The Battle of Iquique was a confrontation that occurred on May 21, 1879, during the naval stage of the War of the Pacific, a conflict between Chile and Peru and Bolivia. The battle took place off the, by then, Peruvian (currently Chilean) port of Iquique. The Peruvian ironclad Huáscar, commanded by Miguel Grau Seminario, sank the Esmeralda, a Chilean wooden corvette captained by Arturo Prat Chacón, after four hours of combat.
The Bolivian government had threatened to confiscate and to sell the Antofagasta Nitrate & Railway Company, a mining enterprise with Chilean and British investors, by a decree on February 1, 1879. In response, the Chilean government sent a small military force which disembarked and seized control of the port of Antofagasta on February 14. This event made Bolivian President Hilarión Daza declare war on Chile, and also forced Peru to honor a secret 1873 treaty with Bolivia. Although Peru tried to negotiate and to stop the imminent conflict, Chile, knowing of this pact, declared war on both Peru and Bolivia on April 5. Another small Chilean force took control of the city of Calama after its victory in the Battle of Topater on March 23.
From the beginning of the conflict, both sides clearly knew that control of the sea was the key to obtaining victory. Whichever country controlled the sea could freely transport troops and land them at any strategic point. So, during the first year of the war, Chilean strategy focused on destroying the Peruvian Navy.
In order to achieve this goal, the Chilean naval commander, Juan Williams Rebolledo, planned to sail north with his entire fleet, trying to engage the Peruvian Navy at Callao and achieve domination of the sea once and for all. The main ships of the Chilean Navy were sent towards the Peruvian port of Callao. Two old, wooden ships, the corvette Esmeralda and the schooner Covadonga, commanded by Captains Arturo Prat and Carlos Condell respectively, were left blockading the Peruvian port of Iquique.
However, as the Chilean Navy steamed north towards Callao, two ironclad ships of the Peruvian Navy steamed south from Callao, unseen. These ships were the monitor Huáscar and the armored frigate Independencia, commanded by Rear Admiral Miguel Grau (then a Captain), the commanding officer of the Peruvian Navy and Captain Juan Guillermo More.
Forces in combat
The wooden corvette Esmeralda was constructed on 1854 in Henry Pritcher's shipyard, arriving at Valparaíso in 1856. This vessel was named Esmeralda after the frigate of the same name captured by Lord Cochrane at El Callao in 1820. The Esmeralda displaced 854 tons, and was armed with twenty 32-pound cannons and two 12-pound cannons. In 1868, its artillery was replaced with twelve strayed cannons of 40 pounds, and four 40-pound Withworth cannons.
The Peruvian ironclad Huáscar was built in 1865 in the Laird Brothers' shipyard. The Huáscar displaced 1,180 tons, and was armed with two cannons of 300 lbs., two cannons of 40 lbs, one cannon of 12 lbs and one Gatling machine gun. This ship could reach a speed of 11 knots.
Before the battle
It was 21 May 1879, 6:30 in the morning, when the fog cleared, Covadonga's lookout shouted: "Smoke to the north!". But, owing to thick marine fog, they were not able to identify the newly arrived ships, but after a few moments they thought it was the Peruvian squadron coming back.
At 6:45 a.m., a sailor by Condell's side asked for the telescope, and in a moment of clarity he observed the warships' rigging and said to Condell: "It's the Huáscar and the Independencia". "What basis do you have to assert that?" asked Condell, and the sailor answered "From the shape of the platform on top of the foremast".Immediately Condell ordered a shot to be fired in the air to warn the Esmeralda, still anchored in the port. The ships were indeed the Independencia and the Huáscar.
In that same moment, the Peruvian admiral Grau roused his crew:
Carlos Condell de la Haza warned Prat, and he, seeing the difference between their forces and the enemies', ordered to hoist the signal: "reinforce the charge", "come to the talks" and "follow my waters(follow his course)" and then inspired the crew with the following words:
"Crewmembers and Sailors of the Huáscar, Iquique is at sight, there are our afflicted fellow countrymen from Tarapacá, and also the enemy, still unpunished. It's time to punish them! I hope you will know how. Remember how our forces distinguished in Junin, the 2nd of May, Abtao, Ayachucho and other battlefields, to win us our glorious and dignified independence, and our consecrated and brilliant laurels of freedom, and as Commandant of the Navy will never let Peru be defeated. For our fatherland, Long Live Peru!"
