Foundations through Independence

views updated

Foundations through Independence

Perched on one of the remotest edges of the Spanish American empire, the captaincy-general of Chile was never counted among the richest or most developed territories of the Spanish crown. Isolation was a keynote of Chilean history from the outset. Until the advent of the steamship, the territory was rarely less than four months by sea from Europe. Yet from the first, Spaniards arriving in Chile were attracted by its fertile soil and its usually moderate climate: "This land is such that for living in and perpetuating ourselves in there is none better in the world," wrote Pedro de Valdivia (c. 1498–1553) to Emperor Charles V (1500–1558) on 4 September 1545. Valdivia was the first conquistador to establish permanent settlements in Chile; his first "city" was Santiago (founded 12 February 1541), the hegemonic focus of Chilean life from that day forward.

The first decades of the new colony's existence were dominated by warfare. Resistance to the invading Spaniards was fiercest in the south, in the lands beyond the Bío-Bío River, where the Mapuche, who had successfully fought off the Inca army, again proved more than able to hold their own. The Spaniards came to refer to the native Chileans as Araucanians. The indigenous people the Spanish encountered, estimated to number between 800,000 and 1,200,000, shared a language but were in fact of varying tribes; their military prowess was generously eulogized by Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga (1533–1594), the soldier-poet whose epic La Araucana narrated the early phases of the prolonged struggle of the Spaniards and Mapuche.

After extending the colony to the south of the Bío-Bío, Valdivia himself was killed by the Mapuche in December 1553. His successors as governor were obliged to give most of their attention to warfare. By the end of the sixteenth century, it was clear that the colony was impossibly overextended: its Spanish-creole population at that point was less than eight thousand. In 1599 the point was proved by a major Araucanian offensive that drove the invaders from their settlements south of the Bío-Bío—Valdivia's "seven cities"—and confined them to the northern half of the Central Valley.

For the rest of the colonial period and well beyond, the Bío-Bío became a frontier zone. From the early seventeenth century a small standing army (financed by the Viceroyalty of Peru) was based in the south to protect the frontier, but Chile was not important enough to the empire to warrant a full-scale military assault on Araucania. The Mapuche preserved their political independence until the mid-nineteenth century. Their culture and society, however, undoubtedly were altered as a result of contact with Spanish Chile, an observation supported by developments in both agriculture and cross-frontier trade. Warfare continued at regular intervals throughout the seventeenth century. In 1723, however, an Araucanian offensive was curtailed because of the disruption it was causing to trade, and there was only one further serious flurry of warfare (1766) in colonial times. Missionaries tried more peaceful methods of winning over the Mapuche, but with no conspicuous success.

As a result of the Araucanians' success in defending their trans-Bío-Bío homeland, the dimensions of colonial Chile were fairly compact, the main nuclei of population concentrated in the northern section of the Central Valley and in the adjacent Aconcagua Valley (or Vale of Chile). A few small clusters of population existed further north, toward the desert, and by the second half of the eighteenth century, the mining town of Copiapó marked the rough northern limit of Spanish settlement. South of "indomitable Araucania" there were diminutive outposts at Valdivia and on the island of Chiloé, remote appendages of the captaincy-general that counted for very little in colonial times. Colonial Chilean life thus developed in a relatively limited area. Geographical isolation contributed to the formation of a distinctive and increasingly homogeneous culture.

The evolving social structure of the colony resembled that of other parts of the Spanish Empire, but was also marked by certain local differences. The basic shapes and forms of Chilean life were developed during the sixteenth and (especially) seventeenth centuries, and consolidated in the eighteenth. During this period the population became increasingly less diversified: mestizos were already a conspicuous group by 1600, and continued miscegenation meant that 200 years later they were the numerically dominant component in the Chilean population of 700,000 or so. Native Chilean numbers north of the Bío-Bío declined rather sharply as European pathogens took their toll. (How many natives made their way to the free redoubt of Araucania is impossible to say, although some did.) The Spanish-creole elite was not rich enough to constitute a market for African slaves: in 1800 there were approximately five thousand of these.

