On this day in 1879, Chile and Bolivia fought along the banks of the Topáter River near the Bolivian-held town of Calama, now part of modern Chile. The battle was the first of many in the War of the Pacific (or in Spanish, Guerra del Pacífico), pitting Chile against Bolivia and Peru, from Topáter until 1883.
The origins of the War of the Pacific lay in a dispute over claims to the Atacama Desert along the Pacific coast. The Atacama, which is protected from moisture by the mountains of the Chilean Coast Range, is reportedly the driest desert in the world and is rich with nitrate and other mineral resources. The young nations of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru had only recently united to defeat the Spanish, however, their alliance was undone by their claims over such valuable territories as the Atacama.
The “Saltpetre War,” referring to the desert’s nitrate deposits, officially began in February 1879 when Bolivia threatened to tax a Chilean mining operation in the port city of Antofagasta and in doing so broke a recently agreed treaty. The threat spiraled out of control when Bolivia declared its intention of confiscating the property of the Chilean Antofagasta Nitrate Company. Chile responded by mobilising armed forces in Antofagasta and war was declared. Peru’s involvement came soon after as Bolivia called upon its powerful neighbour for help, identifying a secret pact between the two nations to protect their mutual territories.
By March 1879, Chile had occupied the province of Antofagasta and the Bolivian coastal region. Bolivian troops were determined to make a stand and although few in number, did so at Calama, some 200 kilometres northeast of Antofagasta. Over 550 Chilean troops marching to Calama were met by 135 Bolivians next to the Topáter River. Vastly outnumbered and outgunned, many Bolivians fled and 20 were killed, however, a small group led by the civilian hero, Eduardo Abaroa, fought until the bitter end.
Many of the war’s remaining battles were fought at sea, primarily between Chile and Peru. By January 1881, Chile had taken Lima, the Peruvian capital; but Peru, backed by the United States, continued to fight until 1883. Peace was declared when the Treaty of Ancón was signed by Chile and Peru on 20 October 1883 near Lima, in which Chile gained a territory of Peru. A truce between Chile and Bolivia was signed the following year, with Chile taking the entire Bolivian coast.
Today, the Atacama Desert is part of Chile. Hundreds of salt mining towns, which had sprung up across its arid sands in the 19th century, now lay abandoned as the discovery of synthetic nitrate made them obsolete. However, the picturesque Atacama continues to be mined today for copper and other minerals.