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'Nothing is Impossible' by Fiona Clouder

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

Traditionally, May is the ‘Mes del Mar’ – Month of the Sea in Chile. Every year, close to Chile’s Día de las Glorias Navales (Navy Day) on 21 May, a special parallel ceremony is also held in Westminster Abbey, London.

The Día de las Glorias Navales is a national holiday in Chile and commemorates the Battle of Iquique in 1879. during which Captain Arturo Prat and many of the crew of the wooden corvette Esmeralda, laid down their lives and became national heroes in the fight against Peru’s ironclad Huascar. Prat inspired his crew with the following words:

Lads, the struggle will be against the odds, but cheer up, and have courage. Never has our flag been hauled down in the face of the enemy, and I hope, thus, this will not be the occasion to do so. For my part, as long as I live, this flag will fly in its place, and if I should die, my officers shall know how to fulfil their duties. Long Live Chile!

The heroism and sacrifice of Prat and his comrades ultimately inspired thousands of men in Chile to rise up and join the Army and Navy and ultimately win the War of the Pacific. This secured important territories in the north of Chile, which today are the source of much of Chile’s mining prosperity.

The foundations of Chile’s Navy – the Armada de Chile - and the values epitomised by Prat and his colleagues stem from an earlier time and share many of the traditions of the Royal Navy. The Esmeralda was named after an earlier ship, captured from the Spanish by British Admiral Thomas Cochrane (1775-1860) during the fight for Chile’s independence. Cochrane arrived in Chile on 28th November 1818, recruited on the instructions of Bernando O'Higgins, the founder of the Republic of Chile and it was reported to the Government on 12th January 1818:

"I have the satisfaction to announce that Lord Cochrane, one of the most distinguished, and also one of the bravest, seaman of Great Britain, is entirely resolved to travel to Chile to direct our Navy and decidedly contribute to freedom and independence in this part of the Americas...

At the same time, as assuring us of his services, the undefeated British Admiral and other leading seamen, will dedicate themselves to finding ships which could be organised for the Chilean squadron."

Cochrane’s brilliant mind, leadership qualities and strategic thinking helped shape the formation of the nascent Armada de Chile. The star of Chile flies today on the prow of the ships of the Armada de Chile. The tradition stems from Cochrane, who hoisted the flag on the frigate O'Higgins, on being appointed Commander in Chief on 22nd December 1818.

The capture of the Spanish ship Esmeralda, followed by innovative tactics to secure Valdivia, consolidated independence for Chile. By 1821 Cochrane, for Chile, controlled the sea from Cape Horn to Panama. On 13 July 1822 a proclamation was published in Valparaíso confirming the end of the power of Spain in the Pacific. Cochrane's political experience meant he was a powerful orator and a strong believer in democracy. His parting letter, produced with the assistance of his friend Maria Graham, on leaving Chile in 1823 includes the following:

"Chilenos - My Countrymen!...It is now four years since the sacred cause of your independence called me to Chile: I assisted you to gain it; I have seen it accomplished; it only remains to preserve it... liberty is founded on good faith, and on the laws of honour; and that those that infringe upon them are your only enemies - among whom you will never find - Cochrane"

Cochrane had left England a controversial figure, disgraced by allegations of a financial fraud. His earlier naval exploits in the Napoleonic Wars earned him the nickname of the 'Sea Wolf'. His time in Chile consolidated his brilliance. He also assisted in the independence of Peru. He went on to further exploits in Brazil and Greece.. When he later returned to England in 1830, he was pardoned for the false allegations made against him, and in 1860 was buried with full honours in Westminster Abbey. His tomb is in the central part of the nave. Every year, close to Chile's 'Dia de Los Glorias Navales' there is a formal ceremony in the Abbey, organised by the Naval Mission of the Embassy of Chile. Leading figures from the UK and Chile, sometimes also including members of the Royal Family, and with the Royal Navy and Armada de Chile and also the Cochrane family, pay tribute to Cochrane's contribution to Chile and remember all those who serve at sea.

From Cochrane stems a long tradition of ships, training and capability shared between the UK and Chile. British companies are regular exhibitors at FIDAE and EXPONAVAL, the major air and naval expos in Chile ,showcasing a range of world leading capabilities in the defence, security and space sectors. In recent years young UK officers have also participated in the training voyage on Chile's sailing ship Esmeralda - named after Cochrane's initial victory for Chile and in memory of Prat’s later heroism. The legacy of Cochrane’s leadership continues in the training of cadets in the Arturo Prat Naval College, in Cochrane’s conviction that ‘nothing is impossible’. To this day the word ‘impossible’ does not exist in the dictionary of the Armada de Chile.

Cochrane also inspired many other British men to go to Chile, both to join the Armada de Chile and to open up free trade. In Santiago, in the hall of the Residence of the British Embassy hangs an imposing floor to ceiling portrait of Admiral Lord Cochrane, a backdrop to many meetings, receptions and visits. This year, the British Embassy, the Embassy of Chile and the Anglo-Chilean Society celebrate the 200 years of diplomatic and trade relations that stem from the time of Cochrane. Two hundred years of ties. Two hundred years of friendship. Shared values, a shared history and links that take us into the future.

Fiona Clouder

Chairman, Anglo Chilean Society

Wreaths are laid in May each year at the grave of Cochrane in Westminster Abbey. London, by the Royal Navy and the Armada de Chile.

May also sees the ‘Día de los Patrimonios’ celebrating culture and heritage in many places across Chile, including at the Museo Marítimo in Valparaiso.

Cochrane, O’Higgins and Prat are the key figures in the Sala de las Glorias Navales in the Museo.

Here visitors are finding out about the legacy of Cochrane, Prat and others including the Battle of Iquique, vividly captured by British painter, Thomas Somerscales.

Courtesy of Museo Marítimo Nacional


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