The War of the Pacific

April 5, 1879 – October 20, 1883

Chile vs Bolivia & Peru

Guerra del Pacífico








The War of the Pacific ( Spanish: Guerra del Pacífico ), sometimes called the Saltpeter War  had its origin in the discovery of rich deposits of nitrates and guano ( The droppings of seabirds, bats, and seals is an effective fertilizer and gunpowder ingredient due to its high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen ) . In this war Chile fought Bolivia and Peru from April 5, 1879 to October 20, 1883 .


South America before and after The War of the Pacific





 Documentary on The War of the Pacific

Spanish with English subtitles .


In the sparely populated Atacama costal desert region of Bolivia, the Atacama desert is 100 times more arid than California's Death Valley and the soil has been compared to Mars. Bolivia lacked the resources and population to exploit the area and contracted out Chilean companies to carry out development projects.



 19th century guano advertisement .




Guano, a natural fertilizer made from bird droppings, was a prized commodity during the 19th century and heavily traded by European and American traders. The word guano is derived from the Quechua Indian language, the main language of the Inca Empire . Guano  is the accumulated excrement of cave-dwelling bats,seabirds and seals . As a manure, guano is a highly effective fertilizer due to its exceptionally high content of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium: nutrients essential for plant growth. Peru's guano was considered to be the best for farming . The discovery during the 1840s of their use as fertilizer and as a key ingredient in explosives made the area strategically valuable; Bolivia, Chile and Peru had suddenly found themselves sitting on the largest reserves of a resource that the world needed for economic and military expansion. The desert of Atacama, had remained for many years without a definite owner, at one time claimed by Bolivia, at another by Chile, but never considered of sufficient importance to warrant the establishment of a boundary line until  the discovery of the guano nitrates and other mineral wealth which it contained. Not long after this discovery, world powers were directly or indirectly vying for control of the area's resources. The United States had passed legislation in 1856 enabling its citizens to take possession of unoccupied islands containing guano. Spain had seized Peruvian territory, but was repulsed by Peru and Chile fighting as allies during the Chincha Islands War. Heavy British capital investment drove development through the area, although Peru later nationalized guano exploitation during the 1870s.



 In the 19th century seabird excrement known as guano was the backbone of the Peruvian economy. The precious resource sparked diplomatic spats, and even wars. Now guano -- a natural and totally organic fertiliser -- is making a comeback.


Due to the lack of rain on the islands along Peru's coast, the accumulated bird droppings are baked in the dry atmosphere which preserves the nitrates in those droppings from evaporating, thus maintaining its effectiveness. Another factor that made guano an effective fertilizer was that its contents originated from fish-eating birds. Beginning in the 1840s, commercial farmers clamored for a potent fertilizer made from bird droppings (guano) obtained from Peru’s Chincha Islands. William R. Grace ( 1834 - 1902 ), mayor of New York and founder of the W. R. Grace and Company made a fortune shipping guano to America. During the golden age of guano, from 1840 to 1880, it has been estimated that the Peruvians excavated over 20,000,000 tons of guano for export, earning an estimated $2 billion . As the 19th century came to an end, and artificial fertilizers were developed, guano became less important and countries like Peru suffered from economic decline .


Collecting guano on the Chincha Islands

in the19th century . This business literally did stink .


Spanish squadron at the Chincha Islands

The hill in the middle is a mound of guano .


The lure of guano had already led to one war when Spain had tried and failed to seize the guano rich Chincha Islands, Peru, in the Chincha Islands War (Spanish: Guerra hispano-sudamericana) in which Spain fought Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia from 1864 - 66 . Spain did not recognize Peruvian independence and desired the lucrative guano profits  . Argentina and Brazil refused to join the alliance, as they were involved in the War of the Triple Alliance ( 1864 - 1870 ). This seizure by Spain was one in  a series of attempts by Spain, under Isabella II ( 1830 - 1904 ), to reassert its influence over its former South American colonies . Spain  suffered a humiliating naval defeat at the Naval Battle of Papudo on November 26, 1865. During this engagement, the Chilean corvette Esmeralda captured the Spanish schooner Covadonga .The Spanish fleet shelled and burned the town and port of Valparaiso, Chile on March 31, 1866 and sinking much of Chile's merchant fleet.  The damage to the Chilean merchant marine was devastating . On May 2, 1866, the Spanish squadron bombarded the Peruvian port city of Callao and Spain claimed to have destroyed the Peruvian fortified battery emplacements. However, with all ports  on the west coast of South America closed to the Spanish squadron, they were forced to vacate the Chincha Islands and the Spanish squadron returned to Spain . The last imperial Spanish adventure was over .


Boundary claims and disputes


The nitrate region extends along the narrow desert coast of the Pacific for three hundred and fifty miles. Peru owned the northern one hundred and fifty, and prior to 1866 Bolivia claimed the rest. After the discovery of the precious mineral the industrious and Chileans crowded up the coast, while the Bolivians were shut in behind their high Andes. Chile insisted that her true boundary lay as far north as the 23d degree, and took vigorous measures to safeguard the interests of the Chilean nitrate companies. In 1866 Bolivia reluctantly made a treaty by which the 24th degree was agreed upon as the formal boundary, although the Chilean miners were allowed to continue their operations in the productive regions north of that line and their taxes were not to be increased without their government's consent. This treaty gave rise to constant disputes, and as the nitrate, silver, and copper business of the neutral zone became more profitable, the Bolivian government pressed harder for a larger revenue.


Map of the major battles of

the War of the Pacific


Map of the area of conflict.

Click image for larger view .


The Peruvian government had planned to secure a control of the output by the state purchase and operation of nitrate properties, and such a trust would prove ineffective unless the Bolivian government had a free hand with the Chilean companies. In 1872 Peru and Bolivia made a secret treaty of alliance. Its provisions soon became public, and Chile not unreasonably believed it to be aimed especially at her miners' operating on Bolivian soil. She promptly began purchasing ironclads. It was a favourite saying of old Marshal Ramon Castilla ( 1797 - 1867 ) that when Chile bought a battleship Peru should buy two, but the Lima government was too poor to follow the good advice, and the fatal year of 1879 found her naval force inferior to that of her rival.


Andean Tragedy

The War of the Pacific pitted Peru and Bolivia against Chile in a struggle initiated over a festering border dispute. The conflict saw  Chile’s and Peru’s armored warships vying for control of sea lanes and included one of the first examples of the use of naval torpedoes. On land, large armies using the most modern weapons—breech-loading rifles, Gatling guns, and steel-barreled artillery—clashed in battles that left thousands of men dead on the battlefields.

What had proven true in the time of Pizarro, San Martin, and Santa Cruz, was still true — the successful invasion or defence of Peru depended on the control of the Pacific. Whichever power should obtain a naval preponderance would surely get the nitrate territory — a rainless, cropless region where an army must be sustained by supplies brought by sea — and then could attack the other at its capital. Historians agree that the belligerents were not prepared for the war, neither financially nor military.


In 1879, Bolivia government proposed a tax on the minerals, Chile occupied the area, prompting Bolivia and Peru to declare war on Chile . The war was fought between Chile and the joint forces of Bolivia and Peru, from 1879 to 1883. Some claim that as Peru exhausted its guano deposits after it's guano ' gold rush ' of 1840- 1879 ( From 1840–1880, Peru exported an estimated 12.7 million tons of guano from its islands with a sale value in the range of £150 million ) it tried to form a new nation in the Atacam region which failed and joined the war on Peru with Bolivia in hopes of gaining Peru's rich sodium nitrate in the Atacama Desert ) .Chile gained substantial mineral-rich territory in the conflict, annexing both the Peruvian province of Tarapacá and the Bolivian province of Litoral, leaving Bolivia as a landlocked country.


 The Chilean ironclad Blanco Encalada


Chile had two new ironclads, the armored frigate Almirante Cochrane ( built 1873 ) ,names after Thomas Cochrane (1775–1860), commander of the Chilean Navy during that country's war of independence against Spain .The second ironclad was the Blanco Encalada , ( built 1875 ) named in honor of the admiral and first president of the Republic of Chile, Manuel Blanco Encalada ( 1790 - 1876 ) , besides two good cruisers and several gunboats. The two Peruvian ironclads, the ironclad turret ship Huáscar,   named after the 16th-century Inca emperor, Huáscar ( built 1864 ) and thearmored corvette Independencia ( built 1864 ), were older, though their speed was superior.








 Causes of the War     Bolivia Declares War