Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, April 13, 2016, Champagne on ice via Corbeta
Here we see the steam corbeta/canonera (corvette/gunboat) ARA Uruguay of the Armada de la República Argentina as she appeared in 1903, fresh from her Antarctic adventures. This plucky steel-hulled barque served some 34 years in the fleet and another 108-ish in various other roles (not a misprint).
In the 1870s, Argentine President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento was a fan of a big Navy and wanted one bad. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of yards in the Latin American country that could cough modern steam warships up so he turned to Laird/Cammel brothers in Birkenhead outside of Liverpool and quickly ordered what became known as “Sarmiento’s Squadron” of four mortar ships (Constitution, Bermejo, Pilcomayo, Republic), two Ericcson-type monitors (Los Andes and El Plata) and two gunboats with a draft shallow enough to go upriver (Parana and Uruguay). It is the final ship mentioned that is our subject.
Mounting a quartet of 7-inch breech-loading guns mounted on then-novel iron Vavasseur pivot mountings, one forward, one aft of it, one on each side towards the bow; the 152-foot long Uruguay was well-armed for her size.
A 31mm iron hull sheathed in teak and then in zinc plates, she had three watertight bulkheads. Her 82-foot mainmast helped keep 15 sails aloft totaling 612 m2, capable of up to 11 knots in a stiff wind and calm sea. For when the wind did not blow, Uruguay had two boilers and a horizontal reciprocating engine that generated 475 hp that could push her folding prop hard enough to creep about at 6 knots. She carried 97 tons of coal, enough to carry her 1,500 miles on steam alone.
Completed in 1874, Uruguay sailed from Liverpool to Argentina and was promptly involved in “el Motín de los Gabanes” — the “Mutiny of the Overcoats” involving students from the new Naval Academy. Then came an expedition to help crush the rebel Lopez Jordan the next year. She sailed up the Uruguay River, taking the 1st Infantry Regiment with her to aid in this task.
In 1880 she swapped out her legacy cannon for a single QF 150mm Armstrong-Elwich mount and two 90mm guns of the same make.
Uruguay later sailed to establish Argentina’s sovereignty over Patagonia, helped escort a scientific mission to observe Venus from the Southernmost shores of the nation, and rescued the crews of the lost French barque Esperance de Bordeaux and the whaler Batista.
After serving as a quarantine ship in Los Pozos, she sailed for England in 1884 for a two-year overall which led to several port calls in Europe and South America on the return voyage to show off the spick and span gunboat.
After a spell as a station ship at Montevideo, where the ambassador often used her as a floating embassy, she performed more rescues (the British ship Caisson, three unnamed whalers off Puerto Deseado, and picking up castaways at Bahia Blanca) while conducting off and on patrols of the Uruguay, Parana and de la Plata rivers.
By 1893, Uruguay updated her armament again for a pair of 120mm Armstrongs and in 1900 picked up four new 76mm popguns as tensions with Chile were escalating.
At roughly the same time, the Organizing Committee of the International Antarctic Expedition approved no less than four different groups to head very far south.
-Robert Scott’s Discovery. This expedition included a young Ernest Shackleton.
-Erich Dagobert von Drygalski’s Gauss, which discovered Kaiser Wilhelm II Land for Germany
-William Bruce’s Scottish expedition aboard the Scotia (go figure)
-Otto Nordenskjöld’s Swedish group on the Antartic, which included at least one Norwegian, her skipper
With this in mind, the Argentinians kinda figured the South Pole-bound explorers from may run into some problems, and Uruguay was strengthened (8 bulkheads) at Arsenal de Marina de Dársena Norte, most of her armament was landed, her rig lowered and she was provisioned for a year’s journey with a crew of just 27 men (down from 104).
Her aged steam plant was replaced with two locomotive boilers and an 1850 shp triple-expansion steam engine from the wrecked Yarrow-built torpedo boat destroyer Santa Fe (doubling her speed) while her magazine was filled with high explosives to be used to help blast through the polar ice if needed.
The new ice-strengthened rescue ship, under Captain Julian Irizar Camara, with the unlikely joint assistance of Lt. Alberto Boonen Chamaler of the Chilean Navy, was ready to help support the expeditions and soon sailed to look for the lost Swedish group.
