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19 August 2012

Valparaìso: ‘the Jewel of the Pacific’

Tag(s): History, Chile

The city of Valparaìso played an important geopolitical role in the second half of the nineteenth century, when it served as a major stopover for ships travelling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Strait of Magellan. European immigrants had been arriving for some time but following the revolutions in 1848 there was a considerable increase in traffic. This further increased with the Californian Gold Rush the following year as the port of Valparaìso became an important staging post for men and supplies. The city then entered into a golden age right up to the beginning of the First World War but it was the opening of the Panama Canal in the same year that was the real blow as ship owners naturally preferred to pay the dues of the Canal rather than run the gauntlet of the Straits of Magellan and Cape Horn.

During that golden age many unique buildings of varied architectural style were built by the European settlers. Many of these have been preserved and in 2003 the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My wife was born in the city and so we have a special interest in its cultural heritage. We recently attended a lecture on the British influence in Valparaìso by the renowned Chilean historian and writer Miguel Laborde. Snr Laborde teaches urban development at the Architecture School at Universidad Diego Portales, as well as being a member of the board of the Cultural Heritage Corporation and of the Chilean Society of History and Geography. He has written 14 books including eight on urban history.

Chile has a long coast line but very few significant bays. The currents are strong and so Valparaìso provides one of the few natural harbours on that Pacific coast. Spanish explorers reached this part of South America in 1536 and Juan de Saavedra, the commander of the Santiaguillo, the first ship to arrive, named the port after his native village of Valparaìso de Arriba in Cuenca, Spain. But the name is apt as it means Valley of Paradise and Valparaìso consists of a natural bowl with steep sides curving down to the ocean.  A particular feature of Valparaìso are the funiculares, the cable cars which run down these sheer slopes.

During Spanish colonial times the town remained small with only a few houses and a church. Trade was restricted to Spain and its other colonies, although this would be tested by ‘pirates’ like Sir Francis Drake who landed there on his circumnavigation of the globe. Over time the British would become interested first in buccaneering for gold, then in mining for nitrates, (see my blog The Nitrate King 7th April, 2012) copper and coal and also in trading for Patagonian wool. After Chilean independence in 1810 Valparaìso became the main harbour for the infant Chilean navy founded by Lord Cochrane (see my blog Chilean Naval Day 28th May, 2011) and opened up to international trade. There are records of trade with Hawaii, then independent; Chilean coins have been found in Polynesia; every fifteen days a ship would set sail for Auckland and there are even records of trade with Australia and Holland.

Immigrants arrived from Britain, Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy among others and all these languages continued to be spoken for some time with newspapers published in these languages. By 1824 there were 3000 Britons living in Valparaìso and many were to make a long term mark on the society.  As well as Cochrane there was another Scot Peter Mackay who founded the Mackay School, still regarded as one of the best in Chile. One of its teachers, Thomas Somerscales, gained fame as a painter of Chilean landscapes. The British established two residential neighbourhoods still known as Mount Pleasant and English Hill which are part of the World Heritage Site. They also built hotels, banks, bookshops, railways, schools, hospitals and churches. Protestants were allowed to build the latter provided they were disguised as ordinary houses on the outside. English gardens were also cultivated.

The British also brought their sports: horse racing, fox hunting, polo, golf, tennis and football.  The oldest professional soccer team in Chile, Santiago Wanderers, was founded in 1892. Yes, it is called Santiago Wanderers but plays to this day in Valparaìso.

However, this golden age had one violent interruption owing to a ludicrous war with Spain, Chile’s former colonial master. The warmonger Isabel II of Spain vastly increased military expenditure in a conspicuous attempt to regain Spain’s imperial position, raising Spain to the fourth most powerful naval power. She launched colonial adventures in regions as disparate as Morocco, Mexico, Indo-China and the Dominican Republic, which Spain briefly reoccupied. Then in 1862 it sent a ‘scientific expedition’ consisting of three warships to South American waters while its real purpose was to back the financial and legal claims of Spanish citizens still resident in Latin America.

