Apr 15

The 19th Century Navy in South America: The Baltimore Affair and Water Witch Incident

Wednesday, April 15, 2015 9:35 AM


The USS Baltimore (Cruiser Number 3)

The USS Baltimore (Cruiser Number 3)

The United States (US) has a long history of intervention in Latin America. During the twentieth century, the US sent Marines into many countries, in a period known as the Banana Wars. Before these raids, the US fought against Spain and ended the Spanish empire in Latin America after nearly four hundred years. Usually, historians regard the Spanish-American War as the point where the US began to be a world power and an imperialist nation. However, some historians point to other events as the point where the US began to view itself as a world power. The Baltimore Affair was a diplomatic dispute between Chile and the United States during the 1890s.

Harbour of Valparaiso, Chile.

Harbour of Valparaiso, Chile.

A US ship, the USS Baltimore, while visiting the port of Valparaiso, suffered an attack against its sailors by a Chilean mob. This attack almost precipitated war between the US and Chile. The importance of the Baltimore Affair, for historian Joyce Goldberg, is that the case proves that the US saw itself as a world power. In this interpretation the Spanish-American War is only “considerably less a cause of the new state of the United States as a world power that an expression or a statement of power and the role that the US had much earlier. “(Goldberg, 142). But the history of the US in South America shows that incidents like the Baltimore Affair are not unusual. In the 1850s, another incident almost started a war between a South American country and the US. The Water Witch incident caused a diplomatic row between the US and Paraguay and caused the voyage of the largest US fleet before the Civil War. (Love, 242) These two incidents in the history of relations between the US and the countries of South America are evidence that the US did not act differently in the 1850s and the 1890s. Since the US by no means was world power during the 1850s, the most one could say is the US was a minor regional power, the Baltimore Affair cannot be seen as a break in US diplomatic behavior. Instead, the actions of the United States during the nineteenth century must be considered as a whole and fundamentally similar.

The incident which started the Baltimore Affair occurred on 16 October 1891. The ship USS Baltimore was in the port of Valparaiso to protect US citizens and property. Chile was in the midst of a civil war between the forces of José Manuel Balmaceda, the President of Chile, and the forces of the Chilean Congress. The Baltimore arrived at Valparaiso in April and stayed in Valparaiso until October. (Goldberg, 2) Congressional forces won the civil war with the defeat of the balmacedistas at the Battle of Placilla in August and the captain of the ship, Winifield Scott Schley, wrote to his superiors that in his opinion the vessel’s presence was no longer necessary. (Goldberg, 2-3) But Schley was ordered to stay.

Captain Winfield Scott Schley in his cabin aboard the USS Baltimore.

Captain Winfield Scott Schley in his cabin aboard the USS Baltimore.

(Goldberg, 3). There were indications that the Chileans did not like the presence of Baltimore. For this reason, Schley did not allow his sailors have liberty ashore. Mariners from Germany, France, England were allowed to be free, but Schley felt there were “strong and very hostile feelings” from the Chilean population. But in October, his opinion of public sentiment in Valparaiso changed, reporting that “Everything is quiet in Valparaiso, and the chances of everything being more settled improve daily.” (Goldberg, 3) On October 16, Schley finally allowed 117 sailors to have liberty ashore.

The day passed without incident. Schley reported that “I was very much impressed by their orderliness, their cleanliness, and their politeness to everyone whom they saw on the streets.” (Goldberg, 4) Another American official said the sailors behaved well, sober, and even saluted foreign officers. (Goldberg, 4) But the difficulties began when two American sailors visited a tavern called the True Blue Tavern. Charles Riggin and John Talbot were enjoying themselves, when a Chilean soldier wanted to start a fight with Riggin. Talbot tried to stop the fight but the soldier spat in his face and Talbot pushed him to the ground. (Goldberg, 5) A Chilean mob formed and immediately attacked the sailors. Talbot and Riggin fled and were separated. Trying to hide in a tram, the mob surrounded it and forced Riggin and Talbot outside. The crowd immediately fell on Riggin, stabbing and hitting him repeatedly. (Goldberg, 8) Talbot tried to help his friend, but fled when he was stabbed in the back.

The mob chased Talbot, stabbing him and throwing stones at him. Talbot tried to hide in another tavern, but the mob found him and tried for an hour to force entry and drag him outside. Talbot escaped only when a policeman took him to jail, making sure to hide Talbot’s uniform with his big coat. (Goldberg, 7) Riggin was not as lucky as his friend. Another Baltimore sailor, out of uniform, tried to help him escape, but a squad of policemen fired on them and killed Riggin. (Goldberg, 9) All over Valparaiso, sailors in US uniforms were attacked by Chilean mobs. The result of the disturbances on 16 October was the deaths of two American sailors and the arrest of forty-eight others, seventeen of them seriously injured. (Goldberg, 19)

Schley was informed of the riots the same night but decided to sleep and receive more information on the situation in the morning. (Goldberg, 59) The next morning, Schley sent officers into Valparaiso to investigate the situation. Schley’s official report claimed that his sailors had not instigated the riots and that they were sober. According Schley, the sisters at the hospital “declared without reservation that the men were sober when they arrived at that institution.” (Goldberg, 60) More evidence for his view that the sailors did not instigate the attack was the decision of the judge and mayor of Valparaiso to release them “individually guiltless.” (Goldberg, 61)

The version of events described by Chilean authorities was very different from the US. According to the police commander, riots started because of the American sailors, who started the confrontation with the Chilean soldier in the tavern. (Goldberg, 10) They also said they did not shoot the sailors. Instead, they insisted Riggin’s death was caused by a gun from the mob. Many of the police declared that there was no more than one shot. (Goldberg, 13) No one knows exactly what happened but it is more probable that the statement of the sailors is the correct version, at least for the actions of the police. It could not have been just one shot because the other sailor with Riggin also had gunshot wounds. The Baltimore case at first was a rather small, unfortunate incident, but not so important that the US and Chile would fight a war over the incident. But pride and a determination to be in the right almost led the US and Chile to war.

The diplomatic crisis began on October 26 when the US minister to Chile sent a letter to the Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Don Manuel Matta, describing the incident from the perspective of Captain Schley and commented that the Chilean government had not yet apologized. This letter enraged the minister, who responded very angrily and said he could not comment further until the end of Chilean investigation. (Goldberg, 64) The minister’s response was interpreted by some US newspapers as an attempt to deny any Chilean fault. Also, matters were made worse by the failure of the Chileans to conduct the investigation as fast as the US wanted. Many American newspapers began to suggest that it might be necessary to send the US Navy to receive justice. (Munchmeyer, 61) Also, Chileans began to believe that the minister of the US in Chile, Patrick Egan, could be deliberately delaying the investigation. (Goldberg, 67) American public opinion continued to deteriorate regarding the sincerity of Chile when Americans heard the treatment of another US sailor by the Chilean police.

A sailor, Patrick Shields, aboard the commercial vessel Keweenaw was detained by police on the night of October 24 on charges of drunkenness. (Goldberg, 71) The next morning, once he was released, Shields was arrested again. Shields was not released until November 2nd. (Goldberg, 72) During this time, Shields went to work sweeping the streets and cleaning the police stables and other chores, day and night. Shields was severely beaten if he paused. According to the testimony of Shields, he lost “about a quart of blood and bled from the nose and ears in consequence of the beating” due to shock. (Goldberg, 72) When he could return to his ship, he was declared unfit for service for many weeks. The US Minister to Chile investigated Shields treatment and discovered that the Chilean authorities would not let him see a judge and that his name was not recorded in official police records. (Goldberg, 72-3) Shields’ treatment convinced public opinion in the US that American citizens were unsafe in Chile. “The case of Shields reinforced the assertion that the Chilean police used undue force towards U.S. sailors and lacked all humanitarian instincts.” (Goldberg, 74)

