GEOFF HUNT, P.P.R.S.M.A. (British, Contemporary)
"Huáscar and Esmeralda at Iquique, the first ramming"
Oil on Linen Canvas
34 1/2 x 54 inches (87 x 137.5 cm)
Signed, lower right
Commissioned through Marine Artists for a Private Collection in Chile
This wonderful painting by Geoff Hunt depicts a great Chilean naval action, one that has assumed near-mythic status. Although a defeat, it has come to symbolise Chilean national pride and heroism in a way that few victories could; this is something the British in particular can relate to.
The events shown in the painting took place on the morning of the 21st of May, 1879 off the city of Iquique which was then in Peruvian hands. In 1879 Chile had become embroiled in war, the War of the Pacific, against the combined forces of Peru and Bolivia and had dispatched a fleet north to engage and destroy the Peruvian fleet at Callao. On their way the Chileans detached two old wooden ships to blockade Iquique, the corvette Esmeralda (built at Henry Pitcher’s yard in Kent in 1854) and the schooner Covadonga. Unknown to the Chileans, two Peruvian ironclads, the monitor Huáscar (built in 1865 at Laird Brothers, Birkenhead) and the Independencia had left Callao and were heading for Iquique.
Early on the morning of the 21st of May the Peruvian ships were identified by the Chileans and, although the latter force was much inferior in armour and firepower, Arturo Prat, commanding Esmeralda, made an inspiring speech and engaged the enemy.
The action developed into two separate ship-to-ship contests with Huáscar engaging Esmeralda, who came under punishing fire, first from Huáscar and then also from a land-based battery. The Chileans still fought their ship and the Peruvian admiral, after nearly four hours of resistance, ordered Huáscar, weighing 1130 tons and with armour plate 41/2 inches thick, to ram the 850 ton wooden corvette. Having backed up to gain momentum, Huáscar crashed into Esmeralda and at this moment Arturo Prat, who had dressed in his full-dress uniform, gave the order to board and leaped from his ship onto Huáscar. His order had been lost in the din of battle and the few comrades with him were cut down. Captain Prat advanced alone on the enemy deck, nearly getting to the Peruvian command tower, before being shot down. The Peruvians had given orders to try to take him alive and his effects, sword and uniform were later returned to his widow by Grau, the Peruvian admiral, as a mark of respect for his gallant opponent.
It is this moment that is shown in Geoff Hunt’s painting – the figures of Prat and his few companions may be seen preparing to board Huáscar.
Esmeralda was rammed twice more, the third ram proving fatal, and she sank with her crew crying Long live Chile and with her colours, still flying, the last part of her to go under – they had been nailed to the mast during the battle.
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