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Chile in the 19th century


Chilean independence
Chilean independence

Chile took the first steps toward independence in 1810, after Chilean colonists learned that the king of Spain had been deposed by Napoleon I of France. On September 18 of that year, the Santiago town council deposed the colonial governor of Chile, delegating his powers to a council of seven. This act marked the formal establishment of Chilean independence from Spain, and September 18 is now celebrated as Chile’s Independence Day. Within four years, however, the Spanish viceroy of Peru regained control of Chile, but by that time the taste for independence was strong.

The most important leader who emerged during Chile’s struggle for independence was Bernardo O’Higgins. As a young man O’Higgins had spent several years in Europe, where he came under the influence of various revolutionaries. When he returned to Chile, O’Higgins involved himself in the patriot cause. By 1816 he was commander of exiled Chileans who had joined the Army of the Andes, which was preparing for the liberation of Chile and the southern part of South America. Early in 1817 an epic crossing of the Andes brought the liberating forces into Chile. See also Latin American Independence. In February 1817 the rebel army decisively defeated a Spanish royalist army at Chacabuco, ending Spanish control of northern Chile.

O’Higgins was declared supreme director, and on February 12, 1818, he proclaimed the absolute independence of Chile. Nevertheless, royalist forces were not completely expelled from the country until 1826.

Thus Chile became free from Spain, but its colonial social structure remained intact. At one end of the social scale was an aristocracy with little political experience, composed of conservative landowners and urban merchants, united by blood ties and family interests. At the other end was an uneducated and submissive mass, ill-prepared to practice the rights and duties of a free people.

O’Higgins ruled the country until 1823. The five years of his rule were typical of the experience of liberators in other parts of Latin America. Great popularity and high hopes soon gave way to bickering and slander as the ruling class disagreed over what should be done and as personal ambitions emerged. O’Higgins made enlightened efforts to create schools and import teachers from England, to suppress banditry and promote foreign trade, to construct roads and water supply systems, and to encourage libraries and newspapers.

Yet radicals were dissatisfied in some respects, and conservatives opposed O’Higgins’s abolition of titles of nobility and his efforts to terminate entailed estates—estates whose ownership was restricted to descendants of current owners. The clergy was offended by his efforts to control the church and introduce toleration. O’Higgins found no way to share his power or to delegate his authority. He resorted to strong methods to maintain his power, but by 1823 his opponents forced him to resign. The disillusioned liberator moved to Peru, where he lived until his death in 1842. "Chile" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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