Revolutionary leader José de San Martín routs Spanish forces in Chile

Revolutionary leader José de San Martín routs Spanish forces in Chile

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In the early hours of February 12, 1817, Argentine revolutionary José de San Martín leads his troops down the slopes of the Andes Mountains towards the Spanish forces defending Chile. By nightfall, the Spanish would be routed, the fledgling nation of Chile would have taken a major step toward independence.

San Martín was already a celebrated figure across South America, having liberated Argentina from Spanish rule. As his armies moved through the southern part of the continent, Simón Bolívar waged a similar campaign of liberation in the north, and by 1817 much of the continent was either independent or in a state of revolt. Though uprisings and guerrilla attacks had occurred throughout the narrow region between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, Chile and its ports remained under Spanish control.

San Martín led his army, the Army of the Andes, on an arduous march into Chile. It is estimated that as much as one third of his 6,000 men died in the crossing, and over half his horses were lost. Nonetheless, the patriots outnumbered the Spanish in the region when they finally reached the other side. Knowing Spanish reinforcements were nearby, San Martín pressed the advantage, ordering an early-morning advance down the slopes on February 12th.

Two halves of his force were to convene on the Spanish at once, but one of his officers, a Chilean (of partially Irish descent) named Bernardo O'Higgins, could not wait. O'Higgins' contingent raced down the mountains, giving the Spanish a numerical advantage and forcing San Martín into a somewhat haphazard assault. Nonetheless, by afternoon the patriots had forced the Spanish back into defensive positions around a local ranch, the Rancho Chacabuco. As O'Higgins made another charge, General Miguel Estanislao Soler moved his men to the other side of the ranch, cutting off the Spanish retreat. The result was disaster for the Spanish, who suffered 500 casualties and lost even more prisoners of war. Meanwhile, only a dozen patriot soldiers were reported dead, although roughly 120 would eventually die from wounds suffered in the battle.

The quick and total victory cleared the path to Santiago, the capital of Chile. Though it would take over a year for final victory to be assured, Chacabuco was seen as the pivotal moment in Chilean independence—formal independence was declared on February 12th, 1818, the first anniversary of the battle. The Battle of Chacabuco marked a crucial moment not only in Chilean history but also in the history of the continent and in the lives of San Martín, who added the liberation of Chile to his long list of achievements, and of O'Higgins, who would soon become Supreme Dictator of his newly independent nation.

San Martín’s father, Juan de San Martín, a Spanish professional soldier, was administrator of Yapeyú, formerly a Jesuit mission station in Guaraní Indian territory, on the northern frontier of Argentina. His mother, Gregoria Matorras, was also Spanish. The family returned to Spain when José was six. From 1785 to 1789 he was educated at the Seminary of Nobles in Madrid, leaving there to begin his military career as a cadet in the Murcia infantry regiment. For the next 20 years he was a loyal officer of the Spanish monarch, fighting against the Moors in Oran (1791) against the British (1798), who held him captive for more than a year and against the Portuguese in the War of the Oranges (1801). He was made captain in 1804.

The turning point in San Martín’s career came in 1808, following Napoleon’s occupation of Spain and the subsequent patriotic uprising against the French there. For two years he served the Sevilla (Seville) junta that was conducting the war on behalf of the imprisoned Spanish king Ferdinand VII. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel for his conduct in the Battle of Bailén (1808) and was elevated to command of the Sagunto Dragoons after the Battle of Albuera (1811). Instead of taking up his new post, he sought permission to go to Lima, the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru, but traveled by way of London to Buenos Aires, which had become the principal centre of resistance in South America to the Sevilla junta and its successor, the Cádiz-based Council of Regency. There, in the year 1812, San Martín was given the task of organizing a corps of grenadiers against the Spanish royalists centred in Peru who threatened the revolutionary government in Argentina.

One possible explanation for this startling change of allegiance on the part of a soldier who had sworn fealty to Spain is that it was prompted by British sympathizers with the independence movement in Spanish America and that San Martín was recruited through the agency of James Duff, 4th earl of Fife, who had fought in Spain (and who caused San Martín to be made a freeman of Banff, Scotland). In later years, San Martín averred that he had sacrificed his career in Spain because he had responded to the call of his native land, and this is the view taken by Argentinian historians. Undoubtedly, peninsular Spanish prejudice against anyone born in the Indies must have rankled throughout his career in Spain and caused him to identify himself with the creole revolutionaries.

