South America 1879: Conquest of the Desert

Through much of the 19th century, the Argentine Republic had maintained an uneasy existence with the tribal peoples of the southern Pampas. This ended in 1878 when Julio Roca, Argentine Minister of War and—from 1880—President, mobilized five military columns to march south, defeating most tribal resistance by late 1879.



Patagonia was regarded as terra nullius by Britain and France until 1881 (and thus shown as a separate state in most maps of the period). Their main concern, shared with the United States, was to prevent any nation restricting navigation through the Straits of Magellan.

Main Events

23 Oct 1876–31 Mar 1878 Eisenstuck Affair

In October and November 1876, Paul Eisenstuck, the German imperial honorary consul in Nicaragua, and his family were attacked twice in the city of León, the second time by police officers. Germany, with the cooperation of the United States and Britain, insisted the Nicaraguan government pay compensation. When German demands were rejected, the Reich sent three warships from its East Asia squadron to Corinto; in response, the Nicaraguans backed down, paid US$30,000 in compensation, punished the perpetrators, and raised the German wikipedia

27 Nov–16 Dec 1876 Third Jordanist Rebellion

Returning to Entre Ríos province from exile in Uruguay, rebel caudillo López Jordán attempted to launch a revolution in Argentina with the support of Brazil. However, Jordán failed to gain much support and his 800-strong force was swiftly defeated by Col. Juan Ayala’s government troops at Alacrito (south of La Paz) on 7 December. Nine days later he was betrayed to the government and arrested (although, after three years of being moved from prison to prison while his trial was repeatedly postponed, Jordán escaped his captors at Rosario disguised as a woman and reached asylum in Uruguay).in wikipedia

29 May 1877 Battle of Pacocha

On 6 May 1877, the Peruvian monitor Huáscar mutinied in favor of Nicolás de Piérola—who boarded the ship 10 days later—and began conducting raids against shipping along the Peruvian coast. The Huáscar‘s activities provoked the British, who sent Rear Admiral de Horsey to hunt it down. After an inclusive clash off Pacocha with Horsey’s two warships on 29 May, the Huáscar retired to Iquique and surrendered to the Peruvian authorities on the wikipedia

14 Feb 1878 Ten Cents Tax

The National Assembly of Bolivia approved a tariff of 10 cents per 100 kg on all nitrates the Chilean Nitrate Company and Railroads of Antofagasta exported from the Pacific port of Antofagasta, angering the Chileans, who considered the action a violation of the Boundary Treaty of 1874 (which specified there would be no increase in export duties in the region for 25 years). After the company’s refusal to pay the tax when it was instituted in December 1878, the Bolivian government retaliated by rescinding its licenses and ordering its public auction for 14 February wikipedia

4 Oct 1878–18 Oct 1884 Conquest of the Desert

In 1875, Argentine Minister of War Adolfo Alsina began a program of extending communications and settlement into Patagonia while attempting to maintain good relations with the indigenous population there. However, Alsina was replaced in 1878 by Julio Argentino Roca, who became President in 1880. Roca abandoned Alsina’s policies by instituting large-scale military incursions against the natives, conquering most of Patagonia by late wikipedia

12 Nov 1878 Hayes Award

The 1876 Machaín-Irigoyen Treaty between Paraguay and Argentina did not resolve the two countries’ dispute over the part of the Gran Chaco between the Pilcomayo and Verde rivers. With Brazilian support, both countries appealed to US President Rutherford B. Hayes for arbitration. Hayes awarded the territory to Paraguay in 1878, but the decision did not influence Bolivia, which also claimed the area but had not participated in the Paraguayan wikipedia

14 Feb 1879 Occupation of Antofagasta

In response to Bolivian attempts to disband the Chilean Antofagasta Nitrate and Railway Company, Chile landed 200 marines under Colonel Emilio Sotomayor in Antofagasta just as Bolivian authorities were about to auction off the company’s assets. The small Bolivian garrison quickly withdrew north in the direction of Cobija and Tocopilla, offering no wikipedia

1 Mar 1879 Bolivian decree against Chile

After an unsuccessful attempt by Peru to mediate over the Chilean seizure of Antofagasta, the Bolivian government issued a decree in which it declared itself in a state of war with Chile, announcing the expulsion of Chilean citizens and the seizure of their wikipedia

5 Apr 1879 War of the Pacific begins

Following Bolivia’s declaration of war and having learned that Bolivia had a secret alliance with Peru, Chile demanded a declaration of neutrality by Peru on 17 March 1879. The Peruvian President Mariano Iganacio Prado responded that he would call a congress for 24 April to discuss the matter. Holding Peru’s actions to be delaying tactics, Chilean President Aníbal Pinto declared war on both Bolivia and Peru on 5 wikipedia