When in 1864 a hotheaded Spanish admiral wanted to punish Peru for a perceived diplomatic insult, he seized the production facilities of the former colony’s most important economic export – animal guano.
The Chinchas, a small cluster of islands off the coast of Peru, were the cornerstone of that country’s lucrative 19th century bat and seabird guano industry. The animal droppings were a vital commodity at the time and were used in the production of fertilizer. Up to 60 percent of the Peruvian economy was based on the stuff.
Recognizing this, Spanish Admiral Luis Hernandez Pinzon ordered 400 of his marines from his three-ship fleet to seize the Chincha Islands. He arrested the governor, installed one of his own and raised Spain’s colours over the island.
Fearing the move was a prelude to a full-scale Spanish bid to reclaim its former South American colonies, a band of neighbouring countries rallied behind the beleaguered Peruvians and declared war on Spain.
The resulting two-year naval conflict would see ships captured, cities bombarded, ports blockaded, economies destroyed, and governments toppled. The war would enflame South America, embarrass Spain and irritate both Britain and America. It would all go down in history as The Chincha Islands War – the war over bird turds.
It all started in the summer of 1863 when Admiral Pinzon and his steam-powered frigates Triunfo and Resolución and the schooner Virgen de Covadonga arrived in the waters off Peru and Chile as part of a tour of the Pacific. At the time, Spain was enjoying something of a renaissance as a world power. Following more than a century of decline, during which time it had lost most of its New World colonies, Madrid was reasserting its influence in Indochina, North Africa and Latin America. And under the rule of Queen Isabella II, the country had grown into the fourth largest naval power in the world.
The inhabitants of both Chile and Peru greeted the Spanish vessels enthusiastically, despite the fact that both countries had fought wars of independence against Spain a few decades earlier. However, as the small fleet made port visits in the autumn of that year, an unexpected incident touched off a series of events that would end in war.
In November, a Spanish national living in the Peruvian town of Lambayeque was murdered by an angry mob following a minor dispute. Upon learning of the crime, Pinzon inexplicably demanded the Peruvian government apologize formally for the killing and offer Spain reparations. Peru suggested that Spain let local police bring the perpetrators to justice. With tensions suddenly mounting, Madrid used the incident to push Peru to repay some old debts. It even dispatched a special envoy to recover the money. Peru balked at Spain’s heavy-handed approach and negotiations broke down over the following months.
Pinzon, still stationed in the region, reacted to the impasse in April of 1864 by putting marines ashore on the Chincha Islands and blockading Peru’s ports. The disruption of the guano harvest decimated Peru’s fragile economy. But fearing a costly war with Spain, the Peruvians did little but lodge protests. However, the audacity of Spain soon had nationalists in Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile clamoring for revenge.
Spain’s prime minister, Ramón Maria Narvaez, responded to the deteriorating situation by dispatching four larger warships to the region, one of which was the Numancia, one of the heaviest ironclad frigates in the world. A new commander, Vice Admiral Juan Manuel Pareja accompanied the vessels aboard the flagship Villa de Madrid. The Spanish government hoped Pareja, a former navy minister who was born in Peru, might help calm the situation. The new admiral arrived in December of 1864 and immediately opened negotiations aimed at resolving the dispute.
A treaty of mutual cooperation was signed in the New Year. Unfortunately, Peru’s congress, still enraged by Spain’s unprovoked hostility, failed to ratify it. By the fall of that year, the small country’s government collapsed. Peru’s new government also pursued a diplomatic course with Spain. It too fell within 20 days. It was replaced by a staunchly nationalist government that was prepared to fight.
Chile makes a stand
During the political crisis in Peru, a ship from Pareja’s Spanish fleet put into to a Chilean port to resupply with coal. Local authorities refused the requests citing Spanish belligerence towards Peru. Outraged by this fresh insult to his country’s honour, Pareja opted for an act of classic gunboat diplomacy. He forced his flagship into Valparaiso harbor and demanded the locals fire a salute the Spanish flag. Chile refused. The enraged Pareja threatened retaliation and demanded Chile pay Spain compensation for the insult. Instead, Chile declared war in September of 1865. The country’s small navy scored an early victory against the Spanish fleet In November at the Battle of Papudo when it captured Spain’s vessel Covadonga, and took the entire crew prisoner. Pareja’s correspondence was also seized. Humiliated by the setback, the Spanish admiral committed suicide two days later. Following this unexpected victory, Peru signed a formal alliance with its neighbor and declared war on Spain as well. By the winter of 1866, Ecuador and Bolivia entered the war too.
Britain and America take notice
The new Spanish admiral Mendez Nunez retaliated against Chile by shelling the city of Valparaiso in March. He also ordered the destruction of the bulk of the country’s merchant fleet, more than 30 ships in all. It was a crippling blow to the Chilean economy, one that would take the country decades from which to recover. Nunez’s shelling and subsequent blockade of Valparaiso was condemned by the world and damaged British and American commercial interests in the region. Both London and Washington filed formal protests with the Spanish government and a U.S. squadron in the harbor even threatened to attack the Spaniards. The Spanish withdrew but later engaged Peruvian shore batteries at Callao in May of 1866. They caused little damage.
As spring gave way to summer, the Spanish reevaluated their position: Its standing on the world stage was in tatters. Its ships were running low on supplies. Every port from Cape Horn to Panama was closed to them. And the fleet had nothing to show for its efforts except some bat guano. Spain quietly withdrew its ships and sailed for the Philippines. It would be nearly 20 years before Spain would negotiate peace settlements with its four former colonies.