Stories of South America - E. C. Brooks

O'Higgins of Chile

The third disciple of Francisco Miranda to exert a determining influence on the history of South America was Bernardo O'Higgins of Chile, who has already been referred to as the lieutenant of General San Martin in his famous expedition across the Andes. Ambrose O'Higgins, the father of Bernardo, was an Irishman by birth, but when a small boy he was sent to Spain to be educated for the priesthood under his uncle. However, his talents lay in another direction, and he chose the life of a trader. Through the influence of the uncle, he secured from the king of Spain the privilege of trading in the Spanish colonies of South America.

Within a few years, the elder O'Higgins became very wealthy and settled at Santiago, Chile. The country at that time had few roads. O'Higgins, seeing the need of a highway between Chile and Argentina, offered his services to construct such a highway for the government. His plan was accepted, and the road across the mountains to Mendoza was opened; it was along this route a generation later that his son, under San Martin, led the patriot army into Chile. So influential did Ambrose O'Higgins become that in 1792 he was appointed captain-general of Chile and four years later rose to the highest office in South America, that of viceroy of Peru. Here in the City of the Kings, where rears before he had peddled his wares unknown, he returned as vice-king and was invested with the supreme rank in the New World.

Bernardo O'Higgins, his son, was born on August 20, 1778. His mother was a native of Chile and a descendant of one of the most aristocratic Spanish families. Great attention was paid to the education of this youth. After receiving his early training under the best masters in Chile and Peru, he was sent, at the age of fifteen, to Spain to complete his education. While pursuing his studies, he had an opportunity to watch the growth of the French Revolution, which was affecting every nation in Europe.

Francisco Miranda was then in England, engaged in organizing his secret societies and planning for the overthrow of Spanish rule in South America. In 1799, O'Higgins, just twenty-one years of age, visited England to see Miranda; and when he fell under the wonderful spell of that great spirit, he, like Bolivar and San Martin, became a disciple. On O'Higgins's return to Spain, fate brought him and San Martin together. The latter remained to help defend the mother country against the armies of Napoleon, while O'Higgins sailed for home, reaching Chile in 1802, just after his father's death.

He was devoted to his mother and his sister Rosa, and his sister's love for him, how she served him and administered to him throughout his remarkable career is a part of the history of Chile. In 1803, O'Higgins settled with his mother and sister on an estate about sixty miles south of Chillan. This was a large ranch, containing, it is said, about 7,000 cattle, 600 horses, 180 mules, and 900 sheep. O'Higgins gave close attention to business and became very successful as a stock farmer. There were also extensive vineyards, which grew to be exceedingly profitable.

The population of Chile at that time, as now, was more purely Spanish than that of any other country in South America. The blood of the inhabitants was little mixed with that of negroes and Indians. It was a purer stock. The best families lived on large plantations, as a rule, and the fine estates of Chile made that province a very desirable home. A glance at the map shows that a large part of Chile is in the south temperate zone and consequently has a good climate.

In 1810, when Venezuela and Buenos Aires revolted, the desire for freedom in Chile was so strong that within a few weeks the Spanish captain-general was forced to abdicate; on July 16, 1810, a provisional government was created with Jose Miguel Carrera as dictator. The feeling between patriots and royalists was so bitter that civil war immediately ensued. Bernardo O'Higgins, having become an ardent patriot since his return from Spain, at once offered his services to Carrera. Soon achieving distinction by his skill in handling his forces in a successful campaign, he was hailed as "The first soldier of Chile." Later he was appointed commander-in-chief of the army. Carrera at length became very jealous of him. The sudden rise of O'Higgins into public favor wounded his vanity; and thereafter he hated the latter and sought in every way to destroy him. He grew so bitter that at length he came to think more of putting O'Higgins out of the way than of defeating the royalists. He was plotting to ruin O'Higgins when he happened to be captured by the royalists, who held him a prisoner for quite a while. This left O'Higgins unhampered to conduct the campaign against the royalists, whom he defeated in 1814; the independence of Chile was thus temporarily gained.

