As he boarded the Peruvian armored monitor Huáscar on May the 21st, 1879 the Chilean navy officer Arturo Prat lead his Chilean crewmen with the shout “Let’s board, boys!” Prat would not survive the battle, but managed to set into motion a path which would have a profound effect on his own country’s future, and geopolitical perceptions between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia.
While the battle ended as a victory for Peru, it could be considered a Pyrrhic victory in that Peru lost their ironclad ship, the Independencia, which was one of its most powerful warships at the time. More importantly, Prat’s death became a rallying cry for Chile at a period of heightened nationalism and inspired unprecedented inscriptions in the military. As the War of the Pacific unfolded, Peru lost naval superiority as a result, and eventually the war.
As a result of the conclusion of the war, Bolivia lost direct access to the Pacific. Peru lost territory, and both lost areas that would become highly productive in copper mining (at the time the area was valued for its nitrate deposits). Disputes over the treatment of Chilean enterprises in those areas were largely the cause of the initial conflict.
To this day, Bolivia nurses resentment over the lost of their access to the Pacific despite a treaty signed in 1904 which connected the Chilean port of Arica to La Paz, Bolivia guaranteeing freedom of transit for Bolivian commerce to the coast.
Chile’s relative economic and social progress in the past 20 years has served to amplify the ire from both Peru, and Bolivia to a more vitriolic and fundamental degree. Peru (aside from recent rumblings in their economic engine) and Bolivia have struggled through far more apoplectic periods comparatively, and have often used Chile as a scapegoat for their frustration.
Graffiti on shops in Bolivia, to this day, have strikingly venomous messages such as “Warning! Chileans own this shop!” or worse. Bolivia has constructed monuments lamenting Bolivia’s loss, and promising vengeance.
Ollanta Humala, who was recently elected President of Peru in 2011, called for ending diplomatic relations with Chile as part of his campaigned playing off populist sentiments. The War of the Pacific officially ended in 1883.
Evidence portrays Mr Prat as a patriot, a family man, and a gentleman. It’s doubtful that he could have understood the profound ramifications and lasting impact of his historical act of military sacrifice.