From the archives: Commemorate the Massacre at Santa Maria school

Massacre by Chilean dictatorship, 21st of December 1907


2017 marks the centenary of the Russian revolution when the working class took power in October. It is also the 110 anniversary of an historical and bloody struggle of workers that is less well known. This battle of the nitrate miners in Chile was crucial in the early building of the Chilean workers’ movement. Socialists internationally and in Chile can commemorate this important struggle and drawn important lessons from it. The bloody massacre of striking nitrate miners and their families took place in the Escuela Santa Maria, in the northern Chilean city of Iquique. At the time sodium nitrate was decisive for the Chilean economy. The nitrate mines were situated in the “Norte grande” – the “great north” of Chile in the Atacama desert. Most of the mines were owned by British companies and the miners were employed in slave like conditions. The Tarapacá province at the time had about 110,000 inhabitants. In the provinces of Tarapacá and Antofagasta about 40,000 workers were active in the nitrate industry of whom about 13,000 came from Bolivia or Peru.

The mining camps were known as “oficinas”. Everything was owned by the company, including the miners houses and a private police force. The miners were not paid in wages but tokens. Tokens that could only be exchanged for goods in the company owned shops. On December 10 a strike broke out in the Tarapacá region as the “jornaleros” – day workers – demanded to be paid 18 pence a day and improved working conditions. This struggle became known as the “18 pence strike” – “la huelga de 18 peniques” This struggle in 1907 was the last in a series of battles by workers’ which had rocked the country from 1902. Most notable of these until the battle of the nitrate miners was the general strike in Valparíso in 1903 and the “meat riots” in Santiago in 1905.

Following the outbreak of the strike on December 10th in 1907 thousands of miners and their families marched through the desert to the city of Iquique carrying flags denoting the mixed race work force from Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. The strike rapidly spread to all other provinces of the north, culminating in a general strike throughout the “norte grande”.

The government, under the Presidency of Pedro Montt was terrified of this movement as production and commerce across the “norte grande” was at a standstill. A state of emergency was declared. Addition regiments were dispatched to back up the two regiments already deployed in the region. Montt appointed General Roberto Silva Renard, of the First Military Zone of the Chilean Army, to control the situation. He was under confidential orders from the minister of the Interior, Rafael Sotomayor, to “use all means necessary” to force the miners to return to work.

Thousands of workers descended on Iquique to petition the government to intervene on their behalf. They negotiated with the acting intendant of the Tarapacá province, Julio Guzman García. In a similar way workers’ in Russia had initially petitioned the Czar to help them prior to the 1905 revolution. Pedro Montt had given a free hand to the nitrate companies and had no interest in the conditions and lives of the miners.

As the miners negotiated with García miners on 20th December, at the Buenaventura nitrate works workers tried to leave. Yet the state of emergency suspending all constitutional rights had been declared. They were attacked and fired on by the army. 6 workers were killed. The following day the funerals of these workers took place. An estimated 15,000 miners and their families had occupied the Santa Maria school. They were ordered to leave and relocate to the Club Hípico (A horse riding club). The workers fearing an ambush refused to leave the Santa Maria School. Renard, warned the strikers that they had one hour to leave the school and return to work or they would be fired upon.

The strikers and their families heroically stood firm and refused to leave. The slaughter then began. The strike committee were assembled on the roof of the school. They were the first to fall under the hail of machine gun fire. Then as miners, wives and children rushed towards the soldiers and attempted to flee, machine guns and rifles opened fire indiscriminately. As the victims fell the army rushed forward into the school shooting and killing. They stormed into class rooms and slaughted the occupants – miners, wives and children. The survivors were then rounded up and marched back to work by soldiers armed with sabers and riffles.

How many were slaughtered on that day is fully confirmed. The government ordered no death certificates be issued. The bodies were dumped into mass graves. However, the estimated victims was between 2,000 and the highest estimate of 3,600!

Yet this heroic struggle and horrific slaughter, played a crucial role in laying the foundations of what was to become one of the strongest workers movement in Latin America. Two years later in 1909 the FOCh (Federación de Obreros Chilenos) Chilean workers’ Federation, was founded under the influence of the towering figure of Luis Emilio Recabarren together with the nitrate miners who played a decisive role in forming the Chilean workers movement. In 1912, Recabarren, together, with the nitrate miners and others, formed the POS (Socialist Workers’ Party). This later evolved into the Communist Party which built a mass base amongst the Chilean working class. Recabarren played a central role in these developments. He travelled to the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922 where he met with Lenin and Trotsky as he reported upon his return to Chile.

The Chilean ruling class tried throughout history to bury the details of this horrific massacre. For decades it was buried as they tried to erase it from history. Yet it became part of the history of the Chilean workers movement. It was particularly commemorated under Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in 1970-73. The dramatic use of music by such groups as Quilapayun became a hall mark of all of the workers protests and meeting during the revolution of 1970-30. In 1970 Quilapayun produced a dramatic narration and song commemorating the heroic struggle of the nitrate miners in the “norte grande” in 1907. The Pinochet dictatorship again tried to erase it from memory. Yet the narration of Quilapayun could be heard playing in the poor areas of Santiago and other cities during the mass protests against the Pinochet dictatorship. On the centenary of this struggle, 2007, the government of Bachelett was compelled to commemorate it with a national day of commemoration. This did not prevent her government from carrying out brutal repression against the students and the Mapuche people. Socialists internationally have a responsibility to salute this and other struggles from the history of the workers movement. It is from such struggles that lessons are drawn and powerful workers’ parties and organisations can be built.

(Link to Quilapayun)

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December 2017