Specifications for the Huáscar: 219' x 35'10" x 18'9" (66.9m x 10.9m x 5.7m.) Displacement: 1,199 tons. Armament: (2) 10" Armstrong MLR. (1x2), (2) 4.75" MLR (2x1), (1) 12-pdr, (1) 44-cal Gatling gun. Armor: Belt: 4½" wrought iron, tapered to 2½" bow and stern (114/64mm). Turret: 5.5" (140mm), conning tower: 3" (80mm). Propulsion: 4 coal-fired boilers, 1500-HP Penn trunk engine, single screw. Sail rig: 2 masted brigantine. Speed: 12 kts (22 km/h). Fuel capacity: 300 tons of coal. Crew: 170.
Built in 1864-66 at Laird's in Birkenhead, England, the Huáscar was an advanced turret ship custom made for export to Perú. She was one of the few ironclads of her generation to actually engage in naval warfare. Time and again, she proved herself in combat as a rugged, formidable, and well-protected warship, but politics kept intruding into her career. In the end, she became one of the few early turret ships to survive intact to the present day.
Huáscar's armament was disposed in one twin turret and two single mounts, the turret in the waist abaft the foremast and the single 4.5s in armored positions under an enclosed quarterdeck that stretched from the mainmast to the stern. The heavily armored turret was a Coles model as used in contemporary British ships, mounting two powerful Armstrong 10" 300-pdr rifled naval cannon. This was entirely appropriate, since her designer was Capt. Cowper Coles, RN. As originally built, she had hinged bulwarks that folded down to fire the main guns, the standard arrangement in the 1860s. But the guns' arc was still partially masked by the foremast shrouds. A later refit remedied this defect by removing the foremast, together with all its lines and cables to deck. The ship also had a formidable ram which proved itself in battle. Just aft of the turret, the ship had an armored hexagonal conning station to be used as command center in battle. This tiny battle bridge was an ancestor to the elaborate conning towers on later battleships. Below decks, the ship had four coal-fired boilers powering a Penn Trunk engine, driving a single screw. At her top speed of 12 knots, she was world class -- competitive with the best ironclads of her day. You can visit the crew quarters, appreciate the mahogany paneled wardroom, duck into the engine room, and stroll the deck of this unique ship today: she is preserved as a museum ship at Concepción Bay, Chile.
In 1877, Perú endured a year-long civil war when ex-Finance Minister Nicolas de Pierola engineered a coup against the elected president, Mariano Prado. One of the rebels' first acts was to seize the Huáscar at Callao on May 6. Henceforth the ship's legal status was fuzzy; but to operate she had to have supplies: food and water and, above all, fuel. Capt. Germán Astete resorted to piracy to procure them, plundering towns and seizing neutral vessels. Two of the latter were British merchantmen of the Pearless Line. Despite warnings, the ship followed up by raiding two more British ships in quest of drinking water.
On May 23, the Huáscar hove into the then-Peruvian port of Pisagua, north of Iquique, and put the town under the gun, landing and taking possession of the settlement. The squadron loyal to the legitimate government barged into the middle of this fracas and a pitched battle ensued, pitting the ironclad frigate Independencia (built by Samuda Bros. at London, 1864-66) and two supporting vessels against Huáscar. The two protagonists blazed away at each other for 90 minutes, in which time the defensive power of armor was convincingly demonstrated. Independencia lost her stack and suffered two killed. Huáscar suffered little visible damage but withdrew as night came on, after re-embarking her landing party.
Meantime, Huáscar's earlier seizures of British cargos and coal had had international reverberations. Commodore Algernon de Horsey, commanding the British Pacific Squadron, received orders to sieze Huáscar in reprisal. This task proved more difficult than anticipated. De Horsey had at his disposal the four-year-old, unarmored iron frigate HMS Shah (right) and the wooden screw corvette HMS Amethyst. The Shah was a large and heavily armed warship packing two 9" guns and six 7" rifles, plus four Whitehead torpedoes in a 6,250-ton hull; the Amethyst was armed with 64-pounder smoothbores - larger versions of the cannon that won Trafalgar - and the new torpedoes. The two British vessels fell in with Huáscar a few days after the Pisaqua action and shadowed her in a series of evolutions along the coast. At last they succeeded in cornering Huáscar in the southern Bay of Pachoca and called for a parley. After the British commodore issued a haughty demand that she strike her colours or "I will be compelled to capture her by force . . . in Queen Victoria's name," Nicolas de Pierola rejected the ultimatum and sent the messenger, Lt. George Rainier, packing back to his ship. Huáscar took up the challenge and squared off for combat that afternoon of of May 29, 1877.
