The Pacific War is certainly the most tragic event in the history of Bolivia. The country lost this war against Chile, lost a part of its territory (also its single access point to the Pacific Ocean) and lost enormous mineral richnesses. Without this key region, Bolivia never succeeded its economical take off. The feeling of impotence and injustice of the Bolivian people towards the powerful Chilean neighbor is still of today's topic. The Bolivian media and politicians do not miss an occasion to remind the past injustices and the necessity for revisiting the history one century later in order to find a solution to this territorial problem. There's hope in the Bolivians' heart, they are convinced one day Bolivia will get back its access to the Pacific...

Request for the Sea, 2004
(courtesy of Bolivian Embassy in Austria)

Spanish Inheritance

In the viceroyalty of Peru, the Audience of Charcas represents the historical foundation of the Republic of Bolivia (1825). Around the year 1550, the Spanish conquistadors (La Gasca and Pedro de Valdivia) established the southern limits of Bolivia with Chile on parallel 25, at the level of the Salado river. The Bolivian regions bording the Pacific were part of the intendance of Potosi until 1867, when it became a department named Litoral. Litoral had a surface of 120,000 km2 and spred out over 400km coastline, it was divided into two provinces: Mar (Cobija was the capital) and Atacama (San Pedro de Atacama was the capital).

The growing ambitions of Chile

In the years which followed 1840, president Manuel Bulnes Prieto who controled Chile, demonstrated the power of his country by promoting economic and cultural developments as well as building international relations. The Chilean troops took possession of the Magellan Strait in the most southern point of the country blocking the colonization projects of the English and French in this region. In 1844, the treaty of independence of Chile was signed with Spain. At that time, the relations between Chile and the other American countries were good, but the quarrels regarding border definition appeared with Bolivia and with Argentina.

In 1842, Bulnes ordered mining prospection at northern border with Bolivia, which revealed important layers of saltpeter (sodium nitrate used as an ingredient in fertilizer and explosives) and of guano. Bulnes then declared that the guano deposits in Coquimbo, in the desert of Atacama, and in the adjacent islands would become part of the Chilean national property. He started the exploitation in collaboration with foreign companies from North America.

Bolivia shared between a peaceful or military solution

During twenty years, Bolivia complained about the incursion of Chile on its national territory. This dis not stop the flow of Chilean immigrants towards attracted by the economic interests of the northern regions.

In 1863, some problems about guano concession authorizations occurred in the area near the town of Mejillones. The Chilean naval forces then occupied the city harbour in order to ensure the protection of the ore, and to carry out the prospection for minerals in the area. The answer from Bolivia came on June 5, 1863, when president Acha asked the congress to vote a law authorizing military actions against Chile to recover the invaded territory as an ultimate solution in case diplomatic negotiations would fail. Bolivia proposed to Peru a military alliance, but Peru refused as it was privileging the mediation to solve the problem between Chile and Bolivia.

1865: Dispute started between Peru and Spain. As Chile intervened in favour of Peru, Spain sent its fleet to threaten Valparaiso harbour. Although not solicited, Bolivia led by president Melgarejo joint the South American coalition to give a hand to Chile. Spanish gave up the fight. The Chilean, who were grateful to Bolivians, said they were ready to accept the borders proposed by Bolivia.

On August 10, 1866, a first treaty established the border between Bolivia and Chile at the parallel 24 (the northern border of Chile gained 1 degree in latitude), with an agreement of a common zone for extracting guano and mineral ore located between parallels 23 and 25 degrees.

In 1867, Bolivia created the department of Litoral. The Litoral account at that time 5500 inhabitants.

Tensions continued between Bolivia and Chile

1872: Large silver deposits were discovered in the area of Caracoles. Bolivian, who feared to see the Chileans conquering the area again, dispatched a military battalion to this city.

In 1873, Bolivia passed a secret military alliance with Peru in case of war with Chile.

On August 6, 1874, a Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed to supplement the previous 1866 treaty, ratifying the border with the parallel 24, with an engagement of Bolivia not to increase the export taxes for the industrial companies installed in the shared region throughout the next 25 years.

In 1878, the General Hilarion Daza, who was leading Bolivia, ordered to the prefect of Antofagasta to introduce a new tax of 10 cents of Bolivian pesos per quintal of saltpeter exported by Chilean companies "FFCC" and "Companía de Salitre". Chile protested and refused the Bolivian decision, denouncing a violation of the treaty of 1874. On February 1, 1879, Daza then decided the confiscation by the Bolivia of the saltpeter mines exploited by these two companies.

The large British industrial companies which exploited saltpeter probably played a role in the start of the Pacific war by encouraging the expansionist ambitions of Chile.


1879: Beginning of the Pacific War

On February 12, 1879, Chile broke the diplomatic relations with Bolivia. The Chilean naval forces received the order to occupy those territories as they were defined before the treaty of 1866.

On February 14, the Chilean troops arrived at Antofagasta, a Bolivian city without any military garrison. One day later, the harbours of Cobija and Caracoles fell under the Chilean occupation. The news only arrived in La Paz 12 days later.

On March 1, 1879, Bolivia declared the war to Chile. On April 5, 1879, Chile declared the war to Bolivia and its Peruvian ally.

The national military forces before the war were to the advantage of the Peru-Bolivian coalition.

  • Chile: 2 millions inhabitants, 3000 soldiers well prepared and modern equipment
  • Bolivia: 2 millions inhabitants, 4500 soldiers
  • Peru: 3 millions inhabitants, 7500 soldiers and a first rank naval fleet

Major phases of the war

  • Phase 1: the battles for the control of the ocean were finally won by the Chilean army on October 8, 1879 (battles of Angamos).
  • Phase 2: battles in the Atacama desert: Bolivian army was defeated at Pisagua (November 2, 1879), the Peru-Bolivian coalition was victorious at Tarapacá (November 27, 1879). In May 26, 1880, Bolivia withdrew from the conflict after a defeat during the battle of Tacna.
  • Phase 3: The Chileans continued their combat against the Peruvians who occupied the areas of Arica. The Peruvian army organized the defense of Arica, but after a few months of hard combat, the city falls under Chilean control on June 7, 1880.
  • Phase 4: The Chilean troops progressed to the North and seized Lima on January 17, 1881. The Peruvian organized their resistance with guerrilla. The war between the two countries ended on October 20, 1883 with the signature of the treaty of Ancón.

On March 23, 1879, Eduardo Abaroa and a handle of men heroically defended the Bolivian village of Calama (battles of Topáter). Symbol of the Bolivian resistance against the invaders, Eduardo Abaroa became a national héro. The last sentence which he shout to Chilean colonel Villagrán before being killed was "¿Rendirse?, ¡que se rinda tu abuela, carajo!". "(to surrender? better that your grandmother surrenders, shit!).

On April 4, 1884, Bolivia and Chile signed a truce pact stipulating a resumption of the trade between the two countries and the withdrawal of the Bolivian territories up to parallel 23. These decisions were ratified on October 20, 1904, with the signature of a friendship and peace treaty. To compensate for the territorial losses, Chile granted to Bolivia tax advantages in the town of Antofagasta and engaged a project of construction of a railway connecting the Pacific coast to La Paz.

During the Pacific war, Bolivia lost its coastline and its mine field near Antofagasta. Peru lost Tarapaca province including the towns of Tacna and Arica.