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Most of South America May Be Involved In the Fight — The Old-time Dispute Over the Boundary Line Causing Increasing Irritation — Millions of Dollars Appropriated for War Material and Tens of thousands of Men Sent to the Frontier on Both Sides.

Buenos Ayres Feb 20. — it is the belief of many of the best informed people of this city that the long-standing trouble between Argentina and Chile over the boundary line between the two nations will culminate in open warfare within six months. it is the hope of every one interested in the arts of peace that the American Government, either through its Ministers accredited to the two Governments, as was done on a former occasion of the kind, or by direct action of the Department of State, will, by a friendly offer of good offices intervene to prevent the strife, though it is by no means certain that in the present condition of affairs the offer of mediation would be acceptable to either of the two nations. Indeed, so intense is the feeling in each country over the boundary dispute that no one here would be at all surprised should some overt act precipitate the conflict at any moment.

The fight (now waged on paper only) is for the possession of certain parcels of Patagonia desert and Tierra del Fuego prairie. it is the usual thing for the foreigners who discuss the matter to say that the land in dispute is "not worth the price of the powder that would be burned" in the impending conflict. This is not quite true, but the actual value of the land is not very great, and the real cause of the ill-feeling between the two people is due to a matter of principle that ought to be settled one way or the other for all time. If that cannot be done without a war, then, perhaps, the sooner the fighting begins the better, because no permanent peace, such as the development of the two countries demands, can be had until this matter is definitely determined.

The trouble really began on April 21, 1843, when a Chilean man-of-war unfurled the trl-colored flag on the site occupied by Sarmiento's colony that starved to death — Port Famine, in the Strait of Magellan, "thus taking possession in the name of Chile of the Straits of Magallanes," as the old Chilean record says. Before that date no successful settlement had been made in any part of Patagonia south of the Rio Negro on the Atlantic side. As THE SUN told after one of its reporters had visited the region, the Chilean colony was a penal settlement, and it was so maintained until Nov. 10, 1877 when the convicts and the rank and file of their guards mutinied and fled away across the desert toward the Argentine settlements where a moiety of them eventually arrived. Although no attempt was made to reestablish the prison, the colony was continued. It even flourished the more after the removal of the prison, because during the years that it had existed it had become a port of call for various lines of steamers running between Europe and the west coast of the continent; because placer gold had been found in the stream on which the town stood and elsewhere in the region; because it was headquarters for the Antarctic whaling and sealing fleet, and because the land of the Patagonia, desert though it was, had been found fit for the support of cattle and sheep, especially sheep.

Now, without deciding on the intrinsic merits of Chile's right to settle a colony on the unoccupied land bordering the Strait of Magellan and lying east of the main range of the Andes, it is certain that the citizens of the Argentine regarded the settlement as a Chilean land-grabbing scheme, and resented it all the more for the reason that they were not in condition to oust the colony. They made no fight, but they "rushed into print," so to speak, without limit. The old Spanish documents were reprinted and circulated to prove that during the Spanish colony days the Argentine vice-royal Government had included all of Patagonia down to the strait and all the islands to the south. Chile, as a colony, had occupied only the narrow strip of soil between the Andes and the Pacific down to the strait and no further. Every citizen of Argentina read or heard read these verbatim copies of documents, and every citizen felt himself outraged by what was believed to be the land-grabbing proclivities of Chile. But, as said, nothing was done about it beyond the oral and documentary protesting. Argentina had other matters to attend to — civil war between political factions and the Tehuelche and other Indian tribes of the desert plains to the south and west of the settlements.

So Chile, to make good her claim to the Straits on which she had planted a colony went on adding to her claims. She sent a squad of troops up the eastern Patagonia coast as far as the Santa Cruz River, and made a station there. At first this station was said to be a mere guard house to head off the convicts who escaped from the settlement at Punta Arenas, as the straits colony was called. Later it figured as a definite settlement, "thus taking possession, in the name of Chile," of all the territory of Patagonia east of the Andes right up to the old Argentine settlement, near the mouth of the Rio Negro.

Meantime — it was in 1876 — the Argentine Government had begun to take possession down that way also. A Frenchman who understood the fish and oil business got a concession from the Argentine Government that gave him an island in the Santa Cruz River, and an exclusive right to carry on the fish and oil business there. He took down houses, kettles for oil, fish nets, &c., and set up the business. The Chileans sent up a war ship when they heard of that, and ran the Frenchman out of the country.

