The break in the Spanish monarchy at the beginning of the XIX century produced great transformations on the political map of Europe.
In this context, Spain was invaded by the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1808) and the king Ferdinand VII was obligated to renounce and later he was made prisoner. This circumstance not only provoked nuisance in Spain, but also on their overseas territories.
At the beginning, the American colonies did not have doubts about keeping their allegiance to the monarch. Chile was not the exception and manifested its support to Ferdinand VII as the legitimate king of the Hispanic monarchy.
However, the news from Europe continued to preoccupy our country, and soon appeared two groups in Chile, the royalists and the reformers. The latter were more radical and began to aspire to independency.
Before the Old Nation (Patria Vieja)
At the beginning of 1808, and after the death of the governor Luis Muñoz de Guzman, a battle for the succession began between the Royal Audience and a part of the military. The military formed a Council in Concepcion, where they proposed brigadier Francisco Antonio Garcia Carrasco as a candidate for governor, who according to the laws, had to assume that position. This conflict ended when Garcia Carrasco agreed to the position in April of 1808.
His government was characterized by its mistakes and was a protagonist in many issues with the santiaguina aristocracy. In addition, Garcia Carrasco was influenced by the anti-reformists, who led him to develop actions that in the long run, provoked the repudiation from the population. It should be noted that his management was affected by the crisis of the Spanish monarchy and also because the governor did not take a clear position regarding these events.
Due to this overwhelming pressure, The Royal Audience intervened by soliciting the renouncement of the governor. Thus, on the same day that he was presenting his resignation, on July 16th, Mateo Toro Zambrano, count of the Conquista, was appointed as his successor.
– Old Nation
– The Reconquest
– New Nation
¡We want an assembly!
Toro Zambrano had to face the pressure coming from the Cabildo, related to the idea of creating a Government Assembly, and also the absolutist proposal which the Audience had, who expected to keep the rigid control of the Colonial State.
The tension that the situation was generating was big, and even some armed groups were walking on the streets of Santiago. Toro Zambrano did not have any other choice but to convene an assembly for September 18th of 1810, in which about 450 people came. The majority of them started to shout “¡We want an assembly!” as a way to establish a more participative government to defend the interests of the people, while also maintaining the allegiance to the king.
In this way, a Government Assembly was established, which was a transitory organism and with limited representation, because it was formed by the neighbors of Santiago. Its mandate would be extended until the meeting of a National Congress. The members of the First Government Assembly were: Mateo Toro Zambrano, as the president; the bishop Jose Martinez de Aldunate as the vice-president; Juan Martinez de Rozas, Fernando Marquez de la Plata, Ignacio de la Carrera, Juan Enrique Rosales and Francisco Javier de Reina, as spokesmen, while Gregorio Argomedo and Gaspar Marin were designated as secretaries.
This assembly created new military bodies, decreed the free trade with Spain and other countries and strengthened the relationships with the homonym organization of Buenos Aires. This is to say that, the first steps were given on the objectives of the criollos to achieve administrative changes and thus establishing the beginning of the period known as the Old Nation.
The first National Congress
The parties, as the territorial divisions were called, elected their deputies, but in Santiago the process was delayed due to a military movement headed by Tomas de Figueroa, which could be controlled. Finally, the Congress initiated its sessions on July 4th of 1811 with 42 deputies, and initially, was presided by Juan Antonio Ovalle. The deputies that composed this organism were divided into three tendencies: the majority belonged to the group of the moderates, who had the only intention of taking on reforms, without rushing the independence; the exalted, who wanted the rupture with Spain and the formation of a republic, and the royalists, who opposed to any reform that was not recognized by the Spanish authorities.
In the Congress, a series of reforms of moderated characteristics were being implemented, which provoked the anger of the exalted, who wanted to give more steps towards the Independence.
The constant conflicts between these groups were controlled by a Coup of State directed by the criollo Jose Miguel Carrera on September 4th of 1811. Carrera changed the composition of the government, and in this way the exalted became the majority group, allowing the criollos who were seeking for independence, to have the opportunity to organize a new Executive Assembly. This implemented a more reformist way of doing politics, which resulted on the decisions such as the creation of the Supreme Court of Justice (replacing the Audience); the prohibition of burying the dead in churches and demolishing cemeteries; the creation of the province of Coquimbo; the official relationships with Buenos Aires; the rupture of the relationships with Peru, and without any doubts, most importantly, the law of wombs, which declared the freedom of the offspring of slaves born in Chile.
