Revolution of 1891

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Revolution of 1891

In 1891 a seminal civil war dramatically altered the nature of Chilean political life. José Manuel Balmaceda, who became chief executive in 1886, tried to rule in an authoritarian manner. Times had changed, however. The legislature now demanded to participate in the decision-making process, particularly to dispense political patronage, and it resented Balmaceda's attempt to select his successor. After months of bickering, the two sides collided when the Congress refused to approve Balmaceda's budget for 1891 until he reshuffled his cabinet. The president responded by unilaterally declaring that he would simply use the authorization for the 1890 budget for 1891. At this, a faction of the legislature, the congressionalists rebelled. Having won the support of the navy, they sailed for the north and eventually established their seat of government in the nitrate port of Iquique.

The capture of Iquique provided the insurgents with crucial economic support with which to finance the rebellion. Their control of the fleet ensured that the army, most of which had remained loyal to Balmaceda, could not attack the rebel stronghold. His lack of a fleet—Balmaceda's forces consisted of but two torpedo boats and a converted transport—gave the congressionalists the time to raise and equip an army.

In addition to the navy, Balmaceda's foes enjoyed certain other key advantages: they possessed unlimited funds to purchase arms and, thanks to the defections of various high-ranking army officers, including that of a German-born military adviser, Emil Körner, excellent leaders. Finally, the Balmaceda government's clumsy crushing of a nitrate strike so alienated the miners that they flocked to join the congressionalist army at the outbreak of the revolution.

In mid-August, the rebel forces under Körner's direction, landed north of Valparaíso and moved inland toward the vital port. Better equipped—the insurgents had the more rapid-firing Mannlicher rifles—and better led, the congressionalist forces defeated Balmaceda's army first at the battle of Concón on 21 August 1891, then at Placilla a week later. The loyalist army suffered enormous casualties, including the loss of their generals, whose bodies were mutilated after they were brutally murdered. Valparaíso, though not a battle site, nonetheless suffered substantial property damage and loss of life when the congressionalist victory turned into an opportunity for looting and vengeance.

Fearful that the capital would suffer a similar fate, the Balmaceda government declared Santiago an open city and turned its administration over to the hero of the War of the Pacific, General Manuel Baquedano. Despite his sometimes desultory efforts to preserve order, the homes of various Balmaceda supporters were looted. Balmaceda himself took refuge in the Argentine embassy, where he remained until 19 September 1891, the day after his term of office had legally ended. Then the former president committed suicide.

The 1891 Revolution marked the culmination of a movement begun decades before to limit the power of the presidency. Until 1924 it would be the Congress, not the chief executive, that ruled Chile.

See alsoBalmaceda Fernández, José Manuel; Baquedano, Manuel.


Maurice Hervey, Dark Days in Chile (1891).

James H. Sears and B. W. Wells, Jr., The Chilean Revolution of 1891 (1893).

Julio Bañados E., Balmaceda, su gobierno y la revolución de 1891, 2 vols. (1894).

Harold Blakemore, "The Chilean Revolution of 1891 and Its Historiography," in Hispanic American Historical Review 44, 3 (1965): 393-421; and British Nitrates and Chilean Politics, 1886–1896: Balmaceda and North (1974).

Additional Bibliography

Bañados Espinoso, Julio. La revolución de 1891. Santiago: Editorial Andujar, 2001.

Bañados Espinoso, Julio, and Alejandro San Francisco. Balmaceda: su gobierno y la revolucón de 1891. Santiago: Ediciones Centro de Estudios Bicentario, 2005.

Nuñéz P., Jorge. 1891, crónica de la guerra civil. Santiago: LOM Ediciones, 2003.

Rector, John Lawrence. The History of Chile. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.

San Francisco, Alejandro. La guerra civil de 1891. Santiago: Ediciones Centro de Estudios Bicentario, 2007.

Zeitlin, Maurice. The Civil Wars in Chile, or, the Bourgeois Revolutions that Never Were. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

                                          William F. Sater

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Revolution of 1891

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