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Chincha Islands War

Chincha Islands War

1865 South America during the Chincha Islands War. Orange: Peru. Green: Bolivia. Yellow: Ecuador. Blue-Green: Colombia. Purple: Chile.
Date 1864 to 1866
Location Chincha Islands; coasts of Peru and Chile
  • Peace treaties between Spain and Peru (1879), Bolivia (1879), Chile (1883) and Ecuador (1885).
  • Peru's independence recognized by Spain
Spain  Peru
Joined in 1866:
Commanders and leaders
Juan Manuel Pareja
Casto Méndez Núñez
Mariano Ignacio Prado
Juan Williams Rebolledo

The Chincha Islands War (Spanish: Guerra hispano-sudamericana) was a series of coastal and naval battles between Spain and its former colonies of Peru and Chile from 1864 to 1866. The conflict began with Spain's seizure of the guano-rich Chincha Islands in one of a series of attempts by Spain, under Isabella II, to reassert its influence over its former South American colonies. The war saw the use of ironclads, including the Spanish ship Numancia, the first ironclad to circumnavigate the world.


  • Background 1
  • Talambó incident 2
  • Chincha islands occupation 3
  • War with Chile 4
    • Naval battle of Papudo 4.1
  • War with Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 5
    • Naval battle of Abtao 5.1
    • Bombardment of Valparaiso 5.2
    • Battle of Callao 5.3
  • Aftermath 6
  • Order of battle 7
    • Spain 7.1


The guano-rich Chincha Islands of Peru in 1863

Military expenditure greatly increased during Isabella's reign, and as a consequence, Spain rose to a position as the world's fourth naval power.[1] Spain engaged in colonial adventures in the 1850s and 1860s in regions as disparate as Morocco, Indochina, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic (which it briefly reoccupied).

At the end of 1862, Spain sent a scientific expedition to South American waters, with the covert purpose of reinforcing the financial and legal claims of Spanish citizens residing in the Americas.[1] The expedition was under the command of Admiral Luis Hernández Pinzón – a direct descendant of the Pinzón brothers who had accompanied Christopher Columbus on his voyage that resulted in the modern European discovery of America. Pinzón's squadron was composed of four warships: the twin steam frigates Triunfo and Resolución, the corvette Vencedora and the schooner Virgen de Covadonga.

The Spanish ships arrived at the port of Valparaiso, Chile on April 18, 1863. Spain had recognized Chilean independence since the 1840s, and the nations had maintained diplomatic relations. The expedition was cordially received, and the Admiral exchanged visits with local authorities. The vessels left Chile in July amicably and moved on to Peru. Even though Spain had never recognized Peruvian independence (declared in 1821),[1] the squadron received a friendly welcome at the port of Callao. They stayed in port for a few weeks and then sailed, bound for San Francisco, California.

Talambó incident

On August 4, 1863, an incident took place at the Talambó hacienda, in Lambayeque, Peru. The details are fragmentary; however, the episode involved a fight that broke out between two Spaniard residents and 40 local citizens. As a result, one Spaniard died and four others were injured.[2]

When news of the incident reached Admiral Pinzón, he returned with his fleet to Peru on November 13 and demanded that the government issue an apology and reparations be made to the affected Spanish nationals. In response, the Peruvians took the position that the episode was an internal police matter better handled by the Peruvian justice system and that no apology was due. At this juncture, the Spanish government in Madrid decided to also demand payment of Peruvian debts stemming from the War of Independence, and it sent deputy Eusebio de Salazar y Mazaredo to settle the issue directly with the Peruvian authorities.

Salazar arrived in March 1864, bearing the title of Royal Commissary. This was a deliberate insult to the government of Peru, because a Commissary is a colonial functionary, rather than an ambassador (the normal level of diplomatic contact during consultations between independent states). The snub doomed negotiations with the Peruvian minister of Foreign Affairs, Juan A. Ribeyro, to failure.

Chincha islands occupation

The Chincha islands of Peru, being occupied by Spanish sailors on April 14, 1864

On April 14, 1864, in retaliation for Peru's refusal to pay an indemnity, the Spanish fleet seized the lightly defended Chincha Islands. The islands were the principal source for Peruvian guano resources. The Spanish placed the islands' Peruvian governor Ramón Valle Riestra under arrest aboard the Resolución, occupied the islands with 400 marines, and raised the Spanish flag. Spain considered these islands an important bargaining tool, as they were a major Peruvian economic asset and produced almost 60% of the government's annual revenue.[1]

The Spanish squadron also blockaded principal Peruvian ports, disrupting commerce and fostering a high level of resentment throughout Latin America. Spain expected little resistance from Peru, believing its military capabilities to be negligible. A proposal to exchange the islands for British-held Gibraltar was even entertained for a time. During this blockade, the Spanish lost the Triunfo after it was destroyed by an accidental fire.

