It is the second oldest tank in the world that is still afloat, however, it is not its 15 decades that make more than 150,000 people visit it every year.
At the Talcahuano naval base, 500 kilometers south of Santiago de Chile, a black, yellow and white ship remains anchored, much smaller than the large, modern warships seen behind it.
It is called Huáscar, after one of the last rulers of the Inca empire, who was commanded to assassinate by his half-brother; and has an emotional burden for Chile and Peru that has lasted a century and a half.
Some see it as a symbol of friendship; others, like a war trophy.
Despite Chile’s efforts to promote it as a «sanctuary» dedicated to the dozens of sailors who died there, for many Peruvians the Huáscar still represents one of the open wounds left by the Pacific War, in which Peru and Bolivia faced Chile between 1879 and 1884 and Bolivia lost its way out to sea
The latter, which was victorious, was then annexed to the entire Bolivian coast and part of the southern Peruvian. Among the loot was also the Huáscar, imprisoned during the Naval Combat of Angamos, on October 8, 1879.
140 years later, the three South American countries continue to use the heroes and stories that emerged from the Pacific War to build their respective national identities. On the side of the defeated, two symbols remember what was lost: the sea, for the Bolivians, and the Huáscar, for the Peruvians.
A controversial ship in Peru…
The Bolivian claim for an outlet to the ocean is better known and has even been defended in an international tribunal, albeit without success. On the Peruvian side, however, there is no official position on the Huáscar and it generates less consensus.
The Huáscar was a monitor-style ship built in England for the Peruvian government. Some say he should stay in Chile, which restored it in the middle of the last century and turned it into a museum, the second most visited in the country today. Others are calling for him to return to Peru.
And even those who would rather see it sink to «eliminate possible discrepancies between the two countries,» as the retired vice admiral and former Peruvian vice president Luis Giampietri felt a few years ago.
… and in Chile
On the other side of the border, the mere idea of The Huáscara one day moving causes problems, as Chile’s then Defense Minister Jaime Ravinet found in 2010.
The minister received harsh criticism because, faced with a question about a possible return of the Huáscar to Peru, he replied that in order to reach such an agreement, before it must have «generated conditions of mutual trust» and built a version of the past «that can be twinned peoples.»
His detractors reproached him for not answering with a categorical «no.»
Although it is also possible to find in Chile some voices in favor of «returning the Huáscar to Peru as a sign of goodwill», as proposed a few years ago by a small group of historians led by Sergio Grez.
«We are not proposing anything new or impossible. there are historical precedents for the restitution of war trophies between countries that kept enmities, often multi-secular or long-lasting for the sake of a future of peace,» He told BBC Mundo.
For the historian, it is best for countries to free themselves from the «heavy bale of militarism, chauvinism and xenophobia» to devote to their development those efforts and resources «that are wasted in the arms race».
The Chilean Navy wants it to be a sanctuary of the War of Pacífico.La initiative also proposed the «abolition of the warmongering holidays» commemorating the two most important battles of the Huáscar (the one of Iquique for Chile and that of Angamos for Peru) «because we felt that both are signs of glorification of the war between sister countries.»
«The perpetuation of such celebrations contributes nothing to the friendship between peoples, to the solution of the pressing economic, social and political problems that both countries have.»
However, the idea of partling the historic armoured vehicle does not fit in most of the Chilean village, as Professor Viviana Ferrada told BBC Mundo, while her pupils ran on the roof of the Huáscar.
«It could be that (Peruvians) come to see it, to participate, to know part of its history as well, but most (of Chileans) we are not in favor (of its delivery to Peru)», said Ferrada, whose school brings every year children from the town of Coihueco, of 25,000 inhabitants, to visit the ship to «highlight the patrician values».
«It is something of Chile, which was won, that meant the suffering of many families and many people. Even from our people there were people who participated in the Pacific War,» he said.
A historical relic
What makes this 154-year-old ship still capable of generating controversy?
