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Beyond Normandy




The Beagle Channel
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
March 2012

At the southern end of the American continental land mass, the three tiny islands of Picton, Neuva and Lennox don’t appear to have much value to anyone but penguins. But they have almost brought Chile and Argentina to war with one another numerous times over the last 125 years, thus forming an important part of the background to our Great War at Sea: Cone of Fire.

South America’s southern tip was pretty much ignored by both Chile and Argentina during the first decades of each nation’s independent existence. The Argentine side, known as Patagonia, is particularly desolate. The Spanish never conquered the indigenous Mapuche people of the region, and when Chilean and Argentine farmers began encroaching on their lands, the Mapuche reacted by declaring themselves the independent nation of Araucania. In 1860 they elected a French lawyer, Orelie-Charles Antoine de Tounens, as king.

The king of Araucania.

King Orelie Antoine, as he styled himself, designed a flag and some coins, but never actually took his throne in Araucania. A pretender still lives in France, calling himself Prince Philippe and continuing to mint his own coinage. The original king tried many times to assume the leadership, but Chilean and Argentine troops captured and deported him several times before the Chileans nabbed him in 1862, declared him insane, and had him locked in a French institution.

A few years later, Welsh nationalist dreamers concocted their own scheme for the region: They would sponsor a mass migration of all their people to Patagonia, where they would found a new Wales that preserved their ancient culture and language while outlawing written and spoken English.

In 1879, the War of the Pacific broke out with Peru and Bolivia allied against Chile, a conflict over bird droppings (a valuable source of nitrates before the development of nitrogen fixation) made worse by the ill-defined borders of South America. Chile greatly outmatched the two allies in military potential, but the allies hoped that Argentina would join them. Such a move would swing the balance enormously in their favor.

Nitrate producers: the penguins of Punta Tombo.

Chile claimed all of Patagonia, including the Atlantic coast. Argentina, likewise, claimed the entire region including its Pacific coast. To keep Argentina out of the War of the Pacific, in 1881 the Chileans agreed to a border treaty they felt to be greatly in Argentina’s favor. The Argentines, for their part, were busy with the war against the Patagonian Indians known as the "desert conquest" and not eager for foreign conflict. The agreed border followed “the highest peaks of the Andes” all the way south to the Strait of Magellan, curving eastward to place both sides of the waterway in Chilean territory. It then heads south again across the island of Tierra del Fuego.

Off the southern edge of Tierra del Fuego proper is the Beagle Channel, a sheltered waterway between the big island to the north and a string of smaller ones to the south. The treaty names the largest of these, Navarino, and assigns it to Chile. It does not specifically name the three small islands at the mouth of the channel, and this lack of precision is the basis for the dispute.

The waters off Cape Horn (the southeastern tip of Tierra del Fuego) are famously rough, and a sheltered passage like the Beagle Channel or Strait of Magellan is a desirable waterway. If the islands are Argentine, then the mouth of the passage lies wholly in Argentine terrirtorial waters. If they are Chilean, then the passage would be shared. And in more recent decades, their possession also determines the boundaries of each nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone at sea — important for fisheries and, potentially, offshore oil.

The disputed lands. Navarino is the island with Puerto Williams; the three disputed islands are those to the east of it.

The border treaty only kept the peace for a short time. By 1887, Chile and Argentina were engaged in a naval arms race. In 1891 the Chilean navy helped overthrow the president and installed its commander, Adm. Jorge Montt, in his place. The navy’s new influence brought it many shiny new ships, but the civil war had also caused tension with the United States after rioters killed two American sailors in Valparaiso. Argentina took advantage by seeking an offensive alliance with the U.S.

The arms race tilted in Argentina’s favor at the end of the decade, with the purchase of a quartet of modern Italian-built armored cruisers. In 1899 both nations’ presidents met at Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan, where an American mediator settled several border questions but could not bring them to agreement on the Beagle Channel. Both sides continued building up their fleets. By 1902 neither truly wanted to continue the expense, and a new set of treaties (known as the Pacts of May) was negotiated by telegraph with the help of British mediation. Both countries sold off the warships they had under contract (helping to heat up the Russo-Japanese War in the process). The agreements defined Chile as sovereign of the Pacific coast and Argentina of the Atlantic — but did not define just where the two oceans met.

Chilean troops occupied the disputed islands in 1915. In 1958 war nearly broke out, and again in 1978 Argentine helicopters were in the air to deliver marines when Pope John Paul II offered mediation. A treaty would finally be signed in 1984, following Argentina’s defeat in the Falklands War and the overthrow of her murderous military junta, awarding the islands to Chile.

In Cone of Fire we’ve provided game scenarios for each period of tension, including 1915, post-World War One and the 1928 crisis touched off by Argentina’s nationlization of her oil industry (isolating her from foreign aid and emboldening Chile). There are also Second World War scenarios. Chile was a firm friend to the United States and Britain during the conflict; Argentina maintained a more rigorous neutrality but her economic dependence on the Western nations would have made her unlikely to side with the Axis powers.

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