A Brief History of the Brazilian Ironclad Tamandaré

Tamandaré, constructed in 1865, was an armoured gunboat that was built for the Imperial Brazilian Navy. Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, decided to modernise the navy by constructing an ironclad fleet that could withstand direct hits from explosive shells and solid shot. Paraguay, whose relationship with Brazil was deteriorating as a result of the civil war in Uruguay, possessed a series of fortifications along its rivers that were armed with some of the most powerful artillery pieces of the day. Unprotected warships, such as the wooden paddle steamers that participated in the Platine War, were vulnerable to these formidable weapons and the Empire of Brazil began to protect its ships with iron plates.

The Crimean War and the American Civil War, fought on an industrial scale and utilising powerful new technologies, convinced the Brazilian government of the need to update the navy or suffer defeat at the hands of its enemies. Paraguay, a small country with vast ambitions, purchased Krupp artillery pieces from Prussia as well as ironclads from British and French shipbuilding companies. The Empire of Brazil, alarmed by these developments, turned to France and placed its own order for an armoured corvette. Brasil, housing its eight guns in an iron-plated casemate, inspired the construction of similar fighting vessels in Brazilian shipyards.

Port side view of Tamandaré.

A class of three ironclads, of which the Tamandaré was the second to be launched, were built in Rio de Janeiro and arrived during the early stages of the 1864-1870 war with Paraguay. Francisco Solano López, President of Paraguay, initiated the conflict by seizing Brazilian vessels and declaring war. Victory in the War of the Triple Alliance, also known as the Paraguayan War, could not be achieved without gaining control of the rivers and the network of Paraguayan fortifications that lined the inland waterways had to be neutralised before this could occur.

France, having built five Dévastation-class floating batteries at the end of the Crimean War, pioneered the use of armoured vessels in the 1850s and used them to bombard Russian fortifications on the Kinburn Peninsula while the arrival of these armoured vessels near the fortified naval base of Kronstadt may have convinced Tsar Alexander II to sue for peace with the Allied powers. Ironclad monitors of the Union Navy, fighting in the American Civil War, battled Confederate fortifications along the Mississippi River and the Eastern seaboard. Brazil, having witnessed the effectiveness of armour against artillery positions, intended to use its ironclads in a similar fashion.

View of the Tamandaré from above.

Between the 26th and 27th of March, 1866, Tamandaré bombarded the Paraguayan fortifications at Itapirú alongside a number of protected and unprotected gunboats. Lieutenant Mariz e Barros, commanding the vessel in what would be its first major engagement of the war, was wounded on the second day of the battle by a shell that had entered the casemate through an open gun port and exploded. An interior chain curtain that protected the opening was unable to stop the projectile and the commander, whose leg had been amputated, died of his wounds later that day.

The ironclad flotilla, minus the torpedoed Rio de Janeiro that had sank to the bottom of the Paraguay River, was sent to Curupayty in order to provide fire support for the Argentinian and Brazilian troops that were preparing to attack the Paraguayan garrison. On the 22nd of September, 1866, soldiers of the Triple Alliance attacked the fortified positions and were repulsed by canister shot as well as musketry. The gunboats, despite their fire support, were unable to prevent a catastrophic defeat. The Fortress of Curupayty, an outwork of Humaitá, would prevent the progress of the fluvial ironclads and terrestrial forces for months to come.

Starboard side view of Tamandaré.

Passing the defensive works of Curupayty would involve navigating one of two channels, separated by a bank, and each waterway presented its own challenges. The channel that was closest to the Paraguayan batteries, while deep enough for the shallow-draught vessels to navigate, brought the ironclads within range of the guns that were positioned along the river bank. The gunboats could run aground, however, in the shallow waters that flowed through the distant channel and ran the risk of striking a torpedo. Torpedoes, having already claimed a protected vessel of the Brazilian fleet, posed a greater risk to ironclads than guns and it was decided that the channel which ran closest to the fortifications was the lesser of two evils.

On the 15th of August, 1867, the Brazilian ironclads steamed past the guns of Curupayty under heavy fire. The gunboats were divided into two divisions of five and Tamandaré, now under the command of Elisário Barbosa, was part of the second division. At one point during the Passage of Curupayty, George Thompson explains on page 213 of The War in Paraguay, the ironclad received a direct hit to one of her gun ports and fourteen men were killed or injured. Damage to the machinery, inflicted by the projectile, caused the engine to stop. Silvado and Herbal, seeing how the stricken vessel was unable to continue on its own steam, were forced to tow the stricken vessel past Curupayty.

