In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the South
American nations of
Chile engaged in an expensive naval
arms race to ensure the other would not gain supremacy in the Southern
Although the Argentine and Chilean navies possessed insignificant
naval forces in the 1860s, with zero and five warships, respectively,
Argentina's concern over a strong Brazilian Navy and the Chilean war
against Spain caused them to add capable warships to their fleets in
the 1870s. During this time, diplomatic relations between Argentina
Chile soured due to conflicting boundary claims, particularly in
Patagonia. By the beginning of the 1880s, after the War of the
Pacific, the Chilean government possessed possibly the strongest navy
in the Americas. They planned to add to it with an 1887 appropriation
for one battleship, two protected cruisers, and two torpedo gunboats.
Argentina responded a year later with an order for two battleships of
its own. The naval arms race unfolded over the next several years,
with each country buying and ordering vessels that were slightly
better than the previous ship, but the Argentines eventually pulled
ahead with the acquisition of multiple Garibaldi-class cruisers.
The race ended in 1902 with the British-arbitrated Pacts of May, which
contained a binding naval-limiting agreement. Both governments sold or
canceled the ships they had ordered, and three major warships were
mostly disarmed to balance the fleets. The pacts proved to be the
answer to the Argentine and Chilean disputes, as the countries enjoyed
a period of warm relations. This did not last, though, as the
Brazilian government's attempt to rebuild its own naval forces sparked
another naval arms race, involving all three countries' orders for
revolutionary new "dreadnoughts", powerful battleships whose
capabilities far outstripped older vessels in the world's navies.
2 Arms race
7 Further reading
The protected cruiser Esmeralda was purchased by the Chilean Navy in
the 1880s to bolster its fleet. Edoardo de Martino, Esmeralda, unknown
date, oil on canvas, 66.8 x 114.2 cm, Tyne & Wear
Museums Maritime and Industrial Collection, Newcastle upon Tyne.
See also: Boundary treaty of 1881 between
Conflicting Argentine and Chilean claims to Patagonia, the
southernmost region in South America, had been causing tension between
the two countries since the 1840s. Both countries were incapable of
enforcing these claims with a seaborne force, though: in 1860, the
Chileans had only five small vessels, while the
Argentine Navy had no
seagoing ships. These attitudes quickly changed when the
circumstances warranted; when
Chile joined Peru against Spain in the
Chincha Islands War, the Spaniards blockaded and bombarded
Valparaíso, leading the Chilean government to strengthen the navy.
The Argentine government, under President Domingo Sarmiento, decided
to build a navy in the 1870s to counter Brazilian naval acquisitions.
Two large monitors, Los Andes and El Plata, were ordered from Laird
Brothers, a British company, along with two gunboats. They were
delivered in 1874 and 1875.
The Patagonian tensions heightened in 1872 and 1878, when Chilean
warships seized merchant ships which had been licensed to operate in
the disputed area by the Argentine government. An Argentine warship
did the same to a Chilean-licensed American ship in 1877. This action
nearly led to war in November 1878, when the Argentines dispatched a
squadron of warships to the Santa Cruz River. The Chilean Navy
responded in kind, and war was only avoided by a hastily signed
Both countries were incapable of enforcing these claims with a
seaborne force in the next few years, as the Argentines were occupied
with internal military operations against the indigenous population
(1870–84), and the Chileans involved in the War of the Pacific
(Guerra del Pacífico, 1879–83) against Bolivia and Peru. Still,
several warships were ordered by both nations: the Argentines
commissioned a central battery ironclad, Almirante Brown, and a
protected cruiser, Patagonia, in 1880 and 1885, respectively. For
their part, the Chileans ordered a protected cruiser, Esmeralda, to
bolster its fleet, which was centered on two central battery
ironclads, Almirante Cochrane and Blanco Encalada. With these
ships, the Chilean Navy emerged from the
War of the Pacific
War of the Pacific as the
preeminent navy in the Americas, surpassing even the navy of the
United States, which had fallen into steep decline after the American
Civil War. The Chilean government utilized this advantage when it
deployed Esmeralda to Panama in 1885 to block the U.S. from attempting
to annex the region.
Major Argentine and Chilean
warship purchases and orders, 1887–1902
Capitán Prat (BB)
Presidente Errázuriz (PC)
Presidente Pinto (PC)
San Martín (AC)
Veinticinco de Mayo (PC)
Nueve de Julio (PC)
General Belgrano (AC)
Blanco Encalada (PC)
Mariano Moreno (AC)
Buenos Aires (PC)
Ministro Zenteno (PC)
BB: pre-dreadnought battleship; PC: protected cruiser; AC: armored
Statistics compiled from Scheina, Naval History, 46–51, 297–299.