Soon afterward Carrera escaped and at once began to excite strife. The royalists plucked up courage and renewed the fight. No act in O'Higgins's life brings out more clearly the unselfishness and fine patriotism of the man than his conduct at this time. It was a crisis. Carrera would have gone to any extreme against O'Higgins. The latter, seeing the imperative need of cooperation, consented to resign as commander-in-chief and serve under Carrera in order to avert civil war and present a united front to the enemy. He saw that this was the only way in which to save the country, though he fully realized the extent of Carrera's malice. He did not consider his own personal safety or reputation when the freedom of the country was at stake.



The royalists were carrying everything before them. Carrera, with O'Higgins as his second in command, was forced to give battle at the town of Rancagua. O'Higgins commanded the division first sent into battle. Carrera held the rest of the army back and saw with fiendish delight the royalists cut O'Higgins's force to pieces. O'Higgins made his last stand in the open plaza. His regiment of 2,500 men fought on until only about four hundred remained alive. All this time Carrera stood motionless with an army large enough to have overthrown the royalists, but not until he thought that O'Higgins was crushed did he move.

The enemy were so awe-stricken by the courage of O'Higgins and his devoted followers that when the little band, of patriots was surrounded and about to be overwhelmed they hesitated to close in. O'Higgins and the four hundred survivors, taking advantage of the pause, suddenly charged out of the burning town, under the cover of the smoke and dust, and escaped. The heroic force had fought for over thirty hours without cessation.

Rancagua stands for all that is sublime in the eyes of Chileans, and if O'Higgins had fought no other battle he would be held in affectionate admiration by them. This is the "Pickett's Charge" of Chilean history.

After O'Higgins's regiment had been crushed, it was an easy matter for the royalists to fall on Carrera's army and rout it; Carrera himself barely escaped. The royalists were now supreme, and for about two and a half years Chile was helpless. The refugees fled after the battle of Rancagua across the mountains to Mendoza, along the road built by O'Higgins's father. At that time San Martin at Mendoza was fitting out the army which was to strike the final blow for Chilean independence.

Carrera reached Mendoza a short time before O'Higgins and sought to ingratiate himself with San Martin. A little later O'Higgins arrived, to the great surprise of Carrera, who thought that he had been slain in the battle of Rancagua. San Martin, learning of Carrera's treachery, banished him from the province and made O'Higgins his own lieutenant.

San Martin and O'Higgins became devoted friends and for nearly two years they worked together to equip the army that was to make the daring march across the Andes. The story of this wonderful expedition has already been told. When the army poured down the mountainside into Chile, San Martin permitted O'Higgins to lead the force that broke the power of the royalists at Chacabuco. Thus he avenged the defeat of Rancagua. It has also been told in another chapter how the government of Chile offered the dictatorship to San Martin, who refused the honor but persuaded those in control to select O'Higgins in his stead.

Soon after O'Higgins had been put at the head of the government, Carrera returned from exile. It seemed that this human fiend was destined to pursue the former at every turn; for whenever Carrera appeared, it was for the purpose of injuring O'Higgins. Carrera had hardly entered his native country before he began to stir up strife. However, he was soon captured and imprisoned. Escaping, he sought to organize a royalist rising against the patriot government. Once more he was captured and this time he was put to death. But the royalists had been given another opportunity to rally, and the situation was perilous. San Martin was in Buenos Aires. O'Higgins needed funds. He appealed to the people and they responded nobly. Jewelry, coins, and concealed treasures were given up, and the country was again saved. O'Higgins was so touched by the patriotism of the Chileans that he afterward caused a record of this sacrifice of patriotism to be placed on a monolith which had been erected by his father on the Valparaiso road just outside of Santiago. It contains these words:

"Strangers who enter here, say, if such a people can be slaves."

Later, the battle of Maipo was fought, on April 5, 1818. This ended forever the ascendency of Spain in Chile. Carrera was now dead, and no one else dared to interfere with the progress of the revolution.

