Every year on 21st May the Chilean nation commemorates the Battle of Iquique that was fought on that day in 1879 between Chile and Peru. Unusually this is also commemorated at an annual service held in Westminster Abbey. My wife’s father and brother were both senior officers in the Chilean Navy and because of that connection she and I are usually invited to attend this unique ceremony (see my blog Chilean Naval Day 28th May 2011[i]
). This year, like everything else, the service could not take place and so instead Canning House, which promotes good relationships between the UK and Latin America, organised, together with the Chilean embassy, a webinar hosted by the Honorary President of Canning House Lord Mountevans, whom I know well because he was Lord Mayor during my year as Master Marketor and is also the president of my Past Masters Association. He has both strong interests in Chile and connections with the Navy. His grandfather was a dashing officer in the Royal Navy during the First World War. He had been on both Scotts’ Antarctic expeditions and was second-in-command on the second and fatal one and was one of the last three men to see Scott alive. He commanded HMS Broke in the 2nd
battle of Dover Strait in 1917 in which he and one other ship were facing six German torpedo boats. He rammed one of them and he and his men boarded the boat. They were indeed the last Royal Navy sailors to go over the side and fight on an enemy ship. HMS Broke was badly damaged but it was repaired and was then returned to the Chilean Navy which had ordered it before war broke out and once the war started the British held onto the ship until the end of hostilities.
As a boy Lord Mountevans wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and as a teenager he applied to join the Navy. His eyesight was not good enough for the particular role in which he was interested in so instead he went to university and then joined the Clarksons firm of ship brokers with which he worked for 45 years. Later he was made honorary Captain of the Royal Navy Reserves so he did in the end achieve his boyhood ambition. As Aldermanic Sheriff in 2013 he visited Chile with the then Lord Mayor and was most impressed with the country. In 2016 during his year as Lord Mayor he and his wife returned to Chile and he remembers travelling up to Valparaiso, visiting the National Naval Museum in which he saw the capsule known as Phoenix which the Chilean Navy and NASA had designed as a tool to rescue the 33 miners who were stuck half a mile below the surface. All 33 came out in the capsule. I also visited the museum in 2016 and have a photograph of myself actually in the capsule.
In 2018 the Chilean Navy celebrated its bicentenary and again Lord Mountevans was present at celebrations as was the Princess Royal and her husband Vice-Admiral Timothy Lawrence, a retired officer of the Royal Navy. The Chilean Navy was founded because Bernardo O’Higgins, (see my blog Bernardo O’Higgins 31st August 2019 [ii]
) known as the Liberator, won a great military victory over the Spanish in 1817,but he said “a hundred such victories would count as nothing if we do not control the sea”. And to do that he recruited Lord Cochrane from Britain who had been a great Nelsonian captain in the Napoleonic wars. Cochrane founded the Chilean Navy on Nelsonian principles and won some great and daring victories helping Chile secure its independence. He would go on and do the same for Brazil and Greece. And so Chilean Navy Day is in part celebrating the foundation of its Navy by Lord Cochrane but the particular date 21st
May commemorates an act of extreme heroism by a 31 year old captain Arturo Prat who was in charge of an 800 ton wooden warship, the Esmeralda which found itself facing a much bigger Peruvian ironclad ship called the Huascar. The ironclad fired on and then rammed the Esmeralda. Prat gave a rousing speech and then jumped onto the bigger ship and started fighting to try and gain command of her. Instead he was shot dead but this was one of those defeats that turned into victory- a bit like Dunkirk in British history. His act of heroism so moved the nation that many young men volunteered to join in the war which eventually Chile would win over Peru and Bolivia.
The strong links between the British and Chilean navies have continued. In today’s Chilean Navy there are three British-made type23 frigates and there is cooperation between the two navies in many other ways. A British manufacturer of swords presented two to the Chilean Navy which are awarded annually to the top two ranking training officers.
