Biography of Bernardo O'Higgins

Liberator of Chile

Chile, San Pedro de Atacama, Licancabur volcano at sunset
ricardomartinez / Getty Images

Bernardo O'Higgins (August 20, 1778-October 24, 1842) was a Chilean landowner and one of the leaders of its struggle for Independence. Although he had no formal military training, O'Higgins took charge of the ragged rebel army and fought the Spanish from 1810 to 1818 when Chile finally achieved its Independence. Today, he is revered as the liberator of Chile and the father of the nation.

Early Life

Bernardo was the illegitimate child of Ambrosio O'Higgins, a Spanish officer born in Ireland who immigrated to the New World and rose in the ranks of the Spanish bureaucracy, eventually reaching the high post of Viceroy of Peru. His mother, Isabel Riquelme, was the daughter of a prominent local, and he was raised with her family. Bernardo only met his father once (and at that time he did not know who he was) and spent most of his early life with his mother and traveling. As a young man, he went to England, where he lived on a pittance that his father sent him. While there, Bernardo was tutored by legendary Venezuelan Revolutionary Francisco de Miranda.

Return to Chile

Ambrosio formally recognized his son in 1801 on his deathbed, and Bernardo suddenly found himself the owner of a prosperous estate in Chile. He returned to Chile and took possession of his inheritance, and for a few years lived quietly in obscurity. He was appointed to the governing body as the representative of his region. Bernardo might well have lived his life as a farmer and local politician if it were not for the great tide of Independence that was building in South America.

O'Higgins and Independence

O'Higgins was an important supporter of the September 18 movement in Chile which began the nations' struggle for Independence. When it became apparent that the actions of Chile would lead to war, he raised two cavalry regiments and an infantry militia, mostly recruited from families who worked his lands. As he had no training, he learned how to use weapons from veteran soldiers. Juan Martinez de Rozas was President, and O'Higgins supported him, but Rozas was accused of corruption and criticized for sending valuable troops and resources to Argentina to help the independence movement there. In July of 1811, Rozas stepped down, replaced by a moderate junta.

O'Higgins and Carrera

The junta was soon overthrown by José Miguel Carrera, a charismatic young Chilean aristocrat who had distinguished himself in the Spanish army in Europe before deciding to join the rebel cause. O'Higgins and Carrera would have a tempestuous, complicated relationship for the duration of the struggle. Carrera was more dashing, outspoken and charismatic, while O'Higgins was more circumspect, brave and pragmatic. During the early years of the struggle, O'Higgins was generally subordinate to Carrera and dutifully followed his orders as best he could. It would not last, however.

The Siege of Chillan

After a series of skirmishes and small battles against the Spanish and royalist forces from 1811-1813, O'Higgins, Carrera, and other patriot generals chased the royalist army into the city of Chillán. They laid siege to the city in July of 1813: right in the middle of the harsh Chilean winter. It was a disaster. The Patriots could not dislodge the royalists, and when they did manage to take part of the town, the rebel forces indulged in raping and looting which made the whole province sympathize with the royalist side. Many of Carrera's soldiers, suffering in the cold without food, deserted. Carrera was forced to lift the siege on August 10, admitting that he could not take the city. Meanwhile, O'Higgins had distinguished himself as a cavalry commander.

Appointed Commander

Not long after Chillán, Carrera, O'Higgins and their men were ambushed at a site called El Roble. Carrera fled the battlefield, but O'Higgins remained, despite a bullet wound in his leg. O'Higgins turned the tide of the battle and emerged a national hero. The ruling junta in Santiago had seen enough of Carrera after his fiasco at Chillán and his cowardice at El Roble and made O'Higgins commander of the army. O'Higgins, always modest, argued against the move, saying that a change of high command was a bad idea, but the junta had decided: O'Higgins would lead the army.

The Battle of Rancagua

O'Higgins and his generals battled Spanish and royalist forces throughout Chile for another year or so before the next decisive engagement. In September of 1814, Spanish General Mariano Osorio was moving a large force of royalists into position to take Santiago and end the rebellion. The rebels decided to make a stand outside the town of Rancagua, on the way to the capital. The Spanish crossed the river and drove off a rebel force under Luís Carrera (brother of José Miguel). Another Carrera brother, Juan José, was trapped in the city. O'Higgins bravely moved his men into the city to reinforce Juan José in spite of the approaching army, which far outnumbered the Patriots in the city.

Although O'Higgins and the rebels fought very bravely, the result was predictable. The massive royalist force eventually drove the rebels out of the city. The defeat could have been avoided had Luís Carrera's army returned, but it did not, under orders from José Miguel. The devastating loss at Rancagua meant that Santiago would have to be abandoned: there was no way to keep the Spanish army out of the Chilean capital.


O'Higgins and thousands of other Chilean Patriots made the weary trek into Argentina and exile. He was joined by the Carrera brothers, who immediately began jockeying for position in the exile camp. Argentina's independence leader, José de San Martín, nevertheless supported O'Higgins, and the Carrera brothers were arrested. San Martín began working with Chilean patriots to organize the liberation of Chile.

Meanwhile, the victorious Spanish in Chile had taken to punish the civilian population for their support of the rebellion: their harsh, cruel brutality did much to make the people of Chile long for independence. When O'Higgins returned, his people would be ready.

Return to Chile

San Martín believed that all of the lands to the south would be vulnerable as long as Peru remained a royalist stronghold. Therefore, he raised an army. His plan was to cross the Andes, liberate Chile, and then march on Peru. O'Higgins was his choice as the man to lead Chile's liberation. No other Chilean commanded the respect that O'Higgins did (with the possible exception of the Carrera brothers, who San Martín did not trust).

