War of the Pacific Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the War of the Pacific, Chile increased its territories and resources at the expense of neighboring Peru and Bolivia. Ironically, however, Chile’s newly acquired lands and wealth were exploited by Great Britain at Chile’s expense, so the nation’s short-term gains ultimately weakened the Chilean government and economy.

Summary of Event

The War of the Pacific was fought for control of the lucrative nitrate deposits in the remote and desolate Atacama Desert, an area located along the central Pacific coast of South America. Peru and Bolivia were determined to keep their sovereignty over these regions, while Chile was eager to end its economic depression of the 1870’s by taking possession of lands that were being developed largely by Chilean businesses flush with British capital. This corner of South America had largely escaped the constant border disputes that had plagued other formerly Spanish colonies in the previous generation, but Peru and Bolivia secretly allied in 1873 to thwart the aggressive penetration of Chilean capitalism within their boundaries. War of the Pacific (1879-1883) Chile;War of the Pacific Peru;War of the Pacific Bolivia;War of the Pacific Nitrates [kw]War of the Pacific (Apr. 5, 1879-Oct. 20, 1883) [kw]Pacific, War of the (Apr. 5, 1879-Oct. 20, 1883) War of the Pacific (1879-1883) Chile;War of the Pacific Peru;War of the Pacific Bolivia;War of the Pacific Nitrates [g]Chile;Apr. 5, 1879-Oct. 20, 1883: War of the Pacific[5060] [g]South America;Apr. 5, 1879-Oct. 20, 1883: War of the Pacific[5060] [g]Bolivia;Apr. 5, 1879-Oct. 20, 1883: War of the Pacific[5060] [g]Peru;Apr. 5, 1879-Oct. 20, 1883: War of the Pacific[5060] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 5, 1879-Oct. 20, 1883: War of the Pacific[5060] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Apr. 5, 1879-Oct. 20, 1883: War of the Pacific[5060] Balmaceda, José Manuel Cáceres, Andrés Avelino Daza, Hilarión Pinto, Aníbal

Before that secret alliance, Chile and Bolivia had tried to resolve their differences diplomatically. Just seven years earlier, in 1866, a treaty between the two countries had fixed their border at the twenty-fourth parallel. This treaty had secured Bolivian possession of the province of Antofagasta, which not only contained the coveted nitrates but also gave the otherwise landlocked Bolivians their only unfettered access to the sea. Instead of limiting their mining in the wake of the treaty, however, Chilean businesses backed by British bankers went further into Bolivia and also expanded into the adjacent Tarapaca province of Peru.

The 1866 treaty had offered both Chilean and Bolivian firms equal opportunity to produce nitrates in the expansive zone between the twenty-third and twenty-fifth parallels while splitting any export tax monies derived from nitrates evenly between the two countries. However, overwhelming Chilean success and dominance of nitrate mining upset the balance established by the treaty. Thus, in a second treaty of 1874 meant to reestablish that balance, Chile agreed to give up its share of taxes from Bolivian lands in return for no new taxes being levied on Chilean companies working in Antofagasta.

In 1875, the bankrupt Peruvian government forcibly took over foreign-owned concerns in Tarapaca and merged them into a state monopoly over nitrates. The Chileans expropriated from Tarapaca moved into Antofagasta, increasing tensions there. This influx of Chilean companies was the last straw for Bolivia, which was emboldened not only by Peru’s overt confiscation of Chilean resources but also by its covert deal with that seemingly formidable rival of Chile. In addition, Bolivia needed revenue quickly to rebuild its port of Antofagasta, which was heavily damaged by a tidal wave in 1877.

Accordingly, in 1878, Bolivia under the leadership of Hilarión Daza Daza, Hilarión violated the treaty negotiated barely four years earlier by raising taxes on Chilean exports from Antofagasta. When the Chileans, led by President Aníbal Pinto Pinto, Aníbal , refused to pay these new if relatively small taxes, Bolivia threatened them with a repetition of the Peruvian confiscation and turned down any attempts at arbitration. In February, 1879, determined to avoid another Tarapaca, Chile preempted any Bolivian seizure of its nationals’ businesses by occupying first the port of Antofagasta and then the entire province. Chile then rejected Peru’s bid to mediate the crisis, as word of the secret Andean alliance reached Santiago. Energized by their easy triumph in Antofagasta and eager to recolonize Tarapaca, the Chileans declared war on both Peru and Bolivia on April 5, 1879.

The first and most decisive battles of the War of the Pacific were literally on the Pacific Ocean. At Iquique in May, 1879, and Cape Angamos five months later, Chilean ironclad warships trounced their outmaneuvered Peruvian opponents, capturing at Angamos the pride of the Peruvian navy Navy, Peruvian , the Huáscar. By the start of 1880, Chilean naval supremacy meant that Santiago could transport large armies by sea without risk; in contrast, Peru and Bolivia never overcame the logistical problems of moving and supplying regiments over the Andes Mountains and Atacama Desert.

War of the Pacific





Peru bore the brunt of the fighting with Chile, as Bolivians generally fought with each other without ever reaching the enemy. Accordingly, amphibious landings allowed Chilean warships to pick off disorganized and hungry Peruvian troops who had been left to fend for themselves in the desert. At the same time, emulating the Union in the U.S. Civil War nearly two decades earlier, Chile blockaded its enemy’s coast, while it benefited from increased trade with Europe and, in particular, more investment from Great Britain. Chile’s easy victories by sea prompted the United States to consider intervening on behalf of Peru and Bolivia to prevent such an imbalance of power, but the assassination of President James A. Garfield Garfield, James A. [p]Garfield, James A.;assassination of in 1881 ushered in an administration that was more sympathetic toward Chile and that did not want to get involved.