«For us, the Huáscar represents the ship whose crew fought heroically in the Pacific War under the command of our greatest national hero, who is the great Admiral Miguel Grau. The Huáscar and its crew are for us one thing, it is Peru at sea… Peruanity, the spirit of struggle, the heroism of the sailors to defend their homeland,» the director of the Peruvian Naval Museum, Rear Admiral Francisco Yábar, told BBC Mundo by phone.
Miguel Grau is known as the «Knight of the Seas». Miguel Grau was the commander of the Huáscar during the war, where he earned the nickname «Knight of the Seas» for actions such as ordering the castaways to be rescued from the Emerald, an enemy ship he had just shot down.
He died aboard the Huáscar during the Angamos Combat when a projectile hit the bridge. Only a piece of leg was left of him.
Grau is one of the most popular heroes in the country, so much so that in 1999, he was chosen in a survey «The Peruvian millennium».
But Peru is not the only country that lost one of its most illustrious characters on the cover of the Huáscar.
«The Huáscar, for Chile, is a very important symbol because this is where one of the greatest heroes that our history, Arturo Prat, died, and we keep it that way and we keep it as a great symbol that all Chileans can come to,» The World told BBC World commander of the Huáscar, frigate captain Alejandro Niklitschek.
The figure of Arturo Prat is exalted in Chile for his dedication and sacrifice. Arturo Prat was a young sailor and lawyer who died during the Naval Combat of Iquique, on May 21, 1879, when he was in charge of the Emerald. It sank after being caught between the Fire of the Huáscar and the one that came from the coast, since then Iquique was still Peruvian territory.
Prat sanded his crew and jumped to the Huáscar, where he was shot in the knee and another in the forehead even though Grau had given the order that he be captured alive.
Peru became involved in the Pacific War in April 1879 to comply with a mutual defense treaty that it had signed years earlier with Bolivia.
Chile and Bolivia were at odds after the latter imposed tariffs on the Chilean salt peter that operated in their territory.
Lacking Bolivia’s maritime weaponry, naval combat was left in The Peruvian and Chilean hands.
«The Huáscar was special in the Pacific War because it was the main pitfall that the State of Chile had to be able to develop the ground campaign,» Niklitschek said.
«Finally, wars are won by putting the infant’s boot in adversarial territory and the Huáscar was preventing the mobility of Chilean troops across the sea,» he adds.
The Huáscar is located at the Naval Base of Talcahuano, in southern Chile.According to the side being consulted, the Huáscar was an ancient or modern ship. Niklitschek describes it as a boat of «very novel design for its time» with a «grand cannon» on the bow that made it a «very relevant weapon».
Yábar, on the other hand, presents it as a ship a decade older than its Chilean rivals, with half the armor and propellers and much less advanced artillery and technology.
Although the Huáscar became famous for fighting Chile, the vessel had been built to fight alongside him.
When the Peruvian government commissioned it in 1864 from the English shipyard Laird & Brothers, it had in mind a very different enemy: Spain.
Along with Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia, the four South American countries faced the former metropolis in the Spanish-South American War to end any claim it might have to reconquer the lost colonies. But by the time the Huáscar finally arrived on Peruvian shores, the confrontation was over.
The Huáscar was designed by British Captain Cowper Phipps Coles, who would die a few years later in a shipwreck caused by design and construction errors on another of its ships, HMS Captain.
The Huáscar had a two-barrel turret that rotated 360 degrees. The Huáscar was also not fault-free: the «big cannon» in the bow of Niklitschek is the Coles turret or tower, a rotating platform on the deck that in the case of the Huáscar had two cannons and could move 360 degrees.
However, as the sailors who today care for the Huáscar explain, Grau always fired from the right, because if he moved the turret to the left his weight destabilized the ship.
The Huáscar’s Running
Modern or old, the Huáscar was a monitor, a very maneuverable type of ship. So much so that, if the target was on the back, it was best to turn the boat around. A 180-degree turn took two minutes while turning around the turret took at least 16 minutes and required the physical effort of a dozen men.