The Chilean government moved first to begin the naval arms race when
it ordered a modern ironclad battleship, Capitán Prat, two protected
cruisers, and two torpedo boats from France and the United Kingdom.
Bought with a £3,129,500 appropriation in the 1887 budget, the ships
would have upset the balance of naval power in Latin America—while
the Argentines had more vessels, the Chileans had larger warships with
far more experienced crewmen. This purchase was made worse, from the
Argentine perspective, by a large order for rifles, field guns,
sabers, and carbines, enough to arm an 80,000-strong army. The
Argentine government responded with two battleships—Independencia
and Libertad, though they were individually smaller than their Chilean
counterpart—and two protected cruisers, one purchased on the stocks
in 1890 (Veinticinco de Mayo) and a new-build of the same design in
1891 (Nueve de Julio). The purchases were funded largely through
Chile through nitrates and
grain and cattle.
The Chilean Civil War (1891), rather than calming the naval ambitions
of Chile, escalated them. In that conflict, the Chilean Navy played a
significant role on the congressional side against the president and
the army. The resulting victory of the congressional side and
subsequent presidency of Admiral
Jorge Montt led to a large increase
in prestige and consequent funding for the navy. Argentine naval units
assisted failed revolts in Argentina, but the continuing acrimony with
and naval acquisitions of
Chile meant this had little effect.
The Chilean government purchased a protected cruiser, Blanco Encalada,
on the stocks in 1892, while the Argentines purchased one, Buenos
Aires, being built for the British in late 1893.[A] The Chileans sold
their oldest protected cruiser, Esmeralda, in late 1894 to finance the
order of an armored cruiser. This materialized in May 1895 with a new
Esmeralda, along with four torpedo boats; a Brazilian protected
cruiser, Ministro Zenteno, was purchased while under construction in
August 1895. The Argentines purchased an Italian armored cruiser,
Garibaldi, on the stocks on 14 July 1895.
In April 1896,
Chile ordered another armored cruiser, O'Higgins, and
six torpedo boats. Naval historian Robert Scheina states that
Argentina replied in the same month with San Martín, a near-sister
ship to Garibaldi which was under construction in Italy. However, he
notes that the small time lapse between the orders makes it difficult
or impossible to know if this, the opposite, or either are true.
As historian Jonathan Grant writes, the Argentines may have moved
first to secure a definite, if momentarily tenuous, advantage over the
Chilean Navy. In May 1898, the Chilean government found that the
Argentines were planning on acquiring one, then two, Garibaldi-class
cruisers. With tensions extremely high and war seemingly imminent, the
two countries agreed to submit their boundary disputes to the British,
which led to the Cordillera of the Andes Boundary Case 1902
(Argentina, Chile). They also signed pacts which led to the resolution
of the Puna de Atacama dispute. As the former arbitration took much
time, the naval arms race, though it slacked during the time of eased
tension which came with the agreements, continued.
The Argentines did acquire the two additional armored cruisers, which
were named Pueyrredón and General Belgrano, that were more powerful
than the previous two. To counter them, the Chilean government ordered
two new battleships, Constitución and Libertad, using its gold
reserve to pay for them. These battleships' fast speed would make them
suitable for opposing the new Argentine armored cruisers. The Chileans
also purchased the protected cruiser Chacabuco, which had been built
on speculation, on the stocks in late 1901. The Argentines responded
in May 1901 with an inquiry, possibly a full order, to Ansaldo for a
new 15,000-long-ton (15,000 t) battleship design. This would
mount a 305 mm (12 in) main battery and be capable of
steaming at 20 knots (23 mph; 37 km/h).
The increased tensions and near state of war between
Chile caused the British to intervene, lest their economic interests
in the region, which included the export of British goods and the
import of Latin American raw materials, be disrupted. Talks were held
in the Chilean capital, Santiago, between the British ambassador to
Chile, the Argentine ambassador to Chile, and the Chilean foreign
minister and President Germán Riesco. This led to the three Pacts of
May on 28 May 1902, which ended the dispute. The third limited the
naval armaments of both countries.
Chile were barred
from acquiring any further warships for five years, unless they gave
the other eighteen months of advance notice. The warships under
construction were sold to the United Kingdom, with Chile's battleships
becoming the Swiftsure class, and Japan, with Argentina's armored
cruisers becoming the Kasuga class. The two planned Argentine
battleships were never ordered, and Garibaldi and Pueyrredón, along
with Chile's Capitán Prat, were disarmed with the exception of their
main batteries, as the
Argentine Navy had no crane capable of removing
the armored cruiser's gun turrets.