The recently named Spanish Prime Minister, Ramón María Narváez disapproved of the unilateral actions taken by Admiral Pinzón and replaced him with Vice Admiral Juan Manuel Pareja, formerly Minister of the Navy. Admiral Pareja had been born in Peru, and his father, Brigadier Antonio Pareja, had died in Chile in 1813 while fighting for Spain during the Chilean War of Independence. Narváez's conciliatory opinion soon changed, and he dispatched another four warships to reinforce the Pacific fleet.

Admiral Pareja arrived in Peru in December 1864 and immediately opened negotiations with General Manuel Ignacio de Vivanco, the special representative of Peruvian President Juan Antonio Pezet. The Vivanco-Pareja Treaty was signed on January 27, 1865 on board the frigate Villa de Madrid. Peruvian popular opinion considered the treaty as detrimental to Peru's national honor. When the Peruvian Congress refused to ratify it, a general uprising followed and the government of General Pezet fell on November 7.

War with Chile

In the meantime, anti-Spanish sentiments in several South American countries (including Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador) increased. It was obvious to most observers that Spain had no intention of retaking its former colonies. However, Peru and its neighbors still remained wary of any moves that might foreshadow an attempt to reestablish the Spanish Empire. Given the climate of suspicion, no one was surprised when the Spanish gunboat Vencedora stopped at a Chilean port for coal and President José Joaquín Pérez declared that coal was a war supply that could not be sold to a belligerent nation.

From the Spanish point of view, the Chilean coaling embargo was taken as proof that Chile no longer was neutral. This was reinforced after two Peruvian steamers left the port of Valparaiso bearing weapons and Chilean volunteers bound for Peru. Vice Admiral José Manuel Pareja consequently took a hard line and demanded sanctions against Chile that were even heavier than those imposed upon Peru. He then detached four wooden ships from his squadron and dispatched them to Chile, while the Numancia and the Covadonga remained to guard Callao.

Admiral Pareja arrived at Valparaiso on September 17, 1865 aboard his flagship the Villa de Madrid. He demanded that the Spanish flag be given a 21-gun salute.[3] He deliberately presented his demand on the day before Chilean National Day (September 18). Under the circumstances, the Chileans refused, and war was declared a week later on September 24.

The newly named Spanish Prime Minister Leopoldo O'Donnell (who had replaced Narvaéz) ordered Admiral Pareja to withdraw, but the Spanish admiral chose to ignore the direct order. As he had no troops with which to attempt a landing, he decided to impose a blockade of the main Chilean ports. This action was unenforceable, since a blockade of Chile's 1,800 miles (2,900 km) of coastline would have required a fleet several times larger than what Pareja had at his disposal. The blockade of the port of Valparaiso, however, caused such great economic damage to both Chilean and foreign interests, that the navies of the United States and the United Kingdom, which remained neutral, nevertheless issued a formal protest.

Naval battle of Papudo

Even before Chile and Peru were formally allied, Spain had 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, taking the crew prisoner and seizing the Admiral's war correspondence. This humiliation was too much for Admiral Pareja, and he committed suicide two days later aboard his flagship.[4] Following the Admiral's death, the general command of the Spanish fleet in the Pacific was assumed by Commodore Casto Méndez Núñez, who quickly received a promotion to rear admiral.

War with Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia

A Peruvian battery during the Battle of Callao

On November 7, 1865, due to his unwillingness to declare war on Spain and vilification arising from his signing of the Vivanco-Pareja Treaty, Peruvian President Juan Antonio Pezet was forced out of office. He was replaced by his vice president, General Pedro Diez Canseco.

General Diez Canseco also tried to avoid war with Spain, and that similarly led to his downfall only 20 days later. On November 26, General Mariano Ignacio Prado, leader of the nationalist movement, deposed Canseco. The new government immediately declared its solidarity with Chile and its intention to declare war on Spain and to restore Peru's national honor.

Chile and Peru formally signed an alliance against Spain on December 5, 1865. The Peruvian Congress ratified this alliance on January 12, and two days later (January 14, 1866), Peru finally declared war on Spain. Chile's navy was weak, almost non-existent. To reinforce its Chilean ally, a Peruvian squadron under the command of Captain Lizardo Montero was immediately dispatched to the south. Among the ships in the squadron were the steam frigates Amazonas and Apurímac.

Ecuador joined the alliance on January 30, 1866 by declaring war on Spain that same day. Bolivia, under the command of General Mariano Melgarejo, also declared war on March 22, 1866. These moves resulted in all the ports on South America's Pacific coast becoming closed to the Spanish fleet. Argentina and Brazil refused to join the alliance, as they were embroiled in a war with Paraguay.

Naval battle of Abtao

Spain's Admiral Mendez Núñez sent two of his most powerful ships (frigates Villa de Madrid and Reina Blanca) south to destroy the combined Chilean-Peruvian fleet. The allied squadron had been placed under the command of Peruvian Captain Manuel Villar and had taken refuge at Abtao, a well protected inlet near the gulf of Chiloé in southern Chile. The Spanish squadron appeared at the entrance of the inlet on February 7, 1866, but the Spanish did not enter as they did not want to risk their ironclads running aground in the shallows. A cannonade lasting several hours was exchanged with little effect. In spite of being at anchor, without steam, and with some ships with their engines undergoing overhaul, the Allies mounted an energetic fight. The Covadonga, under the command of Lieutenant Manuel Thomson, managed to fire over an island and scored several hits on the frigate Blanca. The battle ended indecisively without further developments. Reluctant to enter shallow waters and realizing that a long range gun duel served no purpose but to waste ammunition, the Spanish commanders withdrew.

Williams and the Esmeralda were not at the anchorage on the day of the battle. The commodore had sailed to Ancud for coaling. On its way back to Valparaiso, the Spanish squadron captured a Chilean steamboat (the Paquete del Maule) that was transporting sailors to crew the new Peruvian ironclads Huáscar and Independencia.[5]

Bombardment of Valparaiso

The Spanish could not attack land forces, and they had been frustrated in attempts to engage the allied squadron at sea. The Spanish ships were isolated, short of supplies and losing hope of victory. When the Chilean government ordered that all vessels communicating with the Spanish fleet should be barred from Chilean ports, Admiral Mendez Núñez decided to take punitive actions against the allied ports. The Spanish fleet shelled and burned the town and port of Valparaiso on March 31, and destroyed Chile's merchant fleet.[6] All told, thirty-three vessels were burned or sunk. The damage to the Chilean merchant marine was catastrophic. Twelve years later, the total tonnage under the Chilean flag was still less than half of what it had been in 1865.

Battle of Callao

Numancia, flagship of the Spanish fleet

Admiral Mendez Núñez, displeased at having to resort to destroying defenseless targets such as Valparaiso and with the inconclusive result at Abtao, decided to change tactics and attack a heavily defended port. As a result, the Admiral set sail for the Peruvian port city of Callao. The Battle of Callao took place on May 2. After the battle, both sides claimed victory. Peruvian defenders claimed that they had halted the Spanish from regaining their lost authority and prestige in South America, prevented them from enforcing their demands upon Peru and to have forced the withdrawal of the Spanish fleet (technically correct, since Peruvian cannons fired the last shots in the battle). The Spanish claimed to have visited punishment upon its former colony. Spanish guns had managed to cause only limited damage to defenses, and most of the cannons and artillery (as well as buildings within El Callao itself) survived the battle intact.


Whether the suspicions of a Spanish scheme to recapture its former colonies had any basis in fact is unknown. Many in South America saw Spain's meddling in Latin America and its occupation of the Chincha Islands as proof of a long-range Spanish plot to reassert its influence over its previous colonial territories. The force sent by Spain, on the other hand, amounted to a mere squadron of ships with negligible capabilities for landing forces, and the intention may have only been to seize the islands for their valuable fertiliser resources as reparations and to regain some of Spain's lost prestige. Regardless of the reason behind the conflict, Spain found it impossible to hold their positions. With all ports south of Colombia closed to them for coaling and provisioning, the Spanish fleet withdrew from patrolling the South American coastline, vacated the Chincha Islands and returned to Spain via the Philippines, completing a circumnavigation of the globe in order to do so.

Order of battle


General Commanders

Vessel tons
Main Artillery Built
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