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Andean Tragedy: Fighting the War of the Pacific, 1879–1884

by William F. Sater, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2007, $60.

Once, while working on a freighter docked at Matarani, Peru, I mentioned to a native that our next stop was to be Arica, Chile. “Oh, no,” he corrected me. “That is Arica, Peru. We are going to take it back someday.”

To a South American, the War of the Pacific was not between the Allies and the Japanese, but between Chile and two of its neighbors, Bolivia and Peru. This vicious five-year conflict, equally epic to its North American counterpart, is the subject of William F. Sater’s fascinating new book, Andean Tragedy.

The Atacama Desert, in what is now northern Chile, is among the most inhospitable regions on earth. It had originally belonged to Bolivia largely by default, because neither Chile nor Peru had any use for it. For that matter, Bolivia, whose population resides largely in the high Andes, had little use for its bleak coastal desert either.

Just about the only thing able to survive in the desolate Atacama were vast hordes of seagulls. For tens of millions of years the gulls had nested along the coast, thriving on the rich fishing ground. Since it almost never rains, the byproduct of those gulls was never washed away but simply continued to pile up for millennia. Then, in the middle of the 19th century, somebody realized that the noisome material, known as guano, could be used for fertilizer and as an ingredient of explosives. It proved to be as momentous a discovery as that of gold in California. Suddenly the Atacama Desert was a highly desirable piece of real estate—a region over which nations were willing to, and did, go to war.

The ensuing conflict was as complex as any since that time. The problem of waging a modern war in a hostile environment far from home taxed the logistical capabilities of all three nations. In addition, the War of the Pacific involved an extensive naval campaign to determine which side would be able to carry out amphibious operations against the other. After a number of dramatic fleet and single-ship actions, the Chilean navy prevailed, resulting in the invasion of Peru and the occupation of a number of important cities, including the Peruvian capital, Lima. Chile ended up acquiring a substantial portion of southern Peru, along with Bolivia’s entire coastal region.

A great deal of acrimony remains between the antagonists. Landlocked Bolivia still maintains a vestigial navy, the existence of which it celebrates each year, reminding its people of the territory it hopes someday to regain. Chile and Peru both erected many statues of, and named streets for, their respective war heroes. Each still distrusts the other, and they maintain sizable fleets against the day they ever have occasion to renew hostilities.

Relying extensively on archival sources from the nations involved, Sater has produced what may well be the definitive work in English on a much overlooked event. Andean Tragedy recounts the ground and naval campaigns in great detail and also explains the complex international relationships that led to the war, as well as the reasons Chile was able to emerge victorious against the combined forces of two of its neighbors.


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here