Bernardo O’Higgins and Chile

The great military hero of Chilean independence is Bernardo O’Higgins (1778–1842), the illegitimate son of the Irish-born former viceroy of Peru. The first part of this outline looks at O’Higgins and his emergence as a leader in Chile after 1810. The middle section looks at the virtual civil war in Chile as Creoles vied for control and Spaniards attempted to crush the moves toward independence. In the final section of the outline, we look at O’Higgins’s flight to Argentina, his relationship with José de San Martín, and the heroic march of their combined forces through the towering Andes to liberate Chile from the Spanish.

Now that we have seen the wars for independence in the La Plata region, we will move across the Andes to join the two great pincers of the movements to liberate Spanish South America.

A. The military hero of Chilean independence is Bernardo O’Higgins (1778–1842), the illegitimate son of the Irish-born viceroy of Peru.

    1. The first part of this outline looks at O’Higgins and his emergence as a leader in Chile after 1810.
    2. The middle section looks at the virtual civil war in Chile as Creoles vied for control and Spaniards attempted to crush the moves toward independence.
    3. In the final section of the outline, we look at O’Higgins’s flight to Argentina, his relationship with José de San Martín, and the heroic march of their combined forces through the towering Andes to liberate Chile from the Spanish.

B. Although on the periphery of the Spanish American Empire, Chile was not as isolated as Argentina and Paraguay, and it had developed into a thriving Creole colony by the beginning of the 19th century.

    1. Geography has powerfully shaped the development of the Chilean nation.
    2. A small but vibrant mestizo society developed in the center of the country, built around a Mediterranean-like climate and agriculture.
    3. Long a dependency of Peru, in the late 18th century, Chile came out from under the administrative tutelage of Peru.

C. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, the Spanish governor in Chile managed to aggravate the divisions between Creoles and Peninsulars.

    1. As in Buenos Aires, the Chileans convened a junta of upper-class Creoles and Spaniards professing their loyalty to Fernando VII in 1810.
    2. Once again, the choices facing the elites were reform of the system or revolution.
    3. One of the most outspoken revolutionaries was Bernardo O’Higgins, who quickly emerged as a popular military hero.

Bernardo O’Higgins is one of the most unusual and fascinating figures in that small pantheon of the great liberators of the Americas.

A. O’Higgins was the illegitimate child of an Irishman and a Chilean woman.

    1. His father, Ambrosio O’Higgins, rose through the ranks of the Spanish American bureaucracy, eventually becoming the viceroy of Peru.
    2. Born in 1778 in Chillán, Bernardo was educated in England, where he came under the influence of Francisco de Miranda.
    3. Ambrosio O’Higgins died in 1801 and left his son an inheritance in Chile that made Bernardo a wealthy young man.
    4. He returned to Chile in 1802 to the life of a rich landowner.

B. In 1810, O’Higgins began to raise his own militia and entered the political fray reluctantly.

    1. Much like Argentina, Chile in the 1810s gradually eased its way into independence before the battles had been fought and won.
    2. When the viceroy of Peru sent troops into Chile in 1813, O’Higgins reluctantly accepted the post of commander-in-chief for the forces of the rebels.
    3. Divisions among the Chilean rebels weakened their efforts and, after a defeat at the battle of Rancagua in October 1814, O’Higgins fled across the Andes to Argentina.
    4. Fortunately for the rebels, the Peruvian viceroy attempted to reimpose a harsh system that reasserted Spanish control and alienated large numbers of Creoles.

San Martín’s march through the Andes and the defeat of the Spanish in Chile is a story of epic proportions.

A. San Martín had become convinced that the only way to secure permanent independence and peace in southern South America was to liberate Peru, and the only way to accomplish that feat was through Chile, then northward.

    1. The years 1814–1816 were tough ones for the rebels all over Spanish America with the return to power of Fernando VII.
    2. San Martín slowly and steadily built an army of 5,000 in Mendoza.

B. In early January 1817, the Army of the Andes began its ascent, in the dead of winter.

    1. Before departure, San Martín had employed diversionary tactics to mislead the royalists in Chile.
    2. The Army of the Andes also divided into several columns.
    3. As they ascended through the Los Patos pass, the cold and altitude sickness began to take their toll on the men and animals. San Martín lost nearly half his supplies and hundreds of men.

C. The battered forces of the Army of the Andes moved into the central valley of Chile, regrouped, and defeated the royalists at Chacabuco near Santiago in February 1817.

    1. The battle involved the careful coordination of several contingents of troops under San Martín, O’Higgins, and another commander, Miguel Soler.
    2. San Martín entered Santiago in triumph and sent his brother-in-law back across the Andes to carry the good news to Buenos Aires.
    3. At San Martín’s insistence, the glory went to Bernardo O’Higgins, who was named supreme dictator of Chile.
    4. For his part, San Martín returned to Argentina to gather support for the assault on Peru.
    5. The royalists regrouped and defeated San Martín in March 1818 before he definitively vanquished them on the plains of Maipó outside Santiago in April 1818.

D. The conquest of Chile was complete, but it would be some time before the new nation achieved political stability.

    1. O’Higgins was a pragmatic politician, and he would dominate Chilean politics for the next five years.
    2. In January 1823, facing a spreading revolt against the government, O’Higgins chose to resign his position and hand over power to the junta.
    3. He died in October 1842 at the age of 64, just as he was preparing to return to Chile.

Return to The Age of Revolution in the Americas

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