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From Colombus to Fortunato--Part 6

From Colombus to Fortunato--Part 6

Hello and good day!

In the last installment of this series, Peru had declared independence from Spain in 1821. There was a lot of political infighting about what type of government to establish.

This led to a civil war in 1843.

 All the fighting was between various factions of aristocratic landowners who wanted to use the power of the government to further enrich themselves. Peruvians of native descent whose ancestors had been forced into serfdom several centuries earlier still had no political say whatsoever. Over the next several decades, that would begin to change.

 During the middle of the nineteenth century, much of the world was industrializing. Many countries were building railroads and mechanized factories to facilitate the mass production of food and clothing. Industrialism also allowed for militaries to build better weapons in larger quantities.

With Spain’s influence severely reduced throughout the Americas, other European powers began to make investments in South America.

England and Germany were particularly active. They brought capital, technical expertise, and access to markets.


The landowning class happily granted access to land and resources in exchange for stakes in new industrial concerns. However, Peru lagged behind in industrial development because of a peculiar twist of economic fate.

 Scientists discovered that islands off the Peruvian coast were covered in some of the world’s most potent fertilizer, bird droppings. For thousands or maybe even millions of years, sea faring birds had been frequenting these islands and leaving their dung behind.  The droppings were caked thick, and for decades, Peru’s number one export was guano.

 Cargo boats travelled from island to island, with hired native workers who scraped the guano off the rocks and into boats for shipping all over the world. Peru had traditionally been an economy based on agriculture and mining. Industrialization could have improved the profitability of those industries.

 However, white gold (bird dung) was easier money in the short run and most of the country’s investment went into this industry. This was a classic case of sacrificing long term benefits for short term gains and it went on for decades. The short sightedness of focusing on guano was laid bare in 1879 when a war broke out between Chile, Bolivia, and Peru.

 Peru had substantial nitrate deposits in the south.

 Prior to the war, Bolivia had a thin strip of land on Peru’s southern border that reached west to the sea. This strip of land also had substantial quantities of nitrates. During the war, Bolivia lost that strip of land to Chile and ended up landlocked, a situation that continues to this day.

 Bolivia and Peru had a military alliance to defend themselves in case Chile were to invade. Chile had been industrializing with British capital and know how, and their military was very strong and technologically advanced compared to the militaries of Bolivia and Peru.

There is not a consensus amongst historians as to why Chile invaded. Most seem to agree that Chile saw the war as a way out of an economic depression they were suffering through.

 Anyhow, the war went on for five years and Chile thoroughly defeated both Peru and Bolivia and Chile took possession of all the nitrate rich land as spoils of war.  In a very fascinating twist of history, the war awakened a movement for the rights of indigenous Peruvians.

 Many of the wealthy landowning families in Peru supported Chile in the war effort, either by directly contributing funds to the Chilean military, or by refusing to provide the necessary resources to the Peruvian army. They did this in return for guaranteed stakes in the new companies that would be set up to exploit the nitrate rich land.

 They sold out their country to enrich themselves.

 However, in the army there were many genuinely patriotic generals, and these generals raised battalions out in the countryside, on the farms, and in the mountains, comprised purely of the peasant class. The peasant soldiers fought bravely and with great discipline, even though Peru ultimately lost the war.

 When these soldiers went back to their homes and were supposed to continue working the land as before, they resisted. After all, they had proved their valor in battle.

 Their lords, called “Patróns”, had not only avoided the war but had actively supported the opposing side. The way the peasants started seeing things, if the Patróns wanted their cut of the produce, they could try to come and take it by force.

 The days when people of the indigenous race would docilly go along with the established feudal system were over. This kicked off decades of political turmoil. The two sides of the previous civil war, aristocratic landowners with different policy opinions, were still at battle.

 Now the government was called into enforce antiquated property laws and put down peasant uprisings all over the country.

 Foreign countries such as Chile, England, Germany, and the United States were always on hand to fan the flames of chaos and bribe government officials in order to gain concessions for profitable projects and to project power.   Many of these political and economic currents are still causing upheavals and unrest in Peru to this day.

 There are many things we could investigate at this juncture, but if we are to arrive at how three men from San Diego, CA discovered a thought to be extinct variety of cacao in northern Peru, we must follow one thread.

 And that thread is the fight for land reform. The class of folks born into serfdom correctly pointed out that they were the rightful heirs to the land.

 As they gained more confidence in their ability to pressure politicians through guerilla activity and protests, their calls for a redistribution of the land became louder and more aggressive. The land was stolen from their ancestors, and it should be returned to the people who had been living and working on the land, day in and day out, for the last several hundred years.

 It wasn’t a quick or easy battle.

 It took several decades, but in 1969 the struggle culminated in agrarian reform, the result of which was vast amounts of land being taken away from the aristocratic class and given back to the peasant class.

 After that, the peasant class would no longer be peasants, they would be small hold landowners.

 I am running out of space for now. More to come tomorrow. 

 I hope that you have a truly blessed day!