Intellectuals and scholars call on Chile to return items stolen during 1881 war

Literary minds from Peru and Chile made a united plea to the government of President Michelle Bachelet this week – asking that Chile repatriate valuable books, documents and jewels taken from Peru’s National Library during the sacking of Lima in 1881 when the two countries fought the “War of the Pacific.”

“The devolution of the books is necessary for a sense of justice,” said former Peruvian Education Minister Nicolás Lynch. “The books, documents and museum treasures were robbed by Chile. It was an act of pillaging approved by the occupying forces. It was not simply excesses by a group of soldiers.”

Lynch, together with the former head of Peru’s National Library Sinesio López, are the principal protagonists in the fight to repatriate the literature. They have been campaigning for the booty’s return since 2001. The two men are calling for the creation of a bilateral commission to draw up an official inventory of the books which, they say, form part of “Peru’s identity and memory.”

The treasures were thought to have been taken by Chile’s occupying forces during the War of the Pacific (1879-1884). Chile pursued an ambitious campaign throughout Peru, especially on the coast and the central mountain range, penetrating as far north as Cajamarca. Chilean soldiers are believed to have ransacked Peru’s National Library in Lima for the now disputed treasures.

The War of the Pacific grew out of a dispute between Chile and Bolivia over control of a part of the Atacama desert that lies between the 23rd and 26th parallels on the Pacific coast. The territory contained valuable mineral resources which were exploited by Chilean companies; a tax increase on these quickly escalated into a commercial dispute, diplomatic crisis and, finally, war.

Chilean newspaper Diario Siete alleged Tuesday that Ignacio Domeyko, rector of the Universidad de Chile in 1881, made an inventory of the booty brought back from the 19th century battles. The “List of Books brought from Peru” recorded some 10,000 works from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Chile writer Armando Uribe, winner of the 2004 National Literature Prize, said that “when the Pacific war took place, the International Public Rights authorised that the victor would retain the conquered territory. This was agreed on then, but after 1919, after WWI, it became illegal … My conclusion is that Chile should return works stolen from libraries or other centers, in this case Peruvian ones.”

Former Peruvian library head López asserts that the books can be identified by a stamp from Peru’s National Library. Such a stamp was found in a book publicized by the Telefónica Foundation in 2002 about the history of the Incas. The book had been purchased by Brazilian businessman José Mindlin in an old Santiago bookshop.

However, Chilean historian Sergio Villalobos says that the stamp does not confirm the text’s origin, explaining that many Peruvians took advantage of chaotic wartime Lima to loot and sell valuable items. López counters the historian’s claim, saying that the library held some 56,000 books prior to the arrival of Chile’s military. When they left, only 700 volumes remained.

An unoficial study conducted by López and Lynch last year estimated that some 90,000 Peruvian books and documents are dispersed within Chile’s National Library basements.

Nivia Palma, the Director of Chile’s National Office of Libraries, Archives and Museuems (Dibam), said Monday that “despite using a digital archive system, it is difficult to ascertain the origin of each book.” Clara Budnik, her predecessor, agrees that “from the outside there is no way to know if the book is Peruvian. If it has some kind of stamp inside that is another matter, but no one knows all the books inside out, page by page. Also, remember that Library in Lima burned down three or four times since (1881), so it is incredibly difficult to determine exactly what books really did come from there.”

These ancient books are not the only items recently contested by the two Andean neighbors.

Chile recently returned Peruvian artifacts which had been confiscated by border control during the ongoing Chacalluta border issue that began in 2001 because of social and economic instability in Bolivia (ST, April 20). The move was to “help preserve the cultural patrimony and identity of our Peruvian brothers,” according to the director general of Chilean customs Sergio Mujica.

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