Spanish power on the continent

In 1818, the revolutionary government of Chile was poised to move north against Peru, the last bastion of Spanish power on the continent. The liberation of South America had up to then been dominated by land campaigns. But the need to move the army of General José de San Martin up the coast and support it there made it necessary to seize control of the Pacific from the Spanish. The new Chilean Government therefore turned its energies into creating a navy. Short of indigenous naval manpower, Chile recruited officers and men overseas and within a year had signed on over 2000 sailors, large numbers of which were North American or British. And, as the new navy’s commander-in-chief, the Chileans recruited that wayward genius, Thomas, Lord Cochrane.

Pacific from the Spaniards

In 1819, Cochrane blockaded and attacked Callao, the Spanish naval base in Peru. In February 1820, he captured Valdivia, the last Spanish stronghold on the Chilean coast. In August, having effectively swept the Spanish from the seas and seized dozens of British and American merchant ships, he escorted the great seaborne invasion force to Peru.

Then, while San Martin’s army slowly advanced on Lima, Cochrane blockaded Callao, cutting out the frigate Esmeralda in a dramatic night attack. Six months later, Peru became independent and Cochrane sailed north in pursuit of the Spanish Navy’s two surviving frigates, but was frustrated when they surrendered to the Peruvians. He then returned triumphantly to Chile before resigning his commission to lead the Brazilian war of independence.

The history of the naval war in the Pacific is an exciting one. But when Cochrane came to tell the story in his 1859 epic, Narrative of Services in the Liberation of Chile, Peru and Brazil, he introduced a less agreeable, almost paranoid, element by claiming that his victories had been won in spite of plots and disloyalty by his subordinates and jealousy and obstruction by his superiors. This version was first retailed in the memoirs of three South American residents which were published in the middle 1820s – William Bennet Stevenson, Maria Graham and John Miers.

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