South America: Chapter XII

(by William Henry Koebel)

The Colony of Chile


In Chile, as has been said, the conquest of the land was effected under far more strenuous circumstances than those which applied to any other part of South America, with the exception, perhaps, of the coasts in the neighbourhood of the estuary of the River Plate.

In the early days of Chile it is literally true that the colonists were obliged to go about their labours with a handful of seed in one hand and a weapon of defence in the other.

It was owing to this constant warlike preoccupation that the early cities of Chile were of so comparatively mean an order, for, harassed by continuous Indian attacks as they were, the settlers could find no leisure to devote their energies to anything of a pretentious or even reasonably commodious order in the way of town-building.


In the north of the Continent the enervating climate, facile conquest, and easy life had naturally tended to atrophy the energy of the Spaniards.

In Chile, on the other hand, the constant and fierce struggles of the warlike natives, the hardships and frugal living, and the temperate and exhilarating atmosphere, tended not only to preserve the energy, but even to increase the virility of the settler in the south.

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It is true that in the central provinces of the country, where the Indians were less numerous and less warlike than the Araucanians of the south, a certain number of the natives were distributed into encomiendas, and set to work at enforced tasks, but the number of these, compared with those which existed in the centre and north of the Continent, remained utterly insignificant.


As to the Araucanians themselves, their indomitable nature absolutely forbade an existence under such conditions.

It was not only with the aborigines of their new country that the Spanish settlers in Chile had to contend.
Nature had in store for them a species of catastrophe which was admirably adapted to test their fortitude to an even greater degree.

Thus in 1570 the newly-founded city of Concepcion was brought to the ground by an earthquake, and some eighty years later the larger centre of Santiago became a heap of smoking ruins from the same cause.

Indeed, throughout the history of both the colonial and independent eras Chile has been from time to time visited by such terrible calamities as these.
In every instance, however, the disaster has left the inhabitants undismayed, and new and larger towns have risen upon the sites of the old.


Chile, probably owing to the comparatively limited area of its soil, was never raised to the rank of a Viceroyalty; nevertheless the Governorship of the province was, of course, one of the most important on the Continent.

After the death of Valdivia on the field of battle, Francisco Villagran was elected as chief of the new colony.
At the period when he assumed command there had come about one of the most severe of the many crises through which the young colony was destined to pass.

The Araucanians, emboldened by their victories, now pressed on to the attack from all sides with an impetuosity and confidence which proved irresistible.
The south was for the time being abandoned, and the Spanish women and children were hurriedly sent by sea to Valparaiso, while the harassed army retired towards the north.


Presently Lautaro, the famous Araucanian chief, at the head of his undefeated army, marched in the track of the retreating Spaniards, and threatened Santiago itself.
But for an access of over-confidence on the part of the natives, it is likely enough that the Spanish power would have been completely swept from Chile.

Villagran, returning to the capital with reinforcements, found the investing Araucanian army in a totally unprepared condition.
Some were carousing, many slept, and in any case the majority were drunk, a state to which, as a matter of fact, these southern Indians were only too prone at all times.

Villagran, perceiving his opportunity, fell upon the demoralized native army, and defeated them utterly with great slaughter.
Lautaro himself, the flower of the Araucanian warriors, perished in the ensuing struggle.


Villagran had thoroughly deserved this success, which had crowned one of the most exhausting periods of the terrific struggle.
He possessed, in the first place, many fine qualities as a leader, and was one of the toughest, bravest, and most honest of the conquistadores.

Unfortunately for himself, these qualities did not appear to suffice in the eyes of the highest Spanish official in South America.
Shortly after his victory Villagran was superseded by Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza, son of the Viceroy of Peru.

Mendoza possessed many good points; at the same time, he had to a full degree many of the faults which characterized so great a number of the Spanish noblemen of the period.
Thus, he was unduly arrogant and autocratic towards his comrades of inferior rank, flinging Villagran into prison on his first arrival in the country as the result of little beyond a whim.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that Mendoza spared no endeavours to conciliate and treat with kindness the Araucanian Indians.


Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza had some reason for his arrogance.
At twenty years of age, when sent by his father to Chile at the head of his force, he had already distinguished himself by his bravery, and, according to one biographer, had already fought in Corsica, Tuscany, Flanders, and in France.

Even in that age there were not many who could boast of having effected all this when still in their teens. It was little wonder that he was high-spirited, wilful, and impetuous.
Ercilla represents him as very ardent in battle, sometimes fighting himself, sometimes urging on his soldiers, always in movement.

