Bernardo O’Higgins

A military leader who led Chilean forces against the Spanish, Bernardo O’Higgins won independence from Spain and became the supreme dictator of Chile from 1817 until 1823.

Bernardo O’Higgins was born on August 20, 1778, in Chillán, Chile, the son of Ambrosio (Ambrose) O’Higgins and Isabel Riquelme. Ambrose was originally from County Sligo, Ireland, and moved to Spain to join the Spanish army, later settling in Paraguay, where his brother William (or Guillermo) O’Higgins had bought some land. Ambrose then became marquis of Osorno, governor of Chile.

As a Spanish official, he was not allowed to marry locally and as a result started living with a well-connected lady from Chillán. Some time after Bernardo was born, his father moved to Peru, where he was appointed viceroy, and the boy stayed with his mother, using her surname until his father’s death.

To complete his education, Bernardo O’Higgins was sent to school in Lima, Peru, and at 16 went to Spain. The following year he went to England, living in Richmond-upon-Thames, just outside London. In England, O’Higgins became interested in nationalist politics.

There he met the Venezuelan independence activist Francisco de Miranda, who was agitating against Spanish rule, and became hugely influenced by liberal ideas. He joined a secret Masonic lodge that Miranda had established in London—the members dedicated their lives to the independence of Latin America.

With his father being viceroy of Peru, O’Higgins could get introductions to important people easily, and for Miranda he was a very important recruit for the cause. O’Higgins left England in 1799 and went to Spain where he met some Spanish who were also against Spanish rule.

In 1801 Ambrosio died, and Bernardo O’Higgins was left a large estate near Chillán. He retired there and took up the life of a gentleman farmer. He bought a house in Chillán and in 1806 was elected to the local town council.

However, there were sudden huge changes to sweep through Latin America. In 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain and appointed his brother Joseph as king. This left the Spanish colonies without a central authority, and the administration in each city formed juntas—military leaders—who they could constitutionally appoint in times of emergency.

Chile started to make its first moves toward independence, and on September 18, 1810, a junta announced that it had replaced the Spanish-appointed governor-general. In 1811 Chile’s first Congress met with O’Higgins as a member. Two years later Chile had a constitution and seemed to be on the road to independence.

However, the Spanish decided to try to reestablish royal control over Chile. In 1814 the viceroy of Peru sent soldiers into Chile and within several months O’Higgins rose from being a colonel in the militia to general-in-chief of the defense forces.

He was then appointed governor of the province of Concepción. However, when the Chilean forces were defeated at the hands of the royalists, O’Higgins was replaced as commander. In October 1814 the Chileans were badly mauled at the Battle of Rancagua and the royalists occupied most of Chile.

Several thousand Chilean nationalists, or patriots, as they became known, including O’Higgins, were forced to flee across the Andes into western Argentina, where they drew up plans for a subsequent invasion of Chile. Over the next three years, the Chileans and Argentines were drilled and trained at Mendoza, and José de San Martín prepared them to cross the Andes.

With Argentina independent from July 9, 1816, the soldiers of San Martín and O’Higgins were reinvigorated, and on January 24, 1817, the two took the 3,000 infantry, 700 cavalry, and 21 cannons through the passes at Gran Cordillera. They were met on February 12–13 at the Battle of Chacabuco.

On the first day of the battle, O’Higgins led his men in an early morning move where they prevented the Spanish from withdrawing. San Martín then attacked and routed them. On February 15 O’Higgins took the Chilean patriots back into Santiago, and O’Higgins was elected as interim supreme dictator. Chile’s independence was proclaimed on February 12, 1818.

During his six years as supreme dictator, O’Higgins overhauled the administration. With Chile at peace, he set about establishing a navy with the flagship called O’Higgins and founding the Chilean Military Academy, as well as instituting the new Chilean flag.

He also mounted a major military expedition into Peru, where royalists were still threatening Chilean independence. However, although he was a good military commander, O’Higgins was not a good politician. An admirer of democracy, he wanted to abolish the titles of the nobles and introduce liberal reforms.

O’Higgins alienated the Roman Catholic Church and the aristocracy, followed by the business community. A constitutionalist, he had no political base, and once there was no threat of attack from the Royalists, it was not long before O’Higgins was eased from office.

His government was implicated in the assassination of four political figures, José Miguel Carrera, his two brothers in Argentina, and a friend Manuel Rodriguez. O’Higgins resigned under pressure on January 28, 1823, unable to fulfill his ambitions for independence for all of Latin America.

O’Higgins went into exile in Peru in 1823, spending half of his time at a farm he bought and the other half of his time in Lima. He never married but did have a son, Pedro Demetrio O’Higgins, who remained with him for all of his life. He died on October 23, 1842, in Peru. In his will he left money for the establishment of an agricultural college in Concepción, a lighthouse in Valparaíso, and the Santiago Observatory.

In 1869 his remains were brought back to Chile and put in a mausoleum facing the Palacio de la Moneda, the government palace. The main street in Chile’s capital, Santiago, is Avenida Bernardo O’Higgins, in which there is a large statue of him.