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1810-1818 - Early Independence

The emancipation of North America had produced an effect, at first unnoticed, but which broke out from time to time in impatient and impotent struggles, both in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. As the courts of Europe became either more feeble, or more deeply engaged in the momentous concerns of the long revolutionary war, their western settlements came to feel not only that they were strong enough to protect themselves, but that they might eventually be forced to do so, if they wished to evade subjection to a power, whose manners, habits and language, were foreign, and consequently hateful to them. The period during which they were thus, in a manner, left to themselves, taught them to discover and to depend on their own resources; and the constant demands for money supplies from a distant government, which could afford in return little aid or protection, disgusted the natives with so distant and expensive a monarchy.

The influence of the church too, which had hitherto been almost omnipotent in favour of the ancient order of things, began to be exerted, perhaps unintentionally, in the cause of independence. To prevent South America from falling into the hands of the French, a nation without an inquisition, and tolerant alike of Jew, heretic, and infidel, became a serious object with the priests; and hence, while the revolutionists proceeded at first cautiously, and only professed to hold the country for the legitimate sov ereign, resisting the French usurpation, the priests were always to be found on the patriot side. They began to discover the necessity of more education among themselves; hence, books long proscribed and placed on the interdicted lists, were sought after, and read with eagerness. Persons were sent even to England to purchase these; and though, in the first heat of the moment, good and bad were taken together, and systems of all kinds mingled and confused, yet all tended to produce an anxious longing for independence, a serious determination to cast off the yoke of the mother country.

But there was no comparison between the circumstances under which the British colonies of North America asserted their independence, and those in which the Spaniards in South America struggled for it. The Spanish colonies, from the first, had furnished such abundance of gold and silver, that they became at once the objects of the attention, and of the interference of the government in Europe. The whole cumbersome machinery of an old monarchy, ecclesiastical, military, and civil, was at once transferred to them. The rights of Mayorasgo, which is, in fact, a strict entail, by keeping immense tracts of uncultivated land in the hands of individuals, checked population by preventing that division of property so favourable to cultivation, and consequently to the increase of hands. And, finally, every act of government emanated directly from the council at Madrid, and every officer of consequence, was a Spaniard sent from Europe, so that there was no occasion which could call out the talents, or exercise the powers of the natives of the country.

The Governors of Chile were appointed for the most part by the Viceroys of Peru, and the post was considered the regular stepping-stone to the viceregal office. 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 news of Napoleon's invasion of Spain and the abdication of Ferdinand VII aroused great unrest in all the Spanish-American colonies, and induced a number of leading Chileans to call an assembly which forced the Governor to resign, and, September 18, 1810, organized a junta de gobierno to govern the land so long as the French should hold Spain. This date is considered the anniversary of Chilean independence. 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. There followed several years of intermittent fighting with the Spanish forces in Peru, varied by struggles between rival factions among the patriots, led by the Carrera brothers and by Don Bernardo O'Higgins. 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.

In 1814 this rivalry enabled the Viceroy, Osorio, to reestablish his authority in the south, and to mnintain it for two and a half years. 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. In the winter of 1816-17 General San Martin led an army of Argentine gauchos across the mountains, and by the decisive victory of Chacabuco, February 12, 1817, forced the Spaniards out of Chile. 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.

On the first anniversary of the battle of Chacabuco, O'Higgins formally declared the absolute independence of Chile. The Chilean forces were defeated by Osorio on March 19, 1818, but on the Maipu Plains, near Santiago, on April 5th, another battle was fought which virtually ended the Spanish domination, although desultory fighting continued for a few years, Chiloe, the last stronghold of the Spanish, being taken in 1826. It was not until 1844 that Spain formally recognized the loss of her provinces.

O'Higgins ruled as dictator from 1818 to 1823, when he was induced to withdraw, and a constitution was adopted. This was revised in 1828, and again in 1833, when substantially the same document in force at present was adopted. It has, however, been amended frequently, the most important changes being made in 1874.

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Page last modified: 04-12-2012 19:01:51 ZULU