Rapa Nui Soldiers in the War of the Pacific

by Cristián Moreno Pakarati
Historiador / Historian

It was a point of pride for the Rapanui families of the past when one of their members would join the Chilean Armed Forces. To see them in uniform with their proud bearing was a joy to the heart of any mother or father on the Island. It used to be frequent to hear tales in the local folklore relating the daring feats of some ancestor who fought in the War of the Pacific, a conflict between Chile and its northern neighbors, Peru and Bolivia (1879-1883). Some were supposed to have participated in major events, such as the taking of the Morro (the Rock) of Arica in June of 1880 or in the battles of Chorrillos and Miraflores in January of 1881. Today, three names are associated with the participation of Easter Islanders in that war: Juan Tepano-Rano, Iovani Araki-Ti’a and José Pirivato, who was nicknamed “Tairenga”. The first two have left a large number of descendants.
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Unfortunately, records for that period still do not offer definite confirmation of the participation of these men in the War. There are only some registries of their presence in the Chilean Army at much later dates, after 1898 when they traveled to the continent with the Island king Simeón Riro-Kainga. However, that was twenty years after the War. Is is possible that stories have mixed this event with the War? What was their real role in the Armed Forces? Were there Rapanui soldiers in the War of the Pacific? With the available evidence, we have attempted to partially resolve this enigma.

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.

Some of the Rapanui who were taken decided to stay and make a new life in Peru and, in some cases, started families. Thus, it would have been possible that Islanders with Peruvian families could have found themselves an enemy of Chile during those years between 1879 and 1883, although it would be difficult to determine if they had any participation in the war itself.

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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All evidence indicates that the Rapanui soldiers who participated in the war – on either side – were unknown soldiers. Most of them were probably in some sector of the Chilean Army or Navy; on the other side, they may have been called up in Peru to defend their families and the territory of that country. The Rapanui soldiers who are known by name don’t appear on any list of any Chilean division or regiment. Nonetheless, perhaps
All evidence indicates that the Rapanui soldiers who participated in the war – on either side – were unknown soldiers. Most of them were probably in some sector of the Chilean Army or Navy; on the other side, they may have been called up in Peru to defend their families and the territory of that country. The Rapanui soldiers who are known by name don’t appear on any list of any Chilean division or regiment. Nonetheless, perhaps in symbolic form and for respect of oral folklore, there has been official recognition of the officers Juan Tepano and Iovani Araki. The first has been honored with a plaque at the Maipo Regiment of Playa Ancha (Valparaiso) and the latter with a plaque laid by the Commander in Chief of the Chilean Army at the Father Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum (Easter Island) in 2005, which includes a memorial to more recent Rapanui soldiers, such as Major Leviante Araki-Araki (1922-1992), a grandson of Iovani, and Sergeant Luis Alberto Huki-Honojosa of the Reinforced Regiment N°1 “Topáter”. These recognitions will reinforce the future veneration that the descendants of these Rapanui soldiers feel for their ancestors.
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