South America: Chapter XXVI

(by William Henry Koebel)

The Republic of Chile


It has already been said how, at the conclusion of the War of Liberation in Chile, Bernardo O'Higgins found himself at the head of the State.

The first President was in every respect admirably fitted for his office.
The post, moreover, was nothing beyond his deserts, since he, more than the majority of the other patriots, had suffered for the cause.


The youth of Bernardo O'Higgins was far more chequered than that which falls to the lot of most young men.

Owing to the peculiar circumstances of his birth - his father, as a high official under the Spanish rule, had not dared perform the marriage ceremony with his colonial lady-love, Bernardo's mother - his childhood had been somewhat neglected, and his early youth largely deprived of a normal share of paternal affection.

His father, nevertheless, had seen to it that the boy's education should be of a liberal order.

Bernardo O'Higgins had been one of the South Americans who, during the last days of the Spanish dominion, had been sent to study in Europe.
There he came into contact with Miranda, who appears to have been almost ubiquitous at this period, and whose terrific energies seem to have absorbed all those with whom he came into contact.

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In any case, it is certain that Bernardo O'Higgins rapidly became a devoted adherent of Miranda, and joined with enthusiasm the society that Miranda had formed for the liberation of South America; indeed, he was admitted into this before Simon Bolivar had joined it.


On his way back to South America he endured various rebuffs at the hands of the Court of Spain.
Possibly he was made to suffer vicariously on his father's account, since undoubtedly there were times when the latter's policy was strongly resented by the Spanish officials.

It is, on the other hand, quite possible that some suspicions of Bernardo O'Higgins's notions of independence had filtered through to Madrid.
It was owing to complications of this kind that coolness ensued between him and his father, the famous Ambrose O'Higgins.

On the latter's death Bernardo applied for his rights of succession to his father's titles. These were abruptly refused him.
Thus, when he entered into public life in Chile it was in a comparatively humble capacity, serving as he did as Alcalde of Chillan.
From this it will be seen that Bernardo O'Higgins had not only achieved much, but had suffered much in his own person.


During the War of Liberation the capacities of Bernardo O'Higgins were almost ceaselessly tried, and it must be said that they were never found wanting. The triumph of the patriot cause and the foundation of the new Republic of Chile entailed for him no period of repose.
On the contrary, he now felt himself loaded with an infinitely greater weight of cares and responsibilities.

His post as President of Chile was no sinecure.
He had not only to attend to the organization of the new State, but also to employ to the utmost his judgment, tact, and diplomacy, with which qualities he was so well endowed, in allaying the disputes and jealousies between the patriot leaders.

There is no doubt, for instance, that but for the calming influence of O'Higgins the breach between San Martin and Cochrane would have been attended with more violent results than was the case.


It was the work of a veteran in statecraft to deal alone with the machinations of the brothers Carrera, those irresponsible firebrands who, although ostensibly enthusiastic in the Chilian cause, were in reality fighting for nothing beyond their own hand, and hastened to sacrifice any cause or person to their own interests.

There were times, moreover, when it was necessary to suppress actual attempts at revolution, while, as though this were not sufficient, external difficulties tended to render the situation still more complicated.

Diplomatic incidents occurred with Great Britain and the United States.
These arose owing to the seizure of British and American ships by the fleet of the new Republic.


These captures, as a matter of fact, were perfectly justified, since the vessels in question were laden with stores and war material destined for the Spanish forces.

Nevertheless, the authorities of Great Britain and the United States, although their sympathies from the very beginning of the struggle had lain so openly with the revolutionists, found it difficult to reconcile themselves to the capture of their vessels by a Power concerning the permanence of which they were not completely satisfied.

No sooner were these matters settled than there broke out serious manifestations of discontent on the part of the citizens of the young State.


The cause which actually brought matters to a head, and which was responsible for the revolution which drove O'Higgins from power, was of a reactionary nature.
With a considerable section of the Chilians neither O'Higgins nor the Republic was popular.

Both, in fact, at this period were considered an evil second only to the detested Spanish rule.
The majority of the ladies of the aristocratic classes worked strenuously against O'Higgins, and in the end revolutions burst out in Concepcion and in Coquimbo, and eventually rioting occurred in Santiago itself.


O'Higgins met the situation with a characteristic calm and intrepidity. Visiting the barracks, his presence had the almost immediate effect of restoring to him the allegiance of the military.

After which, invited to attend a meeting of the dissatisfied party, he hastened to the spot.
Here a spokesman of the malcontents demanded in plain words that he should tender his resignation.

O'Higgins, in his reply, first of all made it perfectly clear that he was in no mood to be terrorized by force or superior numbers.
This latter advantage, indeed, he asserted that the gathering, however great its influence, could not claim as regards the sections it represented.

After discussion, however, seeing that his own motives were purely disinterested, he consented to yield to the wishes of the meeting.


A Junta of three of the organizers of this latter was appointed, and O'Higgins initiated these into their new office, receiving from them their oath of allegiance to the constitutions of the new Republic.

He then tore off his own insignia and declared himself a private citizen.
The scene which followed has been admirably translated by Mr. Scott-Elliot, and his words may well be reproduced here. O'Higgins had turned to face the meeting, and addressed it in the following words:

"'Now I am a simple citizen. During my government, that I have exercised with full authority, I may have committed mistakes, but believe me when I say that they were due to the very difficult circumstances when I took up my charge, and not to evil passions.

I am ready to answer any accusations which are made against me.
If these faults have caused evils which can only be purged by my blood, take what revenge you will upon me. Here is my breast.'

The people cried out: 'We have nothing against you, Viva O'Higgins!' 'I know well,' he added, 'that you cannot justly accuse me of intentional faults.
Nevertheless, this testimony alleviates the weight of those which I may have unknowingly committed.'