However, the stability of the assembly was altered. Jose Miguel Carrera started to disagree with some of the members of Congress and decided to assume the direction of public affairs.
Later, along with his two brothers, he carried out a second coup of state on the November 15th of 1811. In this second military intervention, Carrera decided to dissolve the Congress (December of 1811) and by this action he took total control. His administration was characterized by the generation of important reforms that looked forward to prepare the Chileans for the battle towards Independence. In this way, under the command of Carrera, La Aurora de Chile newspaper was edited, which promoted new political ideas; a provisional constitutional ruling was dictated (see the inset), diplomatic relationships were established with the U.S. and the bases for the creation of the National Library and Institute were established.
The Spanish reaction
The reforms and the progress made by independence inclined ideas were not to the liking of the viceroy of Peru, Jose Fernando de Abascal.
For this reason, taking advantage of a counterrevolutionary movement that took place in the south of Chile, he sent forces under the command of brigadier general Antonio Pareja (January of 1813).
Pareja disembarked in Chiloe and Valdivia and managed to recruit around 4,000 soldiers, with whom he reached Talcahuano, taking this port as well as San Vicente, and then the cities of Concepcion and Chillan, where he completed an army that bordered 6,000 men.
The progress made by the independence cause was in danger, and due to this, the Senate named a new Government Assembly, which consisted of Jose Miguel Infante, Francisco Antonio Perez and Agustin de Eyzaguirre. Meanwhile, Carrera assumed the position of general in chief of the Army to fight against the royalist troops. With the help of Juan Mackenna and Bernardo O’Higgins, he organized an army that reached 4,500.
The first confrontations between royalists and revolutionaries were at Yerbas Buenas (April of 1813) and San Carlos (May of 1813), neither of which reported decisive results. Around that time, Pareja fell seriously ill and died. His successor was captain Juan Francisco Sanchez.
The independistas recovered Concepcion and marched towards Chillan (August of 1813), where the royalists were holed up. They besieged the city awaiting surrender, but the operation was a disaster because Carrera’s troops couldn’t withstand the raw, rainy winter. Finally the siege was lifted.
In October of 1813, royalist troops surprised the patriots that were camping at El Roble (near the Itata river). The confrontation could have ended in disaster for the local forces if not for the timely action of O’Higgins, who ordered a charge that managed to defeat his enemies.
Due to Carrera’s bad decisions and his obstinate desire for power, the Assembly decided to replace him in his position of general in chief for O’Higgins (January, 1814). Upon his return to Santiago, the replaced military man was taken prisoner –along with his brother Luis- by a group of royalists.
Campaign of 1814
Days after O’Higgins assumed the position of general in chief, a new royalist force disembarked in Talcahuano.
It was under the command of Spanish military Gabino Gainza (who replaced Sanchez). A little time afterwards, in March, Talca fell under his domain.
Meanwhile, in Santiago the Assemby dissolved and handed over command to s supreme director, colonel Francisco de la Lastra (march 14th, 1814).
While this was going on, O’Higgin and Mackenna’s troops faced the royalist’s at the battles of El Quilo and Membrillar, with no clear victor.
Next, both sides began a parallel march to Santiago, meeting at Cancha Rayada (March 29th), where the royalists triumphed. However, they were caught up with and defeated by the patriots at Quecherenguas (April 8th), causing the retreat (withdrawal) of the Spanish to Talca.
Gainza’s forces achieved what they were after by once again taking over Concepcion, which implied Spanish predominance over the south of the country.
During this stage, hostilities didn’t give either side an advantage, so a truce was needed. In addition, both the supreme director and viceroy of Peru began to feel the economic expenses and human losses the battles represented.
For this reason, Fernando de Abascal sent English commodore James Hillyard to Chile to serve as a mediator. After lengthy negotiations the treaty of Lircay was signed (May 3rd, 1814), which stipulated the end of the confrontations.
Despite this pact, neither royalists nor revolutionaries had keeping the agreement in mind, and they used this time of truce to plan their operations.
O’Higgins versus Carrera
After attaining freedom, the Carrera brothers were left under guard in Chillan. But Jose Miguel took no time in escaping and left for Santaigo, where he joined the criollos that did not agree with the treaty of Lircay to cause a new coup d’état (the third one) on July 23rd, 1814, deposing De la Lastra.