The letter of Matta and other diplomatic blunders almost pushed the United States and Chile to fight. The US President, Benjamin Harrison, considered the Matta letter “as a personal insult” and in December the Chilean government officially requested to withdraw the letter. (Goldberg, 101) But the Chilean government also committed another diplomatic blunder. The Chilean government asked the US government to withdraw Patrick Egan and declared Egan persona non grata. This request further infuriated Harrison. He decided on January 21 to send a letter to the Chilean government saying that “if the offensive parts of the dispatch of 11th of December are not withdrawn at once, and a suitable apology offered, with the same publicity that was given to the offensive expressions, he will have no other course open him except to terminate diplomatic relations with the government of Chile.” (Goldberg, 103) The crisis came even closer to war when the Chileans did not respond immediately. When he had not received a response, Harrison went to the US Congress. Harrison gave a speech which practically asked for a declaration of war. The message of January 25 passed the Baltimore Affair to the sole organization with the power to declare war, with the suggestion that it take ‘such actions as may be deemed appropriate. (Goldberg, 108) Because of the missteps of Chile, the US and Chile almost went to war.

In December 1891, the US Navy began to plan operations against the Chileans. Also, Argentina advised the United States that American forces could cross Argentine territory and that Argentina could provide the US Navy coal. For this help, Argentina wanted to gain territory in southern Chile. (Goldberg, 120) The situation was very serious for Chile. But, to avoid war, the Foreign Minister decided to accede to the conditions in the United States. “Actually, the resolution of the case had none of the drama of its unfolding.” (Goldberg, 124) Chile agreed to pay reparations to the families of the sailors. Also, Chile renounced the offensive Matta letter. Finally, Chile decided to allow Egan to stay in Chile until Chile could show sufficient cause for his expulsion. (Goldberg, 128)

The Baltimore Affair seems very childish to modern observers. That two nations might come so close to war for reasons we consider so insignificant is almost inconceivable in modernity. Goldberg characterized the Affair as an attempt by the United States to flex its muscle, to demonstrate its power to Europe and to the American people. For Goldberg, the Affair also demonstrated that the United States had not yet been assured in its position as a world power. “Since US diplomacy before 1898 often belied the fact that its great power status had been unquestioned for years, the U.S. government often exaggerated the need for assertive or forceful action.” (Goldberg, 143) According to Goldberg, a transformation in US foreign policy did not occur until the rise of US had been recognized by its own population. (Goldberg, 143) But this interpretation is not accurate. You can see in another incident that the behavior of the US was not due to the fact that the US did not recognize its new status. In the Water Witch incident, a misunderstanding between the US and Paraguay also almost ended in war and had much in common with the Baltimore Affair.

The Water Witch incident started well enough, without animosity between the Americans and Paraguayans. The Water Witch under the command of Lieutenant Thomas Page left the United States with a mission to explore and map the Rio de la Plata and its tributaries in February 1853. The Water Witch entered the region of the Rio de la Plata by the Rio Paraguay in Brazil and continued to the Paraná river on the border with Argentina. The president of Argentina, Justo José Urquiza, who the previous year had opened all the rivers of Argentina to everyone, ordered all provinces to assist the Water Witch with any of its needs. (McKanna 9-10) The ship explored the Paraná to the border of Paraguay and asked the Paraguayan president Carlos Antonio López, for permission to proceed to Asunción. The President addressed the Water Witch and captain very well and gave it permission to explore the Paraguay River to Bahia Negra, near the border with Brazil and Bolivia. (McKanna, 10) Lopez did not give them permission to continue to Brazil because he feared that if a precedent of open navigation onthe Paraguay River were established, Brazil could exploit this to dominate Paraguay. But the decision of López banned Brazilians from exploring and developing their own territory in the Mato Grosso. (Love, 240) Page, ignoring Lopez’s order, explored until Corumbá, Brazil. (McKenna, 11) Surprisingly, this violation of Lopez’s wishes had no serious consequences for relations between the United States and Paraguay. What really complicated diplomatic relations were the actions of the American consul, Edward Hopkins.

In August 1854, Hopkin’s brother was attacked by a Paraguayan soldier. Hopkins was furious and went to Lopez, “in riding boots and spurs, wearing his hat and a whip in hand, gesturing wildly and demanding satisfaction.” (McKanna, 12) Lopez punished the soldier but did not give an official apology to Hopkins. Lopez’s decision angered Hopkins and caused a rift between the two. Lopez expelled Hopkins from Paraguay. Hopkins, fearing for his life, asked Page for protection. (Love, 241) In this way, Page became entangled in the conflict.