At the time of the Araucanian invasion he addressed his troops in the most humane terms.
One of his sayings was to the effect that - "An enemy who surrenders is a friend whom we ought to protect; it is a greater thing to give life than to destroy it."

Sentiments of this kind were doubly commendable when, judging from their rarity, they could scarcely have been popular.


Notwithstanding his good intentions towards the Araucanians, Mendoza soon found himself involved in a struggle to the death with the now hereditary foes of his race, for the southern Indians - maintaining their reputation - proved themselves implacable, and would hear nothing of compromise.

After many fierce battles, in the course of which fortune ebbed either way, Mendoza succeeded in capturing Caupolicán, who was tortured to death, an episode which caused a short lull in the fevered activities of the Spanish forces


In 1560 Mendoza was abruptly ordered by King Philip II. of Spain to surrender his post as Governor to Francisco Villagran.
That fine old conquistador was now worn out in body and a wreck of his former self.

The furious combats with the Araucanians broke out afresh, and continued unabated.
A series of disasters shattered the spirit of Villagran, and sent him to his grave.

Following this came the usual succession of Governors, and the unbroken continuance of the Indian wars, victory and disaster alternately succeeding each other to an extent which would prove monotonous if an attempt at description were made.


Acapulco, on the Pacific coast. One of the chief points of sailing of the great East Indian trading galleons of Spain.
Acapulco, on the Pacific coast. From a seventeenth-century engraving.

There is only one instance, I believe, of a white man having gained the complete confidence of the Araucanians, and this did not occur until a century after the two races had first come into contact with each other.


It is said that in 1642 - thirty-nine years after the town of Valdivia had been captured from the Spaniards and destroyed - Colonel Alonzo de Villanueva, who had been sent to the south with the object of regaining possession of the city, effected this without bloodshed by the employment of an extraordinary amount of tact and patience.

He landed at a point a little to the south of Valdivia, and boldly made his appearance quite alone among the astonished warriors.

He remained with them for two years, when, having won their respect and confidence, he proposed that they should appoint him their Governor at Valdivia, explaining that by this move they would effect a reconciliation with the Spaniards, and, in consequence, obtain many material benefits.


The Araucanians readily fell in with the idea, and in 1645 Valdivia was rebuilt, and was again populated.
Undoubtedly in the middle of the seventeenth century time was of very little value in Chile, and in any case it would seem that to effect so brilliant a result at so little cost was worth the two years' wait!


In 1577 Sir Francis Drake made his appearance in the Pacific, and was the pioneer of the adventurers who were to follow in the wake of his keel.

Thus new anxieties were added to the minds of the Chilean officials, although it must be said that the colonists, when they once became accustomed to the visits of these foreigners, gave them an increasingly friendly reception, notwithstanding the hostility evinced towards them by the Spaniards.

It was not long before this new and grim type of visitor increased in numbers and grew cosmopolitan.


The Dutch, always on the look out for a weapon with which to flog their enemies the Spaniards, had managed to glean intelligence of the successful warfare which the Araucanians in Southern Chile were waging against the Spanish troops.

When the news of the separation of Portugal from Spain reached Holland, the position of that country's forces in Brazil became automatically somewhat unsettled - at all events in theory, and finally in practice.

It was then that the idea occurred to them to establish settlements in equally fertile and less tropical climates.


A squadron was fitted out by the Dutch navigator, Brouwer, and in 1642 it sailed into the Pacific Ocean, and the troops effected a landing on the Island of Chiloe.
Here they succeeded in inflicting a defeat upon the Spanish forces.

It was now the policy of the invader to establish friendly relations with the Araucanians.
Before long they persuaded a number of the chiefs to enter into an alliance with them; this brought about, they prepared to establish themselves permanently in the south of Chile.

First of all they erected a fort at Valdivia without encountering any opposition on the part of the natives.
After this they began to trade; but they permitted their lust of gain to outweigh their discretion.


So eager did they show themselves to obtain gold in exchange for weapons and other objects coveted by the dusky races, that the Araucanians became suspicious, and in the end awoke to the fact that the presence of the Dutch in their country was due to precisely the same causes as had attracted the Spanish.

Disillusioned, they withdrew their hastily extended friendship, and retired to their own haunts, lending a passive rather than an active resistance to those strangers with whom they still remained on outward terms of friendship.

The relations, however, became more strained when, on the rare occasions when the two races came into contact, the Indians refused to supply the Dutch with provisions.