On January 12, 1817, a formidable patriot army of some 5,000 soldiers set out from Mendoza to cross the mighty Andes. Like Simón Bolívar's epic 1819 crossing of the Andes, this expedition was very harsh, and San Martín and O'Higgins lost some men in the crossing, although sound planning meant that most of them made it. A clever ruse had sent the Spanish scrambling to defend the wrong passes, and the army arrived in Chile unopposed.

The Army of the Andes, as it was called, defeated the royalists at the Battle of Chacabuco on February 12, 1817, clearing the path to Santiago. When San Martín defeated the Spanish last-gasp attack at the Battle of Maipu on April 5, 1818, Chile was finally free. By September of 1818 most Spanish and royalist forces had retreated to try and defend Peru, last of the Spanish stronghold on the continent.

End of the Carreras

San Martín turned his attention to Peru, leaving O'Higgins in charge of Chile as a virtual dictator. At first, he had no serious opposition: Juan José and Luis Carrera had been captured attempting to infiltrate the rebel army. They were executed in Mendoza. José Miguel, O'Higgins' greatest enemy, spent the years from 1817 to 1821 in southern Argentina with a small army, raiding towns in the name of gathering funds and weapons for liberation. He was finally executed after being captured, ending the long-standing, bitter O'Higgins-Carrera feud.

O'Higgins the Dictator

O'Higgins, left in power by San Martín, proved to be an authoritarian ruler. He hand-picked a Senate, and the 1822 Constitution allowed representatives to be elected to a toothless legislative body, but for all intents and purposes, he was a dictator. He believed that Chile needed a strong leader to implement change and control simmering royalist sentiment.

O'Higgins was a liberal who promoted education and equality and curtailed the privileges of the wealthy. He abolished all noble titles, even though there were few in Chile. He changed the tax code and did much to encourage commerce, including the completion of the Maipo Canal. Leading citizens who had repeatedly supported the royalist cause saw their lands taken away if they had left Chile, and they were heavily taxed if they remained. Even the Bishop of Santiago, the royalist-leaning Santiago Rodríguez Zorrilla, was exiled to Mendoza. O'Higgins further alienated the church by allowing Protestantism in the new nation and by reserving the right to meddle in church appointments.

He made many improvements to the military, establishing different branches of service, including a Navy to be led by the Scotsman Lord Thomas Cochrane. Under O'Higgins, Chile remained active in the liberation of South America, often sending reinforcements and supplies to San Martín and Simon Bolívar, then fighting in Peru.

Downfall and Exile

O'Higgins' support began to erode quickly. He had angered the elite by taking away their noble titles and, in some cases, their lands. He then alienated the commercial class by continuing to contribute to expensive wars in Peru. His finance minister, Jose Antonio Rodríguez Aldea, turned out to be corrupt, using the office for personal gain. By 1822, hostility to O'Higgins had reached a crucial point. The opposition to O'Higgins centered on General Ramón Freile, himself a hero of the Independence wars, if not one of O'Higgins' stature. O'Higgins attempted to placate his foes with a new constitution, but it was too little, too late.

Seeing that cities were prepared to rise against him in arms if need be, O'Higgins agreed to step down on January 28, 1823. He remembered only too well the costly feuding between himself and the Carreras and how a lack of unity had almost cost Chile its independence. He went out in dramatic fashion, baring his chest to the assembled politicians and leaders who had turned against him and inviting them to take their bloody revenge. Instead, all present cheered for him and escorted him to his home. General José María de la Cruz claimed that O'Higgins' peaceful departure from power avoided a good deal of bloodshed and said, "O'Higgins was greater in those hours than he had been in the most glorious days of his life."

Intending to go into exile in Ireland, O'Higgins made a stop in Peru, where he was warmly welcomed and given a large estate. O'Higgins had always been a somewhat simple man and a reluctant general, hero and president, and he happily settled into his life as a landowner. He met Bolívar and offered his services, but when he was offered only a ceremonial position, he returned home.

Final Years and Death

During his final years, he acted as an unofficial ambassador from Chile to Peru, although he never did return to Chile. He meddled in the politics of both countries, and he was on the verge of being a persona non grata in Peru when he was invited back to Chile in 1842. He did not make it home, instead of dying of heart trouble while en route.

Legacy of Bernardo O'Higgins

Bernardo O'Higgins was an unlikely hero. He was a bastard for most of his early life, unrecognized by his father, who was a devout supporter of the King. Bernardo was ingenuous and noble, not particularly ambitious nor an especially dazzling General or strategist. He was in many ways as unlike Simón Bolivar as it is possible to be: Bolívar had much more in common with the dashing, confident Jose Miguel Carrera.

Nevertheless, O'Higgins had many qualities which were not always apparent. He was brave, honest, forgiving, noble and dedicated to the cause of liberty. He did not back down from fights, even those he could not win. He always did his best in whatever position he was in, whether it was as a subordinate officer, general, or president. During the wars of liberation, he was often open to compromise when more stubborn leaders, like Carrera, were not. This prevented unnecessary bloodshed among patriot forces, even if it did mean repeatedly allowing the hot-headed Carrera back into power.

Like many heroes, O'Higgins' failings have been forgotten, and his successes exaggerated and celebrated in Chile. He is revered as the Liberator of his country. His remains lie in a monument called "The Altar of the Fatherland." A city is named after him, as well as several Chilean navy ships, countless streets, and a military base.

Even his time as dictator of Chile, for which he has been criticized for clinging too tightly to power, was more beneficial than not. He was a strong personality when his nation needed guidance, yet he did not overly repress the people or use his power for personal gain. Many of his liberal views, radical at the time, have been vindicated by history. All in all, O'Higgins makes for a fine national hero: his honesty, bravery, dedication and generosity to his enemies are qualities worthy of admiration and emulation.


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