The conflict between Lopez and Hopkins also extended to Lopez’s treatment of the company represented by Hopkins. Lopez, on the pretext that the company’s factory was built on land obtained illegally, took the land and property of the company. (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 71) But that was just an excuse because the land had been completely legally acquired; the real cause of the seizure was the conflict with Hopkins and the profitability of company property. (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 71) López did not allow Hopkins or the company representatives to leave Paraguay, Hopkins for non-payment of their debts to the government of Paraguay, and the representatives because they refused to give López the deed to their factory. Page therefore decided to secure them and take them from Asuncion under the protection of his guns on September 29. (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 71 and McKanna, 12) Page, by this action, infuriated and frightened López. When Page left Asuncion, Lopez closed Paraguay’s rivers for navigation by all foreigners. Later in October, Page received the authority to act as negotiator for a navigation treaty between Paraguay and the US and sent one of his officers to deliver the official letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Paraguay. The minister did not accept it, refusing to accept anything but a copy in Spanish. Page, lacking a translator with sufficient knowledge of Spanish, and knowing that the Paraguayan government had translators, was furious. (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 45) Page asked the Secretary of State permission to return to Asunción with the Water Witch and another vessel to secure the acquiescence of Lopez. (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 46) The Secretary, of course, did not approve his request.

Four months later, in February, Page sent the Water Witch under the command of one of his lieutenants, William Jeffers, to explore the Paraná River on the frontier of Paraguay and Argentina. In the course of his explorations, the ship passed near a Paraguayan fort. The Paraguayans tried to stop the Water Witch, because of Lopez’s order to close all Paraguayan rivers, but because the Paraná is on the border of Argentina and Paraguay and the ship had permission to explore Argentina, Jeffers did not pay much attention to the Paraguayans. (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 50) The fort fired two blank shots, but its warning shot, because of bad shot, hit the helmsman and killed him. The Water Witch tried to return fire, but could not because it did not have many guns nor sufficient space to maneuver safely in the channel to combat the fort. (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 50-1)

The attack on the USS Water Witch.

The attack on the USS Water Witch.

Jeffers returned to Page who asked the captain of another squadron of American ships to return to Paraguay and destroy the fort. (McKanna, 15) The other captain refused without permission from the Secretary of the Navy for punitive action. (Love, 242) At first, the United States did not pay much attention to the Water Witch incident. The US Congress investigated the incident and decided it was the fault of Paraguay and President Pierce “… is authorized to use any force that in his judgment may be necessary.” (Committee on Foreign Affairs 5) Pierce, because he had many domestic issues, did nothing. His successor, James Buchanan, decided to force Paraguay to give satisfaction for the attack and sent “the largest punitive [U.S.] expedition during peacetime ever assembled during the age of sail.” (Love, 242) The expedition had as its mission to besiege and occupy Asunsion. Lopez, on the advice of Urquiza, apologized for everything, agreed to pay compensation to Hopkins and Navy, and opened its rivers to American shipping. (Love, 243).

The Water Witch incident was very similar to the Baltimore Affair. The two began with small insults and almost ended in war. Although the incidents appear very silly to modern observers, for people in the nineteenth century the episodes were so important that they were ready to fight, die and seek redress for the honor of their country. The two incidents did not end in war because Chile, in the Baltimore Affair, and Paraguay, in the Water Witch Incident, were weaker than the US. The attitude of many in the nineteenth century was exemplified by the board of Lieutenant Page when he advised the Secretary of State that “there are some governments with whom peaceful and friendly relations … can be maintained only by a display of sufficient strength and determination to undergo any unworthiness.” (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 39) The actions which were considered acceptable to nations during the nineteenth century are quite different from what is now allowed. Therefore, considering the Baltimore Affair with the Water Witch Incident in mind, the Baltimore Affair no longer appears as a diplomatic failure, but rather as an episode where diplomacy followed very different rules and where an action which today might be considered childish was completely legitimate. The rules of diplomacy in the nineteenth century were different than today, if countries did not play with respect to these rules, they had already lost. займ на карту онлайн

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