On this day…
19 September 1891
On this day, the 19 September 1891, President José Manuel Balmaceda of Chile committed suicide. He had lost the war against the rebels and suspected that he would not receive a fair hearing if he was captured by them. He had been granted temporary safety at the Argentine Legation in Santiago, but knew that he would not be secure there indefinitely.
Imagining the feelings of a man who is about to commit suicide was a creative challenge. I thought hard about it for many weeks and months before coming to write the scene itself.
Excerpt from ‘My Beautiful Imperial’:
‘Jose Manuel Balmaceda sat down at the head of the beautifully polished table facing the long windows. Inside the Argentine legation, the corridors were quiet. Outside, the neatly cut grass looked fresh and well-watered, and in the distance, two monkey puzzle trees stood dark and striking against the azure blue sky.
He brought his hands up to rest on the edge of the table and looked down at the neat sheets of writing paper before him. He had asked for good quality paper, unlined, and plenty of ink. As usual, Vasqués had fulfilled the request efficiently, without fuss. He felt a sudden pang of gratitude, and despite his calmness tears pricked his eyes.
The weight in his pocket would distract his writing, so he reached in and took out the polished revolver, placing it gently on the table to his right.’
Balmaceda left a wife, Emilia de Toro Herrera Balmaceda, and many children.
Balmaceda’s intention was to prevent foreign investors from taking Chile’s wealth. He wanted to use Chile’s wealth to benefit its own citizens, to build schools and hospitals. When Balmaceda commandeered the ‘Imperial’, he was not commandeering a British owned ship, but rather a ship which was owned by Compañía Sud Americana de Vapores, a Chilean company. When Davy (David Jefferson Davies) took on the captaincy, he wasn’t doing so as a British captain, defending British interests, but rather as an employee of a Chilean owned transport company fighting rebels who were being supported by the British. He was therefore a Welshman helping the Chileans to defend the wealth of their country against foreign interference, including British. In that sense, it is not the usual story of imperialism, where a British merchant sailor is defending the imperial ambitions of his own country abroad, but rather the reverse. It is the story of a Welshman who decided to support a foreign country (Chile) against the imperial ambitions of Britain. This is what makes the story so fascinating. We know that Balmaceda was proud of Captain David Davies’ contribution to the war, because it was Balmaceda himself who bestowed the nickname ‘Jefferson’ on Davy, a name which Davy was proud to use for the rest of his life.
11 August 1848
Penblwydd Hapus, Happy Birthday to David Jefferson Davies, who was born on this day, 11 August 1848. This is a photograph of him, on the right, with his great friend and chief officer on the 'Imperial', William Keen Whiteway. Davies had an eventful career but succeeded in retiring to Cardigan at the end of his life. William's fate was not so happy.
William was born in Valparaíso, Chile, the son of a captain. He also had family in Liverpool, which is where he lived later on in life. William had a pretty eventful career himself and was with Davies on the 'Imperial' during the civil war in Chile in 1891. William went on to be chief officer of the 'Sagamore', which was transporting cargo between Liverpool and Boston during the First World War.
The 'Sagamore' was hit by a U-boat 150 miles due west of Fastnet Rock on 3 March, 1917. It was one of the first civilian transport ships to be sunk. Until then, only military ships had been targeted. Although the ship sank in less than half an hour, all 53 members of the crew managed to get into the three life boats. The U-boat surfaced and the commander, Hartmann, waving a pistol at the crew, asked that they identify the Sagamore's captain. None of the Sagamore's crew obliged and eventually, the U-boat submerged, leaving them to their fate.
The three boats were tied together, but during the night a storm came up, and the boats broke loose. Two boats disappeared and only one remained. That boat carried 17 survivors, but not William. During the next 9 days adrift, 10 of the survivors died of hypothermia. They were spotted eventually by the S.S. Deucalion which was on its way to Cape Town. Once on land, all of them suffered amputations to feet and legs because of gangrene and frost bite.
William's boat was never seen again. His memorial, along with all the rest of the Sagamore's crew, is at Tower Hill, London.
9 January 1891
On this day in 1891, the Imperial was commandeered by the Chilean government.
Davy Jefferson Davies was chief officer of the steamship Imperial when civil war broke out. The entire Chilean navy had defected in a spectacular coup, leaving the president, Balmaceda, with barely any ships.
Balmaceda needed to transport 4,000 troops along the coast as a defence against the rebels. The Imperial, a fast new vessel, built by Laird Brothers of Birkenhead for the Companía Sud American de Vapores, was moored in Valparaíso harbour.
Balmaceda saw his chance and commandeered the Imperial before rebels could seize it. But without naval officers, the ship was useless. Balmaceda needed crew. He needed a captain.
Army officers stormed the ship and Davy, a Welshman from a humble Cardigan background, was compelled to take on the captaincy. His task, along with his loyal crew, was to transport men and ammunition without being caught by the opposition. From this day onwards, over 40 enemy warships would hunt for them on the high seas.
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