The Chile that developed in colonial times essentially consisted of a largely mestizo majority and a small upper class of Spaniards and creoles. Upper-class culture was basically Spanish. Mestizo culture reflected both Spanish and native influences, observable in such things as games, diet, vocabulary, and popular superstitions. By the end of colonial times, however, mestizos tended where possible to pass themselves off as Spaniards. Their names, language, and religion were all Spanish.

Societies built on brutal conquest are often sharply stratified. In the Chilean case, economic imperatives reinforced stratification. The main aim of the conquistadors themselves was to mobilize native labor through the encomienda for washing gold from the rivers and for ranching and agriculture. In theory the encomienda was not a grant of land but an allocation of natives. In practice many natives were assigned a place in the large seigneurial landholdings that grew up after the Conquest. With the decline of the native population, the encomienda lost its importance, though surviving in outlying areas like Chiloé and the north until the 1780s. Alternative sources of labor (the enslavement of Mapuche captured in war, or the transfer of natives from Cuyo across the Andes) proved unsatisfactory. A more stable rural labor system was needed and one gradually evolved.

The seventeenth century is often described as Chile's "tallow century." Tallow, charqui (jerked beef), and cattle hides were exported to Lima and Potosí, while Chilean mules were sent to the great annual fair at Salta. Ranching helped to consolidate the great estate, a process that was enhanced at the end of the century by the growth of a demand for wheat both domestically (as mestizos developed European dietary preferences) and in the Peruvian market. Haciendas, as Chilean estates were now usually called, began to adopt cereal cultivation. The mestizos and poor Spaniards who had been enticed onto the earlier ranches as renters (given a small plot in exchange for help with the livestock) were gradually transformed into a permanent class of tied peasants, known in Chile as inquilinos. (Use of this term became customary in the second half of the eighteenth century, by which time the classic Chilean hacienda was more or less fully formed.) The stable hacienda population of inquilinos was complemented, in the countryside, by a large mass of casual and frequently itinerant peons, whose lack of opportunities often forced them into vagabondage and petty banditry—a phenomenon that was especially noticeable in the area between the Maule and Bío-Bío rivers.

Though overwhelmingly dominant in the Chilean countryside, haciendas were never universal. In the vicinity of the townships, fruit and vegetables were often grown on small farms called chacras(often owned by hacendados), while numerous subsistence plots were worked by peons wherever they were able to squat. The position of the great estate, however, was enhanced over the years. Ownership of a hacienda was one of the clearest marks of upper-class status. Agriculture was the principal motor of the eighteenth-century colonial economy, with wheat usually accounting for 50 percent of Chile's exports to Peru. At the end of the colonial period, the mining of gold, silver, and copper in the thinly populated north (the area Chileans now refer to as the Norte Chico) assumed a new importance, prefiguring its spectacular nineteenth-century profile. There were hundreds of mines in the semi-desert north, mostly very shallow, worked with primitive technology, and rich in high-grade ores. The new salience of mining was acknowledged in 1787 by the creation of a mines administration on the model of Mexico's.


By the end of colonial times, metals were becoming increasingly important in the colony's trading pattern. In the seventeenth century, the captaincy-general was no more than an economic appendage of Peru and, because of the highly regulated imperial system, at the end of a long commercial chain that extended through Lima and Panama to Spain. This made European merchandise impossibly expensive. The eighteenth-century Bourbon reforms had a notably stimulating effect on Chilean trade. From 1740 ships were permitted to sail directly from Spain to Chile, and trade with the Río De La Plata provinces was finally legalized. Thus the colony could now trade directly with Spain, with the Río de la Plata (whence came the Yerba Maté so popular in Chile), and with Peru. The powerful Consulado (merchant guild) of Lima tried to resist such developments, but in vain. Chile shook free from its irksome dependence on the Viceroyalty: after 1750 the colony could mint its own coins, and in 1796 a separate consulado was set up in Santiago. The only real advantage now enjoyed by Peru was control of the shipping that carried Chilean wheat to Lima. This enabled Peruvian merchants to fix the wheat price—a long-running Chilean grievance.

