History of Chile

Chile and the Fight for Independence

SANTIAGO – Bernardo O’Higgins declared Chile an independent state on February 12, 1818. Political turmoil filled the country with instability. Much went on during the last days under Spanish rule, but Chile felt independent long before it became official.

Independence from the Spanish monarchy was an unpredictable and bumpy road for Chile. Historians divide it  into three main periods, and each defines different political and popular eras.

Patria Vieja (Old Homeland): 1808-1814

This period began when the news reached Chile that Napoleon had imprisoned the Spanish King, Fernando VII, in 1808. It set off a political whirlwind.

The criollos, people born in Chile of Spanish descent, took advantage of the political chaos and decided it was time to take power and try for independence.

This period is defined by the expansion of patriotism among the commoners and militants, who were upset about the centralized administration of the country’s wealth and political power in favor of the Spanish. Social injustices and commerce prohibitions also added to the turmoil and rebellions.

It was also when the first national government meeting took place. In fact, September 18, or the “Dieciocho,” symbolizes the beginning of the emancipation process. This was the day (in 1810) when the armed forces and politicians began to discuss independence (and it is now the day we celebrate with barbecues and terremotos).

Fiestas Patrias: What exactly are we celebrating on September 18?

This provisional governmental meeting was centered on conversations between O’Higgins and José Miguel Carrera, both major military leaders, and Mateo de Toro y Zambrano, a politician for the criollos. Together they debated how best to take care of Chile in the uncertain political environment in the country.

The provisional government swore loyalty to Spain at first, but with time it became clear the intentions of independence were much stronger. From this provisional government, the First National Congress was also born.

Carrera initiated a coup and established a dictatorship, finding this the best solution to the confusion in the country. During this time, Carrera also presented the country with its first national symbols such as the flag and shield; and the first national newspaper, Aurora de Chile, began speaking of liberal ideas and the international recognition of an independent Chile.

Rebels also initiated the first battles against the Spanish; and, in response, the Peruvian leader sent troops down to Concepción to try to control the situation in the name of the Spanish King, resulting in a truce, formalized with the Treaty of Lircay. Under the treaty, the patriots would be loyal to the Crown while the Crown would recognize their new provisional government, the National Congress.

Soon after, however, the Spanish King regained power and Spain ignored the treaty, which only further fueled the rebellion’s fire.

Longread: the Irish in Chile – O´Higgins and the Independence War

Reconquista Española (Spanish Reconquest): 1814-1817

In 1814, the Spanish then took back Chile in the Battle of Rancagua, and O’Higgins was forced to flee to the other side of the Andes.

There he forged an army with Jose de San Martín to liberate Chile. The Ejercito de los Andes (Andes Army) was composed of 4,000 men, including liberated Argentine slaves and Chilean patriots who followed O’Higgins.

On Feb. 12, 1817, the Andes Army defeated the Spanish Crown in the Battle of Chacabuco, and O’Higgins was named Supreme Director, reestablishing the dictatorship.

Patria Nueva (New Homeland): 1817-1823

The Battle of Chacabuco symbolized the start of the patria nueva. In this period, Chile established itself as an internationally recognized independent state.

O’Higgins made the one-year anniversary of the battle of Chacabuco Chile’s independence day. The ceremony to commemorate the independence of Chile started its preparations on February 11. From Santa Lucía hill in Santiago, the cannons could be heard announcing freedom.

On February 12, at 9:00 a.m., the authorities came together with the people at the Dictatorial Palace of Santiago where a stage was built in the middle of Plaza de Armas. Zañartu read aloud the Act of Independence to the people. Luis de la Cruz, the Supreme Director, with his hand over a Bible, swore an oath and promised to sustain the independence of the Chilean state from Fernando VII.

On February 13, a Te Deum was sung at the cathedral, and one day later a thanksgiving mass took place. It is said that the celebrations continued on until February 16.

After winning the subsequent, decisive battle of Maipú in 1818, O’Higgins asked the people to vote for or against independence from Spain and all around the country polls opened. Those who were against independence were too scared to vote, and so the corresponding box remained empty.

With a majority vote in favor, the government began preparing a declaration of independence. O’Higgins sent a communiqué to Spanish Coronel (Colonel) José Ordóñez, who was in charge of the Talcahuano port. Written by Miguel Zañartu, Bernardo Vera y Pintano, and a few others, the document advised Ordóñez of the independence of Chile. It expressed clearly the intentions of the people and it specified the reasons for the extreme decision.

Chile continued to process and organize its new government under O’Higgins, who remained a dictator until 1823. He eventually stepped down to avoid a civil war.

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Another 10 years before internal peace and stability

For the next 10 years, different leaders stepped up. General Ramón Freire Serrano was the first to replace O’Higgins as Supreme Director. He soon left because he disliked the new Congress’ initiatives, which proposed a federal government.

Manuel Blanco Estrada took his place, and was the first to take the name of President of the Republic. He only lasted a year, due to the difficulties the provinces were having implementing the new federal laws. Freire tried taking back the title, but faced much hostility from the new Congress.

Francisco Antonio Pinto, a liberal general proposing elections for a new constituent congress, rose to the challenge. Soon the liberals and conservatives (O’Higginists) were fighting over power of the new government. In the presidential elections of 1829, the opposition, the conservatives, refused to accept the results. This in turn caused the Chilean Civil War of 1829-30.

The conservatives won the war and General José Joaquín Prieto was named president in 1831. The 1833 constitution was established, with a new authoritarian government – and the state solidified.

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