Soon the ironclad embarked into sabotage actions against Government forces. Among those actions, qualified by the own Peruvian Administration as "piracy acts", Huascar briefly intercepted two British merchant ships. One of them was the mail steamer John Elder, from the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, whose correspondence the revolutionaries tried to inspect without success. The Peruvian Government issued a decree treating the crew of the ironclad as “pirates” and immediately sent a squadron under Captain Juan Guillermo Moore, commander of the ironclad Independence, to recapture her. The Independence, the corvette Union, the monitor Atahualpa and the gunboat Pilcomayo composed the squadron of Moore.
Meanwhile, British businessmen vehemently protested to Her Majesty's Representative in Lima, charge d´affairs James Graham. Since President Prado´s decree discarded all responsibility on the part of Peru, and taking into consideration the recommendations of the British diplomat, the Royal Navy had no option but to intervene. Thus, the British Commander-in Chief Pacific Station, Rear Admiral Algernon Frederick Rous de Horsey, after arriving in Callao from Chile, discussed with his officers the way of capturing the ironclad.
On May 16th, de Horsey sent a message to the commander of the Huascar with the following warning:
"If any act, similar to those committed against the steamers John Elder and Santa Rosa is repeated, I will be forced to take possession of the ship and return her to the legal authorities".
He added that such actions,
"Will be considered as a just cause for her capture by the naval forces of Her Royal Majesty".
As in 1877, there was not a single year during British Queen Victoria's long reign in which somewhere in the world, her soldiers and sailors were not fighting for her and for the empire. It was easy to find excuses for all Victorian wars and campaigns. From 1837 until the end of the century, in Asia, Africa, Arabia and elsewhere, British troops and ships were engaged in almost constant combat. It was the price of the British world leadership and of national pride, and it was paid, usually without qualms or regrets. The incident with the Peruvians, however, was going to become an exception.
Huascar, without a doubt the most important Peruvian warship, was a low-freeboard turret ironclad, model Ericsson, built in England in 1865. She displaced 1,130 tons, was sixty-seven meters long, eleven meters wide and had a 1,500-horse power engine. A four and a half-inch belt of armor protected her iron helmet amidships, tapering to two and a half inches at the ends. Between the helmet and the armor she possessed a wooden separation of teak of fourteen inches to reduce the impact of the projectiles. Her revolving turret with five and half inch armored plating was manually operated. Her two turret guns were ten-inch Armstrong’s that could fire three hundred-pound shells. She also possessed two forty-pound pivot Armstrong guns located each one at the lateral sides of the ship, and one twelve-pounder at the stern. The ship was governed from a hexagonal three-inch armored conning tower located behind the big guns. With a single helix propelled by two horizontal alternative engines, she reached a speed of eleven knots and had a capacity of 300 tons of coal distributed in four rectangular boilers, which allowed long trips in high sea. The ironclad was so smooth that it could give a 180-degrees turn in hardly two minutes. Her crew consisted on 200 officers and men. For the standards of those times, Huascar was by all means an extraordinary warship.
On May 22nd, after picking up de Pierola at Cobija, Captain Astete sent a reply to de Horsey, telling him that:
"The forces under my command are aware of the rights and obligations that the code of the nations and the practice establishes in our coasts. We have been far from violating those laws, and thus the information on the incidents occurred with the John Elder and the Santa Rosa is not accurate. In any case, supported in my right, and prevailing above any particular interest those of the sovereignty and dignity of the Republic, I reject with calm but firm resolution, not only in my name and my crew, but in the name of Peru, the menace included in your letter. I declare, Mr. Admiral, that -God forbids- if the case comes that an aggression is committed by your command, I will fulfill my duty".
On May 27, at the battle of Pichalo, the amazing Huascar fought against the Peruvian Naval Division that tried to capture her. Despite the fact that the Independence was twice as big, Huascar´s artillery damaged the funnel of the ironclad and killed one of her crew, escaping unharmed.