In the webinar both the Chilean ambassador to the UK and the British ambassador to Chile gave presentations. HE David Gallagher, Chilean ambassador in London, is of British descent though a Chilean national. He has a fine appreciation of history and described Lord Cochrane in reverential terms as someone who was instrumental in Chile winning its independence. But he was highly unusual in that he is a hero in both his own country and in Chile. In 1860 when he died at the great age in those days of 84 Queen Victoria gave him a state funeral and he is buried in the central nave in Westminster Abbey which Ambassador Gallagher described as the U.K.’s most important house of religion. His state funeral cortege was witnessed by many thousands of people in the streets.
While Lord Cochrane was helping Chile many other British nationals were coming to the country but for a whole variety of reasons: some as educators who gave the new nation a head start; some as missionaries spreading the Word; some as businessmen to trade, to finance and set up businesses; some to help develop mines and some to help with shipping. As early as 1819 in the port of Valparaiso the Association of British merchants was formed. Chile conducted more trade at that time with Britain than with any other country. And there was no imperialist agenda behind this although Cochrane travelled with a number of British sailors it was to help Chile not to control it. Indeed no British Army soldiers were ever involved in any way. Many of these new arrivals from Britain married into Chilean families, as I was to do very much later.
David Gallagher, who knows both countries intimately, believes that they are like minded, share values, belief in human rights, belief in representative democracy and today this is expressed by very close relationships between the two countries. In January 2019 the Ambassador told us that Chile signed the U.K.’s first free trade agreement that will become operational after the Brexit transition. They beat Switzerland by just one or two days. I find it odd that this insight which I have known for some time has not been widely reported in the press. This willingness to collaborate extends to many areas of education, science, renewable energy, sustainability, the Antarctic, food and agriculture, and there are multiple contacts between British ministries and their Chilean opposite numbers in all these items. Most important is climate change as Chile currently chairs the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP25, and the UK will succeed as COP26 in 2021.
The British Ambassador to Santiago, HE Jamie Bowden also has strong links to Chile. His grandfather was born there in 1890, his aunt was born there in 1921. He was joining us by courtesy of Zoom technology and told us that he should have been standing on the steps of the monument to Arturo Prat in the annual ceremony the Chilean Navy organise in Valparaiso. On his first visit there on the second day in Chile after taking up this post he was immediately impressed that there were two type 23 frigates alongside the harbour and if there was any need this was a reminder of just how close the relationship was between the two navies. He was also present at the ceremony celebrating the bicentenary with the Princess Royal and the then First Sea Lord who said that the march past of the Naval Academy was so good that Dartmouth would be really quite hard pushed to match the quality. He thinks it is quite extraordinary and probably unique that there is such a close relationship between the two countries and involves serving members from the Chilean Navy coming halfway round the world to attend the Chilean Naval day ceremony and lay wreaths in honour of someone who played such a major part in the Chilean war of independence. His only regret is that while Lord Cochrane is revered in Chile as one of their heroes he is not so well known in his home country today. It’s ironic that Cochrane’s exploits are better known in works of fiction because he inspired the novels of Captain Maryatt, C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian. The characters of Horatio Hornblower and of Jack Aubrey are directly inspired by exploits that Lord Cochrane actually carried out in battle.
The final speaker was Captain Daniel Muñoz, Defence Attaché, Embassy of Chile. He told us that Arturo Prat’s act of heroism in the battle of Iquique commemorated on this day was directly inspired by Lord Cochrane’s foundation principles for the Chilean Navy. The willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice that was going to go on to inspire the nation was itself inspired by Lord Cochrane’s vision. And that was still the case today in the Navy that consists of 26,000 men and women[iii]
who still live up to that spirit.
While my wife and I were disappointed to miss out on such a great occasion this year, nevertheless we both found this webinar deeply inspiring and moving. I am confident that this event is unique for so many reasons. The four speakers brought that out individually and collectively to add up to a very fine story. There was actually a fifth speaker who did not join the webinar but recorded a video that can be seen on the Canning House website[iv]
. This was the First Sea Lord who amazingly also has experience as the commander of one of the ships now serving in the Chilean Navy. It’s name in the British Navy was HMS Norfolk. He had also been present in another ceremony in 2019 also attended by the Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Navy when an important building in the naval training area at Portsmouth was renamed from the already heroic name of Launcelot to the even more heroic name of Cochrane.