Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2014
By Charlene Richardson
Occasionally, referred to himself as Bernardo O'Higgins de Riquelme, he was the illegitimate son of
Ambrosio O'Higgins, an Irishman in the Spanish colonial service. Records from his baptism
indicated that Bernardo was born August 20, 1778, during the time Ambrosio was Intendant
of Concepción, and subsequently Governor of Chile and Viceroy of Peru (Stephen Clissold,
p.34). Ambrosio secretly arranged for Bernardo to be taken from his Chilean mother Isabel
Riquelme, who belonged to a socially comfortable Creole family, and had him placed in the
care of his trusted friend Juan Albano Pereira. Ambrosio wanted his son to receive a
formal education and in 1798 arranged for him to study abroad in England. The British
ideas impressed upon Bernardo would later inspire and contribute to his rise to
dictatorship of Chile because they were liberal whereas the Spanish-breed ideologies were conservatives. When
the conservtives overthrew him, he went Bernardo into exile.
First, was the tutelage of Francisco Miranda. While in England, Miranda converted Bernardo to the cause of independence and instilled in him the liberal principles and the love of liberty, which burned fiercely in the hearts of European youth. After his father's death, he returned to Chile in 1802 to take claim to his inheritance---the hacienda Canteras (a large estate with 3000 heads of cattle).
Bernardo presumed to live the life of a rich landowner, a leader of southern society. He petitioned for legitimacy as Bernardo O'Higgins, but was denied the paternal name and the prestigious title of the second Baron Ballinary and Marques de Osorna (Clissold, p.81). Later Bernardo adopted the surname himself and in 1810 he joined the party of Martínez de Rozas in Concepción. In 1811 he became Los Angles deputy to the national congress in Santiago.
Still vested with the views of independence, O'Higgins entered revolutionary politics expressing the viewpoint of a hard core of revolutionaries in Santiago and Concepción. Chile could not tolerate the traditional rule of Peru, which was Spain's power base in South America. Chile without formal declaration of independence eased its way out of the Spanish empire, engaged in political discussion, experimented with representative government, and acquired the habits of independence (John Lynch, p.133).
Rozas, once the legal advisor for Ambrosio, inaugurated a series of liberal reforms including the decree of 1811, which opened Chile's ports to international trade. The progress of revolution did not appeal to all sectors of Chile's ruling class. A national assembly, held July 4, 1811, identified a dominant conservative wing of the landed aristocracy. Seeing that Rozas faction and radicals were outnumbered, political change came to a halt. A second executive junta was formed more to the liking of Rozas faction. Rozas and the radicals withdrew to Concepción where they set up a provincial junta and sought to preserve the revolution. However, the procedure was unnecessary because the former congress was purged and then dissolved by a Jose Miguel Carrera, a veteran of the peninsular war. Carrera was the answer to the revolution's need of a military caudillo. Carrera was backed by a powerful landed and military family. He was also able to control the patriot army and to give the revolution the military organization that it needed. Under his direction the revolution gained a new political momentum---and with the aide of persuasive media new recruits for the army were obtained. However, Viceroy Abascal was convinced that the Chilean patriots did not command mass support. As predicted Abascal's forces crushed the insurgents and forced them to submit to Spanish rule. However, military stalemate induced further opposition to Carrera, who proved incapable of defeating the royalists.
The opposition offered O'Higgins the leadership. With some reluctance he was convinced that the movement of 1810 was a revolution and that it must be maintained. O'Higgins accepted the appointment as commander-in-chief. Abascal repudiated the armistice and dispatched a third wave of reinforcements under General Mariano Osorio; these consisted of veteran troops fresh from the peninsular war.
O'Higgins and Carrera were unsuccessful in regrouping their forces and were defeated at the battle of Rancagua. O'Higgins and Carrera fled across the Andes to Mendoza. Yet, the idea of independence was not lost. Frankly, the military campaigns of 1813-1814 had actually served the cause of independence. In 1815 Osorio was succeeded as governor by Francisco Casimiro Marco del Pont, who immediately imposed a reign of terror on Chile. "Creoles were hauled before special courts to prove their loyalty. Revolutionary leaders were imprisoned, . . . property was confiscated, houses were destroyed, and forced loans exacted." (Lynch, p.136). The degrading experience alienated the vast majority of Chileans from Spanish rule and brought the desire for independence to a peak (Lynch, p.137).
Across the Andes a great liberating army was being formed. A second surge of emancipation had been set in motion. Jose de San Martín was appointed commander and began to reorganize the battered army of the north. He left to create the army of the Andes. His strategy was based on the thesis that the South American revolution could not be secure until the heart of Spanish power in Peru had been destroyed. His plans to invade Peru coincided with the interests of the Chilean revolution and appealed to O'Higgins. San Martín established a security screen to prevent the infiltration of royalist spies. During his return trip to Buenos Aires, Director Juan-Martín de Pueyrredon met with San Martín; there he learned the plan in detail, agreed on the trans-Andean expedition, and pledged infinite assistance. San Martín, however, could not complete the preparations. Having secured the political from behind him, he planned ahead for the government of Chile to be run by O'Higgins partly because he was a national leader and that O'Higgins wished to remain mobile for the invasion of Peru. After San Martín defeated the royalist army on the plains of Maipo and war on the southern frontier finally caused the royalist to retreat. The Chileans were now sovereign of their own land and O'Higgins was supreme director.
O'Higgins sought absolute power to repel anarchy and to implement radical reform against those who did not desire freedom and seek the accord of happiness. He was concerned about moral and material improvement, education, cultural progress, and economic development. According to Lynch, O'Higgins believed that state intervention was necessary to change social and economic conditions (p.142). O'Higgins considered the raising of cultural standards as the key to economic improvement. He, therefore, sought to extend and enhance education (for the elite and underprivileged) in order to produce professional and scientific experts and a skilled working class. Following in his father's footsteps, Bernardo continued the work program by permitting the prisoners to improve the scenery of the capital. Meanwhile he added financial stress to the state when he sponsored San Martín's liberating expedition to Peru. The Maipo canal was erected under O'Higgins' administration. However, his methods of raising revenue were advert because he imposed restrictions on exports and increased taxes. Still, deeply rooted with British sentiments, Bernardo struggled with the adroit to develop a strong central government.
Because O'Higgins lacked the confidence within himself to execute administrative orders, he too easily surrendered the administration to others whose principles were unlike his. Without an administration catered to his interests and objectives, Bernardo was vulnerable to attacks. While acknowledging the Catholic Church as the official religion, he also accepted religious toleration including the foreign Protestants. As an adversary of privilege, O'Higgins had assumed it was his duty to be Spanish patronato (royal authority in ecclesiastical affairs). This angered the church. Nonetheless, Bernardo continued to cause more resentment towards his administration by abolishing the mayorazgo in order to eliminate aristocracy and his ill-fate appointment of Jose Antonio Rodriguez Aldea as minister of finance then later as administer of war. Aldea was a former member of Osorio's loyal audiencia, and he lacked real administrative ability (he was ignorant of social and economic affairs and totally devoid of principles) (Clissold, p.196-197). Jose Antonio Rodriguez Aldea only brought corruption and chaos into the government and O'Higgins relations with the senate deteriorated. Thomas Cochrane, Tenth Earl of Dundonald, advised O'Higgins to detach himself from Rodriguez, but it was too late. After the revolt, the populace asked Bernardo O'Higgins to resign.
Clissold, Stephen. Bernardo O'Higgins and the Independence of Chile. London:
Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions, 1808-1826. New York: Norton, 1973.