Grau took advantage to sail the sea harassing the Chilean squadron. He would take surprise attacks on his ships and then flee. It destroyed their lines of communication and bombed their military facilities, preventing troops and supplies from disembarking.
«The strategy in warfare and maneuvers, at first favored Peru, in the sense that with a single armored vessel, this is very well used,» Yábar explained.
«Chile is dedicated to blocking the port of Iquique or to harm the ports of southern Peru, in the department of Tarapacá; while the Huáscar is dedicated to intervening the enemy’s maritime communications and attacking them by surprise.»
For six months, the Huáscar managed to postpone the ground fight and exasperate the adversary to the point where capturing him became a priority.
On the day this happened, the monitor was sailing in front of Antofagasta when it was found in the middle of two groups of Chilean vessels. A «plan» devised by The Chilean High Command, according to Niklitschek. Pure «lucky, » according to Yabar.
Chilean sailors managed to prevent the Peruvian crew from sinking the ship. As it happened with the Chilean crew of the Esmeralda in the Combat de Iquique, the Peruvian Huáscar fought until the last moment. As their commanders fell, the next-in-command replaced them. The latter ordered the valves to be opened to sink the ship, but the Chilean sailors managed to avoid it.
This is how the ship that for months had been its greatest annoyance, changed the flag and became part of its Navy.
With this victory, Chile gained control of the sea and, according to several historians, minimized Peru’s and Bolivia’s chances of winning the war.
A historical relic
The Huáscar served in the Chilean Navy until 1897, when it was decommissioned. In the middle of the last century, work began to turn it into a floating museum.
«It was decided to turn it into a museum, mainly because of the emotional, sentimental cargo that this ship had and the relevance that the Huáscar had for the history of both Chile and Peru,» Niklitschek explained.
«Then the chief commander of the Second Naval Zone, Pedro Espina Ritchie, had the initiative to try to leave the ship as it had been in the Pacific War. This was between 1951 and 1952. But mainly, highlight the figure of the ship, the relevance it had for both Chile and Peru and make a kind of place where sailors from both sides would be honored.»
After Chile claimed naval victory, four years of ground combat followed. Today, the Huáscar has a small crew that together with the groupies of the nearby Quiriquina island are responsible for keeping it in good condition and serving the public. Admission costs 1,000 Chilean pesos (about US$1.40) and the visit begins on a raft tied to ropes that the groupies pull over the sea until they reach the stairs leading to the deck.
There, there are four monoliths dedicated to the fallen heroes on board: the Peruvian Miguel Grau and the Chileans Arturo Prat, Manuel Thomson and Juan de Dios Aldea.
Visitors can see areas such as the area where the crew slept in a kind of hammocks called coys and compare it to the small quarters of the officers where they barely fit their tiny beds («People were lower at that time,» the sailors explain).
At the end of the tour is Miguel Grau’s cabin, with a compass on the bed so he could always know where he was.
Some believe that the Huáscar should be returned to Peru, others think it should stay in Chile and some believe that it should sink. The ship was equipped with original objects but also with others that, despite not having been before in the Huáscar, have their origins at the same time. In 1995, Chile received the Maritime Heritage Award, which rewardes maritime heritage, for this restoration work.
Therefore, the historian Sergio Grez believes that the option to sink the ship is «an absurdity».
«Apart from national sentiment, it is a heritage object because it is reminding us of what 19th-century warships were like,» he said.
For him, the important thing is that the vessel «is no longer an element of division but an element of union, of fraternity, of reconciliation».
«The solution here depends 100% on Chile. By contrast, Bolivia’s Mediterraneanism is a solution involving the agreement of the three countries that participated in the Pacific War. This must also be clear to the Peruvian public.»
«Exacerbated nationalism is a poison in the souls of Latin American peoples,» he concluded.