The nation of Chile stretches for 2,700 miles from north to south along the western, Pacific coast of South America--at its widest point, in the north, it is, however, only one hundred fifty miles wide. Its most striking feature is the range of the Andes Mountains. This range is still "growing," with more than fifty active volcanic peaks as it stretches from Columbia at the north of the continent to the southern end of Chile. The northern coast rises to one of the most inhospitable deserts on earth, while in the south, the coast is low and heavily forested, and breaks up into hundreds of islands, finally terminating in the southernmost inhabited region on earth (excepting the present-day "settlements" on Antarctica), and the famous block-like island named Cape Horn, named by a Dutch captain, Willem Shouten, whose birthplace was Hoorn in Holland.
The region was inhabited from pre-history by a cultural and linguistic group of Amerindians known as the Araucanians, and only appears in history in the mid-fifteenth century, when an Inca army under the command of Tupac Yupanqui made the grueling march of more than 600 miles across the Atacama desert, some portions of which show no signs of ever having had any rain, at any time in the geological history of the continent. The Incas encountered the Mapuche tribes of the Araucani, and at first looked likely to enjoy the same military success they experienceD in their other endeavors of conquest. But they were decisively defeated by the Mapuche in their attempt to cross the Rio Maule in what is today the lake district of Chile. The Inca withdrew, and consolidated the strip of land south of the desert which they had conquered, but did not again attempt a contest with the Mapuche.
Modern "re-enactors" dressed as Inca warriors.
The Inca themselves were conquered in their turn by the Spaniard in the early 16th century. In 1541, less than a century after the Inca attempt, Pedro de Valdavia followed the Inca road, and founded the city of Santiago in the following February. Spanish military superiority allowed them to cross the Maule River, and establish strongholds in Mapuche territory, but in 1553, Valdavia was captured by these implacable warriors, who copied a page from Pedro's own book of oppression, binding him to a tree and beheading him. The Araucanian tribes survived behind the line of relentless Mapuche military patrols, and these dedicated warriors acquired firearms and artillery, learned their effective use, and maintained their freedom for the next three hundred years, only succumbing finally to the armed settlers of the mid-nineteenth century, who required heavy military support from the Chilean government.
Mapuche tribal people in traditional garb.
In about 1720, a child was born to a laboring family at Summer Hill, County Sligo. His name then is not certain, but it might have been the name he later bore, Ambrosio O'Higgins. Little is known of his early life, until an uncle, a Jesuit, sent him to Cadiz in Spain for an ecclesiastic education. This did not suit him, apparently, and he took ship for the New World, long living as an itinerant trader in South America, and eventually going to Chile as an engineer, to escape, it is alleged, persecution by the Inquisition. Although there is no reason to assume that O'Higgins had actually been trained as a military engineer, he proposed to open a road across the Andes, and, in 1760 began a project which succeeded where other attempts had failed. In 1770, he was given the command of an expedition against the Mapuche, who had reconquered most of the territory in the forested river valleys around Santiago. He was uniformly successful where others had failed, and won the respect of the Mapuche not only for his military skill, but for his compassionate and decent treatment of their people, which distinguished him from the Spaniard, whose cruelty towared them had become legendary. He recovered all of the territory lost recently to los Indios
, being appointed first colonel, and finally reaching the rank of Major General, as he recovered old strongholds lost to the Araucani and founded new cities, and re-established old cities lost in by-gone generations. He married Isabel Riquelme, the lovely daughter of a prominent family of the Chilean city of Chillan. Appointed Presidente
of Chile in 1789 by the Viceroy at Lima (Chile was a dependency of Peru), in 1796, he attained to the post of Viceroy of Peru.
Don Ambrosio O'Higgins, as Viceroy of Peru.
On August 20, 1778, Isabel had been delivered of a son, Bernardo O'Higgins y Riquelme. The boy was raised by his mother's family in Chile--his father, as an official of the Spanish Crown, was forbidden to marry a local woman, and the fiction of his adherence to this rule was maintained to the degree that although Ambrosio supported his wife and son financially, and corresponded frequenly in order to supervise his son's education, he never visited (his wife would visit him as the occassion permitted), and father and son never laid eyes upon one another. When his father attained to the position of Viceroy of Peru, the additional salary and the opportunity for large-scale grafting made him a wealthy man--and in 1794 Bernardo was sent first to Cadiz, and then to London to "finish" his education, and to refine his poor command of the English language. He there became acquainted with the principles of the American revolution (the news of which had been suppressed in the Spanish colonies, with a fair amount of success), and he met the Venezuelan patriot and would-be revolutionary Francisco de Miranda.