Huascar was becoming more isolated because Government forces controlled most of the ports. Two more British merchant ships were intercepted and despite de Horsey’s warnings, a hundred tons of coal were seized from one of them, the Inunsina. This prompted the British to act.
On May 29, at the southern Bay of Pacocha, on the coasts of Moquegua, after a cat and mouse chase, the squadron of de Horsey finally intercepted Huascar. The Admiral’s force consisted of two ships: The unarmored iron hulled frigate HMS Shah, under Captain Frederick Bedford, of 6,250 tons and a speed of 16 knots, armed with two 9 inch, 12 ton, sixteen 7 inch, 6.5 ton, and eight 64-pounder guns, all rifled muzzle loaders, and four Whitehead locomotive torpedoes, and the 1,970-ton wooden corvette HMS Amethyst, under Captain Alfred Chatfield, armed with fourteen 64-pounders and spar torpedoes. The heavily armed Shah (named after the King of Persia, Nasir ud-Din) was at that time the Royal Navy’s largest and fastest cruiser. She was one of three big frigates designed to confront, in a hypothetical war scenario, the American cruisers of the Wampanoag class.
The British Rear Admiral demanded the surrender of Huascar and sent First Lieutenant George Rainier with the following instructions:
"Tell the commander of the Huascar that I have come to take possession of the ship in Queen Victoria's name. If her flag is not lowered, I will be forced to capture her by force. Considering the absolute superiority in force and speed of the Shah, you should convince the commander of the Huascar to avoid the lost of the lives of his officers and crew, if not of the total destruction that may occur".
De Horsey added that,
“If they surrender and the ship is immediately delivered, we shall respect the lives and personal property of all those aboard, and being such the case, we shall not return them to their Government, but will disembark them at a neutral site, which may be decided by their commander”.
For a small island race, the British have always produced more than their share of able and talented men, and during the Victorian era there were in many fields an abundance. These people concealed, behind stiff manners and rigid morals, a violent, restless energy, which drove them through the entire world. Britain thus, built great armies and ships lead by officers who had an unquestioning and unquenchable conviction those British traditions, beliefs and doctrines were the best of the world. And so, among other things, sometimes they acted, like in this case, as the world’s police.
Those were indeed the days of the Victorian Little Wars, but de Horsey did not took under consideration a small detail: He was not in colonial Africa or Asia, but in the Americas, facing a Western country's amazing warship mend to become legendary. And as talented and secure as de Horsey may have been, de Pierola, his opponent and future Peruvian President, was a stubborn and superior kind of man, and a perfect match for Victorian pride.
The British Rear Admiral seemed also to ignore the professionalism, determination and capability of Captain German Astete, Commander of the Peruvian ship. He also missed another detail: Even if his force had a total crew of 824 men and 40 combined guns plus several torpedoes and the Peruvians only had 4 guns and about 179 men, his were wooden ships, while the contender’s was an ironclad. Under all this circumstances it is difficult to know if de Horsey’s decision to attack was motivated upon a strong feeling of British superiority or if it was simply an act of stupidity or miscalculation.
The proud Nicolas de Pierola rejected the ultimatum considering that the British demand, was interference in a domestic affair. He replied to Rainier that the Peruvian flag on the Huascar would only be hauled down “when there is no longer a single man aboard to uphold it”. He added that the threat of force was a very grave offense to the sovereignty of Peru and underlined that “the use of force will be meet with force”. After the British Lieutenant returned to his ship, Pierola address his crew with the following words:
“Men of the Huascar: Everyone to his post. Now the Pierola revolution has ended. Now we are only Peruvians to whom the destiny has fallen to defend our flag and that of all America. Viva el Peru!”