On the 15th of August, 1867, Tamandaré made the Passage of Curupayty.

Humaitá, situated on the Paraguay River, was the site of an important military installation during the War of the Triple Alliance. The town, surrounded by marshes that made it inaccessible by land, occupied an excellent defensive position but the nature of the terrain made it difficult to grow crops or to raise livestock. The Paraguay River, allowing the town to be supplied by water, provided a lifeline between the settlement and the rest of the country. Extensive defensive works, known as the Fortress of Humaitá, blocked the passage of the Brazilian gunboats and enabled the flow of vital supplies into the besieged town.

The Fortress of Humaitá, dubbed the Gibraltar of South America, stood between the Allied forces and the Paraguayan capital of Asunción. Lopez had placed his hopes of victory in these defensive works, believed by some to be impassable, and the loss of the fortress would spell defeat for the small South American nation. Many on the Allied side, including fleet commander Joaquim José Inácio, were pessimistic about the prospects of taking the fortified town by either land or water. Humaitá was besieged from the November of 1867 and Tamandaré, having undergone repairs after the Passage of Curupayty, joined the other ironclads in bombarding the Paraguayan stronghold.

Tamandaré dashed past the Fortress of Humaitá on the 19th of February, 1868, in the company of Pará.

It was decided that it would be more efficient to starve the Fortress of Humaitá, situated on a thirty foot cliff on a horseshoe bend in the Paraguay River, into submission than to take it by frontal assault. The Allies knew that Humaitá would be able to withstand a siege for as long as it could be supplied with ammunition, food, water and medicine by the water. It would be necessary, therefore, for the Imperial Brazilian Navy to enact a naval blockade of the Paraguayan stronghold and to prevent supply vessels from reaching its garrison. Wooden gunboats, easy prey for the guns of Humaitá, would have been destroyed before they reached the upper river. The task of passing the Paraguayan batteries and severing the lifeline, therefore, fell to the Brazilian ironclads.

George Frederick Masterman, author of Several Eventful Years in Paraguay, explains that the ironclads were prevented from moving past Humaitá by a chain boom. The chain boom, Masterman claims, floated on hollow buoys and spanned the width of the Paraguay River. The ironclads, trapped by the chain and within range of the batteries, would be unable to move as they were subjected to a deluge of projectiles. It would be necessary, therefore, to sink the chain boom before the gunboats could progress up the river. Hollow buoys were easier to destroy than solid ones, such as those made from logs, and the gunboats fired at the chain boom for several months until all of the floats were demolished. Thompson, in his own account of the war, states that the heaviest links of the chain were seven and a half inches thick.

The War of the Triple Alliance, also known as the Paraguayan War, saw the extensive use of river-navigating ironclads.

On the 19th of February, 1868, the Brazilian ironclads made the Passage of HumaitáSix protected vessels, divided into three pairs, were ordered to steam past the Paraguayan fortifications. Each pair, moving at night in order to avoid detection, had to launch a rocket when they moved past the line of batteries. Tamandaré and Pará, tethered together, were the third pair of ironclads to force the batteries of Humaitá on the morning of the 19th. The guns of Humaitá fired canister, solid shot and explosive shells at the protected vessels but the gunboats survived the onslaught and were able to achieve their objective. Most of the vessels that participated in the engagement received only minor damage and Tamandaré, by some accounts, made the passage without being struck a single time.

The guns of Timbó, surprising the ironclad fleet, struck Tamandaré over a hundred times.

The Brazilian fleet, elated by its recent success, was unaware of the presence of another battery further down the river at Timbó and the rising sun deprived the flotilla of its night-time cover. The Paraguayan guns, placed closer to the riverbank than those at Humaitá, were in a better position to hit their targets. The gunboats, taken by surprise, were subjected to an intense bombardment in which Tamandaré was hit over a hundred times. Some sources, such as Nights on the Rio Paraguay by Alberto Amerlan, assert that Paraguayan Navy personnel made an attempt to seize an ironclad in the vicinity of Timbó but were unable to capture such a vessel.

The Siege of Humaitá ended when the fortified town, cut off from its vital line of supplies, was abandoned in the July of 1868. Tamandaré, damaged by the guns of Timbó, underwent extensive repairs at Tayí alongside its consort Pará while other ironclads that had forced the batteries of Humaitá proceeded up the Paraguay River in order to bombard Asunción. The ironclad crews that participated in Passage of Humaitá, a significant turning point in the war that led to the defeat of Paraguay, were awarded medals by Pedro II.

Last updated on the 5th of July, 2023, which was a Wednesday.


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