When Brazil Lost A Naval Battle To Cheese

When you think of war, violence, and courageous defense, you do not normally associate cheese with such events. Yet, human history proves that anything can be a weapon in the hands of a people at war. When Uruguay was faced with an invasion by Brazilian forces in 1865, its soldiers and sailors demonstrated stoic determination, courage, and inventiveness, winning a battle with...cheese? 

The border between Brazil and Uruguay runs through the middle of the Negro River basin in South America. This resulted in both countries owning different parts of the same river, tributary and lake. After gaining independence from Spain in 1811, Uruguay was annexed by Brazil for 14 years. After years of struggles, Uruguay finally became independent in 1828. But it was ravaged by internal strife for several decades, and old colonizer Brazil wasn’t shy of interfering or backing factions. No surprises then that such a contentious situation gave rise to frequent disputes about fishing rights, taxes on boats crossing from one side to another etc. In its infancy, Uruguay was riven by the factionalism, leading to a civil war-like situation now referred to as the Guerra Grande.  

The tension over fishing rights escalated as the Brazilian empire (yes, Brazil had an empire for several decades in the 1800s: the Empire of Brazil) insisted that the border between the two countries was the middle of the river, thus giving them control of both banks. The empire also lent its support to the opposition faction (Colorado) that was trying to usurp power in Uruguay. The Uruguayan government, which was run by the Blanco faction, argued that the border was at the edge of the river, giving them control of the entire river. Uruguay found itself at war with Brazil, their old nemesis, in the 1840s. The Uruguayan government was fighting two conflicts simultaneously - engaged in a civil war at home (with a faction supported by Brazil and Argentina), and in open conflict with an interfering imperial power next door.  

In the course of that conflict, one Uruguayan warship found itself in a battle when it was out of ammunition. The man in charge on that ship, said to be one Captain Coe, crafted a cunning, unexpected workaround that left his enemies stunned, and would become a great story for the ages. In order to make their stand, the Uruguayan sailors ship had already fired everything they had by way of ammo. They ran out of ammunition and wondered what they could do to avoid being annihilated. All they had left were handguns and food rations. 

The captain of the Uruguayan ship came up with an unconventional solution. The food rations the Uruguayans had on board the ship included cheese – a lot which had gone stale. According to some accounts, it was Edam (pronounced ee-dum), the semi-hard Dutch cheese shaped like a flat-ended sphere. Picture a large, elliptical apple – that’s the shape of edam cheese. The ship’s captain ordered his men to load the canons with these improvised cannon balls of hard, rotting cheese that wasn’t edible anyway. That said, semi-hard cheese fired from a cannon could kill most humans. Cannonballs move at a speed of over 800 feet per second or 800kph. At that velocity, even cheese can cause damage. But could it punch holes in a 19th century navy ship’s sail and hull?

The skirmish had just taken a darkly funny turn. As ordered by their skipper, the sailors loaded the cheese balls into the ship’s cannons. The first couple of salvos missed their target, flying over the Brazilian ship and landing harmlessly in the water. The next round reportedly hit the mast of the enemy ship, knocking it down and shattering it, while two Brazilian sailors were injured by shrapnel (some sources claim they were killed). Having tasted success, the Uruguayans shot more cheese at the Brazilians, inflicting more damage on the sails of mast-less ship. As the lethal cheese broadside continued, the Brazilian ship, possibly bemused at the sudden turn of events, sized up the danger and retreated from battle. Death-by-cheese doesn’t make for an inspiring eulogy. Neither does losing your ships sails to cheese balls. Over the years, it is likely that the tale was embellished with additions about the odor from stale cheese repulsing Brazilian sailors who beat a hasty retreat, their olfactory weakness utterly exposed. In the end, the good guys won with ingenuity and expired milk products.