On the ground Capt. Astete had selected, Huáscar fought an action under circumstances much to her advantage. With her shallow draft, Huáscar threaded through shoals the deep-water British ships had to avoid, presenting a small target through constant, agile maneuvers. The British shot 427 shells and round shot at her, hitting her some 50 times but without visible effect. Even the Palliser armor-piercing rounds did little obvious damage to the Huáscar's armor, piercing it only once. At 1700 yards she seemed impervious to British armed might, circling away when they attempted to close the range. De Horsey remarked to his officers, "Gentlemen, we certainly aren't fighting the Khedive's navy!" (a contemptuous reference to the British takeover of Egypt, ongoing at the time, but also a grudging tribute to the Peruvians' skill and spirit). Three times Astete had Huáscar lined up to ram, but his attentions were rebuffed as the British evaded Huáscar's thrusts. Peruvian gunnery did not overly discomfit the Royal Navy that day, but as the shades of an austral-autumn evening drew on, the Peruvians' aim showed signs of improving.
As daylight declined, the British were dismayed at Huáscar's seeming invulnerability and willing to try desperate measures to win. The commodore decided to try a new weapon considered rather underhanded by the old school: the Whitehead locomotive torpedo, invented by a Lancashire engineer working independently in the Adriatic region, and newly adopted by the Royal Navy. This marked the first use of self-propelled torpedoes in combat. As it was such a new and barbarous weapon, the Amethyst's commander insisted on getting the order in writing before launching his torpedo, and it is to Shah we must credit the first 14" diameter, 18-knot chariot of death loosed in naval warfare. In the event, Huáscar took evasive action and escaped being hit. No further torpedo attack followed that day. That was fortunate for Huáscar, for those early torpedoes -- 530 pounds of tapered metal armed with a 26-pound warhead -- were quite lethal when cleanly delivered, having a range of 550 yards. The first proof of torpedoes in combat came only a few months later when Russian torpedo boats under Stepan Makaroff despatched the Turkish warship Initbah with two Whiteheads on January 26, 1878.
Huáscar found it advisable to withdraw and faded into inshore waters where the British ships could not follow. Despite her successful defense against a powerful British force, Huáscar was unable to carry on an independent existence and with most of her ammunition shot away in battle, she could not be replenished and so lost some of her potency as an engine of war. Food, water, and fuel were in short supply when Huáscar put into Iquique on May 30, calling for a parley. At first, Nicolas de Pierola invited the Peruvian navy to join forces to drive off the British imperialistas. When it was made plain that this would never be acceptable,her rebel crew surrendered her to forces of the legitimate Peruvian government and left under safe-conduct. The bugler had been Huáscar's only casualty in the battle against the Shah and the Amethyst. There were a score of wounded aboard the British ships but no fatalities. This set these early battles apart from the grisly outcomes of naval clashes to come -- and in them the impetuous Huáscar was to play a leading rôle.
Huáscar's spirited rebuff of the Royal Navy, then at the peak of its dominance, made hearts thump with pride in Perú. Huáscar was on her way to becoming a legend throughout Latin America and her performance was admired in Europe and the U.S. too. In England, de Horsey fared less well, narrowly avoiding censure by Parliament for failing to capture the renegade ironclad. Yet even the navy's detractors were quick to note that de Horsey had been foiled by exported British technology. Indeed, the Independencia too was British-built. Indirectly, the incident served to emphasize Britain's maritime supremacy in the era.
HMS Shah continued on active duty through the 1890s, and survived as a hulk until 1926. Her class was considered large and expensive to operate and,in their later years, as having an antiquated, modified sailing-ship layout and iron hull, while by the mid-1880s a steel hull could be built incorporating lighter but stronger armor, giving a protected hull at about the same weight as the Shah's unprotected iron hull.
