AN AMAZON GUNBOAT
By Ken Williams, Nautical Historian, UK
During a visit to Peru last year, I made a brief detour to Iquitos, primarily to discover more about the historic gunboat named America. Only scant information existed about this vessel on the internet and what was available was often conflicting and in some cases inaccurate.
On arrival in Iquitos, my first call was the tourist office to find information on the gunboat and other places of interest. I was informed that I needed to write a letter to the naval base requesting permission to visit the gunboat, which would take at least three days to process. Since I would be leaving the city in two days time I had to think of alternative means to obtain the necessary permit. A name in the tourist guides that cropped up a few times was that of 'Mad' Mike Collis who, amongst other things, was the editor of the Iquitos Times. He seemed the best person to seek advice on my predicament. I found Mike upstairs in his bunkhouse and on telling him my story he immediately phoned around for assistance. A tour operator by the name of Hector Flores was soon located and we set off together in a motorized tricycle to the naval base. Hector asked the security guard at the gate if we could see the gunboat and was told again that I needed to apply in writing. I explained that I was a member of the World Ship Society and that we would like an update on the vessel's status for our worldwide membership. After some telephone calls made by a naval officer to his superiors we were granted permission, free of any charge, to visit the gunboat.
We were accompanied by two naval officers who were amicable and very helpful. To my surprise, America's battleship grey livery had been changed to white with two black-topped yellow funnels. This had been done two years ago. However, the vessel's exterior still resembled a typical warship of her day: tall upright funnels and a distinctive plough-shaped bow for ramming. Apart from the replacement of a few hull plates and a new welded main deck, together with some modifications to the superstructure, she is basically as built.
America was built by the Tranmere Bay Development Company at Birkenhead as a gunboat for the Peruvian Amazon flotilla. The 240-ton-displacement vessel was launched in 1904 and on completion sailed under her own power to Iquitos, where she arrived in May the following year.
In July 1911, an armed border conflict erupted with Colombia over disputed territory in the upper reaches of the Amazon. The gunboat America took part in a decisive three-day land battle near La Pedrera on the River Putumayo which resulted in a Peruvian victory.
According to an original plan and specifications found on board, she was constructed with 1/4 inch thick galvanised steel plating and her hull subdivided into four watertight compartments. She measured 135ft overall with a 20ft beam and had a maximum designed draught of 3.5ft. Propulsion was by two triple-expansion engines rated at 150 nominal horsepower each, built by Plenty & Son of Newbury, giving her a top speed of 15 knots. Steam was supplied by two single-ended boilers made by the Stirling Boiler.
Her initial armament consisted of a 37mm Armstrong gun mounted at each end of the vessel, supplemented by 48 rifles and 48 sabres. She carried a complement of 30 officers and ratings.
My tour of the vessel began on the forward main deck where stood a black-painted steam windlass produced by Emerson Walker & Thompson based in Gateshead and London. Further along this deck at the cross-alleyway amidships a solitary single-cylinder steam engine was placed, but whatever it had been coupled to was missing. Its bed plate, in raised letters, carried the name of H T Boothroyd, Hyslop & Co Bootle. Adjacent to this unit was the engine-room, open with a steel cage on three sides and with a bulkhead on the forward side. Through the cage railings could be seen the original triple-expansion engines and squeezed in transversely at the aft of them was a large cylindrical condenser. Behind the forward engine-room bulkhead lay a completely enclosed boiler-room from which the boilers had been removed. Aft of the cross-alleyway was an exhibition room in what was once the officer's wardroom, and here information was displayed in Spanish relating to the history of the ship. From the cross-alleyway a wooden companionway led to the upper deck and to the bridge, which was lined with varnished tongued and grooved boarding, and contained a binnacle and chain-operated steering system supplied by Sir W G Armstrong Whitworth on Tyneside. Above them hung two small brass telegraphs with the movements in the Spanish language. Unfortunately, access to the other parts of the vessel's interior was restricted, much of it being locked and boarded up.
Although the vessel survives today as a floating museum, she is only open to the public on the 8 October each year. This is a national holiday to commemorate, on this day in 1879, a heroic naval battle they fought in a disastrous war with Chile.
America is not only a museum ship dedicated to the history of Peru's Amazon region but also can be considered as an unofficial exhibition of British machinery manufactured in the Edwardian age.