HMS Triumph, a Swiftsure-class battleship, was originally ordered by
the Chilean government, but was sold to the United Kingdom due to the
successful Pacts of May. Photograph courtesy of the Library of
Main article: South American dreadnought race
Argentine–Chilean naval arms race
Argentine–Chilean naval arms race was extremely expensive for
both countries. The Argentine government was able to purchase
£4,534,800 worth of ships between 1890 and 1898 with large foreign
loans, which were given to them despite the country's role in the
Baring crisis of 1890. The government's total foreign debt reached
421 million gold pesos by 1896. As for Chile, it was forced to
take out a £2 million pound loan in order to purchase Krupp
weaponry, and this combined with its other loans led the banking
industry to suspend loans to
Chile until the diplomatic crisis with
Argentina was solved. Both the Argentine President Julio Argentino
Roca and American ambassador to
William Paine Lord
William Paine Lord ascribed
the ending of the arms race to the diminished credit of
By all measures, the
Pacts of May were an unmitigated success. Both
Chile enjoyed a period of lessened tensions, leaving the
near state of war they were in, and the pacts ended their expensive
naval buildups. However, the third major country in South America,
Brazil, brought this to a crashing halt in 1904, when its congress
passed a large naval construction plan. This culminated in 1907 with a
Brazilian order for three "dreadnoughts", a new form of warship whose
advanced armament and propulsion capabilities far outstripped older
vessels in the world's navies. Two would be laid down immediately,
with a third to follow. The Argentine and Chilean governments quickly
moved to cancel the remaining months of the naval-limiting Pacts of
May, and both eventually responded with orders for their own
^ Being 'purchased on the stocks' or 'off the stocks' in nautical
terminology means that the ship was built on speculation and was
purchased while under construction.
^ Garrett, "Beagle Channel," 85–87.
^ Grant, Rulers, Guns, and Money, 118; Lyon, "Argentina," 401.
^ Grant, Rulers, Guns, and Money, 118; Lyon, "Argentina," 401, 403;
Lyon, "Chile," 410.
^ Scheina, Naval History, 43, 45.
^ Scheina, Naval History, 45–46, 347; Grant, Rulers, Guns, and
^ Scheina, Naval History, 45–46, 347.
^ Grant, Rulers, Guns, and Money, 122–23; The 'Big Five' of the
Sea," National Labor Tribune, 2.
^ Sater, Empires in Conflict, 52.
^ Scheina, Naval History, 46; Grant, Rulers, Guns, and Money, 123.
^ Scheina, Naval History, 46.
^ Scheina, Naval History, 46–47.
^ Scheina, Naval History, 47–48.
^ Scheina, Naval History, 48.
^ Grant, Rulers, Guns, and Money, 132.
^ Scheina, Naval History, 48–49.
^ Scheina, Naval History, 49–51; Grant, Rulers, Guns, and Money,
^ Scheina, Naval History, 49–52, 298–99, 349; "Chile-Argentina
Treaty," Boston Evening Transcript, 10 January 1903.
^ Sater, Empires in Conflict, 51–52; Grant, Rulers, Guns, and Money
^ Scheina, Naval History, 80–81; Scheina, "Brazil," 403; "The
Brazilian Navy," Times (London), 28 December 1908, 48f.
Latin America portal
Books and journal articles
Gardiner, Robert, Roger Chesneau, and Eugene Kolesnik, eds. Conway's
All the World's Fighting Ships: 1860–1905. Annapolis, MD: Naval
Institute Press, 1979. ISBN 0-8317-0302-4. OCLC 4775646.
Garrett, James L. "The Beagle Channel Dispute: Confrontation and
Negotiation in the Southern Cone." Journal of Interamerican Studies
and World Affairs 27, no. 3 (1985): 81–109. ISSN 0022-1937.
Grant, Jonathan A. Rulers, Guns, and Money: The Global Arms Trade in
the Age of Imperialism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Lyon, Hugh. "Argentina." In Gardiner, Chesneau, and Kolesnik,
———. "Chile." In Gardiner, Chesneau, and Kolesnik,
Sater, William F.
Chile and the United States: Empires in Conflict.
Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 1990. ISBN 0-8203-1249-5. OCLC
Scheina, Robert L. "Brazil." In Conway's All the World's Fighting
Ships: 1906–1921, edited by Robert Gardiner and Randal Gray,
403–07. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984.
———. Latin America: A Naval History, 1810–1987.
Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987. ISBN 0-87021-295-8.
Articles and newspapers
Boston Evening Transcript
Boston Evening Transcript
National Labor Tribune
Rauch, George V. Conflict in the Southern Cone: The Argentine Military
and the Boundary Dispute with Chile, 1870–1902. Westport, CT:
Praeger, 1999. ISBN 0-275-96347-0. 39913542.
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