South American Naval Arms Race


May 28, 2022

A naval arms race between Argentina, Brazil and Chile — the most powerful and richest countries in South America — began at the beginning of the 20th century, when the Brazilian government bought three dreadnoughts, which were formidable battleships whose capabilities far exceeded the of the oldest ships in the rest of the world's navies. In 1904, the Brazilian Navy was far behind its rivals Argentina and Chile in terms of quality of armaments and total quantity of tons; few ships had been ordered since the fall of the Brazilian monarchy in 1889, while Argentina and Chile had just completed a fifteen-year naval arms race that filled their navies with modern warships. Growing demand for coffee and rubber was fueling a huge increase in Brazilian government revenue, and the country's legislature voted to dedicate some resources to resolving this naval imbalance. They believed that building a strong navy would play an essential role in transforming the country into an international power. The Brazilian government ordered three small warships from the United Kingdom in late 1905, but with the appearance of the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought in 1906, it quickly dropped these plans. Instead, the Brazilians ordered three Minas Geraes-class battleships—ships that would prove to be the most powerful in the world, and of a type that quickly became a standard of international prestige, akin to nuclear weapons in the mid-20th century. This action focused the world's attention on the newly ascendant country: newspapers and politicians from the great powers complained that Brazil would sell the ships to a belligerent nation, while the Argentine and Chilean governments immediately canceled their naval limits pact and ordered two dreadnoughts each. (Rivadavia and Almirante Latorre classes, respectively), each larger and more powerful than Brazilian ships When the time came to start construction of Brazil's third dreadnought, it faced great political opposition due to an economic crisis and a naval revolt: the crews of the two new battleships, along with several smaller warships, mutinied and threatened to shoot Rio de Janeiro if there was no end to what they called "slavery" being practiced by the Brazilian Navy. Despite these pressures, shipbuilder Armstrong Whitworth successfully held the Brazilians to their contractual obligations. The construction of the new ship, preliminarily named Rio de Janeiro, was interrupted several times due to repeated design changes. Concerned about the collapse of Brazil's coffee and rubber sales and that their ship would be outclassed by larger super-dreadnoughts, they sold the incomplete ship to the Ottoman Empire in December 1913. World War I marked the end of the naval arms race, as countries in South America found themselves unable to purchase additional warships. The Brazilian government ordered a new warship, Riachuelo, in May 1914, but the conflict effectively canceled the purchase. The British purchased the two Chilean warships before they were completed; one was sold back to Chile in 1920. The two Argentine dreadnoughts, having been built in the then-neutral United States, escaped this fate and were commissioned in 1914-1915. Although Brazil and Chile's post-war naval expansion plans required dreadnoughts, no additional units were built.

Background: naval rivalry, revolts and export cultures

Arms race between Argentina and Chile

Conflicting Argentine and Chilean claims to Patagonia, the southernmost region of South America, had been causing tension between the two countries since the 1818s.