While it is important not to exaggerate the scale of Chile's eighteenth-century commercial expansion, it is undeniable that new opportunities attracted a flow of Spanish immigrants into the colony—some twenty-four thousand Spaniards between 1700 and 1810. Roughly half of these were Basque or Navarrese. The most enterprising immigrants accumulated sufficient capital (usually in trade) to insert themselves into the creole upper class by marriage and by the purchase of haciendas. Some of these newcomers founded impressive family networks. The so-called Basque-Castilian aristocracy thus formed played a dominant part in Chilean affairs until the twentieth century. Taking mayorazgos (strict entails) and titles of nobility as a fairly reliable indicator, this Chilean creole elite looks much less impressive than its counterparts in the viceroyalties. In 1800 there were only seventeen mayorazgos and twelve titles (seven marqueses and five condes) held by Chilean families. Very few creoles were really well-to-do; not until the trade booms of the nineteenth century did agriculture and mining yield large fortunes.

Nevertheless the creoles, old and new, were clearly the leaders of colonial society by the second half of the eighteenth century. High political office was generally denied them, a practice which in due course became a grievance. Chile's political status was that of a captaincy-general, formally subordinate to the Viceroyalty of Peru (until 1798), but for all practical purposes ruled separately by a governor and an audiencia (operating temporarily in 1567–1575 and permanently after 1609). As part of the Bourbon overhaul of imperial administration, the colony was divided in 1786–1787 into two Intendancies, Santiago and Concepción, under a governor acting as the senior intendant. These changes do not seem to have impinged as negatively on creoles as may have been the case elsewhere in the empire. In any case, the Chilean elite was adept at exerting informal pressure on colonial officials.

It is difficult to find evidence of serious disaffection from the imperial political system. This perhaps became more likely with the rising educational level of creoles: the University of San Felipe opened in 1758, and by 1813 nearly two thousand students had passed through it. In the same period the university conferred 299 doctorates: 128 in law, 106 in theology.


However isolated and remote, the colony could not remain entirely cut off from the new trends of thought then emanating from the outside world. A number of educated creoles assimilated the ideas of the Enlightenment. Those few who traveled to Europe were especially exposed to its influence. Some of them developed a strong interest in economic reform. Manuel de Salas (1754–1841), a conspicuous member of this group, wrote a classic account of the colony's economy and society (1796), in which he contrasted the material backwardness of the territory with its abundant physical potential. Such feelings fueled a growing sense of creole patriotism. Salas and similar figures were neomercantilists, impressed by movements for enlightened reform in Spain itself, and they placed a good deal of faith in the imperial state. However, it is also clear that they deeply desired improvements, and this stance doubtless inclined them to favor creole run national governments when the time came.

A much smaller group of creoles, probably no more than a handful, was enthused by the Enlightenment, by the anticolonial struggle in British North America, and (less straightforwardly) by the French Revolution, and aspired to complete independence and the creation of a Chilean republic. Representative of this group was Bernardo O'Higgins (1778–1842), a frontier landowner who had been educated in England, where he had met Francisco de Miranda (1750–1816) and had been converted to Miranda's separatist vision. All that radicals like O'Higgins could do was bide their time and wait for an opportunity that might never come. It came sooner than they could have imagined possible.

Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808 caused consternation in Chile, as everywhere else. Creole leadership had already been perturbed by the attempted British conquest of the Río de la Plata in 1806–1807. The initial feelings of loyalty to Spain expressed by the cabildo (municipal government) of Santiago lasted several months, but soon lost ground to the notion of establishing an autonomous (and creole-directed) government, if only to preserve the colony for the dethroned King Ferdinand VII (1784–1833). The governor, Francisco Antonio García Carrasco (1742–1813), a military man with little political subtlety, interpreted creole aspirations as subversive, an attitude also taken by the Audiencia. In what it saw as a preemptive move against the creole-dominated Cabildo, the Audiencia prevailed on García Carrasco to resign in favor of a rich and well-respected creole, Mateo de Toro Zambrano (1727–1811). Emboldened by the news of the May Revolution in Buenos Aires, the cabildo responded by invoking colonial precedent and calling for a cabildo abierto, an open meeting of leading citizens. Toro Zambrano eventually agreed, and the assembly was convened on 18 September 1810 with about four hundred people in attendance. A national junta of seven members was chosen, and the governor himself installed as president. The stated aim of the junta was to preserve Chile for the "unfortunate" monarch Ferdinand VII. But the promise to convene a national congress (which met, to no great effect, in July 1811) owed nothing to colonial precedent and was a revolutionary step toward dismantling colonial rule.

