There’s a boat in the park: Peru and Ecuador’s Troubled Past

Throughout my Peace Corps service in Ecuador I have often heard  snarky comments made about the character and appearance of Peruvians, similarly Peruvians have their own stereotypes of Ecuadorians. This is not simply because each respective nations wants to be rude but perceptions between these two neighboring countries has been shaped over the centuries. Long before the nation-states that now constitute the republics of Peru and Ecuador existed, long-standing rivalries and conflicts have been a reality for the Andean region. In the past the region was the northernmost part of the Tawantinsuyu (Inca Empire). Border issues have been an integral part of the history of both nations, with the conflict only having officially resolved itself in 1998. For many the memory of the last war still is fresh, and while relations between both nations have improved in the two decades since the peace treaty, there is still much ambivalence that exists.

In the late 13th century, the Incas (natives of the Bolivian-Peruvian Altiplano) began a campaign to conquer Ecuador. By the 15th century, the area was firmly under Inca control as the last pockets of resistance by natives such as the Cañari; interestingly the coastal regions of the old Valdivia civilization and the Amazon, considered sacred by the Incas, were never conquered in full. Huayna Capac preceded over the final conquest of Ecuador, through a marriage alliance that quelled the rebellion of the restive north and ultimately led to the birth of a son Atahualpa.

Huáscar y Atahualpa
Huascar, Pizarro and Atahualpa

In 1529, the Spanish arrived bringing with them smallpox that ultimately led to the death of Emperor Huayna Capac and his eldest son. With no clear successor, his son Huascar was supported by the Peruvian nobility due to being pure-blood. Yet Atahualpa, born in Tomebamba was well-respected in the north due to his mixed-ancestry. The ensuing Inca Civil War pitted the two brothers against each other, in the process weakening the plague stricken empire further. While Atahualpa eventually won the war, he was imprisoned and later executed by advancing Spanish forces led by Francisco Pizarro.

As a result of plague, the population of the area plummeted from 14 million to only a few hundred thousand due to both plague and starvation, the remnants of the empire fell to the Spanish. Yet conflict between the newly formed Viceroyalty of Peru and Reino de Quito did not end; a feud between conquistadores Francisco Pizarrro and his lieutenant Diego de Almargo led to yet another civil war for control of the viceroyalty, both men died in the end but Pizarro’s brothers maintained a hold over Peru.

For centuries there was relative calm until the collapse of the Spanish Empire and the liberation of Latin America. Ecuador was incorporated into Gran Colombia along with Venezuela and Panama while Peru was left independent. Peru, however, claimed the strategic port of Guayaquil and areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon as its own while President Simon Bolivar hoped to unite all of Latin America under the Gran Colombian banner. War erupted in 1828, only a few years after independence, with the Colombians successfully repelling the Peruvian attack but the united alliance broke apart with the death of Field Marshal Sucre and Ecuador became independent in 1830.

Depiction of the Battle of Tarqui against Peru

Peru believed that since Gran Colombia no longer existed, the treaty signed in 1829 was null and void thus over the next century border conflicts would erupt every few years. By 1941 conflicts erupted into full-scale war with the much better equipped Peruvians taking control of Ecuador’s southern province of El Oro.  It was in the context of this conflict that the small patrol boat BAE Calderon fought off Peruvian airplanes despite being lightly armed. Admittedly the battle was trivial and inconsequential in the scale of a large war yet this small victory is a sense of pride for Ecuadorians, for which the ship now enjoys a place in one of Guayaquil’s parks. Ultimately the Rio de Janeiro Protocol chipped away even further territory from Ecuador in an attempt by the U.S. and other powers to unify the Americas due to the looming threat of the Second World War; to Ecuador it is a slight that they have never forgotten.


The BAE Calderon
Machine guns from the 1941 war

The last war was fairly recent and many people that I’ve met still remember the 1998 War  clearly with some people, people I met in Nayon, having participated as combatants in defense of Ecuador. Admittedly due to Ecuador voiding the treaty of 1942, they began to reinforce an area of territory that was Peruvian and thereby instigated a war. Ecuador dictated much of the battles and in the beginning had some success, much to the Peruvians’ surprise but ultimately both sides were exhausted due to mounting casualties. Finally they signed a peace treaty that put an end to territorial conflicts yet both nations were unsatisfied that they had to remove territorial claims.

For the last two decades, relations have improved significantly but insults are still thrown around every now and again. These insults in turn can stir up nationalist emotions especially for those who experienced the last war. As a foreigner I was confused initially by why there seemed to be such ambivalence between people of the two nations. While I do not agree that the division of Latin America was justified and that perhaps Bolivar’s vision of a unified Latin America may have fared better against foreign aggression such as that of the U.S., I can understand that national identities are shaped by common experiences, often through suffering and victory. For Ecuador its history is a series of invasions leading to a need to defend itself; any slight victory is a sense of pride and that is why the commemoration of the Battle of Jambeli is so important and remembered. The small patrol boat BAE Calderon stands in a park in the south of Guayaquil, commemorating naval victory despite overwhelming odds as well as Ecuador’s spirit to defend what it has achieved.



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