A Brief History of Iquique, Chile

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Flag of Iquique

Knowing history about Chile, and the city of Iquique, will give visitors a perspective that may enrich their visit to the fastest growing city in the country.

Iquique’s Pre-Columbian Cultures

Several Native Americans have inhabited the area near Iquique for thousands of years. The arid Atacama Desert has preserved many artifacts of these cultures. Splendidly decorated tablets have been found from the Atacameno culture. These were used for preparations for hallucinogens. Trips are available to view petrogylphs and ruins left by the El Molle and the Tiwanaku. The Aymara people farmed, and their descendents practice many of the same thousands-of -years old techniques today. Other cultures in the area were the Changos, fisherpeople who lived along the coastline of present day Peru and Chile and who used the vast deposits of guano as fertilizer to cultivate crops .

An archeological site has been recently discovered south of Iquique in Alto Patache. The site becomes a fog oasis intermittently throughout the years, the latest dry period starting around 1945. Human tools and basalt flakes from the Chinchorro people, who lived in the area as far back as 4,000-5,000 B.C, have been found. They seem to have strung together seal skins to collect water vapor from the fog, which provided a sustainable source of water. Most of the indigenous cultures practiced mummification, however Chinchorro mummies are the oldest in the world, dating back to 5,000 BC.

Spanish Occupation of Northern Chile, Nitrate Mining and the War of the Pacific

The Incas occupied the area briefly before the Spanish invasion. When the Spanish claimed the area, Iquique was created as a port to send the silver mined in what became Bolivia to Spain. After the Colonial era, Iquique belonged to Bolivia and continued to serve as a port for silver. Nitrate was then mined from the salitreras, the same salt flats where lithium deposits are being explored today. Nitrate, also known as saltpeter, was used as a fertilizer, food preservative and as an active ingredient in black powder. A boom in the 19th century made Iquique and the surrounding desert one of the richest places in the world. Many British settled in the area to exploit this resource.

Nitrate became one of the most important causes of the bloody War of the Pacific. Chile, with England’s support, engaged both Peru and Bolivia. On May 21, 1879, the decisive Battle of Iquique was fought between Chile and Peru just off shore from the city. The Chilean commander, Arturo Pratt, led his men, outnumbered by the Peruvian ships, in a heroic, but doomed engagement. Pratt, along with much of his crew, was killed. Their ship, the Esmeralda, sank. Tales of their valor inspired the Chileans to fight on, to win the war and lay claim hundreds of kilometers of coastline, one-third of the total area of the country. Strong resentments still exist in Peru and Bolivia over the lost of their land. May 21 is celebrated as a national holiday in Chile, similar in spirit to Memorial Day in the United States.

Iquique and the Bloodiest Labor Dispute in History

After the war, nitrate miners went on strike several times to demand better working and living conditions. In 1907, miners tired of substandard conditions marched with their families into Iquique. Laborers in other occupations joined them there. The used the Escuela Santa Maria as their headquarters. The name of the school is still associated with the massacre that occurred. Martial law was declared and 3,600 men, women and children were shot down. According to Peter Principal in his article, Anarchy in Chile, this is the largest loss of life for a labor dispute on record for any place in the world.

Pinochet and Iquique

Synthetic nitrate during WW1 was developed by Germany. The impact was severe upon the region. By the 1940s, nitrate mining had collapsed. General Pinochet, the Chilian dictator, put the city back on the map, so speak. He loved Iquique, owned three houses there, and began upgrading the city. Iquique was re-envisioned as a holiday get away with first rate beaches, high rise apartments, a fancy casino and duty free shopping.

Pinochet also approved the Pisuaga Prison Camp to be created near Iquique. In 1973 over five hundred political prisoners were sent there, suffering poor living conditions and torture. At least 23 people died. Today a plaque commemorates them, as well as those who died in the labor dispute in 1909, at Escuela Santa Maria.