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A Forgotten Outrage in a Forgotten War by David Woods

On May 2, 1866, The New York Times ran a nine-deck headlined story from its correspondent in Panama reporting the bombardment, a few weeks earlier, of the old port city of Valparaiso in Chile by a small Spanish fleet. The account was sober, pointing out that only two local citizens had been killed (it later emerged that there were no fatalities but some injuries among the firemen), although goods and property worth some $8 million, or as much as $200 million in today’s money, mostly belonging to foreigners, had gone up in smoke.

It did not seem much to get excited about. Yet at the time, excitement there certainly was. The New York Herald headlined its report “The Spanish Outrage at Valparaiso”. The European press fulminated, referring to “vandalism” and “dishonour” on the part of the Spanish. The English and American fleet commanders, who had watched meekly a few hundred yards out in Valparaiso Bay as the bombardment proceeded – on an unarmed town in which resided several thousand of their own countrymen – attracted charges of betrayal and scandalous acquiescence.

The losses by European traders and shopkeepers – in this early era of globalization, the port was the centre of commercial activity along the entire Pacific coast – lead to major political rows in the British Parliament and in Paris.

So, what really happened on March 31, 1866? It all boiled down to an explosive mixture of delusional political ambition, diplomatic and military confusion, dominant business interests and volatile personal relationships.

The delusions were Spanish. The empire in Latin America had been lost almost half a century earlier. But a scatty Queen, Isabel II, encouraged by parts of a servile court and a government seeking to divert attention from a disastrous domestic economy, attempted a final effort to reassert Madrid’s standing on the Pacific coast. Under the guise of a “scientific expedition” it sent a fleet to do the job. Peru was attacked and forced to accept a debilitating peace deal. The fleet moved south, blockading Valparaiso and other Chilean ports in Autumn 1865. The commander threatened to blast the town to a ruin if he did not receive an apology from the Chileans for their impertinent earlier support for Peru.

A British fleet arrived, commanded by Rear-Admiral Joseph Denman, a national hero who had distinguished himself fighting the slave trade in Africa and had commanded Queen Victoria’s royal yacht for a decade. Initially, Denman promised local business leaders – as well as diplomats – that he would intervene in any attempted bombardment.

A small but powerful American squadron arrived at the beginning of March 1866. The commander, Commodore John Rogers, was a celebrated Civil War naval captain on the Union side. He initially took Denman’s position, assuring local residents and businessmen that he would act with the British. Almost simultaneously a new U.S. ambassador arrived in Santiago. Major-General Judson Kilpatrick was even more renowned for his Civil War exploits – nicknamed “Kill-Cavalry” for the losses among his own soldiers during some of his most intrepid offensives – but seemed an unlikely diplomat.

Kilpatrick’s British opposite number was a seasoned diplomat called William Taylour Thomson. The Scotsman hated Latin America, after years in Tehran, and had no time for upstart U.S. diplomats, preferring his French colleague. Hence the seeds of diplomatic confusion. Furthermore, getting instructions from capitals in that epoch was problematic. It could take three months for reports to get back to London, Berlin and Paris, and another three for instructions to return. So European capitals had barely responded to news of the Valparaiso blockade and the bombardment threat, when the March crisis literally blew up. Taylour Thomson believed he had to act as a neutral in the conflict, regardless of how many British lives were at stake. Denman clearly favoured a more honourable course, reflecting the instincts of an officer of Lord Nelson’s Navy.

For the Americans it was more complicated still. The Monroe Doctrine existed – an attack on an independent state in South America was to be considered an attack on the United States and responded to. However, a year after the debilitating Civil War ended, with military resources and finance exhausted, the Secretary of State, William Seward, had no taste for new foreign adventures.

Tensions inevitably escalated. The Spanish Admiral Casto Mendez-Nunez was an audacious hero of past campaigns. The previous year he had replaced the fleet commander who had committed suicide after the Chilean navy captured one of his vessels. There were attempts at conciliation and mediation. The Chilean Foreign Minister, Alvaro Covarrubias, did what he could. Mendez-Nunez would not compromise. The influential business community demanded protection. Taylour Thomson pressed neutrality. And in the final hours Denman withdrew from his earlier commitments. Rogers followed suit, claiming that he had never undertaken to act alone.

The town, which had been disarmed largely at the insistence of the Europeans, was promptly pounded for four hours at almost point-blank range. Fires raged for more than a day. Ironically, a few weeks later, the Spanish fleet moved northwards to blockade the Peruvian port of Callao. This time, the town was fully prepared; the fleet was decimated, and Mendez-Nunez seriously wounded. Still, he eventually arrived home to a hero’s welcome.

Nobody else in the drama enjoyed such adulation. The State Department mumbled some protest but quietly breathed a sigh of relief that it was all over. John Rogers pursued a splendid career. In London, Parliament fumed over the “dishonour” suffered by Britain and the Royal Navy over the incident. An ill Denman was retired the same year. Kilpatrick stayed in Chile for most of the rest of his life, marrying a Chilean, returning to the U.S. only for a failed campaign for election to Congress.

Taylour Thomson was kicked out of his club in Santiago, his apartment too. He was generally cold-shouldered, but the Foreign Office gave him no relief; to spite a demand by the Chilean government that he be withdrawn, the British diplomat was forced to stay on in Santiago until 1872, only then getting a reprieve back to his beloved Persia.

No, it was not such an easy time to be a diplomat.

(The writer is author of “The Bombardment of Paradise”, available on Kindle or as a paperback direct from the author: He has written a book on European pioneers in Chile (Valparaiso Bound!) and Meteor, on the life of Benjamin Vicuña Mackenna. This latter volume was launched at a meeting of the Anglo-Chilean Society in March of this year.)

The evacuation of the port of Valparaiso prior to the Spanish bombardment. As depicted by El Correo de Ultramar.

Rear Admiral Joseph Denman, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet and Captain of H.M.S. Sutlej


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