It may be doubted whether more than a small minority of creoles yet favored outright independence. In fact none of the "patriot" governments of the next four years—the period Chileans call the Patria Vieja (old homeland)—made a formal declaration of independence. And in any case, divisions within the patriot leadership soon emerged. These were not merely the predictable divisions between moderates and radicals, but a serious rivalry between the powerful (and highly extended) Larraín family and its adversaries, whose self-appointed leader was an ambitious army officer returning from Spain—José Miguel Carrera (1785–1821). In November 1811 Carrera used his sway over the military to seize power, dissolving the first national congress and, over the next few months, neutralizing his opponents, who had entrenched themselves in the south. With the Carrera dictatorship, the impetus for reform gained momentum. Chile's first newspaper, La Aurora de Chile, did much to spread new revolutionary doctrines. Yet Carrera made no real move toward a final break with Spain.

This ambiguous stance did not deter the Viceroy of Peru, José Fernando de Abascal y Sousa (1743–1821) from sending three successive task forces to Chile to form the nucleus of royalist armies (1813–1814). So began Chile's War of Independence. Carrera's lack of success against the royalists weakened his position. Power in Santiago passed into the hands of a series of juntas. Carrera's successor as commander-in-chief, Bernardo O'Higgins, was neutralized by the second major royalist offensive, and a short-lived peace treaty ensued (May 1814).

On 23 July 1814 Carrera once again seized power in Santiago, and civil war between O'Higginistas and Carreriños seemed unavoidable, but a third royalist army, commanded by General Mariano Osorio, swept up the Central Valley from the south and overwhelmed the patriot forces at Rancagua (1-2 October 1814). O'Higgins, Carrera, and many other patriots fled to Argentina, and Chile reverted to colonial rule. This "Spanish reconquest" lasted two years and four months, and was an unhappy time of persecutions and occasional atrocities. This in itself weaned most creoles from the idea of colonial rule.


It fell to the great Argentine general José Francisco de San Martín (1778–1850) to effect the final liberation of Chile. He saw this as an essential step in his plan for a seaborne invasion of the Viceroyalty of Peru. At the start of 1817, San Martín's Army of the Andes (more than four thousand men) crossed the high passes of the Cordillera and won a decisive victory over the royalists at Chacabuco (12 February 1817). O'Higgins, by this stage a close associate of San Martín, was selected as supreme director of the new Chilean state. A massive royalist counterattack, led once again by Osorio, was finally checked at the very bloody battle of Maipú on 5 April 1818, by which time O'Higgins had formally proclaimed the independence of Chile (February 1818).

The patriots then created a small Chilean navy, which was placed in the command of the redoubtable Scottish admiral-adventurer Lord Thomas Co-chrane (1775–1860), whose audacious forays cleared the seas of Spanish shipping and enabled San Martín's Chilean-financed (and largely Chilean-manned) expedition to set off for Peru in August 1820. The rest of the South American war of independence was waged far from Chile, whose part had been both decisive and heroic. In Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna's great phrase, "free, she freed others."

Independence enabled the creoles of the Basque-Castilian aristocracy to assume their place as the governing class of the new state. It was more than a decade, however, before they found an adequate form of government. Meanwhile the apparatus of separate nationality was adopted with enthusiasm, and reforms were enacted: O'Higgins abolished titles of nobility and the display of coats of arms (1817), and reestablished institutions such as the Instituto Nacional (National Institute of Higher Education) and the National Library, abolished under the Spanish reconquest. Slavery was abolished in 1823.

Commercial reforms—four ports were thrown open to international trade in 1811—stimulated mild economic expansion: the value of Chile's external trade nearly tripled between 1810 and 1840 (from 5 million pesos to 14 million pesos). Agriculture, it is true, was seriously disrupted by the wars of independence, especially in the south, where recovery did not come much before the 1840s. But the mining zone, unaffected by fighting, benefited immediately from the increase in commercial traffic. Silver production may have doubled between 1810 and 1830, while the export of copper showed a threefold rise between the 1810s and the 1830s. Imports also flooded into the country, though the limited market was quickly saturated. Overall, Chile's economic capacity was appreciably heightened by independence, even if it took several decades for genuine commercial booms to set in, as they did in the later 1840s and again in the 1860s.