Carrera’s actions were not to O’Higgins’ liking (who was in Talca), and he decided to go to the capital and face him. Alas, his troops were defeated by the carreristas, commanded by Luis Carrera, at Tres Acequias (August 26th).
O’Higgins retreated south with the objective of returning to the charge, but upon hearing of the disembarking of Spanish troops under the command of Spanish general Mariano Osorio (replacement of Gainza), he decided to set aside his differences with Carrera and put himself at his disposal.
End of the Old Nation
The patriots wanted to keep Osorio from reaching Santiago, so general Bernardo O’Higgins and Juan Jose Carrera entrenched themselves in Rancagua’s main square with a battalion of 1,700 soldiers (barely reaching 40% of Osorio’s men). The confrontation took place at dawn on October 1st, when Osorio and his men attacked the patriots.
They defended themselves the best they could, however, the next day O’Higgins knew all was lost and ordered general retreat (there were almost 300 patriots left alive), going through enemy trenches on horseback. This confrontation was known as the disaster of Rancagua and it marked the end of the Old Nation.
Osorio now had an open road towards Santiago. Soon, he would take charge of the administration of Chile.
Meanwhile, the patriots that resulted unharmed from the battle fled to Mendoza (where they were received by Jose de San Martin). The same was done by a few citizens of Santiago, who escaped due to the fear of royalist repression.
The period dubbed Reconquest coincides with the «monarchic restoration» in Spain, because king Ferdinand VII, after being set free by Napoleon, recovered his throne and reestablished the absolutist regime in Spain. This reaction also transferred to America, annulling all measures taken by the government assemblies. This way, Chile would return to the parameters of colonial administration.
The Spanish government of this period was under the charge of Mariano Osorio, who was instructed to treat the national criollos without violence.
During his government he reinstated Juan Fernandez prison and confined those that had participated in revolutionary acts and remained in Chile there. He created the Vindication Tribunal, an organization that was used to investigate the conduct of public officials over the last few years; those arrested were also put on trial for political reasons, always trying to ensure the trials were impartial. In addition, he designated a new cabildo, reopened the Royal Audience, eliminated al dictated decrees and closed institutions created by patriots during the Old Nation. The National Institute and Library were among these last ones.
It is worth pointing out that whatever good intentions Osorio might have had were surpassed by the cruel actions of captain Vicente San Bruno, commander of the Talaveras de la Reina Battalion.
Due to the conflicts with the viceroy, Osorio was replaced by field marshal Casimiro Marco del Pont, who arrived to Chile at the end of 1815. The new governor was characterized by his arbitrary decisions. He created the Vigilance and Public Safety Tribunal with the intention of punishing people that spoke out in favor of emancipation. He also forced criollos to pay a tax hike, causing obvious public discontent.
The Liberation Army
While the royalists rebuilt their domains in Chile, in Mendoza, Jose de San Martin made a proposition to Bernardo O’Higgins about forming a military force capable of beating the royalists in Chile and continuing towards Peru. Only this way would total liberation be possible, thus they began the organization and preparation of the Liberation Army immediately.
Between 1815 and 1816, O’Higgins and his followers, along with San Martin, devoted themselves to the task of looking for the necessary resources and soldiers to form a great army. It would consist of Argentinean troops, the patriots in Mendoza, a few carreristas and slaves that were freed in exchange for joining the cause. In total, close to 5,000 men were assembled. They constituted the Army of the Andes or Andes Army. In early 1817, the troops headed to Chile crossing at different passes along the mountain range.
This way, the troops were commanded by San Martin himself and by Gregorio de las Heras and Miguel Soler (also Argentinean). The rest were under the charge of Chileans Ramon Freire and Bernardo O’Higgins.
End of the Reconquest
Governor Marco del Pont –having heard of the patriot invasion- handed over command of the royalist forces to brigadier general Rafael Maroto, who faced the independista troops on February 12th, 1817 at the battle of Chacabuco with an army of no more than 2,000 men. In said battle, O’Higgins and Soler (in charge of the patriot troops) obtained a landslide victory.
After their victory, the patriots made their way towards Santiago on February 14th, 1817, putting an end to the period known as the Reconquest and beginning the New Nation period.
Towards the consolidation of Independence
Once Santiago was freed the patriots called an assembly for renown individuals (February 15th). At said assembly, it was decided that San Martin assume command of the country, but the general did not accept and proposed O’Higgins in his stead, who assumed the position of supreme director the following day.