In the service of the Buenos Aires government, San Martín distinguished himself as a trainer and leader of soldiers, and, after winning a skirmish against loyalist forces at San Lorenzo, on the right bank of the Paraná River (February 3, 1813), he was sent to Tucumán to reinforce, and ultimately replace, Gen. Manuel Belgrano, who was being hard pressed by forces of the viceroy of Peru. San Martín recognized that the Río de la Plata provinces would never be secure so long as the royalists held Lima, but he perceived the military impossibility of reaching the centre of viceregal power by way of the conventional overland route through Upper Peru (modern Bolivia). He therefore quietly prepared the masterstroke that was his supreme contribution to the liberation of southern South America. First, he disciplined and trained the army around Tucumán so that, with the assistance of gaucho guerrilleros, they would be capable of a holding operation. Then, on the pretense of ill health, he got himself appointed governor intendant of the province of Cuyo, the capital of which was Mendoza, the key to the routes across the Andes. There, he set about creating an army that would link up overland with the soldiers of the patriotic government in Chile and then proceed by sea to attack Peru.


Las guerras de independencia contra el dominio español habían logrado varios de sus objetivos para la década de 1810. Nueva Granada y Venezuela habían conseguido su independencia después de que Simón Bolívar derrotara a los realistas, dando origen a la Gran Colombia.

Simón Bolívar

Más al sur, en Argentina, también se había proclamado la independencia, aunque la consolidación de la misma no acababa de hacerse realidad.

Sin embargo, Perú vivía una situación diferente. Las rebeliones en las provincias habían sido derrotadas y el territorio se consolidó como la gran reserva militar española en esa parte del continente.

Desde Perú, los españoles enviaron varias expediciones para tratar de detener las campañas libertadoras en otros virreinatos, por lo que se había convertido en una amenaza para los movimientos emancipadores de toda Sudamérica.

Independencia de Argentina

En mayo de 1810, el Cabildo de Buenos Aires declaró su independencia de España. Durante los años siguientes, los enfrentamientos contra los españoles se sucedieron en las diferentes provincias argentinas y, además, se produjeron varias guerras civiles que debilitaron a las fuerzas patriotas.

Cabildo Abierto del 22 de Mayo de 1810 en la ciudad de Buenos Aires

Los españoles atacaron en varias ocasiones a los independentistas argentinos desde el virreinato del Perú. Los patriotas, por su parte, organizaron tres campañas para intentar acabar con el dominio colonial en ese territorio, pero en cada ocasión fueron derrotados por las tropas del virrey Abascal.

Finalmente, 9 de julio de 1816, en el Congreso de Tucumán, las entonces Provincias Unidas del Río de la Plata declararon su independencia definitiva de la monarquía española.


José de San Martín was born in Yapeyú, Corrientes, son of Juan de San Martín and Gregoria Matorras del Ser. The exact year of Martín's birth is unknown, and historians are divided between 1777 and 1778. An officer in the military, Juan de San Martín requested a new deployment, and in 1781, he moved his family from Yapeyu to Buenos Aires. In 1783, the family moved to Madrid, where Juan made several requests for military promotion. In 1785, they moved to Málaga. Three years later, José de San Martín reached the age to join the army. [1]

José de San Martín joined Murcia's Infantry Regiment of Line on July 15, 1789. The minimum age to join the army was 16 years old, unless the person was the son of an official. [ clarification needed ] In that case, the minimum age was 12 years old. In his incorporation, he declares being the son of an official, of a Christian family and twelve years old. [2]

He was destined to Melilla, an African Spanish city, the following year. In June 1791, he was among the Spanish forces under siege by Moors in Orán. The siege lasted for 33 days, and he was promoted to grenadier. In June 1793, he was promoted to second sublieutenant, in July 1794 to first sublieutenant, and in May 1795 to second lieutenant. His father Juan died in 1796, and by that time he had his baptism of fire in a naval battle, against the British navy. He joined the staff of the Santa Dorotea in 1798, disembarking at Toulon. He learned a bit of the French language, and became aware of the French Revolution. Oral tradition says that Napoleón Bonaparte passed review of the Spanish troops, and when he passed near San Martín, he saw his jacket and read "Murcia!" aloud. [3] The ship was captured by the British ship HMS Lion, and he was prisoner of the British for some time.

The following reports of San Martín are found months later, then fighting against Portugal. He was attacked by thieves on his way from Valladolid to Salamanca, receiving great injures in his chest and throat. He received medical aid in a nearby village. [4]

The Spanish monarchy entered crisis during the Abdications of Bayonne, when the Mutiny of Aranjuez forced king Charles IV to abdicate and give the throne to his son, Ferdinand VII. Napoleon Bonaparte, whose troops were in Spain en route to Portugal, forced Ferdinand to abdicate as well, ending Bourbon rule and appointing his brother Joseph Bonaparte as monarch. This was the start of the Peninsular War, the Spanish resistance to the French invasion. Spain was already divided between the enlightenment and the absolutists, but the French invasion divided the ideas even more. The Enlightenment was based in the ideas of the French revolution, but it was the French themselves who were invading the country. The Spanish afrancesados supported the French invasion as a way to remove the absolutist Spanish monarchy and replace it with a liberal monarchy, even if a foreign one. A higher portion of the enlightened Spanish rejected such a perspective, and opposed both the French invasion and an absolutist restoration. San Martín was part of this group. [5]

