Rapa Nui Soldiers in the War of the Pacific
by Cristián Moreno Pakarati
Historiador / Historian
The most important evidence behind a possible Rapanui participation in the War comes from the Chilean side, through the first significant visits to the Island by Chileans in the XIXth Century, some years before the war broke out. The corvette “O’Higgins” made two trips in 1870 and 1875, within its training missions for naval cadets. Behind the backs of the Catholic missionaries, many Islanders begged to be taken on board to escape from the sad living conditions and the conflicts that existed on the Island. On the first visit, Captain Goñi accepted to take 12 young Islanders on the “O’Higgins”, most of whom were orphans from the epidemics of smallpox and tuberculosis which had decimated the Island population in the 1860s. Six went as cooks’ helpers and 6 as seamen.
These young fellows all got sick on the voyage, but due to the good food on board and proper medical attention, they recovered and arrived safely at the port of Mejillones in late February of 1870,continuing their cruise to the south to other Chilean ports. Their arrival was widely commented in the Chilean press, although later traces of them were lost. As often happened, their names were changed to some that were easier for Chileans to understand, which complicates following their story. Only nine years later, the War of the Pacific broke out. With six Rapanui seamen and six other Islanders living in the country, it’s almost certain that they were called up to participate in the war, since in the first trip of the corvette “O’Higgins”, there were several officers who later became naval heroes of the War of the Pacific. It’s also very possible that other Rapanuis embarked on the following voyage of the “O’Higgins” in 1875 under Captain Juan Esteban López. If information on that could be found, it would indicate higher probabilities of Islanders participating in the War.
On the other hand, the relation between Easter Island and Peru in the period immediately before the War of the Pacific left terrible consequences. In the early 1860s, private ships under Peruvian flag sailed from Callao (Peru) into the South Pacific looking for native workers (kanakas) for South American ranches and caused horrible havoc in the islands. Bloody slave incursions with multiple ships in December of 1862 and March of 1863 left lasting scars. Of the more or less 1400 Islanders who were kidnapped as slaves, only 15 came back alive. Those were sick and in a few years their diseases decimated the population to a point where there were only some 110 people left.
Once the war started, some very emotional tales that are still within the Island folklore began to take form. Edmundo Edwards noted the following story as told by the Chilean Army major, the Islander Leviante Alejo Araki-Araki (1922-1992): “Oral legends tell us that during the battle for Lima (…), among the Chilean troops, there was a Rapanui soldier. In an assault on a trench, he found a dying Islander who was able to tell him that his family still lived on the Island. After clutching each other and crying, the Islander died in the arms of his comrade.”
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