Turning to the Junta, he added: 'My presence has ceased to be necessary here.' It was in this noble and dignified manner that the great hero of Chilian independence retired into private life.

It was, perhaps, the most glorious action of his career. He could certainly have plunged Chile in a civil war, and perhaps retained the power."


After this Chile underwent a period of that unrest from which no single one of the independent States of South America succeeded in escaping.
In Chile, nevertheless, although civil war occurred, and much blood was spilled, the anarchy and chaos were of far shorter duration than elsewhere.

Doubtless the barrier of the Andes, which had shut off the country to such a large extent from the rest of the world, had added not a little to the tranquillity and self-reliance of the Chilian character, determined as this has always shown itself.

In any case, such revolutions as occurred failed to exercise the same baneful influence on Chilian affairs as was the case with almost every other State at that period.
The condition of the Republic, although far from tranquil, might be considered as peaceful when compared with that of its neighbours.


In financial matters, moreover, the Republic made astonishing progress, paying the interest on the loans raised abroad with a praiseworthy regularity, and thus maintaining her financial credit unimpaired.

The short war which occurred between Spain and the allied forces of Peru and Chile has already been referred to.
Officially, the four Republics of Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia were leagued together into an alliance to resist this aggression on the part of Spain.

Owing to their lack of warships, however, the two latter States were unable to take any active share in the operations.
On the whole the part played by the Chilian navy was entirely satisfactory; nevertheless, the naval force of the young Republic was not sufficient to drive the aggressor's vessels from the coast, and Valparaiso was bombarded on March 31, 1866.


This misfortune, like so many others, eventually proved itself something of a blessing in disguise, for from that time may be said to date the modern Chilian navy.

Determined to allow no foreign nation the opportunity of bombarding any of its ports with impunity again, the Chilians energetically betook themselves to the forming of efficient national squadrons - a feat which was simple enough in the case of a nation of born sailors as are the Chilians.


Bernardo O'Higgins. The first President of the Republic of Chile.
Bernardo O'Higgins. The first President of the Republic of Chile.

From that day onwards the Chilian navy maintained its status, and continues to rank as one of the most efficient in the world.
This was proved shortly after its reorganization in the war which broke out in 1879 between the Chilians and the allied Peruvians and Bolivians.

Hostilities were brought about by the vexed question of the ownership of the valuable nitrate provinces.
These, Chile claimed, constituted the northernmost of her territory, to which Peru retorted that they formed the southernmost portion of her land.


The naval engagements which ensued demonstrated to the utmost the high spirit of the Chilian sailor and the efficiency of the school in which he had been trained.

The action in which the two small Chilian vessels, the Esmeralda and the Covadonga, fought so heroically against the Peruvian ironclads, Huascar and Independencia, was, of course, the most famous of the war, and the memory of this is jealously guarded by the Chilian navy of to-day.

No question of victory on the part of Chile was ever involved in this particular action, since the miniature guns of the small Chilian vessels could, under no circumstances, take effect on the Peruvians, giants by comparison.

It was merely a sublime demonstration of the extent to which Chilian resistance could be carried.


Thus the Esmeralda, refusing to surrender to the very last, went down after a prolonged and desperate engagement with her colours flying; while the tiny Covadonga, having lured one of her opponents into shallow water, and thus caused the Independencia to run aground, blazed away her final volleys of small shot, and retired with all the honours of war.

Inspired by examples such as these, the Chilian navy maintained its traditions to the full, and although the Peruvian sailors fought gallantly enough, they could make no headway against their opponents.

On shore the fortune of war was similar, and the highly disciplined Chilian army, advancing to the north, occupied Antofagásta, Cobija, and Tocopilla.
But the tide of battle was not arrested at this point.

It flowed to the north again, and the deserts in that neighbourhood witnessed a number of engagements, in all of which the Peruvians and Bolivians were worsted and forced to continue their retreat.


The important town of Arica was captured on June 7 after a peculiarly sanguinary engagement.
Port Pisco was the next to fall, and now Lima itself, the capital of Peru, was threatened.
So resolute was the Chilian advance that no efforts of the defenders could succeed in preserving the city, and on January 7, 1881, Lima fell into the hands of the Chilians.

After this the war was continued in a desultory and discouraged fashion by the allies until at the end of 1883 peace was signed, and, as has been explained in a previous chapter, Bolivia lost her coast-line, while the Chilians took over the definite ownership of the provinces of Antofagásta and Tarapacá.

This latter country gained, moreover, the right of dominion over the neighbouring provinces of Tacna and Arica for ten years, after which period the inhabitants of these two provinces were to decide by vote whether they should remain Chilian subjects or become Peruvians.

This portion of the treaty has formed the basis of a series of disputes between Chile and Peru, but the provinces in question have continued Chilian.


In 1891 the internal peace of Chile was shattered for a while, since in that year occurred the only civil war in the modern history of the Republic.

The struggle succeeded an era of some political confusion, and Balmaceda, who was President of the Republic at the time, went the length of proclaiming himself Dictator, a step which his opponents - and, indeed, the nation in general - refused to sanction.

Balmaceda's party, however, was powerful, and the war which succeeded was hotly contested.
After various fluctuations, Balmaceda's followers met with defeat, and the President, yielding to the inevitable, blew out his brains.


Following this last period of unrest, which the Chilians rightly maintain was both fleeting and exceptional, we come upon the quite modern history of the Republic, which shows that the Chilians, although admirably equipped for war, are now as anxious as any other country for peace and progress.

This they have proved on more than one occasion, notably when the question of frontier delimitations brought about a dispute with Argentina, a dispute which both nations consented to refer to arbitration, and, an award having been given, both nations maintained it with equal loyalty.



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