Stranded on Paulet Island and Snow Hill Island, which is closer to South America than any other part of the Antarctic continent, after their ship was crushed in the ice, Uruguay located and brought back all the surviving members of the Nordenskjold party in October 1903.
The return trip was not easy for the corvette, having to dodge icebergs and some storms, but a huge crowd welcomed her when she returned to Argentina on Dec. 23 with the feared lost explorers.
She would soon return to the frozen continent, supporting Jean-Baptiste August Étienne Charcot’s French Antarctic Expedition in 1904.
From there, she was transferred to perform research and survey tasks (with the Hidrografía Naval), continuing to be listed as a warship for the next few years, though was disarmed.
She had an amazing 40 skippers in a non-stop string from Lt Col. Marina Erasmo Obligado on 08 Aug 1874 to Capt. Jorge Yalour who left her deck on 2 Dec 1908.
However, the Armada was not done with Uruguay, using her with the occasional civvy crew to make regular trips each year to relieve and resupply the Argentine-manned Orcadas polar research station in the South Orkneys while continuing her work in coastal survey, updating nautical charts. Orcadas importantly was the first permanently inhabited base in the Antarctic and remains staffed today.
She also visited South Georgia Island (now very much a part of the British Falkland Islands territory) repeatedly during this time, to resupply the Argentine government’s meteorological station located at Norwegian sea captain Carl Anton Larsen’s Grytviken whaling station used by his Compañía Argentina de Pesca (Argentine Fishing Company). *More on this later.
Larsen, in another link to Uruguay, was the Norwegian alluded to on Nordenskjöld’s doomed 1903 expedition.
After a quarter-century poking around the ice, on 11 June 1926, Uruguay was decommissioned then stricken that November, though she remained tied up at the shipyard at Rio Santiago for another two decades as an ammunition barge until at least 1945.
As for her sistership ARA Parana, that craft remained in service as a warship like Uruguay until 1900, then was disarmed, renamed Piedrabuena, and used as a naval transport until as late as 1926.
Saved from the breakers, her hulk was patched back together and in 1955 was officially restored to the Naval List by Presidential decree, designated as a museum ship after lengthy restoration in 1964.
In June 1967, she was declared a National Historic Landmark and in 1972 was transferred to the port area of Buenos Aires, where she remains today moored near the frigate ARA Presidente Sarmiento at the Museum of Sea and Navigation.
When the Argentine Association of Classic Sailboats (Asociación Argentina de Veleros Clásicos) was founded in 1984, she was issued the designation of Hull #01 by the group and serves as the association’s figurative flagship, being the starting point for the annual Buenos Aires to Río de Janeiro sail race.
Here is a good short walk-through video of how she appeared in 2011
She is also remembered in a series of stamps issued over the years by the Argentine government.
*As an interesting side note, the anchorage at the South Georgia whaling station frequented by Uruguay took a weird twist in March 1982 when a handful of Argentine commandos dressed as civilians, brought from the Corbeta Uruguay base on windswept Thule Island (yes, named after our ship when established by the Argies in 1976) were landed at nearby Leith Harbor there in a precursor to the Falkland Islands War which would kick off just a week later.
As an ultimate result of that war, the Argentinians ended their occupation of Thule, which is claimed by the Brits, though Corbeta Uruguay base is still listed on the maps.
Speaking of forgotten islands in the Antarctic, monuments to ARA Uruguay endure on Snow Island (where she saved Nordenskjöld) and others, celebrating her work in the frozen south.
Displacement: 550 metric tons (540 long tons) as built. 750 after 1903
Length: 152.1 ft.
Beam: 25.0 ft.
Draft: 11 ft.
Propulsion: Steam, 1-shaft, 3-cylinder compound engine, 475 ihp, 2 cylindrical boilers, replaced 1900-01
Sail plan: Barque
Cruising: 6 kn
Maximum: 11 kn
Range: 1,500 nmi
Original: four Vavasseur mounted 7-inch guns (bow, stern, port, and starboard)
1880: two 90 mm and one 150 mm Armstrong guns
1893: two 120 mm
1900: two 120mm, four 76mm (120mm’s removed in 1903)
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