A Yankee shipmaster got a guano concession and began loading a ship at an island near the Rio Santa Cruz. The Chilean war ship took the Yankee ship around to Chile and sold it as a good prize, leaving, as it happened, the Yankee skipper on shore to work his way across the thirsty desert to the strait colony.

Because these two owners of concessions were foreigners no great stir was made in Buenos Ayres over their discomfiture and the trouble was the less for the reason that an Argentine citizen who established a fishing and trading station on an island in the Santa Cruz River remained unmolested Then, too, the curious Welsh settlement the Chubut River, of which THE SUN has told, was not disturbed by Chile.

However the hatred of Chile steadily grew in the breasts of the Argentines, and by 1881 they were at a heat where a fight seemed inevitable, but better counsels prevailed and a treaty was made whereby the dividing line was to follow the Andes down to the last peak and from there was to run east across to the crest of a little sugar-loaf hill on Cape Virgin. Chile was to have everything west and south of this line. But that was not all. Tierra del Fuego was now found to have value as pasture land, at least, and so it was divided by a line to run southerly from the sugar loaf on Cape Virgin to a monument planted on the shore of Ushuaia Bay in the Beagle Channel on the south side of Terra del Fuego. Chile got all of Terra del Fuego west of this line. She also got all of the islands south of Tierra del Fuego, while Staten Island, east of Tierra del Fuego, went to the Argentine.

Of course this line was a compromise, and so neither nation was fully satisfied. The Chileans had come to regard all Patagonia as theirs by virtue of the settlement in the straits. That they were to have all of the water of the straits region there was no question among Chileans. Nevertheless when they came to read over the treaty they had signed they found the south boundary line of the Argentine crossed one of the bays that jut out to the north from the straits, and so the Argentines possessed a most excellent port on the straits. That would never do, the Chileans said, for the one object that had controlled them in settling on the strait was the control of that highway from the east to the west. On the other hand, the treaty could be interpreted to mean that the Andean boundary line was to follow not the crests of the highest peaks or the line of the main divide, but the springs of water where the rivers flowing east had their sources. That is to say, Chile got the divide.

As for the Argentine people they were bitterly disappointed in seeing even a small slice of Patagonia east of the Andes given to Chile. They were disgusted at the thought of Chile coming east of the divide to the sources of Argentine rivers, so they were not consoled by the acquisition of the harbor on the straits. The war of documents of words once more arose and was conducted with varying but gradually increasing vigor until 1893, when a new treaty was made. In this Chile again got what she wanted most. Argentine was ousted from the port on the straits — so much is conceded by the Argentines, while they deny the justice of the ousting. They assert that in return for this they had the Andean line definitely located on the crest of the continental divide instead of at the sources of the Argentine rivers.

[The two boundary "corrections" alluded to above yielded the following results: (a) the waters and coast of Last Hope Sound (Última Esperanza) to lie wholly within Chile; and (b) the waters and coast of San Sebastián Bay (Tierra del Fuego) to lie wholly within Argentina. Ed.]

Commissioners were appointed by both nations lo locate monuments to show the dividing point in each of the Andean passes, and some monuments have been located, but now came the aggressive part of the Chilean populace to claim that the sources of the Argentine rivers must still be considered the points marking the boundary line, and that the port in the straits was abandoned by Argentina without any thing in return. When the patriot Argentine citizen thinks of this matter his blood boils and the conduct of Chile toward Peru in the conflict of 1884 does not add to his peace of mind. […]

In short, not only is a war impending here, but it is certain to be a war of sufficient magnitude to command the attention of the civilized world. Troops to the numbers of tens of thousands armed with the most modern weapons and appliances will meet in the open field, while cruisers of the very best English make will go hunting each other on the high seas and among the rock-bound, storm-swept inlets and channels of the Cape Horn region. The men on each side will be actuated by a hatred that has long been cultivated, and they will fight as the panther and the jaguar of La Plata's prairies do for the possession of a steer's carcass. No one need doubt the bravery of these troops of the temperate zone of South America, nor that the war, if there be a war, will be the bloodiest known to the history of South America.

[Thankfully, the newspaper's prediction of war was not fulfilled. On this occasion, the boundary dispute was submitted to binding arbitration by the British crown, whose report was delivered in 1902. Ed.]

Source: "The Sun" (New York, NY), 22 March 1896
Clipped: 17-VII-2013
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