Commander Miguel Grau Seminario.
After the speech, the Covadonga came to an halt and Commander Prat then told the crew of the Esmeralda and to the crew of the Covadonga led by Commander Condell: "For lunch people, Strengthening loads, each to his duty!". Condell simply replied, "All right, sir!" A young ordering bugler at the same time was sounding the call to battle. After this everyone felt an explosion and a plume of water and foam up on the two ships, the Huascar had fired its first shot. The battle had begun.
Lads, the battle will be unfair, but, cheer and have courage. Never has our flag been hauled down before the enemy and I hope this will not be the occasion for it to happen. From my part, I assure you that as long as I live, this flag will blow in its place, and if I die, my officers will know how to fulfill their duties. Long Live Chile!
Commander Arturo Prat Chacón
On land, people awoke to the first shot of the Covadonga's gun and went to the beach to get a Peruvian craft coming to lift the blockade.
First phase of the battleAt 8:15, the first volley hit between the ships, and Prat ordered the Esmeralda to start moving, followed by the Covadonga. The transporter Lamar was ordered (by Prat) to retreat to the South.
At 8:25 a second volley fell and a shot from the Huáscar hit fully on the starboard (right) side, passed through Esmeralda's side, killing the surgeon Videla, beheading his assistant, and mortally wounding another sailor. Condell changed his course and went behind the Lamar. Grau ordered the Independencia to block Covadonga and Lamar's way. Prat observed Condell's action and asked himself: "What is Condell doing?" Condell ignored Prat's order and followed the Lamar, but the warship did get away from the Covadonga, and the Independencia under control of Juan Guillermo More followed him.
The Independencia pursues the Covadonga, while the Huáscar finished the Esmeralda. Prat quickly positioned the ship in front of the coast, 200 meters from it, forcing the Huáscar to shoot with a parabolic trajectory to avoid hitting the Peruvian village, whose people gathered in crowds to see the battle.
Second phase of the battleGeneral Buendía, commander of the Peruvian garrison of Iquique, had artillery cannons placed on the beach and sent an emissary in a fast rowing boat with a warning to the Huáscar that the Esmeralda was loaded with torpedoes. Grau stopped 600m (660 yd.) from her and began shooting with the 300-pound cannons, not hitting her for an hour and a half, owing to the Peruvian sailors' inexperience in the handling of the monitor's Coles turret. The Chilean crew answered with their 30-pound cannons and gunfire, shots that rebounded uselessly from the Huáscar's plated armour.
At the coast, the Peruvian Army garrison in the town installed a cannon battery manned by gunners and bombardiers, and began to bomb the Chilean ship. A grenade reached her, killing three men. Prat order the warship to move, to forcing the engenine one of the boilers exploded, so the ship's speed dropped to 2 knots (her engine was defective by age and lack of maintenance). This move allowed Grau to see the absence of the torpedoes that supposedly filled the Esmeralda. One of Huáscar's shots hit directly on board, beheading the ordering bugler and mutilating the gun crews.
The position of the Esmeralda was desperate when it began to receive both Huáscar and Iquique's beach's cannon shots. Even Grau from his armoured tower exclaimed:
“It's remarkable how these Chileans fight”, impressed by the courage shown by the enemy.
Grau, seeing the useless slaughter that was taking place in the dismantled and disgraced corvette and wanting to end the combat, which had been nearly 4 hours long until that moment, ordered his ship to ram into the Esmeralda. Prat tried to avoid the blow by giving the rod forward and closing a port not managed to sidestep the blow to the mizzen mast height without further damage. When the ships collided, the Huáscar fired their ten inches (300 pounds) cannons at close range, causing the deaths of 40 or 50 sailors and marines.
By then, Prat raised his sword and cried his final order:
"Let's board, boys!", but due to the roar of the battle only Petty Officer Juan de Dios Aldea and Seaman Arsenio Canave heard it, and both of them and Prat jumped aboard the other ship. Arsenio unfortunately slipped and fell down because of the impact, so only the two officers got to the monitor. Petty Officer Aldea, by then armed with a boarding hatchet and a pistol, received a burst from the artillery tower and fell mortally injured. Only Prat continued advancing armed with a sword and a pistol. Grau gave the order to capture the Chilean captain alive.
Once on board, Prat, walked up to the conning tower, on the journey towards he killed the Peruvian Signal Officer, Second Lieutenant Jorge Velarde, but while moving to the Coles Tower a sailor from the artillery tower struck him dead with a shot in the forehead with a rifle in his hand.