Politically, the search for an appropriate framework was by no means easy. O'Higgin's regime was essentially a war dictatorship until 1820 and, as such, brilliantly successful. With the tide of war receding, however, he was less able to handle domestic political pressures. His abdication on 28 January 1823 was followed by several years of makeshift constitutional experiment, with the main role assumed by Liberal politicians. A strangely idiosyncratic constitution devised by Juan Egaña in 1823 was soon jettisoned. A brief flirtation with federalist ideas in the mid-1820s proved similarly fruitless. In 1828, under President Francisco Antonio Pinto (1775–1858), the Liberals succeeded in enacting yet another constitution, and for a while the prospects for stable Liberal government seemed promising. Unfortunately, certain Liberal actions and a mild tendency toward anticlericalism provoked hostility from the Conservative opposition. A clear-cut differentiation of Liberals and Conservatives, however, is difficult: the Conservative Party probably included the best-established section of the elite, whereas the Liberals had a greater share of professional men, intellectuals, and so forth. In the Chile of the 1820s the influence of the Conservatives was always potentially stronger.

The Conservative rebellion of 1829–1830, captained by the remarkable and resolute Diego Portales (1793–1837), ended the Liberal phase and inaugurated a long period of political stability with the new Constitution of 1833 as its legal framework. The new regime was at times repressive: It depended on strong presidential power and the systematic manipulation of elections, a practice that did not cease until after 1891. With all its blemishes, however, the Conservative Republic gave Chile internal tranquillity and provided the basis for commercial expansion, and it was flexible enough to allow an eventual transition to Liberal-dominated politics in the 1860s and 1870s.

In political terms, the aftermath of Chile's struggle for independence was the most unusual story in nineteenth-century Spanish America. It was due in part to the strength of the colonial legacy: Isolation, separate cultural development, and relative homogeneity were all factors that influenced the Chile that emerged from the colonial chrysalis into the light of freedom.

See alsoCarrera, José Miguel; Colonialism; Indigenous Peoples; O'Higgins, Bernardo; Salas, Manuel de; Spanish Empire; Viceroyalty, Viceroy; Wars of Independence, South America.


Archer, Christon I., ed. The Wars of Independence in Spanish America. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2000.

Barbier, Jacques A. Reform and Politics in Bourbon Chile, 1755–1796 (1980).

Bauer, Arnold J. Chilean Rural Society from the Spanish Conquest to 1930 (1975), chap. 1.

Carmagnani, Marcello. Los mecanismos de la vida económica en una sociedad colonial: Chile 1680–1830. Santiago: Ediciones de la Dirección de Bibliotecas, Archivos y Museos, Centro de Investigaciones Diego Barros Arana, 2001.

Collier, Simon. Ideas and Politics of Chilean Independence, 1808–1833 (1967).

Collier, Simon, and William F. Sater. A History of Chile, 1808–2002, 2d ed. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Cóngora, Mario. Orígen de los 'inquilinos' de Chile central, 2d ed. (1974).

De Armond, Louis. "Frontier Warfare in Colonial Chile." Pacific Historical Review 23 (1954): 125-143.

De Ramón, Armando, and José Manuel Larraín, Orígenes de la vida económica chilena, 1659–1808 (1982).

Felstiner, Mary Lowenthal. "Kinship Politics in the Chilean Independence Movement." Hispanic American Historical Review 56 (1976): 58-80.

Foerster, Rolf. Jesuitas y mapuches, 1593–1767. Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, 1996.

Loveman, Brian. Chile: The Legacy of Hispanic Capitalism, 2d ed. (1988), chaps. 2-3.

Pocock, H. R. S. The Conquest of Chile (1967).

Retamal Avila, Julio, ed. Testamentos de indios en Chile colonial, 1564–1801. Chile: Universidad Andrés Bello, Departamento de Derechos Intelectuales de Chile, RIL Editores, 2000.

Solano, Francisco de. Relaciones económicas del reino de Chile (1780). Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Centro de Estudios Históricos, Departamento de Historia de América, 1994.

Uribe-Uran, Victor, ed. State and Society in Spanish America during the Age of Revolution. Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 2001.

                                          Simon Collier

About this article

Foundations through Independence

Updated About content Print Article