In her defense, it can be said that Shah was highly seaworthy and handled quite well under sail, reliably delivering her artillery where it was wanted. As for the Amethyst, although this wooden corvette was first commissioned in 1873, she was virtually the last of her breed in the mainstream Royal Navy, being paid off in 1885 and sold for scrap after only 12 years' duty. Wooden and composite-hulled warships remained on colonial duty until the very late 19th century -- as did iron-hulled ships sheathed in wood -- but Pachoca was the last time a conventionally laid-out Royal Navy corvette saw action on the high seas (although the wood-on-iron-frame sloop-o'-war HMS Condor did perform brilliantly before Alexandria in 1882, under the command of Lord Charles Beresford). From 1880 on, it would become customary instead to send a steam-powered gunboat -- hence, "gunboat diplomacy." Diplomatically, Britain and Perú ironed out their dispute over the affair with payment of a small indemnity to the British shipowners. In counter to H.M. government's demand for reparations for the damage to H.M. ships, Perú stoutly maintained the rebels' right to resist an incursion on Peruvian sovereignty. Without the plucky resistance put up by Capt. Astete and the Huáscar, Britain surely would have exacted a higher price. To this day Huáscar is celebrated in Latin America for holding her own in combat with the foremost imperial power of the time.
But Huáscar is not celebrated for Pachoca alone. Barely two years later, jostling over possession of nitrate-rich territory in the Atacama Desert, which stretches 350 miles along the coast from Antofagasta north to Arica (then Bolivia's only port), led to a protracted war between Chile, Perú and Bolivia, in the corner where the four countries (including Argentina) join. At the beginning of the war, Perú was in possession of the northernmost third of this coast, while Bolivia laid claim to all the rest of this region which now forms northern Chile. At this writing the Andean resource war is still in progress: although military fighting ashore died out after Perú's defeat and occupation by Chile in 1883, the borders in the area are still in dispute. The incident that triggered the 1879 war was a Chilean incursion into Bolivian lands, capturing Calama after a clash of arms at Topáter. But just as in the Spanish Conquest, troop movement in the arid Atacama was dependent on supply by sea. The Chilean advance soon ground to a halt, stymied by the need to first neutralize Perú's most advanced weapon: her up-to-date ironclad navy.
Huáscar and Independencia formed the nucleus of this navy, the most critical defensive weapon for Perú doing much to keep her inviolate at first, under the inspired command of Capt. Miguel Grau. Being captured later in the war Huáscar was turned against her old mates. She thus became a decisive weapon on both sides in this five-year war. In addition to Huáscar and Independencia, the Peruvians fielded two ex-Civil War monitors originally built for the U.S. Navy, Canonicus class single turret gunboats Oneota and Catawba (renamed Manco Cápac and Atahualpa). After she had changed sides much later, Huáscar ended up in a gunnery duel with the former at Arica.
Because of her heavy artillery and mobility, Huáscar became the first target of the Chilean forces and so long as she remained at large, the Chileans delayed their invasion. Huáscar thus held off the Chilean assault for 6 months, spearheading a daring Peruvian naval campaign collectively known as "The Exploits of Huáscar."
On May 21, 1879, Huáscar broke the Chilean blockade of the port of Iquique, sinking the wooden corvette Esmeralda by repeated ramming attacks (above). When the Chilean captain, Arturo Prat, led a boarding party, his force was slaughtered on the deck of the Huáscar and he died among them. After the Esmeralda sank, Capt. Grau supervised the rescue of 62 survivors before turning Huáscar's bows to pursue a fleeing enemy ship, the schooner Covadonga. In the meantime Independencia had taken up the pursuit, but struck a submerged rock off Punta Gruesa while attempting to ram her smaller prey; Covadonga took advantage of her more powerful pursuer's discomfiture by standing off and on, pounding her from both ends where her adversary's big guns would not bear. Accordingly, when Grau arrived on the scene he turned to rescuing Independencia's survivors and salvaging as many of her guns as possible before she sank, allowing Covadonga to slip away. She would later be sunk by Peruvian trickery; in the meantime, Capt. Grau was made admiral for his impressive feats of arms.
