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Bolivia’s inability to protect its borders and valuable natural resources was painfully put in evidence during the disastrous War of the Pacific (1879–83). Chilean capitalists with British backing sought to control the rich saltpeter reserves they had been effectively exploiting in Bolivia’s littoral district. A Chilean military incursion into the province of Atacama led to the resounding defeat of Bolivian forces and the annexation of Bolivia’s only coastal territory.

The following description of the first battle, fought on 23 March 1879 at Topater outside the town of Calama, was written by Andrés Lizardo Taborga, secretary of the commission charged with defending Bolivia’s settlements. The outnumbered Bolivian soldiers and civilians were led by Ladislao Cabrera, a local political offcial, and Coronel Eduardo Abaroa, who lost his life in combat, alongside civilian militiamen, while refusing to surrender. Chilean perfidy, the defense of threatened territory, and heroism in defeat would become long-lasting themes in Bolivian nationalist discourse.

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