By this time, San Martín was second to Francisco María Solano Ortiz de Rosas, governor of Andalucía and a close friend. Solano, influenced as well by the enlightenment ideas, had doubts about using his army to back the Dos de Mayo Uprising, even when requested by the Junta of Seville. Some historians consider him an afrancesado, others just hesitant. [5] A popular uprising overran the barracks, killed him and dragged his corpse in the streets. San Martín was nearly killed as well during the uprising. He would keep an image of him for years, because of their friendship, although he fully supported the popular uprising. He would say years later that

even the rocks have risen in Spain to reject the foreign invader". [6]

After those events, San Martín became involved into the democratic revolution that moves across Europe. Cádiz was by then a very active city, with discussions about Jovellanos, Flórez Estrada, the French and British democratic advances, popular intervention in politics, the role of the Juntas and the military leaders. [7] They initiated planned revolutionary steps within lodges, while the war against the French occupation continued. San Martín joined the army of Andalucía, and moved first to Sevilla and then to Jaén. In June 1808, he joined a force combining regiments and militias, organized by Juan de la Cruz Mourgeón, thus learning further ways to wage war beyond the classic military discipline. This would influence him in the future to have a good opinion of Güemes and Artigas. [7] By this time, San Martín was becoming a renowned military leader. Spanish historian Barcia y Trelles considers that San Martín is a new man since May 1808, but this turning point of his life was overlooked by both the Argentine and Spanish historians. Argentine historians talk in little detail about San Martín's military career is Spain, because they were unrelated with the Argentine War of Independence, and the Spanish ones would not be much interested in him because he departed to America in the middle of the war. [8]

San Martín took part in the combat of Arjonilla, being promoted to First Captain for his brave actions. In the battle, a French officer nearly killed him with his sword, but he was saved by Sargeant Juan de Dios, who died in the effort. [9] The following July 19 he took part in the Battle of Bailén, where 14,000 Spanish defeated 10,000 French. San Martín was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and his prestige continued to rise. This victory gave new hopes to the Spanish front, forcing Joseph Bonaparte to leave Madrid and allowing later the liberation of Andalucía. However, San Martín is forced to take a license, because of a pulmonary affection.

He resumed service in Catalonia, under the command of the marquis of Coupigny. He helped Torres Vedras at Portugal, and returned to Cádiz. By this point, San Martín joined the Lodge of Rational Knights. However, Napoleón Bonaparte gave new strength to the French forces, leading them personally, and Joseph returned to Madrid. Despite of the Spanish victory at the Battle of Albuera, where San Martín fought next to William Carr Beresford, France prevailed and conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula, with the exception of Cádiz. San Martín would leave the Peninsular War by this point, but the exact nature of his resignation is unknown because it was lost from the Spanish records, and San Martín himself did not keep a copy of it among his documents. [10] He moved briefly to Britain, and then to Buenos Aires.

The reasons that San Martin left Spain in 1811 to join the Spanish American wars of independence as a patriot remain contentious among historians. The action would seem contradictory and out of character, because if the patriots were waging an independentist and anti-Hispanic war, then that would turn him into a traitor or deserter. There are a variety of answers and explanations by different historians.

Bartolomé Mitre, one of the earliest historians of San Martín, wrote that "the American criollo had paid with usury his debt to the mother country, joining her during her conflicting days, and could consequently separate himself from her without deserting during an hour of need, leaving her protected by the powerful aegis of Great Britain that guaranteed the definitive triumph under the command of the future victor of Waterloo. Then, he turned his eyes to South America, whose independence he had presaged [. ] and decided to return to his distant nation, which he had always loved as a true mother, to offer her his sword and devote her his life". [11] Besides extrapolating future events (the defeat of Napoleon and the independence of South America), Mitre provided a long-standing explanation: San Martín returned because he missed South America, and the war of independence justified changing sides to support it. [11] This perspective was held by mitrist historians, rosist revisionists and socialists. Those groups shared a common perspective about the revolutions and rebellions that took place in the Americas between 1809 and 1811: they considered that they were, from this early stage, separatist wars, intending to create new countries apart from Spain. [12]