Above, Chilean schooner Covadonga pounds the stranded Independencia off Punta Gruesa, carefully hovering off the bigger ship's quarter where none of her guns will bear. This torment continued until the appearance of Huáscar drove the schooner off. She had been captured from Spain during the Chinchas Islands War of 1863-66. Enlarge
The Chilean navy was a formidable force in its own right, fielding two armored central battery ships, the Almirante Cochrane and the Almirante Blanco Encalada -- sister ships built in Britain, 10 years more recently than Huáscar. Chile was more formidable yet after the Peruvian fleet was reduced to one oceangoing ironclad. To be sure, the Peruvians could still count on the daring leadership of Adm. Grau; but Grau himself was killed later that year at the Battle of Angamos, along with most of his crew. After Iquique, the entire Chilean fleet of two ironclad battleships, two modern cruisers, and two wooden gunboats concentrated on catching Huáscar. Following an attempted run to safety, the Huáscar was overtaken by the Chilean force, and turned at bay. Adm. Grau's luck had run out. His steering was disabled by one of the first salvos; then another hit slammed into his bridge (below), killing him and everyone on it. The Huáscar was taken by the Chileans in that bitter action on October 8, 1879 (chart). Pierced by 76 direct hits in the 2-hour affray, Huáscar fought virtually to the last man. At the end her remaining crew attempted to scuttle the ship, but the Chileans boarded in time to arrest the flooding and pump her out. Huáscar was brought into the Chilean navy, which has owned her from that day to this.
Under Chilean colours, Huáscar was turned against her former squadron-mates, fighting the Peruvian monitor Manco Cápac (ex-USS Oneota) to a draw at Arica. Later she blockaded her old home port of Callao -- the port for Perú's capital, Lima -- as the Chilean regulars landed and, fighting determined but ill-trained militia, forced their way into Lima. The capital surrendered January 17, 1881, although fighting continued for another three years.
The turncoat ironclad at least had the satisfaction of backing the winning side: in the settlement signed in 1884, Chile took over the nitrate-rich Atacama lands as far north as Arica -- an expansion that came entirely at Perú's and Bolivia's expense. Although it had been defending its own territory, Perú was forced to pay a burdensome indemnity as well. Iquique and other ports on the coast prospered as export centers for the nitrate trade: shipping saltpeter to Europe for fertilizer and gunpowder. As before the war, the trade was largely controlled by Chilean immigrants and Britons. Other mineral riches in the region -- copper and silver -- were no longer subject to taxation by Lima. Chile also retained possession of the Huáscar, the fiercest battleship on that patch of the globe. Her one-time nemesis, the Independencia, had sunk after striking an uncharted rock off Iquique in 1879. That left Huáscar and the Chilean fleet lords of the Pacific roost; above right, the Almirante Blanco Encalada.
During 1885-87 the ship was re-boilered and refitted. Her sail rig and foremast were removed to improve gunnery, and the main was reconfigured with military rig. Her main armament was replaced with 8" BLR. New steam engines were installed to rotate her turret and electric lighting was added, keeping her up to date with warships in European navies and making her the nucleus of the new armored Chilean navy. In 1888, under Adm. Luis Uribe, who had been the exec of the Esmeralda, she ceremonially returned the remains of that ship's dead to Valaparaíso, where they were reinterred in a memorial. In the Chilean Civil War of 1891 Huáscar fought on the side of the rebels, taking part in three further battles. The Blanco Encalada was destroyed by a Whitehead torpedo in the same conflict. Disabled by a boiler explosion in 1897, Huáscar was made a sub tender and later hulked until recommissioning in 1934 as a memorial ship. In 1951-52 she was restored to her 1878 rig and made a museum ship at Talcahuano on Concepción Bay, Chile. On board there is a shrine to the two captains who died on her decks, and the other seamen who fought in the many wars, revolutions, and intrigues woven into her stoy. So Huáscar embodies today the exciting story of the early Peruvian and Chilean navies.
- The Peruvian Navy
- The Chilean Navy
- The Huáscar
- Armada Chilena's page on Angamos and Huáscar (Image Page)
- War of the Pacific Website
- Battle of Angamos - From War Gamers' Site
- Proof that the Resource War Isn't Over: Chile Won't Let Its People See the Full Story
- Early Turret Ships - 1860s and 1870s
- Chile's Last Battleship: The Almirante Latorre (1914) Another view
- Index to South American Navies
- Lay in a Course for Global Site Nav