Published for the first time exactly a century after his official mission to Santiago, this narrative by the Peruvian José Lavalle relates his efforts in March 1879, to prevent the imminent war between Peru and Chile which was declared the following month. Lavalle was an ideal choice for this assignment. A career diplomat with previous foreign service in Europe and South America, he was a personal friend of Chile’s presidentelect, Domingo Santa María, and of the pensador José Victorino Lastarria, and was related through marriage to Alejandro Reyes, a presidential advisor and member of the Supreme Court in Santiago. Lavalle’s attempts at mediating the growing difficulties between the two republics were received with sympathy by the Chilean government, but the general public there was already intent on war by March and openly demonstrated its hostility to his visit.
For Lavalle the conflict between Chile and Peru was the consequence of the unfortunate defensive alliance of 1873 between the governments in Lima and La Paz. After Bolivia carried out its irresponsible policy of raising the taxes on the nitrates exported from its Pacific ports by Chilean firms, Chilean troops invaded the Bolivian coast on February 14, 1879. The Peruvian public immediately expressed its firm opposition toward Chile and demanded adhesion to the Bolivian cause. The government in Santiago had long been aware of the Lima-La Paz secret treaty of 1873 and insisted to Lavalle in early March that Peru must either declare its neutrality in the current conflict over the Bolivian littoral or accept war with Chile. Knowing that such a commitment was impossible for Peru, Lavalle suggested instead the withdrawal of Chilean troops from Bolivia and subsequent arbitration as the basis for peace. News of Bolivia’s formal declaration of war against Chile reached Santiago on March 18 and frustrated any serious consideration of Lavalle’s proposal. Although negotiations continued for two more weeks, on April I the Chilean Council of State agreed on war against Peru. Lavalle departed Santiago two days later, observing that this conflict would necessarily result in his nation’s defeat because of Chile’s substantial naval superiority.
This account offers a valuable first-hand description of the diplomatic and political situation in Lima and Santiago on the eve of hostilities. Despite Lavalle’s imprisonment in Chile later during the war, this narrative is surprisingly unbiased. He convincingly writes that Chileans such as Presidents Aníbal Pinto, Santa María, and Lastarria were as sincere in their efforts to avoid war as he and Peruvian President Mariano Ignacio Prado. Aware of the tremendous odds against the success of his mission from its inception, Lavalle nevertheless carried out his charge with exemplary tact and zeal. After the start of hostilities he received public accolades for his sincere efforts from both Presidents Pinto and Prado.
A prologue by Félix Denegrí offers an informative biographical sketch of Lavalle and traces in detail the nineteenth-century economic and naval rivalries between Peru and Chile. Also outlined in this introduction are the boundary and customs agreements between Chile and Bolivia. Special emphasis is given to the Lima-La Paz treaty of 1873 and to the chaotic political history of Bolivia which is crucial to understanding the causes of the 1879 conflict. The narrative is published with Lavalle’s original footnotes, and very complete notes by Denegrí are appended to help identify names and explain events mentioned in the text.