I have a soft spot for naval history, as I’ve always had a fascination with the sea. Today’s post is my first foray into writing about military warships, and I’ve chosen one of the more unique and overlooked aspects of naval history as my topic.
In the modern age, battleships are mostly a relic of the past, as aircraft carriers and submarines are the stuff from which modern navies are built. The ability to strike at an enemy fleet or strategic target from hundreds of miles away and the capacity to move vast distances undetected are more important than the means to launch massive explosives at comparatively close targets. But this state of affairs is relatively new; until World War II, the battleship ruled the waves, as it had for several centuries. In fact, the importance of the battleship and rapid technological advances in the early 20th century prompted a three-way arms race in South America, with the nations of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile nearly bankrupting themselves in the contest to have the most modern navy in South America.
Argentina and Chile share the longest border in South America, and the third longest in the world. Much of the border consists of the Patagonia, a sparsely populated region over which both nations claim partial ownership. In the 1860s this border region’s contested status, combined with a large Brazilian navy and Chile’s involvement in a war against Spain’s intervention in the Americas, prompted Argentina to embark on a program of expanding and modernizing its navy.1 The 1879 War of the Pacific between Chile on one side and Peru and Bolivia on the other prompted a major expansion of the Chilean navy, as well, and Argentina continued to grow its navy in order to keep up with its western neighbor.2 Between 1887 and 1901, Argentina and Chile consistently built up their navies, with Chile adding three battleships, five protected cruisers, and two armored cruisers; in the same period, Argentina brought on two battleships, three protected cruisers, and five armored cruisers.3 The two nations would continue to buy and build bigger and better warships, until a 1902 agreement—arbitrated by the British, who feared the erosion of their dominance on the seas—ended their arms race.
Following this mediated end to the Southern Cone arms race, Brazil recognized a strategic weakness in both the size and the quality of its navy. Further, the Brazilian government was able to export its primary trade goods of coffee and rubber at higher prices following increased demand. This spike in revenue prompted the country’s legislature to devote funds to improving the Brazilian Navy. Politicians and naval commanders shared a belief that a strong navy was necessary to modernize the country, improve the nation’s status internationally, and protect Brazil from external threats.4 With that in mind, the Brazilian government ordered three small battleships from the United Kingdom in late 1905, with the intention of pulling equal with its South American naval rivals.
The ships would never be completed. The following year, the British Royal Navy launched HMS Dreadnought, a revolutionary warship that completely altered the landscape of naval power. Dreadnought’s design had two unique features: an armament scheme that emphasized as many large guns as possible instead of diversifying the ship’s armament, and propulsion by a steam turbine with modern screw propellers.5 The arrival of this ship in 1906 quickly scrapped any plans to build ships that would already be obsolete by the time they were launched, leading the world powers of the era to engage in a battleship race. The first post-Dreadnought battleships (themselves called dreadnoughts) were relatively close in price and time commitments to complete, but the cost per ship grew rapidly thereafter. Naval power was considered the key to a strong military in this era, and large, modern battleships were the key to naval power and international prestige. Following Britain, the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Russia, Italy, and Austria all built their own dreadnoughts; aspiring naval powers like the Ottoman Empire and Brazil contracted with American and European shipyards to build their own dreadnoughts.6
Instead of completing its three pre-dreadnought ships, Brazil ordered three new ships that would be bigger and more powerful than the Dreadnought; in fact, the Minas Geraes class would be the most powerful ships in the world for a short time after they were launched. Given battleships’ role in international prestige calculations, the Brazilian order brought global attention to a country striving to become a major power.7 Newspapers and politicians believed that Brazil was purchasing the ships to act as intermediary for another major power up until the first two ships were commissioned into the Brazilian Navy.8 Upon the two ships’ arrival in Brazil, Argentina and Chile immediately cancelled their treaty limiting naval construction, embarking on a new era of naval development and ordering two dreadnoughts each, all of which would be larger and more powerful than the new Brazilian ships.