The expedition reached Valparaiso in 1863 and since Spain had recognised Chilean independence in 1840 the visit was cordial. They moved onto Peru where although Spain had still not officially recognised Peruvian independence they were also received on good terms. Then a fight broke out between Spanish citizens and local residents.  One of the Spaniards died and when news of this reached the Admiral in charge of the Spanish fleet he returned demanding a government apology and reparations to the affected Spaniards. The Peruvians refused stating that it should be dealt with as a local police matter. Madrid then intervened sending a so-called Royal Commissary– a colonial title- to demand payment of Peruvian debt from the War of Independence. Peru again refused and in retaliation the Spanish occupied the Chincha islands, home of the largest deposits of guano, source of 60% of the Peruvian government’s revenue.

Spain sent more warships and set up a blockade of Peruvians’ principal ports. A treaty was signed in 1865 to settle the matter but national opinion considered it demeaning to Peruvian honour. The Congress refused to ratify it, there was a general uprising and the government fell. In the rest of Latin America these actions caused resentment and when a Spanish gunboat called at a Chilean port President Pérez declared that coal was a war supply that could not be sold to a belligerent nation. The Spanish then demanded sanctions against Chile and four Spanish war ships sailed on Valparaìso. Admiral Pareja deliberately arrived on 17th September, 1865, the day before the anniversary of Chilean independence, and demanded the Spanish flag be given a 21-gun salute. Naturally the Chileans refused and Spain declared war a week later.

The new Spanish prime minister ordered Admiral Pareja to withdraw but he ignored this direct order and instead imposed a blockade of the main Chilean ports. He did not have enough ships to complete this but it certainly wreaked havoc on Valparaìso.  The neutral navies of the United States and the United Kingdom lodged a formal protest.

Then Spain suffered a humiliating naval defeat in the Battle of Papudo when the Chilean corvette Esmeralda captured the Spanish schooner taking the entire crew prisoner[i]. This was too much for Pareja and he took his own life on his flagship. Shortly after the Peruvian President resigned in disgrace, his successor did not stay much longer and a new nationalist government declared solidarity with Chile in the war against Spain. Ecuador and Bolivia joined in and now all the Pacific ports south of Colombia were closed to Spain.

Pareja’s successor Mendez sent a powerful squadron to fight the combined fleet and a fierce battle took place in February 1866 at Abtao but without a decisive result. Short of supplies and refused landing at any of the Chilean ports Mendez decided to take punitive action. On March 31 1866 the Spanish fleet shelled and burned Valparaìso and destroyed the Chilean merchant fleet. Thirty three vessels were burned or sunk. It effectively annihilated the Chilean merchant marine and it was many years before it was to recover.

If Spain had wanted to restore its lost prestige in the region these appalling actions had exactly the opposite effect. The fleet withdrew from South American waters, left the Chincha islands and returned to Spain by way of the Philippines

Following the impact of the opening of the Panama Canal Valparaìso experienced a great decline. Wealthy families decamped to nearby Viña del Mar or to the more enterprising capital Santiago. The city’s economy deteriorated with the slump in the use of the port. More recently there has been some revival as the whole of the Chilean economy has been opened up to world commerce. Larger scale vessels that don’t fit in the Canal now ply their trade with Santiago importing manufactures and exporting copper and fruit. Some 50 cruise ships visit every summer. In the middle of the summer Valparaìso stages a major festival attended by hundreds of thousands of participants on the last three days of the year. This climaxes with an extravagant ‘New Year’s by the Sea’ fireworks show, the biggest in Latin America, attended by a million tourists who throng the coastline and hillsides with a view of the bay. The fireworks are set off from rafts moored along a forty kilometre stretch of coast and the display is truly spectacular. Last New Year’s Eve my wife and I were thrilled to watch it from her brother’s house overlooking the sea.

Two of Chile’s most famous Presidents were born in Valparaìso: the ill-fated Salvador Allende and his nemesis, Augusto Pinochet.

[i]To this day there has always been a ship in the Chilean navy bearing the name of Esmeralda. The current vessel is a tall sailing ship used for training purposes and my wife and I had the honour to be guests on board when it last visited London.

Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved


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