Bernardo O’Higgins – The Emancipator of Chile


It’s really quite amazing the things we Irishmen and women got up to in our new homes. Even more amazing is what the descendent generations get up to. Terrance who always fires me interesting titbits about Irish Diaspora history around the world, recently revealed that the man known as the Emancipator of Chile was another one of the Diaspora, one Bernardo O’Higgins. Yep, that’s right, another Irishman causing trouble down South America way.

Bernardo O’Higgins was born on 20 August 1778, in Chillán, a small village in southern Chile to Isabel Riquelme. He was the illegitimate son of Ambrose O’Higgins, a Sligo-born 58-year-old military man who was the most powerful man in the region. His father took some interest in the care of his son but, as far as can be established, didn’t ever meet him. When his father died in 1801, leaving Bernardo a large piece of land (hacienda Las Canteras) near the Chilean city of Los Angeles, Bernardo who had been living it up in Lonon returned to Chile, adopted his father’s surname, and began life as a gentleman farmer. He became involved in local politics and so, it was only natural that he became involved in the independence struggle.

The Chilean war of independence began roughly around 1810. Like most of the wars of independence in Latin America the impetus for the revolt came from events in mainland Spain. Napoleon had invaded Spain in 1808, exiled the king and installed his brother Joseph as new puppet king in Spain. The mainland Spanish themselves, rejected this king and established free “juntas” to coordinate resistance to the Napoleonic Forces in what became known as the Peninsula War. Juntas were also established in the territories in South America… which takes us to Chile.

In the absence of the King, the Chilean territory was ruled by one García Carrasco, a man of mean and nasty temperament. He managed to become despised by everybody. The majority of the people of the region were royalists. But they were divided into two groups: those who favoured the status quo and the divine right of King of Spain Ferdinand VII (known as Absolutists) and those who wanted to proclaim Charlotte Joaquina (sister of Ferdinand VII and wife of the King of Portugal) as Queen (known as Carlotists). There was a third and smaller group, composed of those who proposed the replacement of the Spanish authorities with a local junta of notable citizens (known as Juntistas).

In 1810, however, it was the juntistas who managed, by way of political cunning, to establish the Government Junta of the Kingdom of Chile. This was followed by elections, instability, and numerous coups until a young Spanish-born man named José Miguel Carrera managed to take power. His government included one Bernardo O’Higgins.

The government was short-lived and in 1815 was overthrown by the Spanish royalist forces that were sent from still loyal Peru. Carrera and O’Higgins fled to Argentina from where they regrouped and re-entered Chile in 1817 to defeat the royalist forces at Battle of Chacabuco. O’Higgins was named Supreme Director of Chile. On the first anniversary of the Battle of Chacabuco, O’Higgins formally declared independence.

His rule was neither uneventful nor peaceful. Loyal Peru harried its borders and sent troops time and again. In the end, O’Higgins decided that the only way to secure Chilean independence was to secure Peruvian independence. An army and a navy was formed to defend Chile, but more often to attack Peru. It was, however, the great Simon Bolivar who eventually won freedom for Peru.

Higgins was a popular leader. However, his more radical and liberal reforms, (establishment of democracy and abolition of titles of nobility) were resisted by traditionalists. He was deposed by a conservative-led coup on January 28, 1823.

He left Peru with the intention, like so many before and after, of returning to Ireland. He was changing ship in Peru when he was asked to help in the independence movement. He did and stayed and never saw his father’s homeland.

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