and finished in Peru in 1865; Weight 648 tons; Weapons one 110-pounder and one 32-pounder. Protection iron armor 3-inch thick).
Victoria (Built Peru 1864; Weight 300 tons; Weapons one smoothbore 64-pounder. Protection iron armor 3-inch thick).
Union (Built France, 1864; Weight 1,600 tons; Speed 12.5 knots; Weapons two 100-pounder guns, two 68 pounders and 12 forty pounders)
America (Built France, 1864; Weight 1,600 tons; Speed 12.5 knots; Weapons two 100-pounder guns, two 68 pounders and 12 forty pounders)
Independence, casemate, central battery, ironclad steam frigate (Built UK 1865; Weight 2004-tons; Speed 12.5 knots; Weapons two 150 pounders, twelve 70 pounders, four 32 pounders and four 9 pounders. Protection 4-inch armor; Crew 260 men).
Huascar (Built UK 1865; Weight 1,130-tons; Engine 1,500 horse power; Speed 11.5 knots; Weapons, Two 300-pound Armstrong’s, two 40-pound pivots Armstrong at the sides and one 12-pounder at the stern. Protection 4.5 armor in the iron helmet amidships, 2.5 inches at the ends and 5.5-inches in the revolving turret. Crew 200 men).
Huascar was by all means an extraordinary warship. In theory, her 10-inch guns were capable of destroying any of the wooden Spanish frigates, whose most powerful guns were 68-pounders, number 2, incapable of piercing the armor or the Huascar or the Independence
Peru also had several other warships, including the Tumbes (carrying two rifled 70-pounders), Ucayali (two 32-pound guns, three 24-pounders and one 18-pounder), the Sachaca (armed with six-smoothbore 12-pounders) and the 850-ton General Lerzundi (six guns).
On September 1864 Peru also bought a brand new steamer in the United States, the Colon, armed with two-smoothbore 12-pounders. However, American General Irvin McDowell seized and held the Colon in San Francisco. The seizure of this ship was later approved by the U.S. Secretary of War and his additional orders provided that all war material was required for the use of the United States government, and nothing of the kind could be purchased or taken from the United States, especially on the Pacific coast. The Peruvian government protested against the seizure of the Colon and demanded that the vessel be released. The American government was slow to act and the order to release the Colon was not issued until March 14, 1865, more than six months after the seizure. In the meantime the case had been the subject of an investigation by a grand jury and an opinion rendered that there was no cause for the detention of the Colon. Nevertheless the ship was commissioned in the Peruvian Navy and arrived in time to fight against the Spaniards.
At the beginning of the conflict, the Chileans only had the Esmeralda, a 854 ton British-built corvette commissioned in 1854 and armed with 18 guns, and the Maipu, a 450 ton steamer built in the United Kingdom in 1855 armed with four 32 and one 68-pounder guns. Chile also was about to receive two Alabama class unarmored cruisers from the British, the Chacabuco and the O´Higgins, originally built for the navy of the “Confederate States of America”. Unfortunately for the allies those ships could not join the struggle because London seized them until the end of the war. The Chilean fleet however was increased with the 412-ton Spanish iron protected schooner Virgen de Covadonga and the 850-ton steamer General Lerzundi. The first one captured from the Spaniards and the second one bought from Peru in early 1866 and renamed as Lautaro.
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(1) The Tornado was apparently launched at Clydebank in 1863. The vessel had a protective 4″ armor belt surrounding her engines and boilers. She was armed with one 220mm (7.8″) muzzleloading Parrott guns, two 160/15 cal. muzzleloading guns, two 120-mm bronze muzzleloading guns, and two 87- mm/24 cal. Hontoria breechloading guns. She had a crew complement of 202 men. The Tornado has been built a commerce-raider for the North American Confederation. Seized by the British Government in 1863, and acquired in 1865, she was purchased by Chile for 75,000 Pounds through Isaac Campbell & Co.in January or February of 1866. According to some sources the vessel was renamed Pampero. Was captured off Madeira by the Spanish frigate Gerona on August 22, 1866 and renamed Tornado. Commissioned in the Spanish Navy, she was rated as screw corvette in 1870. She was converted to a torpedo-training vessel in 1886. Her hulk was sunk in Barcelona by Nationalist air raid during Spanish Civil War. She was finally broken up after 1939.
(2) St. Hubert Ch. “The Early Spanish Steam Warships 1834-1870” Warship International 1983. – # 4. – P.338-367; 1984. – #1. – P. 21-44.
(3) This episode was known as the Battle of Papudo and was fought 55 miles north of Valparaiso. The Chileans, following a threat used by Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane 45 years before, hoisted a British flag on the Esmeralda, and when they were close enough to Covadonga, they raised their own flag and unmercifully bombarded the Spanish ship until her surrender. Beside the casualties, seven Spanish officers and 115 sailors were taken prisoners.