Ironclad corvette Brasil, built at La Seyne in France 1865-6, on her arrival in the land of her name. She was soon employed upriver in hot fighting with the Parguayans. Her masts and rigging were removed for this service, except for a stump main used for signaling. Schematic drawing
During most of our period of study, Brazil had the biggest navy in South America, and possibly the best. Alone among Latin America's naval powers, she had the capability of building sizable steel warships. Although she did not engage in all-out naval warfare after the conclusion of the Paraguayan War in 1870, to be sure, that was one of the benefits of having the region's dominant navy.
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Foremost among the big three navies of Latin America, the Brazilians had a history from the time of river ironclads and floating batteries of the 1860s, extensively used in the Urugayan and Paraguayan Wars. Following a slackening of naval interest during the late days of the Brazilian Empire -- the late 1870s and early 80s -- two of the most powerful pre-dreadnoughts in the western hemisphere were ordered from Britain: Steel-built, echelon turret ships modeled on the Caio Duilio and HMS Inflexible, among the last great products of Samuda Bros' shipyard on London's Isle of Dogs. Mustering into the service in 1885-87, they marked a time of national renewal with the freeing of the slaves in 1888, the popularity of expansionism, and the change from an empire to a republican form of government. So influential were these Brazilian ships (themselves copies of larger European battleships) that, when the U.S. belatedly returned to the lists in 1889, she laid down remarkably true copies of Brazil's Riachuelo class as her first battleships in 30 years -- the USS Maine and Texas of 1895.
From the first, coastal and river operations were a primary concern of Brazilian naval strategists. Their navy therefore contained a large number of river monitors and gunboats, and a number of harbor defense gunships. In the 1890s a modest fleet of torpedo boats and torpedo gunboats (the overgrown predecessors of the destroyer) joined the fleet -- three TBs, three German-made and one British-built. A minelayer also joined Brazil's armada in 1892. Three Elswick cruisers were ordered: the first, the Barroso, delivered in 1896; the last two ceded to the U.S. in a lucrative last-minute deal on the eve of the Spanish-American War, became the USS New Orleans and Albany. The former arrived just in time to fight Spain in 1898.
The growth of the Brazilian roster was crowned by the two state-of-the-art dreadnoughts ordered from Britain in 1908 and delivered in 1910, kicking off a short-lived Latin American dreadnought race that died a natural death after one round, the score being Brazil 2, Argentina 2, Chile 1. These ships never met in combat but were great symbols of national prestige in their time. In retrospect, the Latin countries could not really afford them, and this exerted a restraining influence on the growth of the arms race. Not before Brazil threatened to ratchet it up one more notch, though: In 1911 they sketched out the design of the dreadnought that outdid all others for numbers of guns and turrets, designed by Tennyson d'Eyncourt and built at Armstrongs' on the River Tyne. To be called Rio de Janeiro, she mounted fourteen 12-inch guns in seven turrets. But before the ship was completed, the country endured a mutiny on board its existing dreadnoughts, and experienced a tremendous financial crisis. The unfinished ship was sold to the Turks to alleviate the crisis; but the Turks never got to sail her either. The ship was newly completed as the storm clouds of World War I blew in, and the British Admiralty requisitioned the ship for duty in the Royal Navy. She is known to history by her British name, HMS Agincourt.
Even without the Rio/Agincourt, the scoreboard cited above understates Brazil's advantage, for Brazil had both her ships operational five years before her nearest competitor. Having placed her order before the European dreadnought race spiraled out of control, Brazil got the best deal and received the best ships of any Latin country, all round.
The Battle of Riachuelo in the Paraguayan War took place on June 11, 1865, far up the Río Paraguay near the Argentine border. Seen here in a famous painting by Victor Meirelles (1882), the action consisted of an intrusion upriver by a Brazilian force consisting of the paddle frigate Amazonas, four ironclad screw corvettes, and four casemate ironclad gunboats, blocked by an Uruguayan force of two ironclad corvettes, six river steamboats, seven chatas, and shore forces armed with artillery and Congreve rockets. When one of the Brazilian ships blundered into a backwater and grounded, the following vessels bunched up behind her, sitting ducks for fire from the forts on land. The situation threatened to deteriorate badly for the Brazilians. Their commander, steely Francisco Manuel Barosso da Silva, promptly took things in hand and started ramming enemy vessels right and left (above: his flagship Amazonas with one of her victims), saving the day and providing Brazil with her great national naval hero. Brazil and ally Argentina won the 6-year war in 1870, but the cost of the conquest was ruinous. Enlarge
The floating battery Colombo, built in Britain, was typical of Brazil's ironclads in the Paraguay dispute. She and her wooden sisters, the La Seyne-built Brasil and the Brazilian-built Tamandaré, blasted their way past the Paraguayan river forts at Curuzú, Curupayty, and Humaíta in 1866, emerging much the worse for wear (below). All these vessels were scrapped by 1880, marking the low point in Brazil's naval preparedness.
The largest and richest of the Latin nations, Brazil had advanced metallurgical industries and shipbuilding capability early on. Here is a dockyard with steamers in for hull graving at Rio, late 1800s. Most of the smaller ironclads used in the Paraguayan War were built in country, although the Brasil and one of the turret ships were ordered from France, and the other turret ship from Lairds'. Enlarge
During the late Eighties and the Nineties Brazil proudly paraded the biggest battleships in the western hemisphere with the Riachuelo class. These were échelon-model turret ships on the model of the Italian Duilios, but considerably smaller and lighter gunned. Riachuelo was slightly larger, outfitted as the fleet flagship; but Aquidabã had the more eventful -- and tragic -- history of the two. Photos of her in sail rig dramatically demonstrate why she must be classified as a masted turret ship. She is pictured above on her way to the colossal fleet review held in conjunction with the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Enlarge Library of Congress
The fleets of South America exerted a deterrant influence and deployed pointedly on each others' doorstep during spikes in tension over the various border disputes that simmered down the decades. But the fleets never met in outright battle after the 1877-79 War of the Pacific between Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Perú in which Chile and Perú were the main combatants by sea. Many peaceful visits helped to defuse smoldering resentments between the new nations of the region. Here the Brazilian fleet is joined by the Argentine flotilla at B.A., 1896; the Riachuelo, newly rebuilt with single military mast amidships, at left. Enlarge