After the first boarding attempt failed, Grau wanted to give his opponents time to surrender. In the Esmeralda Lieutenant Luis Uribe Orrego by now the ship's acting Captain, then called the official meeting and decided not to surrender to Peru. While this was happening a sailor climbed the mizzen-mast to nail down the Chilean national flag.
Grau was soon notified that the truce did not work again and decided to ram again the Esmeralda, rushing at full speed on it, now for the starboard side. Uribe tried to maneuver like Prat and managed to present his side at an angle to spur the monitor Huáscar, but this time he opened a water route, entering pouring into the powder magazine and machines. The ship had a crew shortage and without more ammunition than he had on deck.
The Huáscar again fired guns at such close range that killed several crew members including engineers and firemen who went up on deck and washed away the officers' mess room, which was then also the ship's clinic. Sublieutenant Ignacio Serrano cried again
"Stand by for boarding!"and he boarded the Huáscar with eleven more men, armed with manchetes and rifles but which was also unsuccessful, falling on the deck of the monitor for Gatling guns and the monitor's crew, some dying immediately due to bullet wounds sustained. Ignacio Serrano was then the only survivor and had received several shot wounds in the groin. Grau quickly had him picked up and carried to the infirmary in a state of shock, where they left him next to the dying petty officer Aldea.
20 minutes after was the third ram, this time in the sector of the mizzen mast accompanied by two guns, the corvette leaned forward and began to sink. When the Esmeralda was sinking The last cannon shot was fired by Midshipman Ernesto Riquelme, while the main deck was going underwater the Huascar crew heard screams of "Long Live Chile! Glory and Victory!" from the ship's sailors. The Chilean flag was the last part of the warship to go underwater, still flying and nailed to the mizzen-mast. It was 12.10 pm at midday, and that was when Grau realized that Cmdr. Prat had already died in the infirmary.
Third phase of the battleSee also Battle of Punta Gruesa for a more detailed account
The Independencia was in pursuit of Covadonga, which when it was stuck to the beach in the bay of Chiquinata the latter was heading south of the port of Iquique, until the former came on the rocks and shallow waters of Punta Gruesa. Commander Condell ordered an attack on the Independencia which resulted in it being sunk and its crew fleeing using its lifeboats, with only 20 of its crew left.
Grau ordered the rescue of the 57 survivors of the Esmeralda, but saw the Independencia at 2:20 pm to 9 miles away and arrived in front of her at 3:10 pm. He found it stranded on the shallow water and with the 20 surviving crew members, including More, since the rest had landed in boats on the shore. The Peruvian armored ship continued the pursuit of Covadonga for three hours until Miguel Grau, convinced that the distance that separated him it could not be shortened before sunset, he returned to the aid of Independencia. Grau estimated then that the loss of the frigate was complete and sent back to Huáscar the crewmen on board were still giving the order to burn it.
EpilogueAfter the battle, Rear Admiral Grau gave orders that Prat's personal objects (diary, uniform and sword among others) were to be returned to his widow. Carmela Carvajal received them, as well as an attached letter from the Peruvian Admiral, affirming his rival's personal qualities, his gentility and his high moral values.
In Chile, news reached the submarine cable in Valparaiso. On Saturday May 24 the Chilean Navy General Staff, Naval High Command and Admirality Commission convened a special meeting about the events in Iquique and Punta Gruesa on the 21st, and sent reports of the battles to the War Department, resulting in a mass draft being ordered. Since that time Chile was in a revival of patriotism and many Chileans went voluntarily to the barracks and the naval stations to enlist and participate in the conflict.
AftermathThe Naval Battle of Iquique was a Peruvian victory; the blockade on Iquique was lifted and Chile temporarily left the area. However, Peru's loss of the Independencia, one of its most powerful warships, in the following battle of Punta Gruesa was strategically costly, while Chile only lost one of its oldest wooden warships. Also, Cpt. Prat's sudden death while on duty inspired thousands of Chilean youth to join the army and the navy. This is considered by Chilean historians to be one of the most important factors leading to victory in the war. Years later the figure of Prat became so popular that newspapers started to talk about "Pratiotism" and "Patriotism".
And it was not just Prat that was being honored. Grau, also now known as the "Gentleman of the Seas" due to his actions in the battle and later naval actions, is honored in both Peru and Bolivia as the countries' greatest naval hero.