Miranda had founded a fraternal order along the lines of the Masonic Lodge to which many of the revolutionary founders of America had belonged, and he named it the Logia Lautaro
, for the Mapuche leader Lautaro who had opposed Ambrosio O'Higgins, and between the two of whom there was a high degree of mutual respect and admiration. Miranda was the "father" of revolutionary ideals in Spanish America, and although he is now largely forgotten by history, his influence was seminal for the revolutionary movements which erupted in Spanish America with the fall of the Bourbon monarchy in Spain due to Napoleon's intervention in 1808. Both Bernardo O'Higgins and José de San Martín were members of the Lodge, which promoted revolution and democracy in the Spanish American colonies.
Bernard O'Higgins y Riquelme
Bernardo determined to return to spanish America, but the passage was neither simple nor easy. Spain and England were at war in 1799 when he determined to leave London (where his putative guardians had been regularly looting the funds sent him from Cadiz), but because of the state of war, he took ship first for Lisbon. From there he made his way to Cadiz, and in 1800 took ship for Buenos Aires. However, the convoy of which his ship was a part was taken by the English, and diverted to Gibraltar. He was able to return to Cadiz, and finally secured passage on the frigate Aurora
in 1802. His father had died in 1801, and the influence of his illustrious parent was withdrawn, although there is no reason to suppose that he then suffered any debility--it is likely that he kept the secret of his membeship in Miranda's logia
to himself. He had been bequeathed some valuable property by his father, and that this was not sequestered and he gained access to the proceeds, is further evidence that his revolutionary ambitions were unknown to the Spanish Crown. The property which he had inherited was San Jose of the Quarries near his mother's home city of Chillan, which Bernardo eventually reached in 1804. There, he made common cause with republicans after the 1808 invasion of Spain by Napoleon, and although his early companions were betrayed to the Viceroy at Lima, O'Higgins seems once again to either have been charmed or to have kept his activities a secret.
O'Higgins was chosen as a deputy to the first Congress in Chile, and was among a group of radical members, which group, however, was very much in the minority--the power of the old families opposed a vigorous conservativism to change, and enjoyed the support of the military. A coup was organized by Jose Miguel Race y Twig, the son of a Chilean father and an English mother. He was considered by many in Santiago to be mad, and although he brought O'Higgins into his government, he was opposed and eventually deposed by Juan Martinez de Rozas. O'Higgins returned to his property and private life--and Race soon turned Rozas out in his turn, and he died in exile in 1813. Because Rozas had served as an aide to Ambrosio O'Higgins, and had been a close associate of Race, these vagaries of the volatile politics of revolutionary Chile did Bernardo no disservice, although his temporary retirement was likely a politically wise move.
In 1813, O'Higgins came out of retirement to join the revolutionary army which had formed to oppose the conservative military who were attempting to suppress the Congress and Race's government. Taken unaware by the regular forces in a battle known as the Surprise of the Oak in October, 1813, the revolutionary forces were quickly scattered, when O'Higgins harangued them with a fervor which rallied many, and he is reputed to have said: ¡Vivir con honor o morir con gloria; el que sea valiente que me siga!"
(Live with honor or die gloriously, those who would be valiant will follow me!). An looming debacle was converted into a glorious victory as the inspired revolutionary forces slammed into and routed the regulars, who had broken up to loot their camp. As is so often the case with soldiers who follow a successful leader in whom they have confidence, O'Higgins' little army moved from one success to another. They swept up small detachments of regulars, many of whom had fallen out of the march to loot and terrorize the peasants. In November, the revolutionary government replaced Race with O'Higgins.