One of his first measures was to organize an army to face the royalist forces entrenched in Talcahuano after Chacabuco.
In addition, he freed the revolutionaries held prisoner on Juan Fernandez. O’Higgins continued his administration when, in January of 1818, Mariano Osorio disembarked in Talcahuano along with 3,000 soldiers sent by viceroy Joaquin de la Pezuela (successor to Abascal). Faced with the arrival of new royalist forces to the country, O’Higgins proclaimed Chile’s Independence in Talca on February 12th, 1818, in order to show the royalists the firm conviction the criollos had when it came to their emancipation.
Confrontations of 1818
After the declaration of Independence, the patriots camped out in the north of Talca, where they were attacked by the royalists on the night of March 19th, 1818. The confrontation was known as the Surprise of Cancha Rayada, and in it, the Spanish managed to disperse the forces commanded by O’Higgins (who was injured). They ran in a disorganized fashion towards Quechereguas to meet with San Martin.
On his part, Mariano Osorio began a march towards the capital. Near the city, he ran into the patriot forces commanded by San Martin, facing each other at the battle of Maipu (April 5th, 1818). The confrontation’s victor was the criollo army.
The war to the death
As a consequence of the battle of Maipu, the royalist forces retreated to the south, concentrating in Valdivia and Chiloe. Also, in Santa Barbara, a group of mismatched troops was being organized (mapuches, rustlers, ranchers and the zone’s lower clergy) under the command of captain Vicente Benavides. These forces received the help of the viceroy of Peru by sea.
Having heard of the movement in the south, O’Higgins sent troops commanded by Ramon Freire, kicking off the confrontations that compose the “war to the death” (1819), which was characterized by the cruelty both sides exhibited, and which ended in October of 1821 when patriot colonel Joaquin Prieto defeated Benavides at the battle of Vegas de Saldias (in the province of Ñuble).
Despite Benavides’s death, a few skirmishes with the indigenous people continued until 1824. They reached peace with the Chilean government the following year.
Formation of the naval force
In order to protect the lengthy territory of the rising republic of Chile navy-wise and continue the Liberation Expedition towards Peru, Bernardo O’Higgins and his War and Navy minister Jose Igancio Zenteno began purchasing ships from England and the United States.
The foundation of the First National Squadron was brigantine Aquila, captured after Chacabuco. It was joined by frigate Lautaro, acquired in England and another three crafts purchased in 1818. Later, Spanish frigate Maria Isabel was captured and rechristened O’Higgins.
In June of 1819, lord Thomas Cochrane arrived to Chile, one of the most famous English navy men, who managed to take Valdivia –still in Spanish hands- leaving it under national sovereignty (January of 1820).
The Liberation Expedition of Peru
In January of 1820, king Ferdinand VII was faced with a military liberal revolution that broke out in Cadiz under the command of general Rafael Riego.
Since these troops that had rebelled were coming to America and now they weren’t, O’Higgins decided to rush the dispatch of the Liberation Expedition to Peru, which set sail from Valparaiso on August 29th, 1820, commanded by lord Cochrane and composed of 23 ships and an army of nearly 5,000 men (under the command of San martin).
The confrontation between patriots and royalists in the viceroyalty was highly positive for the liberation forces, because the Squadron took over frigate Esmeralda (later rechristened Valdivia), while San Martin managed to force Jose de la Serna (new viceroy) to pact his retreat, which enabled him to take over the capital of the viceroyalty with no resistance. The Independence of Peru was proclaimed on July 21st, 1821.
The end of O’Higgins’ Government
In 1822 a new Constitution was promulgated, which replaced the provisional constitution of 1818. A standout among its main points was that the term for supreme director would now be six years, enabling O’Higgins to be reelected for a term of four more years.
In November of 1822, an opposing movement was formed in Concepcion –led by Ramon Freire- which did not acknowledge the legitimacy of O’Higgins government. Faced with the fear of a civil war breaking out, an assembly was called in Santiago that demanded the ruler’s resignation. After a meeting behind closed doors in the Consulate’s court building, O’Higgins preferred to avoid confrontation and consented to resign, later going into self-exile in Peru. An assembly comprised of three members and a secretary was established as a replacement: Agustin Eyzaquirre, Fernando Errazuriz, Jose Miguel Infante and Mariano Egaña.