War of the Pacific: Commander Arturo Prat

Commander Arturo Prat. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Arturo Prat - Early Life:

Born April 3, 1848, at San Agustín de Puñual Hacienda in Chile, Arturo Prat was the son of Agustín Prat del Barril and Rosario Chacón Barrios. Receiving his early education locally, Prat obtained entrance into the Chilean Naval Academy in 1858 after being sponsored by his influential uncle, Don Jacinto Chacón. A middling student at first, he soon began to excel in the classroom and began sea training in 1859.

Learning seamanship, navigation, and combat tactics, he was posted to the corvette Esmeralda (16 guns) a year later. Continuing to thrive in the navy, he graduated first in his class in 1861.

Climbing the Ranks:

Joining the fleet as a midshipman, Prat continued in this role for three years until passing his exams on July 21, 1864. Promoted to passed midshipman, he served aboard Esmeralda during the Chincha Islands War with Spain. Beginning in 1864, the conflict pitted Chile and Peru against Spain. Sailing under Lieutenant Commander Juan Williams, Prat took part in the capture of the steamer Covadonga (2) at the Battle of Paputo on November 26, 1865. As a result of his participation in the engagement, he was promoted to lieutenant junior grade. In the wake of the fight, he was transferred to the captured warship.

While aboard Covadonga, Prat took part in the inconclusive Battle of Abtao on February 7, 1866, which saw Chilean and Peruvian ships engage the Spanish.

With the end of the war later that year, Prat remained aboard Covadonga and partook in peacetime missions which included a hydrographic survey of the northern coast. Ordered to the new corvette O'Higgins in 1868, Prat aided in humanitarian missions and assisted in returning the remains of Bernardo O'Higgins to Chile.

Promoted to lieutenant, Prat also was made executive officer of O'Higgins in January 1870.

Becoming a Lawyer:

During this period, Prat began an intense study of the humanities as a precursor for law school. After moving through a series of assignments, Prat returned to Esmeralda in 1871 which was serving as the Naval Academy. As a member of the faculty, he taught a variety of topics including tactics, law, and naval regulations. That same year he completed his personal studies. Commencing his legal studies in 1872, Prat was promoted to lieutenant commander and married Carmela Carvajal a year later.

Serving as executive officer of Esmeralda, he aided in rescuing the ship during a storm at Valparaiso on May 23-24, 1875. Completing his law degree on July 26, 1876, he applied to be a lawyer five days later. Arriving at the Supreme Court of Justice, he was initially rebuffed and asked to schedule a new date and time. As his position in the navy limited his availability, Prat was able to convince the court's president to give him his examination. Passing, Prat achieved his goal at the age of twenty-eight. With the closing of the Naval Academy later that year, he became Assistant to the Maritime Governor of Valparaiso.

The War of the Pacific:

This position allowed him to begin his law practice during his off hours. Late that year, he aided in editing the Navigation Law and made 152 recommendations for changes. Promoted to commander on September 25, 1877, Prat was sent to assess Argentine naval strength during tensions between the two countries the following year. Though war with Argentina was avoided, issues arose with Bolivia. These were worsened when it became known that Peru had a secret agreement to come to Bolivia's aid in case of war. With the outbreak of the War of the Pacific in April 1879, Prat traveled north to Antofagasta with Rafael Sotomayor.

During this trip, he landed at the port of Iquique to inform the inhabitants that it was officially under blockade. Returning to Chile, he was given command of Covadonga by Williams who now commanded the entire fleet.

Moving north, Prat was ordered to Iquique and reached the port on May 10. Arriving with the fleet, Williams directed Lieutenant Commander Carlos Condell to take over aboard Covadonga and shifted Prat to command Esmeralda. On May 16, Williams sailed north with the intent of attacking the Peruvians at Callao.

Due to their age, Esmeralda and Covadonga were left to blockade Iquique. As the Chileans steamed north, they were passed by the Peruvian ironclad monitor Huáscar (5) and the ironclad frigate Independencia (18). Commanded by Captain Miguel Grau, the two ships were escorting two transports to Arica. Missing the Chileans at sea, Grau's squadron arrived at Arica where he learned of the two Chilean ships at Iquique and of the approach of a Chilean troop convoy. Departing, he intended to deal with Esmeralda and Covadonga before intercepting the convoy.

Battle of Iquique:

The approaching ironclads were spotted by Covadonga's lookout at around 6:45 AM on May 21. Badly out-classed, Prat ordered the transport Lamar to escape south while he moved to intercept the enemy. Firing commenced around 8:15 AM and ten minutes later Prat's ship began taking hits. Seeing an opportunity to escape, Condell slipped out of the harbor and was immediately pursued by Independencia. Unable to escape due his ship's weak engines, Prat positioned his ship towards the shore to force Huáscar to fire on a parabolic trajectory or risk hitting the town.

Esmeralda's situation continued to deteriorate as the Peruvian garrison emplaced artillery on the beach and opened fire on the Chilean ship. Though Prat's men maintained a heavy fire on Huáscar, they were unable to penetrate its armor. Seeking to end the engagement, Grau turned Huáscar's armored bow towards Esmeralda and prepared to ram. Seeing an opportunity to board and seize Huáscar, Prat rallied his men yelling "Let's board boys!" and jumped across to the Peruvian ship. Unfortunately, Prat's call to board was lost in the noise of Huáscar ramming his ship and only Petty Officer Juan de Dios Aldea and Seaman Arsenio Canave followed.

Charging forward, Prat was soon alone as his compatriots fell. Though Grau ordered him taken alive, Prat was shot in the head after killing Huáscar's signal officer. After the ailing Esmeralda refused to surrender, Grau again closed to ram. As the ship neared, twelve Chilean sailors jumped across to board and were cut down. A third ramming sealed the corvette's fate and Esmeralda slipped beneath the waves with the Chilean flag still flying. Known as a gentleman, Grau retained Prat's personal effects and saw that they were returned to his wife. Though Prat was killed and his ship ultimately lost, his actions helped inspire Chile to victory in the conflict and he became a national hero.