The most stunning Chilean assault by sea led to the fall of the Peruvian port and capital of Lima Lima;Chilean occupation of in January, 1881. Any Chilean occupation beyond the nitrate coast was short-lived, however, as Peruvians resented and resisted Chilean attempts to take money and equipment south. A guerilla war led by the Peruvian general Andrés Avelino Cáceres Cáceres, Andrés Avelino ensued, and it made Chile’s ultimate victory relatively costly in both blood and treasure. Although costly, the victory was assured by the crippling effects of Chile’s blockade, which forced Peru to agree to the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Ancón Ancón, Treaty of (1883)[Ancon, Treaty of (1883)] on October 20, 1883.

The treaty, which ended the war between Chile and Peru, gave nitrate-rich Tarapaca to Chile in perpetuity and allowed Chile to hold on to the adjacent provinces of Tacna and Arica for at least another decade. Voters in Tacna and Arica were supposed to decide the latter two provinces’ fate in 1893, but that plebiscite never came to pass. Chile kept governing the provinces until 1929, when the United States brokered a deal by which Tacna reverted to Peru and Arica remained Chilean.

Bolivia held out a little longer and, for many years, refused to sign a formal treaty ceding its territory to the Chileans. Nevertheless, a temporary cease-fire between the two countries was established in 1884. The cease-fire acknowledged by default Chile’s control of Antofagasta province—a control that had been a reality since the beginning of the conflict. Twenty years later, in 1904, a formal treaty finally sealed the destiny of Antofagasta as part of Chile. In return for that settlement, Chile promised to build a railroad linking the Bolivian capital of La Paz to Arica. In 1913, Chile followed through on its promise and completed the railroad. This corridor was supposed to end Bolivia’s isolation and to compensate for the loss of its sovereign access to the sea, but that did not stop the Andean country from unsuccessfully trying to wrest access to an ocean-bound river from Paraguay Paraguay , another and even poorer neighbor, in the 1930’s.


From the War of the Pacific, Chile emerged as the “Prussia of the Pacific,” Chile;as “Prussia of the Pacific,”[Prussia of the Pacific] emulating the quick and decisive victories of that German state over its neighbors Denmark, Austria, and France in the 1860’s and early 1870’s. That Chilean image belied several realities. First, unlike the Prussian war machine, Chilean seapower, not its small armies, won the war against countries with much larger populations. In that spirit, Chile was more like its main benefactor, Great Britain, than like Prussia, and its example would be cited by Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan in his influential manual on the importance of naval supremacy (1890).

Moreover, unlike Prussia and the subsequent German Empire’s pursuit of industrial might, Chile failed to benefit economically in the long term from its land grabs along the nitrate coast. Before the war, Chilean business owners had dominated the nitrate industry; in fact, that dominance was one of the preconditions for the conflict. By the 1890’s, however, nearly 70 percent of the nitrate industry was in British hands. The capital from London that helped Chile win the war, then, had strings attached. The nitrate industry—and eventually the copper industry as well—siphoned labor and material from other Chilean industries, retarding the nation’s entrepreneurial ventures in every sector except the export sector. Mining interests and their foreign investors combined with traditional landowning oligarchs in 1891 to depose the popularly elected President José Manuael Balmaceda, Balmaceda, José Manuel who had dared to tax the nitrate industry to build roads, schools, and other modern infrastructure.

Ultimately, then, the War of the Pacific turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Chile. The nation gained nitrate and copper resources by annexing territory from Peru and Bolivia. However, it became overly dependent on the fluctuating global demand for those commodities to its economic and political detriment. Chilean democracy would never really challenge the entrenched elites empowered by colonial industry until the election of Salvador Allende in 1970.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burr, Robert N. By Reason or Force: Chile and the Balancing of Power in South America, 1830-1905. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. A little dry and old-fashioned, this book remains the most reliable in charting the diplomatic background leading up to the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farcau, Bruce W. The Ten Cents War: Chile, Peru, and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific, 1879-1884. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000. Although lacking maps, this book provides the best information on the actual battles and military strategies of the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loveman, Brian. Chile: The Legacy of Hispanic Capitalism. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. This overview’s sixth chapter does the best job of explaining the centrality of nitrates to Chilean foreign policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Brien, Thomas F. “Chilean Elites and Foreign Investors: Chilean Nitrate Policy, 1880-1882.” Journal of Latin American Studies 11, no. 1 (1979): 101-121. Clearly explains the crucial economic relationship between Chile and Great Britain and why the British displaced Chilean ownership by the end of the 1880’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sater, William F. Chile and the War of the Pacific. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. The first book to point out the long-term problems that Chile inherited because of the war; notes that the analogy of Chile as a South American Prussia obscures more than it explains.

Bolívar’s Military Campaigns

San Martín’s Military Campaigns

Paraguayan War

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Simón Bolívar; José de San Martín. War of the Pacific (1879-1883) Chile;War of the Pacific Peru;War of the Pacific Bolivia;War of the Pacific Nitrates

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