top of page

Chilean Naval Day by Dr. David Pearson

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

This week I attended a wreath laying ceremony at the grave of Admiral Lord Cochrane 10th Earl of Dundonald on Chilean Naval Day in Westminster Abbey. I have blogged about this event on two previous occasions but wanted to return to the subject because I found it a truly uplifting experience.[i] Both my wife's father and her brother served as Senior Officers in the Chilean Navy and the Chilean Navy has a great longstanding debt to the Royal Navy because it was largely founded by Admiral Lord Cochrane.

Admiral Thomas Alexander Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, was born on 14th December 1775 in Annesfield, South Lanarkshire, Scotland. He had a remarkable career as a naval officer and politician. After serving with distinction in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars, he had a short (and somewhat turbulent) political career, before accepting a Commission in the Chilean Navy in 1817. This was to mark the beginning of a second distinguished naval career. In 1818, he arrived in Valparaiso to command the First National Squadron and to give the Chilean Navy its definitive professional structure. Under his command, the National Squadron defeated Spanish forces in a series of brilliant actions between 1819 and 1822, consolidating Chile's independence from Spain and transporting General José de San Martin’s liberating army (composed of 4430 Chileans and Argentinians) to Peru to neutralise the remnants of Spanish colonial power on the Pacific Coast.

Cochrane went on to lead the Brazilian Navy in their war of independence against Portugal, and later served as an AdmIral in the Greek Navy helping it gain independence from the Ottoman Empire. In 1831, he succeeded his father as the 10th Earl of Dundonald and returned to Britain, and during his final years of service, from 1848 to 1851, he commanded the North America and West Indies station. He died in 1860 at the age of 85 and was accorded a grand state funeral. He is buried in a place of honour in the main nave in Westminster Abbey just a few feet from where King Charles was crowned 3 weeks ago.

Cochrane 's name is celebrated everywhere in Chile; from a small southern town to several outstanding beauty spots in Chilean Patagonia - Lake Cochrane, Mount Cochrane, and the River Cochrane - and almost all towns and cities boast a street or a square named after him. Throughout its history, one of the Chilean Navy's principal warships has always borne the name Almirante Cochrane. As Admiral Lord Cochrane 's monument proclaims, he ‘achieved a name illustrious throughout the world for courage, patriotism and chivalry.’

It is ironic that while Lord Cochrane is revered in Chile as one of their heroes he is not so well known in his home country today. It’s also ironic that Cochrane’s exploits are better known in works of fiction because he inspired the novels of Captain Maryatt, C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian. The characters of Horatio Hornblower and of Jack Aubrey are directly inspired by exploits that Lord Cochrane actually carried out in battle.

Each year, on the 21st of May, Chileans celebrate the country’s naval heritage and in particular, the Battle of Iquique, an early and highly significant engagement in the War of the Pacific (1879 to 1884,) fought between Chile and a Bolivian- Peruvian alliance. On that day in 1879, Captain Arturo Prat was in command of the Esmeralda, a small wooden corvette built 25 years earlier in a Thames dockyard. With a sister vessel of lighter construction, the schooner Covadonga commanded by Captain Carlos Condell, the Esmeralda had been tasked with the blockade of Iquique, at that time a Peruvian port city, while the main fleet sailed north to engage the enemy fleet.

On the morning of 21st of May, 1879, the Esmeralda and Covadonga were confronted by a far superior enemy force, namely two Peruvian ironclads, the battle cruiser Huáscar and the frigate Independencia. In the first few hours of the battle, Prat’s skilled manoeuvres prevented the Esmeralda from being blasted out of the water by the Huáscar, but she was also being fired upon from the Peruvian forts on land.

Her engine damaged by the Huáscar’s guns, the Esmeralda was virtually immobilised, and she was rammed three times by the Peruvian battle cruiser until defeat became inevitable. In a last daring display of heroism, Captain Prat leaped heroically from his own ship onto the deck of the Huáscar and fought at close quarters until losing his life. The old corvette finally sank, and most of its crew, refusing to surrender, paid the ultimate sacrifice. This powerful example of heroism, together with the loyalty and admiration which Captain Arturo Prat inspired in his men, live on to this day until his naval traditions and heritage. The story quickly spread throughout Chile and inspired many young men to join up to fight the war leading to Chilean victory and a gain of substantial territory from Peru and Bolivia.

The Chilean Navy today is the same institution that Cochrane and Prat helped to create and shape. A navy which holds fast to its principles and values and which incorporates the latest technology while maintaining the traditions of its glorious past. A Navy made-up of nearly 26,000 men and women[ii] who demonstrate the highest degree of commitment, dedication, loyalty and professionalism in the performance of their vital duties.

At sea the Chilean Navy constitutes a deterrent security force that provides support for its nation’s foreign policy and peace of mind to its fellow citizens, looks after Chile's interests at sea and contribute to national development in all its maritime aspects. As Chile has a very long coastline of over 4,000 miles the Chilean Navy is an essential service.

The service was attended by the Right Worshipful The Lord Mayor of Westminster Councillor Patricia McAllister, Her Excellency the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Chile to the Court of St James Mrs Susana Herrera Quezada and Rear Admiral Christopher Shepherd, representing the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff. The present Earl of Dundonald was also in attendance. There were naval and other military attaches from all the South American embassies and several others. The service was conducted by The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle MBE, Dean of Westminster who was seen by millions on television performing his duties at the Coronation. I consider it an honour to have been invited to attend.

If you wish to read David's blog, please click HERE


bottom of page