As the dreadnought race heated up and the third Brazilian dreadnought began construction, political opposition grew. Brazil’s rubber and coffee exports were less prosperous than they had been, while a widespread naval revolt in 1910 had turned much of the populace against naval expansion.9 Still, the order had been placed, and a new ship—bigger and better even than the new Argentine and Chilean ships—was begun in Britain. This ship was called the Rio de Janeiro, and because of constant design changes it was far behind schedule and somewhat outclassed by the time it was completed. With the Brazilian economy cratering after its export prices plummeted, Brazil sold the new ship to the Ottoman Empire before it could serve in the Brazilian Navy. The ship would be rechristened the Sultan Osman I, but as it neared completion it would be confiscated by the British Royal Navy to participate in World War I.10 Brazil would order one more ship, considered a super-dreadnought because of the innovations it would incorporate, but it was cancelled by the outbreak of the war, which directly caused rapid naval expansion in Britain, limiting the ability of British dockyards to work on foreign ships.
Indeed, the First World War completely ended to the South American Dreadnought Race, as the countries involved did not have the domestic dockyards to build large ships and could no longer purchase dreadnoughts from the belligerent nations. The Chilean dreadnoughts were being built in Britain, but the British government purchased them from Chile before their completion. After the war, one ship was sold back to Chile, while the other was converted to an aircraft carrier for the British Royal Navy.11 Argentina, on the other hand, used firms from the United States for its two dreadnoughts, which were commissioned in 1914 and 1915 after several delays. Argentina had the upper hand in the arms race after these ships arrived, but all three countries developed naval expansion plans for after World War I ended—although these would not be completed, given naval arms limitation treaties and political opposition in the aftermath of the conflict.
None of the South American dreadnoughts saw combat in World War I—Argentina and Chile remained neutral for the duration of the war, while the Brazilian ships by that time had been surpassed in terms of capability. Still, the dreadnoughts of South America remained in service for many years after the war. Even by World War II in the 1940s, only the Brazilian Rio de Janeiro and Chilean Almirante Cochrane were no longer in service, and those ships had been taken over by the British decades previously. During this second global conflict, the Brazilian ships served as coastal defense batteries in the Americas, while the Argentine and Chilean dreadnoughts performed limited service as patrol ships off the coast of South America. As the navies of the world modernized, though, the governments of South America quickly sold their venerable old battleships for scrap. The Brazilian Navy’s dreadnoughts were the oldest battleships still in active service after World War II, so Brazil was keen to dispose of the ships. São Paulo was sold for scrap in 1951 but sank in a storm before she could be broken up and wrecked. Minas Geraes ended its career just a couple of years later and was scrapped in Genoa in 1954. The Argentine dreadnought Moreno was towed to Japan for scrapping in 1957, while Rivadavia met its fate in Italy beginning two years later. Chile’s Almirante Latorre served on active duty for the longest of any South American dreadnoughts, but following a 1951 explosion remained unrepaired. The ship was decommissioned in 1958 and sold for scrap in Japan in 1959.12
The South American Dreadnought Race was a brief chapter in the maritime history of the region, but it remains one of my favorite aspects of lesser-known Latin American and naval history. The naval investments particularly affected Brazil’s peacetime economy and politics, but they also brought Argentina, Brazil, and Chile to international attention prior to World War I.
- Guinot, Dolores Luna (2009). Conspiracy In Mendoza, 307-308.
- Historia de las relaciones exteriores argentinas: http://www.argentina-rree.com/6/6-081.htm
- Statistics compiled from Robert L. Scheina, Latin America: A Naval History, 1810–1987, 46–51, 297–299.
- “The Mystery of the Great Brazilian Dreadnoughts,” World’s Work 17, no. 1: 10867. Linked at https://books.google.com/books?id=RExYAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA10867#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Gardiner, Robert, ed. (1992). The Eclipse of the Big Gun, 15.
- Sondhaus, Lawrence (2001). Naval Warfare 1815–1914, 227-228.
- Scheina, Robert L. “Brazil.” In Gardiner and Gray, Conway’s 1906–21, 403.
- Mead, Edwin D. “Reaction in South America.” Advocate of Peace 70, no. 10: 238.
- Scheina, Latin America: A Naval History, 81-82.
- Scheina, Latin America: A Naval History, 322.
- Austin, H.O. “Brazil: Small, Modern Ships.” All Hands no. 375, “Largest South American Navy.” All Hands no. 378, “The Fleets of Chile and Peru.” All Hands no. 379.