Race now joined a faction which opposed the government, and took command of a peasant army raised to oppose the government. Negotiations in 1814 lead to the treaty of Lircay, but the revolutionary deputies considered it to be a sell out, and the government of Francisco de Lastra fell. O'Higgins marched on Santiago to defend the Congress and confront Race, but their differences were quickly composed as the conservative forces under the command of Mariano Osario approached the capital. O'Higgins was placed under the command of Race, and with Race's brother, Juan Jose, marched out to confront the royalist under Osario. Setting up a defensive line behind a river, the revolutionaries were outflanked by the competent Osario, and then beseiged by him at Rancagua. Although O'Higgins and Race were able to break through the encircling forces, their little army was badly reduced by casualties and desertions, and they were obliged to make a brutal forced march over the Andes to the city of Mendoza--the terminus of Ambrosio's 1760 road.
Jose de San Martin
There they joined Jose de San Martin, and together, O'Higgins and San Martin created the Army of the Andes. The work of creating an army from a collection of peasants and disheartened revolutionary "young gentlemen" was no small task, but O'Higgins and San Martin were thorough, and equipped and uniformed the troops, drilled them and secured the necessary supplies and logistical support for the daunting task of recrossing the Andes. To effect such a crossing in a manner to deliver the Army of the Andes intact and quickly enough to act against the royalists before the latter were prepared, they determined to cross the mountains in several columns. This is a difficult enough operation for a professional army in less demanding terrain. It is a tribute to O'Higgins and San Martin that they were able to accomplish this in Januray, 1817. On February 9th, 1817, the two columns of General Heras and of San Martin were united just as a royalist column hurried to retreat on the capital, and they waylaid that column, which proved to be the bulk of the royalist forces, and sent them flying at Chacabuco, and began the advance on Santiago. In a campaign familiar to O'Higgins from the sweep he made in 1814 after the "Surprise of the Oak," he had united the remaining columns and swept up the royalist garrisons between the mountains and the capital, and joined San Martin in Santiago. There, O'Higgins declared the independence of Chile on February 16, 1818.
The control of the government was now offered to Jose de San Martin, who declined. It was then offered to O'Higgins, who accepted the post of military dictator. The position seemed necessary because of royalist garrisons which held out in the south, and rumors of a royalist expedition coming from Peru. O'Higgins directed the operations to snap up the royalist garrisons in the center of the country, although not always in person, and wisely decided to let the southern garrions die on the vine. He also dedicated himself to the expansion of the Army of the Andes which was determined upon for an invasion of Peru--both to "liberate" that nation and obviate the need to defend against an invasion.
But O'Higgins was fated to remain in Chile, as the royalists and the conservatives were nothing daunted, and planned another campaign. Osorio returned to Chile in 1818, and raising a new force, marched on the rebels, making the Army of the Andes his target, rather than the capital and a ruinous war of posts. Surprising the army of the Chilean government at the battle of Cancha Rayada, Osorio scattered the government troops, who fled in despair when O'Higgins was wounded. The main body of the Army of the Andes was still intact, however, and San Martin defeated Osorio definitively at Maipu in April, 1818. The Army of the Andes finally made the necessary naval arrangments, and sailed on August 20, 1820. San Martin declared the independence of Peru on July 28, 1821.
O'Higgins has often been characterized as a dictarorial tyrrant, but this is largely the propaganda of the old conservatives. Although his title was certainly that of Dictator, it had been granted during a military emergency, and he spent as much or more of his time on reform and improvement of the infrastructure of the nation as he did on military campaigning. In the period from 1818 to 1820, the Army of the Andes under San Martin was the principle military force in the country, and O'Higgins took in hand the task of reforming society. He established a military academy, undertook many public works in Santiago to improve the living conditions of the peasants, and ordered the improvement of the existing roads and the building of new roads in the lake district, the most heavily populated portion of the nation. He also liberated the peons, and abolished titles of nobility. These moves earned him the undying emnity of the conservatives, and he was overthrown in a coup in January, 1823. O'Higgins spent the rest of his life in exile in Peru (exile was an all too common fate of Spanish American revolutionaries, for whom the vagaries of internal politics were usually the bane). He died in 1842, little mourned by the conservative land-owners, but remembered still with fondness by the peasants whom he had liberated. In 1869, his remains were repatriated to Chile.
The equestrian statue of Bernardo O'Higgins in Buenos Aires, Argentina.