- de Saint Hubert, C.
- Naval history
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1975 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This article is published by kind permission of the Belgian Nautical Research Association and originally appeared in The Belgian Shiplover No. 151 by C. de Saint Hubert, BNRA-Brussels.
THE ARGENTINE NAVY was established soon after Argentina became independent (1810). Argentina’s young navy’s first task was to secure the country’s independence against Spain and, later, to contribute to the struggle of Chili and Peru for their independence. A number of actions were thus fought between Argentine and Spanish warships between 1811 and 1819.
From 1825 to 1828, the Empire of Brazil and Argentina were at war over their respective spheres of influence in the Banda Oriental (now Uruguay). This was the Argentine Navy’s second war.
Between 1828 and 1860, Argentina was beset by a number of civil wars and insurrections and the navy went into a decline.
In 1849, thus 125 years ago, steam was introduced into the navy when the first steam-driven warship, the Merced, was acquired. This was an ex-merchantman converted into a warship by the addition of a few guns.
During the next 23 years, all Argentine steam warships were of this type. These ships (most of them paddle-steamers) were used both as transports and as gunboats in a series of operations, mainly on Argentina’s main river system, the Parana, Paraguay and Uruguay and their common outlet into the Atlantic, the Rio de la Plata.
Further, during this period, there was no permanent squadron since, with few exceptions, the improvised warships we just mentioned were acquired when an emergency arose and sold after each emergency. Vessels were thus sold out of service in 1862 (after the war between Buenos Aires and the Argentine Confederation, i.e. the provinces) and in 1870 (at the end of the war with Paraguay).
In 1872, Argentina’s ‘New Navy’ was born when President Sarmiento, a truly remakable statesman, established the Navy as a modern and permanent force, That year, a law was passed whereby a whole squadron of new warships (built as such, in contradistinction to the converted merchantmen of the previous period) was to be ordered. This ‘Escuadra de Sarmiento’ (Sarmiento’s squadron) comprised 2 armoured river monitors, 4 river gunboats, 2 small sea-going gunboats and 3 despatch vessels. All these ships were built by Laird’s at Birkenhead. Further, 2 spar torpedolaunches (the very first built by Yarrow) and one torpedo and mine depot ship were bought.
It is interesting to note that Argentina’s first torpedo establishment was set up and run by two ex-Confederate naval officers, Commodore Thomas Page (whose son and grandson were to become officers of the Argentine Navy) and Cdr. Hunter Davidson, while Matthew Maury (also ex-CSN and well known for his work on winds and currents in relation to the shipping routes of sailing ships) gave written advice to the Argentine Government on the subject of the defence of the River Plate by mines. During the Civil War, Maury had invented an electric ‘torpedo’ for harbour defence.
Several factors brought about the naval revival of the early 1870’s:
- a. The War against Paraguay (1864-1870s) and the Caudillo Lopez Jordan (1870- 1874) had proved the necessity of acquiring modern warships both for domestic purposes and for national defence.
- b. In Argentina, a greater political stability had come about in the 1860s while, by exporting ever increasing quantities of wheat, the country had attained a firmer financial position. Money was thus available to enlarge the naval establishment by ordering ships abroad, building a naval base at Rio Santiago (near Buenos Aires), founding a naval academy, etc.
- c. Last but not least, Sarmiento had been his country’s diplomatic representative to the US in 1865-1868 and modern naval developments (as represented by the technical innovations of the American Civil War and by the state of the USN at the end of the war) were well-known to him. In fact, while in Washington Sarmiento proposed that Argentina should buy some of the American ships then being sold as surplus.
Among South American nations, Peru adopted this course and acquired two monitors, but Argentina did not follow suit.
During the 1870s, Argentina’s fleet had made considerable progress and had become a permanent force but, at the end of the decade, it was still essentially riverine in character, planned both for the defence of the Rio de la Plata against foreign aggression and for putting down domestic uprisings.
Tension between Argentina and Chile (which had a stronger navy), over rival territorial claims in Southern Patagonia next brought about a further naval expansion. As a result, the Argentine squadron grew into a coast-defence force. Between 1880 and 1890, a number of bigger ships were ordered: 3 coast-defence armoured ships, one small protected cruiser, 3 torpedo gunboats, 8 torpedo boats, etc.
During the 1890s a second drawn-out diplomatic crisis with Chile (over the delimitation of the border between the two countries) led to a naval armaments race. The Argentine Navy now became truly sea-going as 6 armoured cruisers, 3 protected cruisers, 4 destroyers and a number of other units were ordered in quick succession. A new naval base was set up at Puerto Belgrand (near Bahia Blanca).