On December 21, 1907, the Chilean military massacred perhaps 2,000 striking nitrate miners, though possibly significantly more than that. The Santa Maria Massacre would go down as one of the most violent incidents in global labor history, a sign of the contempt that workers and governments throughout the world had for workers’ rights and any challenge to their power.
Chile was a global mining center by the late nineteenth century. But condition of labor were terrible. They were horrible across the world. Mining has long been one of the most dangerous forms of work. Indifference to workers’ lives only made it worse. Moreover, said indifference extended well beyond the mines and applied to all workers.
The Chilean labor movement was pretty nascent in the first decade of the twentieth century, but there were a series of sizable strikes. In 1903, the city of Valparaiso witnessed a major strike. In 1905, there were riots in Santiago over the price of meat that led to upwards of 300 dead as police just started killing everyone they could find.
In the early 20th century, nitrates were Chile’s largest export. Mining these was just a terrible job. First of all, it was quite dangerous. Second, the owners of these miners simply did not care if these workers lived or died. This was up in northern Chile, in the Atacama Desert and quite remote. There were about 40,000 workers in the miners and 13,000 of them were migrants from Bolivia and Peru, making their lives even less important for the mine owners. Being extremely remote, the workers lived in company towns that were under complete control of the owner, which meant everything those always did: company stores at outrageous prices, eviction upon organizing, permanent debt. Many of these towns had their own private police forces as well. Often, workers might not be paid more than every three months. This was bad stuff.
The workers began to petition the government in Santiago for relief but this was not going to happen. So on December 10, 1907, the dockworkers who loaded the nitrates on the boats for foreign exchange in Iquique, on the Pacific coast, walked off the job. They had a broad series of demands. First was eliminating the company scrip. Other demands included a minimum wage, compensation for injured workers, free night school for workers, fair weighing of the ore, and a significant amount of paid warning before losing your job. In other words, they wanted dignity in their lives. Moreover, most of the nitrate companies were owned by British firms, which meant the strike also took on a nationalistic tone, with workers demanding assistance from their own government against foreign exploitation.
The strike spread. Workers from other parts of Chile, particularly from the nitrage mines themselves, began descending on Iquique to force the government to give the workers their demands. By December 21, there were 10-12,000 workers from other parts of the country in Iquique. The government responded with force. Regiments were sent to the region. The Interior Minister readied to crush the strike.A state of siege was issued on the 20th that suspended constitutional rights. That morning, troops opened fire on workers and killed 6.
A big march for the dead workers took place the next day at the funeral. Workers were at the Santa Maria School while at the funeral. Immediately at the end of the funeral, the workers were told to disperse. They refused. General Silva Renard gave them an hour. Only a few workers left. So at the precise time, he had his sharpshooters go up to the roof of the school and open fire on his command. They had high powered rifles and machine guns. And it was just a massacre. When they finished with firing on the roof, they went classroom to classroom in the school, shooting anyone who they found alive. There were lots of women and children there too. The soldiers did not care and killed them too.
The response to the massacre from Santiago was…nothing. The strike was crushed. Renard blamed it all on the strikers, but it really just didn’t matter. The politicians didn’t care. The nitrate companies certainly didn’t care. The strikers, or at least the ones who survived, won nothing. We will never know exactly how many people died. The government said about 700. The workers about 3,600. A Spanish anarchist named Antonio Ramon nearly assassinated Renard in 1920. Ramon’s brother was one of the dead in the massacre. There was never any real justification for the massacre. The strikes never did anything. But the government got scared of what they might do and so preemptively killed as many as they could.
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