This was not the first incident that confronted British and Peruvian ships: On May 16th, 1830, following orders from its Vice Consuls in Lima and Callao, the British warships Sapphire, armed with 28 guns, and the frigate Tribune, armed with 42 guns, under command of Captain Henry Dundas, seized the Peruvian frigate Libertad, under Captain Garcia del Postigo. Aboard the Libertad was Peru’s Vice President Juan Antonio Gutierrez de la Fuente. The British demanded reparations for the previous seizure of the Hidalgo, a Mexican ship with British cargo, which the Peruvian authorities suspected of smuggling. Captain del Postigo, who just two years before fought and won the naval combat of Malpelo against Great Colombian forces, rejected the demands and decided to fight. However, Vice President la Fuente convinced him not to do so, for the 24 guns of his ship were no match against the combined 70 guns of the British. The incident was resolved. London fired its two Vice Consuls in Peru and Captain Dundas was forced into retirement from the Royal Navy. Fourteen years later, in August 1844, a British naval squadron under command of Captain John Jervis Tucker, in a typical Victorian-era action, blockaded three Peruvian warships and one transport at Islay and then bombarded the port of Arica, while requesting reparations for certain offenses committed against British interests. Peruvians again decided to avoid confrontation and signed a treaty that resolved the incident.
This time however things were going to be different. In consequence, at about fifteen hundred hours and at a distance of 1,700 meters, de Horsey, which was a member of this generation of Victorian-officers used to impose their will by force over weak opponents of their time, ordered to shell the Huascar.
Except for the final Boer War, all the military and naval actions held by the Britons were small affairs by today's standards, and the engagement with the Peruvians could be placed into that category. So, it was the beginning of a singular combat that would face the Peruvian ironclad with two ships of the most powerful navy in the world.
Huascar not impressed by the British might, and well directed by Captain Astete, responded the fires and showed an admirable handling that left the Britons perplexed. The Amethyst and Shah shells, even if they hit their objective, could not pierce the Huascar's armor; in fact, they caused very light or no damage at all. Worse, Huascar's Commander used his knowledge of the shoal waters and made use of his low freeboard to present to de Horsey a difficult target. At a certain moment of the combat, de Horsey ordered cease-fire, for he saw no more the Peruvian flag at the top of mast and thought Huascar finally had surrender. But this was not the case, since one of the Shah’s shells had cut it down. The Peruvians raised it again, and the combat continued. The British Rear Admiral next tried to emulate Horatio's Nelson tactics, and moved towards Huascar as close as possible in order to shell her at a short distance thinking that his guns could be more effective that way. Huascar however evaded the enemy ships with revolving maneuvers. In fact, in several opportunities she also tried to ram her opponents but without success.
The situation was turning difficult for the British, so de Horsey, at about seventeen hours adopted a drastic decision.
Turning to his officers he said:
“Gentleman, certainly we are not fighting against the Khedive’s Navy” (1)
And so, acknowledging that he could not capture the Peruvian ironclad by traditional combat tactics, the Admiral decided to end the drama and sink her using a Whitehead torpedo.
During the 1860s the Lancashire born engineer Robert Whitehead working for the Austrians at Fiume on the Adriatic developed an air driven mechanical 'fish' device that could deliver an underwater charge over a range of a few hundred yards at a speed of about seven knots. These early locomotive torpedoes were not very effective weapons but the British Admiralty showed great interest and acquired Whitehead's secret depth keeping mechanism that was the key to their design. They were added to the armament of existing ships, notably the Shah.
This was going to be the first time in naval history that an automotive torpedo will be fired in combat. In those days a 14-inch diameter Whitehead had a three-cylinder engine, a performance of 18 knots and a range of 550 yards and a total weight of 530 pounds. The torpedo carried a wet gun-cotton warhead loaded with 26 pounds of explosives. A legend in the Royal Torpedo Branch says that Shah’s gunnery officer requested for the order to be confirmed in writing, as the Peruvians had shown themselves to be gallant fellows and did not merit such an appalling fate. True or not, the torpedo was launched anyway. However, Huascar's fast engines and superb handling avoided the mortal weapon.
