August 20 – Happy Birthday to the Liberator of Chile

Posted on August 20, 2014

Chile is in South America, and back in the day, it was a colony of Spain.

So I expected the “Liberator of Chile” to have a Spanish name. Or maybe a Mapuche or other indigenous name.

But O'Higgins? Surely that's an Irish name!

Bernardo O'Higgins, born on this date in 1778, had both Spanish and Irish ancestry, but he was born and raised in Chile. His father—who supported him financially but never actually met him—ended up rising in his own career until he became Viceroy of Peru. Viceroy O'Higgins sent Bernardo to Lima, Peru, at age 15 and to London, England, at age 17—so that he could become well educated.

The young O'Higgins became educated, all right. He learned about the American ideas of independence, and he met a Venezuelan patriot who talked of independence from Spain. The French Revolution occurred while O'Higgins was still there in Europe, and since O'Higgins was delayed in coming back to Chile, he traveled to Spain.

With all this hubbub about independence, it was only natural that O'Higgins began to dream of independence from Spain for Chile, too. 

O'Higgins learned of his father's death in 1801. His father had left him a large chunk of land, so O'Higgins returned to Chile and became a gentleman farmer.

When Napoleon took control of Spain, in 1808, all of the Spanish colonies became embroiled in disagreements about whether to support the new French king of Spain, or to support the old Spanish king, or to fight for independence. O'Higgins joined with other leaders to fight against the French-dominated Spanish government.

O'Higgins lacked the military training of several other rebel leaders, and he had ill health. He was definitely not in charge of the rebel forces from the get-go. However, he was so brave—even reckless—that he ended up gaining command of the army. He was an inspirational commander, urging his soldiers into battle with words such as, “Lads! Live with honor, or die with glory! He who is brave, follow me!” 

The royalist forces won some of the key battles, and O'Higgins and other rebels retreated to Argentina to lay low for a few years. There O'Higgins met Jose de San Martin, an Argentinean general. San Martin accompanied O'Higgins when he returned to Chile in 1817 to defeat the royalists. San Martin was offered the position of power in the new, independent nation of Chile, but he declined. After all, there were other colonies in South America that had not yet shaken off Spanish rule! The position was offered to O'Higgins, and he accepted—and he received the title Supreme Director, and all the powers of a dictator!

O'Higgins was a pretty good leader. He established markets, courts, colleges, libraries, hospitals, and cemeteries. He began improvements in farming practices and reforms in the military, establishing a military academy and a navy. But this dictator wanted “too much democracy.” He wanted to establish elections and to abolish titles of nobility, and he ended up angering all the powerful forces of the nation: the nobility, of course, and the church, and later even the business people. So O'Higgins left power and Chile and moved to Lima with his family.

These days, O'Higgins is commemorated as the Libertador, and everything from avenues to ships to awards have been named for him.

I never think of Easter
Island as being a part of
Chile, but this South Pacific
island does, indeed, belong
to the South American
Chile has some beautiful
natural places!

Also on this date:

St. Stephen's Day in Hungary 

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