O'Higgins was not only a great general but he was perhaps the greatest administrator in South America in the period immediately following the revolt of the Spanish colonies. His father before him had been a noted reformer, improving the laws, establishing courts, promoting agriculture, and relieving the distressed condition of the lower classes. The son followed in the footsteps of his father but was even more progressive. He sought the aid of the United States in perfecting the government. After the war he gave land to the soldiers who had fought for independence, thus imitating the action of the United States in settling veterans on public lands. He sought to strengthen the rural districts and make agriculture profitable. He encouraged trade between Chile and foreign countries and was exceedingly desirous that his country should be respected throughout the world. The bandits who thronged in the outlying districts were destroyed. Law and order were restored, and in a short period of time O'Higgins gave his native country a good government.

When San Martin organized his expedition to break the Spanish rule in Peru, O'Higgins was his most helpful ally, and as the squadron of five vessels sailed from Valparaiso, in October, 1818, O'Higgins waved a farewell to San Martin, exclaiming:

"The king of Spain three centuries ago with five small ships won this country. We shall drive them from it with five. On them depends the future of South America."

O'Higgins was not a professional soldier, although he was a leader of men. They trusted him. He led them successfully, and when the power of Spain over Peru was broken O'Higgins was in the zenith of his influence; it is said that he was transforming the character of the people of Chile by sheer force of personality. Still he recognized what Bolivar and San Martin likewise so clearly saw, that the people were not ready for self-government. The descendants of the haughty Spaniards were not disposed to unite with creoles and half-breeds in one body for the purpose of working out a popular government that would give equal advantages to all. After independence had been won, petty tyrants of all colors and races sprang up here and there and sought to overthrow the local government.

O'Higgins recognized, more fully perhaps than any other man of his day, the need of public schools. At that time the most enlightened nations of the world were trying to found school systems that would give the poor opportunities for education. O'Higgins invited schoolmasters to Chile, introduced the Lancasterian system of primary schools, and sought to extend education to all classes.

His next reform aimed at bettering health conditions by improving the sanitation of towns and villages. O'Higgins advocated free libraries, built good roads, increased the water supply, strengthened the public revenue, and, what was most important of all, saw that the laws of the land were enforced.

On July 23, 1822, O'Higgins opened the Chilean congress with great ceremony. Up to this time he had been governing without a legislature. His purpose was to organize the machinery of state, establish a system founded on genuine constitutional principles, and thereby give Chile a free and representative government. He was taking as his model the government of the United States and the example of Washington.

The privileged classes, however, many of whom had been either royalists or royalist sympathizers, were very active during the period following the war. They considered themselves the ruling caste and were bitterly opposed to anything resembling true representative government. They sought a government of the classes, with special privileges for themselves. They hated O'Higgins, and were anxious to see him removed from his position as head of the state. They were so well organized that when congress convened they were able to block all of O'Higgins's plans. Successful at every point, they loudly called for his resignation.

This was not altogether a surprise to O'Higgins. In fact, he was seriously considering whether his resignation would not produce a union of the factions and insure a more satisfactory government. Finally he agreed to resign on condition that he be allowed to set up a provisional government to rule the nation until a national convention could meet and decide on a constitution.

His abdication, on January 28, 1823, was perhaps the noblest act of his whole career. He knew it would not be safe for him to remain in the country. Consequently, he left his native land never to return alive. He made his home in Peru, where he lived surrounded by some of his closest friends. After his abdication petty tyrants arose and representative government was long delayed. The Spanish-American people required further training before they were capable of self-government. O'Higgins, San Martin, and Simon Bolivar all learned this fact after years of bitter anguish.

The life of Bernardo O'Higgins in exile was different from that of Simon Bolivar or San Martin. He retired to an estate in Peru, having as his chief companion his sister, who had been his counselor and advisor throughout his whole career. Here the leading men of South America visited him and sought his advice. His own countrymen came to him frequently and he advised them fully. In 1839 his native country invited him to return, but he delayed, believing that if he went back then his people would reelect him president despite the fact that he desired to remain a private citizen. However, in 1841, he had made all arrangements to return, when he was taken ill. He lingered for many weeks, dying on October 24, 1842. All Chile went in mourning for him. Later his remains were brought home and a magnificent monument was erected in his honor.

Few countries can point to a nobler leader. The people of Chile today honor his name and speak of him as their greatest ruler. "First in peace, first in war, first soldier, and first patriot of Chile."