21 May 2014

Arturo Prat Don't Give a Shit

Today, May 21st, Chileans celebrate the heroics of a guy named Arturo Prat, known in some circles as "the honey badger of the seas." Those circles are mainly located in and around my home, but I hope it'll catch on.

In 1879 Chile and Perú were at war against each other, a nasty and long war for land, copper and saltpeter known as the War of the Pacific. The border areas between Chile and Perú were particularly rough during the war, and one day, a naval battle off the coast of Iquique, Perú, found two rivals of very unequal power facing off against one another. On the Chilean side, a very old wooden corvette named Esmeralda, and a slightly more modern wooden schooner called the Covadonga, captured from Spain some time before. On the Peruvian side, the exact opposite: an ironclad monitor called the Huáscar, a fast all-iron ship with a huge turret, and cannon almost eight times heavier than Esmeralda's humble weapons. Next to the Huáscar came the Independencia, a regular corvette, but, but with a coating of armor that protected it (I refuse to call ships "she" or "her," which I think is fucking moronic and everyone does it just because they are sheep. Yes, I'm talking to you.) Prat commanded the Esmeralda, and it and the Covadonga were imposing a blockade of the port of Iquique, a blockade that the Huáscar and Independencia came to end.

The battle didn't pit all four ships against each other simultaneously, but split off between two encounters: the Independencia chased after the fleeing Covadonga (more on that a little later) and the Huáscar, right in front of Iquique, just a few hundred yards from the beach (the Pacific Ocean is quite unforgiving there, just a little bit of beach and then huge precipices) against the Esmeralda.

It is hard to conceive of two more unequal foes than those two. The Huáscar and the Esmeralda were kind of like The Mountain and The Imp, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, you're probably one of those who refers to boats as "she." Ahh, but perhaps what the Esmeralda lacked in power and weaponry, it made up for in speed? Not even close, it was slow, and the Huáscar one of the fastest ships in the world at the time. In short, the Esmeralda was shit, just utter shit. 

But you think you're so clever, you're thinking that you can tell when a story of certain defeat is going to turn into a story of unlikely, against-all-odds victory, and the reason why I'm writing a blog post 135 years after this battle happened is that it resulted in one of the greatest victories in naval history.

Let me disabuse you of that notion right now.

That place in the sea, just a few hundred yards off the coast of Iquique, Perú? Today the Esmeralda lies right there, at the bottom of the ocean, where it was sent that day, nearly its entire crew down with it. And on the Peruvian side? I think one dude lost a shirt button and another one may have spilled coffee on himself, and not much more.

But it was the way they fought that put them in the history books. When they saw the ship they were facing, the indestructible behemoth with the fearsome reputation, Prat sent the Esmeralda towards it. At first the Huáscar's guns didn't do much damage because they were firing from too far away, since they erroneously thought the Esmeralda had torpedoes (yep, they had torpedoes in 1879, I absolutely shit you not.) When they started to get more accurate, Prat positioned the Esmeralda between the Huáscar and the city of Iquique, so that any shots from the Huáscar that missed went into the city and killed the Huáscar's own countrymen behind. So the Huáscar started shooting in a parabolic angle, firing into the sky so the shots would fall on the Esmeralda. While all the shots from the Esmeralda bounced harmlessly off the Huáscar's hull, the shots from the Huáscar that did hit were causing a carnage in the Esmeralda. Sailors decapitated by cannon balls, a boiler that exploded and not only killed a bunch of people, but also made the Esmeralda practically immobile, the human toll about the doomed corvette was growing and the Huáscar's commander, a legendary sailor named Miguel Grau (known as the Gentleman of the Seas due to his ethics and chivalry), wanted to put an end to it.

No one in their sane minds could have blamed Prat had he surrendered. The battle was lost and the blockade lifted (so his mission had already failed) and with an immobile ship and ammunition that could not penetrate the enemy's hull,  it was a textbook case of a battle already lost. 
A probably inaccurate rending of the Esmeralda's sinking on May 21st, 1879

But Arturo Prat, true to the moniker of "honey badger of the seas" that will someday be his, had other plans. Or better said, came up with other plans when he saw what was happening.
Captain Grau decided that he had had enough, and he would ram the Esmeralda. He backed that ass up, placed the Huáscar perpendicular to the Esmeralda, and went full speed ahead, to ram the wooden corvette with its all its iron might. 

At that moment, as he saw this mountain of steel come straight at his crippled vessel, Arturo Prat ordered a white flag raised and surrendered his ship. Just kidding. That's what any normal, sane person would have done. But this dude had a different idea. He though "great, when the two ships crash against each other, I can just jump on the other ship and fight there man to man." So he grabbed his sword and gun, and when the two ships collided, this motherfucker jumped on the other ship, like it was nothing. With the smoke from the fire and the deafening noise from steel crushing wood, only two sailors saw or heard Prat's call to board the enemy ship, and one fell straight into the water, the other made it to the other ship and was gunned down shortly thereafter. So Arturo Prat was fighting the enemy in their own ship, all by himself. He was wounded almost immediately, but he kept going. He killed a sailor that ran at him (the Huáscar's only casualty in the entire battle, while the Chileans would lose 143 dead and 57 taken prisoner) before finally being shot and killed. 

On the second ramming attempt, twelve Chilean sailors boarded the ship and suffered a similar fate. The Esmeralda sank to the bottom of the Pacific.
The encounter between the other two ships was treated by history as a separate battle, the Battle of Punta Gruesa, and the Chilean ship Covadonga, which seemed to be running away, led its pursuer Independencia to shallow waters, where it got stuck, at which point the  Covadonga turned around and shelled it mercilessly until it surrendered.

But the Naval Battle of Iquique was a turning point in the war. While technically a Peruvian victory (the blockade of Iquique was indeed lifted) they lost the Independencia, an important ship, while Chile only lost a very old wooden corvette. But most importantly, Chile gained a hero. The tale of Prat's bravery so moved the Chilean people, that they began to support a war towards which they were previously lukewarm, and enrollment in the armed forces went up, possibly enough to change the course of the war. Chile would end up winning the war a few years later, taking huge parts of previously Peruvian and Bolivian land, and leaving Bolivia landlocked. If Chile is today a rich, prosperous nation, and Bolivia an extremely poor one, it has a lot to do with the outcome of this war, of which this naval battle is its most famous focal point. 

I despise war, jingoism, and that moronic assumption that soldiers are automatically heroes. They are not. They rarely are. And it would have been nice if Prat's valor had only cost him his own life and not sent 150 other men to their deaths. Yes, the sailors of the Esmeralda are in the pages of naval lore, and songs were sung about their courage but, as Robb Stark said after the Whispering Wood: the dead won't hear them.

Oh, and Iquique, Perú, the port city that Arturo Prat died to keep Peruvian forces from reaching? Today it is Iquique, Chile

Prat was only 31 years old, and a lawyer by trade. By now, you probably picture him as some sort of 19th century Rambo/John McClane superhero. Yet thin and balding, this is what he looked like.