Mutiny in Coquimbo harbour


In 1931, Chile was bankrupt. The situation had caused the downfall of President Carlos Ibáñez del Campo on July 26, 1931. The collapse of exports and prices for Chilean products, the lack of liquidity and the high level of external debt had led the League of Nations to name Chile as the country most affected world-wide by the Great Depression. There were already 130,000 unemployed and the situation had caused the closing of the saltpeter mines in the Atacama, in turn causing a massive migration of workers to the urban centers.

As part of its attempts to deal with the Great Depression the government of Vice President Manuel Trucco, who had taken over from president Juan Esteban Montero on August 20, 1931 launched cuts to public spending. At the end of that month the Finance Minister, Pedro Blanquier, notified all public employees, including the armed forces, of a reduction of 30% in their salaries. This reduction was on top of another 10% that had been applied to the armed forces the year before and the loss of all extra bonuses already accrued and owed to them. The military were already suffering from chronic low salaries and these reductions were further aggravated by the loss of purchasing power that the Chilean currency had experienced due to inflation and the general recession of the economy. The discontent was specially strong in the Navy, where a strict class system was in place, separating the officers from the enlisted men.

On the night of August 31 to September 1, 1931, while the fleet was in the port of Coquimbo, the sailors of the Chilean battleship Almirante Latorre mutinied, taking prisoners all the officers of the ship, who were kept confined in their cabins. The insurrection immediately spread to the rest of the fleet in Coquimbo, and all 14 units were soon in the hands of the sailors. The movement was under the leadership of Petty Officer Ernesto Gonzalez, who cabled the government demanding that they rescind the salary reduction and notifying them that the movement was not a political one.

On the 3rd, the mutiny spread to the naval base of Talcahuano, where the base personnel, students at the sailors' academy, the coastal artillery and workers of the navy shipyards took over the Southern fleet, bringing the number of ships in the hands of the insurrection to 26. The sailors disembarked the officers, and took to sea to join the rest of the mutineers in Coquimbo. In the meantime, other military units started to join the movement, including the Arica and Maipo Army Regiments, stationed in the cities of La Serena and Valparaíso respectively.

At this point the demands of the mutineers were increased to include an agrarian reform, industrial "solidarity" and the payment of the External debt by the "millionaires". Vice President Trucco was extremely alarmed and sent Admiral Edgardo von Schroeders to negotiate, while at the same time preparing the Army and Air Force. At the beginning, the negotiations moved quite smoothly, but they soon broke down when the mutineers started to suspect that the government was only interested in buying time while preparing to attack.

After the break in negotiations, the government issued an ultimatum for unconditional surrender. The mutineers answered by declaring a "social revolution" and announcing links with the Worker's Federation and the Communist Party of Chile. Meanwhile the Minister of War, General Carlos Vergara, had massed troops near each of the mutineers' strongholds.

On the 5th, army troops under the command of General Guillermo Novoa attacked the naval base of Talcahuano. These forces were composed of four regiments and an artillery battalion. The attack started at 15:30 when the artillery started to bombard the destroyer Riveros, which was protecting the base. The ship was hit and severely damaged and eventually was forced to withdraw to Quiriquina Island to disembark its injured and dead. After two days of battle, the army managed to capture the naval base on the 6th. The number of dead was never revealed but it has been estimated to be quite considerable.

Air Commodore Ramón Vergara, Commander-in-chief of the Air Force and brother of the Minister of War concentrated all his air power in the city of Ovalle, near the port of Coquimbo where the fleet was gathered. He amassed 2 Junkers R-42 heavy bombers, 14 Curtiss Falcon and Vickers Vixen light bombers, 2 Vickers-Wibault Type 121s and 2 Ford 5-AT-C transports (modified as light bombers). Their original mission had been to intercept the Southern fleet to prevent it from joining the rest of the mutineers in Coquimbo. This was considered easy to do, since the Southern fleet did not have anti-aircraft artillery. However, the Air Force was not able to find the fleet at sea and could not prevent it from arriving safely.

Since the effectiveness of the Air Force had been placed in question by its earlier failure, Commodore Vergara insisted on attacking the fleet. This raid took place on the 6th at 5 PM. The plan was to concentrate the bombing over the Battleship Almirante Latorre, but the result was only one hit, on the submarine Quidora, resulting in one fatality and one wounded. Five planes were hit by fire from the fleet but were able to return to base, while one Curtiss Falcon was so seriously damaged that it went down over La Serena. Its two pilots survived, with only minor injuries.

The combined actions of Talcahuano and Coquimbo seemingly disheartened the mutineers, who decided to end the mutiny. They took the fleet to Valparaiso and there they surrendered unconditionally to the authorities. The sailors were court-martialed and received different sentences ranging from light prison to death sentences. Further purges in the navy followed. However, no one was executed, and the mutineers were all eventually pardoned by the authorities a year later.

Bombing of Coquimbo Harbour 1931
On the night of August 31 to September 1, 1931, while the fleet was in the port of Coquimbo, the sailors of the Chilean battleship Almirante Latorre mutinied, taking prisoners all the officers of the ship, who were kept confined in their cabins. The insurrection immediately spread to the rest of the fleet in Coquimbo, and all 14 units were soon in the hands of the sailors.