Category: Archive

184 years ago: Bernardo O’Higgins liberates Chile

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

One hundred eighty-four years ago this week, on Feb. 12, 1818, Don Bernardo O’Higgins declared Chile an independent nation. The son of an Irish-born adventurer, he’d risen to become the leader of Chilean independence. In just five years he’d be driven into exile, but not before he established himself as one of the founding fathers of his country.

Bernardo O’Higgins’s father, Ambrose, had been born in County Meath in 1720 but was sent to Spain to study for the priesthood. When he decided against a life in the church, he set out for the Spanish colonies in Latin America. Like many a colonial adventurer, he tried and failed at several businesses before joining the Chilean army. He rose quickly through the ranks to become a brigadier general and in 1795 was named Viceroy of Peru, the top-ranking official in Spain’s Latin American empire.

Bernardo was born in 1778 as the illegitimate son of Ambrose and a woman from a prominent Spanish colonial family in Chile. Initially, his father left him in the care of relatives, so as not to draw attention to his indiscretion. He eventually sent him to school in England and Spain. There he befriended several people active in the Chilean independence movement. He returned to Chile in 1802 following his father’s death and immediately cast his lot with the pro-independence cause.

Chile in the early 19th Century was ruled by Spain. But Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and consequent installation of his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne led to a period of great instability in the colonies. In 1810, a group of Chilean leaders established a temporary, semi-independent government under Jose Miguel Carrera. These “Royalists” intended to return Chile to Spanish control as soon as the Spanish throne was restored. O’Higgins and others nationalists, however, wanted to push Chile toward complete independence and it wasn’t long before war broke out.

In 1813, O’Higgins led an attack on a Royalist force at Sopressa del Roble. It was here that he established his reputation as a fearless leader. His words uttered as he led the victorious cavalry charge — “O vivir con honor o morir con gloria!, El que sea valiente que me siga!” (Live with honor or die with glory! He who is brave, follow me!”) — became the Chilean equivalent of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!”

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His success led to his being named commander of the rebel army. But after a series of victories, he suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Royalists in 1814 and was forced to flee to Argentina. Immediately, he began plotting a second, larger effort. He joined forces with General Jose de San Martin (future liberator of Argentina), who in 1817 launched an invasion of Chile. With Martin in overall command, O’Higgins led a rebel division. In one of the first major engagements, at the town of Chacabuco, O’Higgins was ordered to lead his men against a force of Royalists. It was to be a joint effort with a second division led by Migeul Soler.

However, O’Higgins and his men were attacked well before Soler arrived and thus faced a difficult decision. Prudence dictated that they should retreat in the face of heavy artillery bombardments. But recognizing that this would allow the Royalist force to escape. O’Higgins boldly called for a frontal assault with fixed bayonets. He personally led the charge and before long the Royalist line crumbled and fell back. Soler soon arrived to complete the rout.

One year after the victory at Chacabuco, the Royalists stood on the brink of defeat and O’Higgins declared Chilean independence on Feb. 12, 1818. He was soon named the new nation’s supreme director, a position that gave him near total power. Unfortunately for O’Higgins, his tenure as the celebrated liberator of Chile did not last long. As in many post-independence situations, Chilean politics after 1818 was marked by power struggles and bitter feuding. As O’Higgins endeavored to institute economic, social and political reforms, he faced fierce opposition from several factions, especially Chile’s landed aristocracy. In 1823, he was deposed and forced to flee to Peru. He remained there in exile until his death in 1842.

O’Higgins was hardly an anomaly. While most Irish migrants to the New World landed in the United States or Canada, a significant number settled in South America. Many made key contributions to the many struggles for independence. O’Higgins, for example, counted on the military contributions of Charles O’Connor, George O’Brien, and Raymond Morris. Simon Bolivar, the rebel leader in modern day Bolivia, Columbia and Venezuela, likewise enjoyed the help of men such as John Devereaux and Morgan O’Connell, son of nationalist Daniel O’Connell. Galwayman William Brown established Argentina’s navy and commanded it against the Spanish in that colony’s bid for independence. Juan O’Donoju served as the military leader of New Spain and in 1825 negotiated the treaty that granted Mexican independence.

By far the most famous was O’Higgins, and although he died in lonely exile, his reputation as the father of Chilean independence rose precipitously in the decades that followed. In 1869, the Chilean government requested his ashes and they were interred after a grand ceremony. Three years later, his now famous equestrian statue was unveiled in Santiago. Not long after one of the city’s major streets was named Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins. Today in Chile he is quite fittingly revered by most people as a patriot.


Feb. 7, 1991: The IRA launches a mortar attack on No. 10 Downing Street, the residence of British Prime Minister John Major. No one is hurt, but damage to the building’s fatade is considerable.

Feb. 9, 1950: Sen. Joseph McCarthy announces he has a list of 205 State Department employees who are Communist Party members.

Feb. 10, 1844: Daniel O’Connell, leader of the movement to repeal the Act of Union, is found guilty of conspiracy and sentenced to a year in jail.


Feb. 6, 1944: The founder of the Irish National Congress, Fr. Sean McManus, is born in County Fermanagh.

Feb. 6, 1911: The 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, is born in Tampico, Ill.

Feb. 9, 1923: Nationalist and writer Brendan Behan is born in Dublin.

Feb. 13, 1920: Opera soprano Eileen Farrell is born in Willimantic, Conn.

Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.

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