The British pride slowly turned into fear after being unable to damage Huascar. Until that moment the accuracy of the Peruvian gunners had been deficient, but as time elapsed it became better. Soon the British officers realized that at any moment both of Her Majesty's ships could be easily sent to the bottom of the sea if the precision of 10-inch Peruvian guns turned as skilful as the handling of their ship. At Twenty-one hours, in a last desperate attempt, the Shah fired a spar torpedo. It was of no use. Under the shadows of the night the Peruvians left the area. The Shah and Amethyst also abort their mission to avoid the possibility of mayor damages. Peruvians lost one man, trumpeter Ruperto Bejar, who was killed by a 9-pound shell, while the British had some sailors injured.
During the battle the Shah fired 237 grenades and the Amethyst 190, a total of 427 shots, including several Palliser armor-piercing shells. Around 50 projectiles hit the Huascar, but the ironclad was not seriously damaged and her armor was only pierced once. Two days after the battle Huascar finally surrendered to the legal Peruvian authorities, but before he was arrested, Pierola tried to persuade Captain Moore, Commander of the ironclad Independence to join him to fight de Horsey's squadron for his participation in a Peruvian affair. Such a request was not consider at all. However, the Peruvian press protested vehemently against the action of the British Admiral in Peru’s territorial waters and President Prado was forced to present a formal diplomatic protest to the British Government
The combat of Pacocha was considered as a humiliating action for the Royal Navy. It caused debates in the British parliament that almost ended in the censorship of Rear Admiral de Horsey. The British Admiralty approved of de Horsey´s general conduct, but disapproved of his peremptory demand that the Huascar surrender. The Admiralty also disapproved of the night torpedo attacks attempted on the Huascar, because it was a flagrant violation of Peruvian territorial waters and because the method of attack risked killing Huascar´s entire crew. In his report to the Admiralty, which was published by The times of London on August 8, 1877, the British naval officer gave Huascar a speed she never had and declared that “The Peruvian ironclad executed a beautiful naval action”. He also confirmed that the Peruvian Ironclad tried to ram his ships several times but without success. Pacocha became the last time that British wooden ships, like the Amethyst, armed with muzzle-loading, trunnion-mounted guns went into combat. After that day the British Squadron in South America always would be composed of ironclads.
One last word about the men and weapons of this combat. Admiral de Horsey was replaced from his post on September 1879. He retired from the Royal Navy in 1885. Nicolas de Pierola finally became President of Peru during the war with Chile, and again in 1895, both times thanks to revolutions. He died in 1913. Captain Astete found a hero’s death in June 10, 1883, while commanding the Peruvian artillery at the battle of Huamachuco against the Chilean Army. HMS Shah was soon replaced in the British Pacific Squadron. She was sent to London and in 1879 she paid off at Portsmouth. She was not commissioned again. In May 1892, HMS Narcissus towed HMS Shah, from Portsmouth to Bermuda after she was dismantled, and everything except the lower masts taken out of her. The Shah was taken in tow at Spithead on the 10th May and arrived at Bermuda on the 31st of that month. Huascar became a celebrity for being the first ship in naval history to face and to avoid an attack by automotive torpedoes in combat and to be the first and last ironclad to fight British wooden ships. It was however just the start of a turbulent and heroic life for the ironclad, that would reach its peak during the War of the Pacific, just two years later.
The first successful attack using a Whitehead occurred on the night of the 25th to the 26th of January 1878, just eight months after Pacocha, when two Tsarist torpedo boats “Cesme” and “Sinope” sank the Turkish ship “Initbah” with two of those automotive torpedoes.
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(1) Khedive is an Arab word for Viceroy. Such was the tittle for the ruler of Egypt, who at that time was Ismail Pasha (1863-1879). In theory the Khedive was a subject of the Ottoman Empire but had autonomy to rule his country as far as he paid his tributes to the Sultan. During his reign the Khedive became highly indebted with the Western powers, mainly Great Britain, and was incapable of paying the country’s foreign debt, so the Sultan acting on the advice of the Europeans deposed him on 26th June 1879. Egyptians consider him a reformer who opened the Suez Canal on 1869, but for many, including the British, he was an example of utmost incompetence and ineptitude.