Chile Table of Contents

Politics and War in a Frontier Society

Chile's first known European discoverer, Ferdinand Magellan, stopped there during his voyage on October 21, 1520. A concerted attempt at colonization began when Diego de Almagro, a companion of conqueror Francisco Pizarro, headed south from Peru in 1535. Disappointed at the dearth of mineral wealth and deterred by the pugnacity of the native population in Chile, Almagro returned to Peru in 1537, where he died in the civil wars that took place among the conquistadors.

The second Spanish expedition from Peru to Chile was begun by Pedro de Valdivia in 1540. Proving more persistent than Almagro, he founded the capital city of Santiago on February 12, 1541. Valdivia managed to subdue many northern Amerindians, forcing them to work in mines and fields. He had far less success with the Araucanians of the south, however.

Valdivia (1541-53) became the first governor of the captaincy general of Chile, which was the colonial name until 1609. In that post, he obeyed the viceroy of Peru and, through him, the king of Spain and his bureaucracy. Responsible to the governor, town councils known as cabildos administered local municipalities, the most important of which was Santiago, which was the seat of a royal audiencia from 1609 until the end of colonial rule.

Seeking more precious metals and slave labor, Valdivia established fortresses farther south. Being so scattered and small, however, they proved difficult to defend against Araucanian attack. Although Valdivia found small amounts of gold in the south, he realized that Chile would have to be primarily an agricultural colony.

In December 1553, an Araucanian army of warriors, organized by the legendary Mapuche chief Lautaro (Valdivia's former servant), assaulted and destroyed the fort of Tucapel. Accompanied by only fifty soldiers, Valdivia rushed to the aid of the fort, but all his men perished at the hands of the Mapuche in the Battle of Tucapel. Valdivia himself fled but was later tracked down, tortured, and killed by Lautaro. Although Lautaro was killed by Spaniards in the Battle of Mataquito in 1557, his chief, Caupolicán, continued the fight until his capture by treachery and his subsequent execution by the Spaniards in 1558. The uprising of 1553-58 became the most famous instance of Araucanian resistance; Lautaro in later centuries became a revered figure among Chilean nationalists. It took several more years to suppress the rebellion. Thereafter, the Araucanians no longer threatened to drive the Spanish out, but they did destroy small settlements from time to time. Most important, the Mapuche held on to their remaining territory for another three centuries.

Despite inefficiency and corruption in the political system, Chileans, like most Spanish Americans, exhibited remarkable loyalty to crown authority throughout nearly three centuries of colonial rule. Chileans complained about certain policies or officials but never challenged the regime. It was only when the king of Spain was overthrown at the beginning of the nineteenth century that Chileans began to consider self-government.

Chileans resented their reliance on Peru for governance, trade, and subsidies, but not enough to defy crown authority. Many Chilean criollos (creoles, or Spaniards born in the New World) also resented domination by the peninsulares (Spaniards, usually officials, born in the Old World and residing in an overseas colony), especially in the sinecures of royal administration. However, local Chilean elites, especially landowners, asserted themselves in politics well before any movement for independence. Over time, these elites captured numerous positions in the local governing apparatus, bought favors from the bureaucracy, co-opted administrators from Spain, and came to exercise informal authority in the countryside.

Society in Chile was sharply divided along ethnic, racial, and class lines. Peninsulares and criollos dominated the tiny upper class. Miscegenation between Europeans and the indigenous people produced a mestizo population that quickly outnumbered the Spaniards. Farther down the social ladder were a few African slaves and large numbers of native Americans.

The Roman Catholic Church served as the main buttress of the government and the primary instrument of social control. Compared with its counterparts in Peru and Mexico, the church in Chile was not very rich or powerful. On the frontier, missionaries were more important than the Catholic hierarchy. Although usually it supported the status quo, the church produced the most important defenders of the indigenous population against Spanish atrocities. The most famous advocate of human rights for the native Americans was a Jesuit, Luis de Valdivia (no relation to Pedro de Valdivia), who struggled, mostly in vain, to improve their lot in the period 1593-1619.

Cut off to the north by desert, to the south by the Araucanians, to the east by the Andes Mountains, and to the west by the ocean, Chile became one of the most centralized, homogeneous colonies in Spanish America. Serving as a sort of frontier garrison, the colony found itself with the mission of forestalling encroachment by Araucanians and by Spain's European enemies, especially the British and the Dutch. In addition to the Araucanians, buccaneers and English adventurers menaced the colony, as was shown by Sir Francis Drake's 1578 raid on Valparaíso, the principal port. Because Chile hosted one of the largest standing armies in the Americas, it was one of the most militarized of the Spanish possessions, as well as a drain on the treasury of Peru.

Throughout the colonial period, the Spaniards engaged in frontier combat with the Araucanians, who controlled the territory south of the Río Bío-Bío (about 500 kilometers south of Santiago) and waged guerrilla warfare against the invaders. During many of those years, the entire southern region was impenetrable by Europeans. In the skirmishes, the Spaniards took many of their defeated foes as slaves. Missionary expeditions to Christianize the Araucanians proved risky and often fruitless.

Most European relations with the native Americans were hostile, resembling those later existing with nomadic tribes in the United States. The Spaniards generally treated the Mapuche as an enemy nation to be subjugated and even exterminated, in contrast to the way the Aztecs and the Incas treated the Mapuche, as a pool of subservient laborers. Nevertheless, the Spaniards did have some positive interaction with the Mapuche. Along with warfare, there also occurred some miscegenation, intermarriage, and acculturation between the colonists and the indigenous people.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress