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28 May 2011

Chilean Naval Day

Tag(s): Chile, History

 Last month an estimated worldwide audience of 2 billion people watched Prince William walk with his new princess down the red carpet in the nave of Westminster Abbey. Some of them may have still been watching shortly after when one of the abbey’s clergy was seen cartwheeling down the red carpet in celebration. But what perhaps few knew is that the carpet not only lay over  the memorial to Sir Winston Churchill and next to that the tomb of the Unknown Warrior but also, just a  few yards away, the grave of Admiral Lord Cochrane, British naval hero and founder of the Chilean navy. The inscription on the grave reads:

 “Here rests in his 85th year Thomas Cochrane, Tenth Earl of Dundonald, Baron Cochrane of Dundonald, of Paisley and of Ochiltree, in the Peerage of Scotland, Marquess of Marantum in the Empire of Brazil, GCB and Admiral of the Fleet, by the confidence which his genius, his science and extraordinary daring inspired. By his heroic exertions in the cause of freedom and his splendid services alike to his own country, Greece, Brazil Chili, and Peru achieved a name illustrious throughout the world for courage, patriotism and chivalry.

Born Dec 14th, 1775  Died Oct 31st, 1860.”

Last week in celebration of Chilean Naval Day the new Chilean Ambassador and Naval attaché laid a wreath in the form of the Chilean flag on Admiral Cochrane’s tomb. My wife and I were invited to attend this event partly because she is the Vice Chair of the Anglo-Chilean Society and partly because both her father and now her brother have served as senior officers in the Chilean Navy. We look forward to this event every year as a highlight in the calendar.

The Dean of Westminster Abbey, one of the stars of the Royal Wedding and seen this week receiving President Obama’s visit to the Abbey, gave a marvellous address recounting some of Cochrane’s exploits. He told us that Cochrane was always a radical both as a sailor and later as an MP. He often challenged authority and perhaps this is what brought on him false charges of fraud leading to his being stripped of his naval rank and his Parliamentary seat. The politicians of the day tried to prevent him serving the new nation of Chile by passing a law making it an offence for a British officer to serve in the colours of another country. Fortunately they were incompetent in their legislating and by the time it was on the statute books Cochrane was already well established in command of the Chilean Navy.

One particular act of astonishing bravery in 1820 was to capture the formidable Spanish fortress at Valdivia with just 300 Chilean troops. In the same year he extricated the flagship of the Spanish South American fleet, the “Esmeralda” from the port of Callao. Ever since the Chileans have had a ship named the “Esmeralda” in their fleet and today she is a fine ocean going sailing ship used for training its future officer corps. My wife and I have been guests on this ship on its visits to Britain.

Lord Cochrane went on to serve with distinction in the Brazilian Navy during its war of independence against Portugal and then in the Greek Navy where he helped them achieve independence from the Ottoman Empire. His career inspired a number of writers of nautical fiction. The first was Captain Marryat who had served under him as a midshipman. In the 20th century, the fictional careers of Horatio Hornblower in the novels by C. S. Forester and of Jack Aubrey in the Aubrey–Maturin series of novels by Patrick O'Brian were in part modelled on his exploits.

It was not until 1831 when Cochrane succeeded his father as the tenth Earl of Dundonald that he returned to Britain under a new King, William IV. When Queen Victoria ascended to the throne her consort Prince Albert personally secured his reinstatement as Knight Grand Cross of the Most Noble Order of the Bath, and promoted him to Admiral of the Royal Navy. In fact he was to receive several further promotions and later commanded the American and West Indies station from 1848 – 1851. When he died Queen Victoria wanted to give him a state funeral but her Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston tried to dissuade her from this view. Victoria held firm and Admiral Cochrane was given a tremendous send off. A long procession wended its way from Kensington to Westminster with thousands paying tribute to this great hero. The cortège was led by the Chilean and Brazilian ambassadors although regrettably Palmerston made sure that there were no British officers in the procession and none of his cabinet ministers attended.

Despite this petty action the occasion passed off well and is commemorated to this day by an event that is well attended by the appropriate minister of state, naval diplomats from many nations as well as several members of the Cochrane family including the present Earl of Dundonald.

Chilean Naval Day actually commemorates the action of another hero, Commander Arturo Prat who in the war against Peru in 1879 was commanding another incarnation of the “Esmeralda”, a small wooden corvette built 25 years earlier in a Thames dockyard. With a sister vessel of lighter construction, the gunboat “Covadonga”, the “Esmeralda” had been left to blockade Iquique harbour while the main fleet had been dispatched to engage the enemy fleet.

On the morning of the 21st May they were confronted by two ironclads, the formidable “Huascar”, a battle cruiser also built in Britain and to exceptional standards of fighting power, and the frigate “Independencia”. The “Esmeralda” suffered heavy damage and was rammed three times by the Peruvian battleship.

Before the upcoming battle Commander Prat made a rousing speech to his crew. He said:

“Men, the struggle is unequal; our flag has never been lowered before the enemy; and I hope that this isn’t the occasion for it to happen. While I’m still alive, this flag will continue to fly in its rightful place, and I assure you, that if I were to die, my officers will know how to fulfil their duty.”

Then he drew his sword and boarded the “Huascar” in a gallant attempt to defeat the enemy. He and many of his men were mown down by gunfire and he died soon after. The old corvette could not resist the third ramming and finally sank taking with her most of the rest of the crew, but with the flag still flying high as the boat slipped beneath the waves. The story of their bravery spread rapidly through the nation and powerfully moved public opinion. The sacrifice of Prat and his men stirred the desire among the population to contribute to the war effort and Chile went on to defeat Peru in the War of the Pacific capturing extensive territory which it still holds.

One only has to look at a map to see how important an effective navy is to Chile. It has one of the longest coast lines in the world and needs to protect its fishing and other marine resources. The Chilean economy is heavily dependent on exports that reach world markets mainly by sea. In fact 90% of its foreign trade is carried by sea accounting for almost 55% of GDP. Chile is the fourth heaviest user of the Panama Canal.

As a Brit I am pleased that the Chilean navy was founded on Nelsonian traditions exemplified by Lord Cochrane. And as a Brit married to a Chilean with strong naval links I am pleased that the relations between Britain and Chile in naval affairs are so good today.

Copyright David C Pearson 2011 All rights reserved

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