This policy of the Araucanians won them their object, for in the end the Dutch, unable to subsist without the supplies for which they depended on the Indians, were forced to relinquish their settlements and to abandon the country.


An English expedition, with more peaceful intent, under the command of Sir John Narborough, set sail from England towards the end of 1669, and arrived in Valdivia in 1670.

On this occasion the hands of the Commander were strictly tied, since he had received implicit injunctions not to fall foul of the Spaniards; thus, when he endeavoured to trade with the Indians, the Spaniards took prisoner his lieutenant and three of his men, whom they detained.

Sir John, it is said, contemplated rescuing his men by force, but the fate of the unfortunate Sir Walter Raleigh, according to some ancient historians, stayed his hand, and he reluctantly sailed from the coast, leaving these four members of his crew prisoners of the Spaniards.


Rolt, who published a "History of South America" in 1766, has a rather curious account of the methods by which the inhabitants of the town of Concepcion in Chile carried on their business with the Indians...


"There is a beneficial trade carried on by the inhabitants of the city of Conception, with the Indians behind them, who trade with the Spaniards in a very peculiar manner, though they have never negociated a peace with Spain.

These Indians are called Aucaes, and inhabit the mountains, where they retain the primitive customs and manners of their ancestors.
When a Spaniard comes to trade with them, he addresses himself to the Cacique, or Chief, who, on perceiving a stranger, cries out, What, are you come?

The Spaniard answers, Yes, I am come.
Then the Cacique says, Well? What have you brought me?

The merchant answers, A present.
And the prince replies, Then you are welcome.

He then provides a lodging for the merchant near his own, where all the family go to visit the stranger, in expectation of some present; and, in the meantime, a horn is sounded to give notice to the Indians who are abroad that a merchant has arrived.

This soon assembles them together about the merchant, who exhibits his treasure, consisting of knives, scissors, pins, needles, ribbands, small looking-glasses, and other toys, which the Indians carry away, after settling the price, without getting anything in exchange; but, after a certain time has elapsed, the horn is sounded again, by the direction of the Cacique; when the Indians immediately return, and punctually perform their respective engagements, the goods they deal in being cattle, skins of wild beasts, and some gold; but they bring very small quantities of the latter, as they are sensible how dear the possession of that metal cost their ancestors and their neighbours."


In the various treaties which were engineered from time to time between the Spaniards and the Araucanians, one of the most important clauses which the Spaniards invariably endeavoured to insert was to the effect that the Indians were to oppose to the utmost of their power by force of arms the founding of any foreign colony in the territories occupied by them.

Thus the attitude of the Araucanians towards foreigners was apt to depend to some extent on whether they happened to be at peace or at war with their Spanish neighbours.
It was owing to this, moreover, that the European adventurers found themselves attacked when they had very little reason to fear an onslaught.


One of these instances occurred in 1638, when the natives murdered the survivors of a shipwrecked Dutch crew.

There were times, on the other hand, when the enmity between the Indians and the Spaniards induced the former to render every assistance to the rovers who came, whether by accident or design, to their coasts.

It is certain that the accounts of these foreigners retailed by the Spaniards to the natives were not of a nature to render the intruders popular in the eyes of the dusky southern dwellers.


During the chief part of the colonial era the town of Valdivia, in Southern Chile, was employed as a sort of convict station for the white criminals of Peru and Chile, and incidentally for a number of persons whose sole crimes were of a political order.

These prisoners were employed in the erection of the fortifications of the spot, and the ruins which still exist attest the solidarity and the extent of the buildings.
A large annual sum was wont to be allotted for the maintenance of these fortifications, and for other objects connected with the sustenance of both the prisoners and the garrison.

It seems to have been necessary to expend only a very small proportion of this sum on the objects for which the allowance was originally intended, and from its enormous financial opportunities the post of Governor of Valdivia was one of the most sought after of any on the west coast of South America.


The later colonial era of Chile, like that of Peru, is very little concerned with dramatic episode, with the exception, of course, of the raids on the part of foreigners which took place from time to time along the coast.

Yet it is curious to remark that in Chile, at the same time as these buccaneers were burning, plundering, and fighting, other vessels, more especially those of the French, were carrying on a trade in peace with the various ports of the state.

This commerce, moreover, continued growing steadily, and the influence of the foreigners upon the Chileans in time became marked, and was largely responsible for the broad-minded views which prevailed among the colonials.



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