QUAINT #7 “A Question of Reciprocity” by Robert Duncan Milne

The Almirante Latorre (Chilean Navy), as the HMS Canada by the time this photo was taken. This was one of Chile's first modern battleships, built in the early 1900s. Click for source.

“A Question of Reciprocity” was a serial written by Robert Duncan Milne and appeared in San Francisco Examiner, November 15-22, 1891. Milne (1844-1899) was a San Franciscan journalist and writer whose alcoholism first destroyed his substantial talent and then killed him. During his lifetime Milne was the best of the surprisingly large number of science fiction writers of end-of-the-century San Francisco.

The new Chilean government, brought to power by a revolution, refuses to pay for a huge new battleship that the previous government had ordered. The battleship is instead purchased by a group of Chilean business magnates. They are embittered with the United States because of America’s economic and political policies with Chile, and they have decided to use the battleship to recoup some of their financial losses by holding part of the United States for ransom.

The businessmen bring the battleship it to Chile and arm it with an amazing new invention of the brilliant Professor Tellus: a propeller-driven drone plane similar to a helicopter. The drone is powered from the battleship via long cables and is capable of carrying many bombs, which it can drop electronically. The drone is be operated by a sloop which accompanies the battleship. The businessmen, on their battleship, travel to San Francisco and issue their demands. The San Franciscans reject their claims and prepare for war. The Chilean drone plane begins dropping bombs, destroying much of the city. Because the battleship is beyond the range of San Francisco’s coastal batteries, the city seems helpless, and the city government and wealthier citizens begin bringing gold to the docks from the San Francisco mint. An American naval cruiser arrives to challenge the Chilean varlets. The drone tries with limited success to bomb the cruiser, and the fog prevents the cruiser from seeing the battleship.

The cruiser has less armor and less powerful guns than the battleship. But the cruiser is armed with a new weapon: the Vampire Bomb, a torpedo guided by a “magnetic warhead.” The cruiser launches the Vampire Bomb, which homes in on the Chilean ship and destroys it. San Francisco is saved and America is triumphant.

“A Question of Reciprocity” is an American version of the English story paper serials which were published in times of political tension or war (see: English Jack). In 1891 relations between the United States and Chile were at a historical low. Throughout most of the 19th century Chile had been a major South American power, and Chile’s victory over Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) made it the most powerful country south of the United States.

During the War the American government favored the Peruvians and American diplomats, including the Secretary of State, issued statements hinting at a possible American intervention in the War, ostensibly to enforce the Monroe Doctrine and prevent European interference but in reality (as was later revealed) to gain economic considerations for the United States. This led to a lasting Chilean mistrust of the United States and a corresponding tilt in Chile’s foreign policy toward Germany, the country the United States most suspected of having the greatest political and economic aims toward South America. By 1891 there was significant, if cool, tension between the United States and Chile.

This was the context of the Baltimore Affair. On October 16, 1891 the captain of the U.S.S. Baltimore, anchored off Valparaíso, granted shore leave to over one hundred of the ship’s company. That night a fight broke out between some of the sailors and a group of Chileans. Eventually forty policemen arrived and jailed thirty American sailors and ten Chilean sailors.

According to the El Mercurio newspaper, one American had been killed and five injured in the fight, while one Chilean had been slightly injured. An American investigation conducted a few days later claimed that the American sailors had not provoked the attack, as the Mercurio claimed, and that the Chilean police had helped the mob in beating the Americans; the American investigation claimed that two Americans were killed and seventeen injured. Inflammatory exchanges between the American and Chilean governments followed, and rumors spread through European political offices that war was imminent. It was not until a conciliatory message from the Chilean government the following January, and a payment by the Chilean government to the families of the American dead, that the likelihood of war between Chile and the United States disappeared.

But while the diplomats of both countries were willing to move on, neither country’s citizens were. Years of Chilean dislike for the United States followed. And in the United States, Chileans appeared as villains, both in dime novel stories and in more mainstream science fiction like “A Question of Reciprocity.”

About the Quest for Unusual & Adventurous International Notations & Tales (QUAINT).

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