Chile Table of Contents

Aristocratic Chileans began considering independence only when the authority and legitimacy of the crown were cast in doubt by Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Spain in 1807. Napoleon replaced the Spanish king with his brother, Joseph Bonaparte. On the peninsula, Spanish loyalists formed juntas that claimed they would govern both the motherland and the colonies until the rightful king was restored. Thus, Chileans, like other Spanish Americans, had to confront the dilemma of who was in charge in the absence of the divine monarch: the French pretender to the throne, the Spanish rebels, or local leaders. The latter option was tried on September 18, 1810, a date whose anniversary is celebrated as Chile's independence day. On that day, the criollo leaders of Santiago, employing the town council as a junta, announced their intention to govern the colony until the king was reinstated. They swore loyalty to the ousted monarch, Ferdinand VII, but insisted that they had as much right to rule in the meantime as did subjects of the crown in Spain itself. They immediately opened the ports to all traders.

Chile's first experiment with self-government, the Old Fatherland (Patria Vieja, 1810-14), was led by José Miguel Carrera Verdugo (president, 1812-13), an aristocrat in his mid-twenties. The military-educated Carrera was a heavy-handed ruler who aroused widespread opposition. One of the earliest advocates of full independence, Bernardo O'Higgins Riquelme, captained a rival faction that plunged the criollos into civil war. For him and for certain other members of the Chilean elite, the initiative for temporary self-rule quickly escalated into a campaign for permanent independence, although other criollos remained loyal to Spain. Among those favoring independence, conservatives fought with liberals over the degree to which French revolutionary ideas would be incorporated into the movement. After several efforts, Spanish troops from Peru took advantage of the internecine strife to reconquer Chile in 1814, when they reasserted control by winning the Battle of Rancagua on October 12. O'Higgins and many of the Chilean rebels escaped to Argentina.

During the Reconquest (La Reconquista) of 1814-17, the harsh rule of the Spanish loyalists, who punished suspected rebels, drove more Chileans into the insurrectionary camp. More and more members of the Chilean elite were becoming convinced of the necessity of full independence, regardless of who sat on the throne of Spain. As the leader of guerrilla raids against the Spaniards, Manuel Rodríguez became a national symbol of resistance.

When criollos sang the praises of equality and freedom, however, they meant equal treatment for themselves in relation to the peninsulares and liberation from Spanish rule, not equality or freedom for the masses of Chileans. The criollos wanted to assume leadership positions previously controlled by peninsulares without upsetting the existing social and economic order. In that sense, the struggle for independence was a war within the upper class, although the majority of troops on both sides consisted of conscripted mestizos and native Americans.

In exile in Argentina, O'Higgins joined forces with José de San Martín, whose army freed Chile with a daring assault over the Andes in 1817, defeating the Spaniards at the Battle of Chacabuco on February 12. San Martín considered the liberation of Chile a strategic stepping-stone to the emancipation of Peru, which he saw as the key to hemispheric victory over the Spanish. Chile won its formal independence when San Martín defeated the last large Spanish force on Chilean soil at the Battle of Maipú on April 5, 1818. San Martín then led his Argentine and Chilean followers north to liberate Peru; and fighting continued in Chile's southern provinces, the bastion of the royalists, until 1826.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress