Friday, March 25, 2011

Still floating after all these years.

Yesterday morning, desperate for something to write about, I tapped the "Today In History" section of Wikipedia, and noticed that it marked the 132nd anniversary of the Battle of Topata, more of a skirmish really, that kicked off the War of the Pacific, which was an odd little war fought between Chile on one side and Peru and Bolivia on the other over who would control a godforsaken swath of coastal desert that contained nothing of value except massive deposits of bird crap and a handful of dumpy little seaports, one of which had the scenic-sounding name of "Clamville".

Unfortunately, without those seaports, Bolivia had no ocean access, and bird crap was its primary export, and so when a tax & tariff squabble erupted with Chile to the south, a full-scale Kinetic Military Action soon followed. Peru tried to intervene for peace, kind of like the US did in Europe in 1915, and with about as much success, getting sucked into the fighting on Bolivia's side.

Because the war was being fought over a desert layered like hell's own bean dip with a geological epoch's worth of bird droppings and saltpeter, most of the first part of the war was fought at sea, and included several early ironclad duels, many featuring the ironclad Huáscar, which started the war as one of the Peruvian navy's most powerful ships but, like often happens to Italy, was occupied and forced to change sides. It ended up the war helping the Chilean navy drive the Peruvians from the ocean and blockade their ports.

The war ended poorly for Bolivia, who lost all their beachfront property, but the Huáscar is still afloat, preserved by the Chilean navy as a museum ship; one of the few pre-Dreadnought era warships still in existence.

18 comments:

Paul said...

Wow. Now that is some thing I did not know. And wonder why I do now.

Good start in the AM

Joanna said...

hell's own bean dip

I LOL'd. Also, I'm now hungry for nachos.

John said...

Thanks, Tam. Interesting read, of both events and object of which I was mostly ignorant.

I can't wait for the next gunshow, where no doubt such arcana as "the war was fought at sea, and included several early ironclad duels, many featuring the ironclad Huáscar" will cause the opposing bargaineeer to yield on price instantly, his clever arguments laid waste by un-topable fact.

Pretty valiant bunch, those sailors.

Anonymous said...

I love those West Coast & interior South American wars, obscure, nasty,usually fairly small, fought so far away from anyone who matters ( other than themselves) that no one can be bothered to intervene - even if they found out about it in time. 90% of the locals didn't care either way other than to wish both sides soldiers would just go away.

Jeff the Baptist said...

Sadly while Chile still has the Huascar, the US is having a lot of trouble finding funding maintenance for the Olympia.

Firehand said...

One of the differences between then and now: Now, all that bird crap is just a smelly mess. Then, it really was a very valuable export as fertilizer.

aczarnowski said...

Where do I sign up for "cool history of the world" 101 through 401 with Tam?

Drang said...

Firehand: Not just fertilizer, but also to make black powder.

Tirno said...

Where do I sign up for "cool history of the world" 101 through 401 with Tam?

HIST 101: Guns of Major World Events. Prof T. Keel
HIST 102: Shooting an Archduke, JFK and others, weapons used. Prof T. Keel
HIST 201: Early Japanese Musket Infantry tactics and techniques. Prof T. Keel.
HIST 301: Allied Machine Guns of WW1. Prof T. Keel
HIST 301 LAB A: Le Chauchat, Le Suck. Prof T. Keel
HIST 301 LAB B/RELIGIOUS STUDIES 437: M1917 Browning Machine Gun
HIST 548: Obscure small production firearms. Prof T. Keel.

JohnW said...

Drang said...

Firehand: Not just fertilizer, but also to make black powder.

Also explosives. IIRC James Burke devoted most of an episode of "Connections" to the importance of bird crap in 19th century war and commerce.

Ian Argent said...

One note, one giggle-box
The note: Birds poop faster than natural gas is created (unless the abiotic theory is true, in which case all bets are off) - there will come a point at which the guano deposits are economically viable for producing fertilizer.

The Giggle-box: the Chilean Navy on campaign in the War of the Pacific "included the corvettes Chacabuco, O'Higgins, and Esmeralda..." There's a PTerry quote from Lost Continent about the family O'Higgins, no? (Or something like that)

Kristopher said...

Ian Argent: Methane is a primary component in volcanic emissions.

The Earth was formed out of supernova rubble, and a lot of it was of lower atomic numbers than iron.

Tirno said...

There's a PTerry quote from Lost Continent about the family O'Higgins, no? (Or something like that)

I think you're thinking of Interesting Times, and the families involved are the Hongs, Sungs, Tangs, Fangs and McSweeneys (a very old and well established family).

Ian Argent said...

You are correct. Terrible thing, my memory.

Ken said...

John van Duyn Southworth wrote an excellent account of the Huascar's operational career, in War at Sea: The Age of Steam, Part One (volume three of a four-volume set). A good-sized liberry ought to have it, or perhaps Bookfinder.com.

Britt said...

My brother's roomate's father flies airplanes for some airline and he does the Bolivian run. He knows a captain in the Bolivian Navy, which does still exist, diligently training for the day when they reclaim their port.

Ancient Woodsman said...

Yesterday was also the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire - N.Y.C.'s most devastating industrial fire, the 4th deadliest in U.S. history, and the impetus for various engineering, safety, & labor changes that are with us today.

Their six-day work week drew lots of employees compared to the usual 7-day/84-hour work week elsewhere. Yet fire escapes were chained shut, there was no fire alarm except a call from the 8th to the 10th floor, and internal fire hoses did not work. FDNY ladders didn't reach high enough and most on the 9th floor persished in the fire or died from the jump. In a half-hour fire 146 didn't go home that day. That's an interesting read, too.

mikee said...

When the war was fought, that layer of birdcrap was one of the world's most desirable commodities, which for very little money could be shoveled into ships, transported to Europe, and sold for a staggering profit to make fertilizer or powder for munitions.

Can't have a nice little war without the munitions, can we?

Odd corners of the earth have time and time again risen to momentary importance of a world-wide scale, and then returned to their previous oblivion. This was one such place.

Perhaps someone should write a book about this phenomenon.