Battleships, Part One
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Brazil entered the 20th century as “the
country of the future” — the same
position some cynical Brazilians would say
it held at the start of the 21st. Explosive
economic growth fueled by rubber, sugar and
coffee made the boast seem legitimate, though
even then some economists pointed out the
long-term weakness of an economy built solely
Brazilian politicians believed that any important
nation needed a powerful fleet if it were
to exert international influence. As in other
nations, Brazilian leaders debated whether
this fleet should be based on a few large,
powerful ships or a large number of small,
fast ones. Navy Minister Admiral Julio Cesar
de Noronha favored smaller warships and in
1904 laid out a program of three small battleships,
three armored cruisers, six destroyers and
a dozen torpedo boats. The Brazilian congress
approved the measure and voted funding for
an extensive building program. Its overriding
theme became prestige — Brazil had to
have the world’s most powerful warships
to symbolize her “coming out”
among the great nations.
This goal sets the Brazilian program apart
from those of Chile and Argentina. Where Chile
and Argentina built their fleets for combat
(against one another), during the 20th Century
Brazil rarely ordered warships for use in
specific conflicts. Instead, they were meant
to show the growing power of Brazil. And as
often happens in such cases, it would be the
Brazilian Navy that would be the only one
of the three to participate in combat operations
(in both World Wars) while the only shots
fired in anger by Chilean and Argentine warships
would be during civil conflicts.
The Brazilian 1904 Naval Law stated that
the new warships would be built in Great Britain:
The Rothschilds banking conglomerate made
it a condition of the loan to fund the construction.
Armstrong’s had already laid designs
for a coast defense ship and a small battleship
in front of Noronha. The coast defense ship
was a repeat of the Norge built for Norway; the small battleship was
identical to Constitucion then just
completing for Chile.
Brazil’s model: HMS Swiftsure,
the former Chilean Constitucion.
Constitucion, soon to be purchased
along with her sister Libertad and
incorporated into the Royal Navy, was termed
a “light battleship” by her new
owners as her big guns were only of 10-inch
caliber (as opposed to the 12-inch guns that
armed most of the world’s battleships).
The design was intended as a counter to Argentina’s
Italian-built armored cruisers and not
as an opponent for a true battleship. The
Chileans agreed to sell both ships after reaching
a treaty with Argentina, and Britain purchased
them to keep them out of Russian hands. Named Triumph and Swiftsure in British
service, they saw duty on overseas stations
and were considered greatly inferior to Britain’s
Brazil had built a pair of coast defense
ships in 1898, and Noronha was persuaded that
the new class should represent a significant
increase in capability. Copies of the Norwegian
ship would not do. The initial Brazilian order
appears to have been three Constitucion-class
battleships from Armstrong’s and three
9,700-ton armored cruisers from Vickers. The
two arms makers colluded to freeze out other
bidders, using their joint monopoly over the
production of heavy guns in Britain. Bitterness
over the lost Brazilian contracts would cause
the other major shipyards to form their own
consortium to cast heavy naval cannon.
The two designs for armored cruisers presented
by Vickers offered a main armament of a dozen
7.5-inch guns or eight 10-inch guns. The Brazilians
preferred the heavier guns, as they would
give them, on paper, the most powerful armored
cruisers on the planet and achieve the desired
notoriety. The heavy armament of the armored
cruiser also put the battleship in a bad light:
She had only four 10-inch guns, though boasting
a very heavy secondary armament of fourteen
7.5-inch guns. The high cost of the armored
cruiser helped quench Brazilian desires, and
they wavered on placing any orders at all.
Anxious to keep the contract (and possibly
to make use of heavy guns that had already
been manufactured, about 33 percent of the
ship’s total cost), Vickers submitted
a radical redesign of Constitucion.
The 7.5-inch guns would be replaced by eight
more 10-inch guns, yielding the world’s
first battleship with “all big guns”
(even if the guns were not so big by world
standards). The six twin turrets would be
placed in a “hexagonal” layout,
with one on either end and two on either beam.
Displacement increased to 14,500 tons, though
protection and speed remained below the standard
of most of the world’s battleships.
This satisfied Brazilian pride, and they contracted
with Armstrong’s for three such battleships: Minas Geraes and Rio de Janeiro to be built at Armstrong’s Elswick
yard, with Sao Paulo subcontracted
to Vickers. Vickers also received contracts
for all the ships’ machinery. The revised
design would also increase the cost of each
ship, and so the Brazilians cancelled their
In practical terms, the new Brazilian ships
were smaller and less powerful than the “semi-dreadnought”
ships under construction for several navies,
like the British Lord Nelson, Japanese Satsuma,
French Danton or Austrian Radetzky. None of
that mattered. Brazil would have big ships
that the other South American navies did not,
ships that could at least be put in the same
class as those of the Great Powers.
All three ships were laid down in the summer
of 1906, but Brazilian pride soon took a blow
when the Royal Navy unveiled its new Dreadnought in December 1906. The Brazilians immediately
ordered a halt to the work; in the meantime,
Noronha had left office. The explosion of
the old battleship Aquidaba in January
1906 had killed his only son and most of his
“small theory” supporters. Shaken
to his core both personally and politically,
Noronha yielded up his office in November
1906 to Rear Admiral Alexandrino Faria de
Alencar, a supporter of the big-ship school
of thought. When Dreadnought appeared,
bearing ten 12-inch guns and better speed
and protection than any battleship then afloat,
Alencar knew what he wanted.
Workers began dismantling the ships on 7
January 1907, while Armstrong’s rushed
to recast the designs to replace the 10-inch
main battery with 12-inch guns. Brazil would
need the world’s most powerful warship
to regain what the Navy saw as lost prestige,
though none outside of Brazil seem to have
noticed. Within two years, they’d have
it. But that’s another story.
All of the early designs appear in Cone
of Fire, allowing players to examine
Brazil’s possible uses for such ships.
Click here to order Cone of Fire right now!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.