Later historians, such as Norberto Galasso, Oriol Anguerra or Rodolfo Terragno, consider this to be unlikely. San Martín was thirty-five years old by then, and left America when just seven years old. He was completely Spanish, and ideas such as "the call of the jungle" or the "telluric forces" have no room in modern psychology to explain a change like this. [12] They consider instead, that the wars in the Americas were not initially separatist, but instead wars between supporters of absolutism and liberalism. This fight took place in both Spain and the Americas, and became independentist when Ferdinand VII returned to the throne and started the absolutist restoration. Under this logic, those historians consider that San Martín's move to the Americas to continue a fight about to be lost in Spain would make complete sense. [13] Other historians like Tulio Halperín Donghi or Ricardo Levene hinted the similarities of both fights, but avoid giving clear or deep explanations in order to avoid a conflict with the Mitrist perspective. [14] Most Spanish historians, with a deeper understanding of the conflicts of the Peninsular War, endorse this point of view. [15] José de San Martín moved to Buenos in the George Canning ship, with other American born generals like Carlos María de Alvear or José Matías Zapiola, but also with Spanish born generals like Francisco Chilavert and Eduardo Kailitz, for whom the "telluric forces" would bear absolutely no value. [16]

There are writings of San Martín that may clarify those reasons, but whose terms allow either interpretation. José Pacífico Otero found a report of a speech of San Martín to his soldiers, where he said that "I knew of the revolution in my country and, when I left my fortunes and my hopes, I only regretted not having anything else to sacrifice to the desire of contributing to the freedom of my country". [17] For the Mitrist perspective, "revolution" and "freedom" mean emancipation from Spain, for the later one, they mean the revolution against the absolutist status quo. [17] Similarly, his resignation as head of the Army of the Andes says ". I had the first news of the general movement at both Americas and that their original purpose was to emancipate themselves from the Peninsular Tyranic Government. [note: with capital letters in the original] From that moment on, I decided to employ my short services to either point that stand insurgent: I preferred to return to my native country where I had been employed at anything within my reach, my nation has rewarded my short services giving me plenty of honours that I do not deserve. [18] Here, San Martín does not talk about emancipation from Spain itself, but from its government, capitaling "tyranic". He also mentions that, even if preferred returning to his native country, he could have been destined to either South or Central America. [18] An 1848 letter to the president of Perú Ramón Castilla says "In a meeting of Americans in Cádiz, knowing about the first steps taken in Caracas, Buenos Aires, etc we decided to return each one to our native countries, to offer them our services in the struggle that we calculated would be waged soon". [17] This quote is more strange, as it does not mention an ongoing conflict, but a conflict that would be waged soon (but not by then). Such a conflict may be a possible absolutist restauration, which took place when Ferdinand VII returned to the throne, but could also happen if the Regency Council prevailed over the Junta of Seville. [17]

Joining the Rebels

In September 1811, San Martin boarded a British ship in Cadiz with the intention of returning to Argentina, where he had not been since the age of 7, and joining the Independence movement there. His motives remain unclear but may have had to do with San Martín's ties to the Masons, many of whom were pro-Independence. He was the highest-ranking Spanish officer to defect to the patriot side in all of Latin America. He arrived in Argentina in March 1812 and was at first greeted with suspicion by Argentine leaders, but he soon proved his loyalty and ability.

San Martín accepted a modest command but made the most of it, ruthlessly drilling his recruits into a coherent fighting force. In January 1813, he defeated a small Spanish force that had been harassing settlements on the Parana River. This victory—one of the first for Argentines against the Spanish—captured the imagination of the Patriots, and before long San Martín was head of all of the armed forces in Buenos Aires.

When the “Hannibal of the Andes” Liberated Chile

One of the most-dramatic chapters in the 19th-century struggle for Latin American independence from Spanish rule occurred 200 years ago, in January and February 1817, when the liberation of Chile was won by the improbable crossing of the Andes Mountains by a force of revolutionaries under the command of José de San Martín, the Argentine leader of the independence movement in southern South America. In traversing some 300 miles (480 km) of perilously steep mountain trails in just a few weeks, San Martín’s Army of the Andes executed one of history’s most-surprising attacks. Leading his men through defiles, chasms, and passes that were often 10,000 to 12,000 feet (3,000 to 4,000 meters) in elevation, San Martín and his troops’ movements earned comparison to the Carthaginian general Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps during the Second Punic War.

After Argentine independence was secured in 1816, San Martín turned his attention to the Chilean independence struggle. By 1813 Chile had established its own Congress and produced a written constitution, but it fell back under Spanish royalist control in 1814. Several thousand Chileans, including military leader Bernardo O’Higgins fled across the Andes to Argentina, hoping to renew their fight later. They waited three years. During this time San Martín, who had won an appointment as the governor intendant of the province of Cuyo, began forming an army in its capital, Mendoza, located on one of the key routes across the Andes. San Martín began with 180 recruits, who were augmented by 650 troops sent by the Argentine government. By 1816 the force was at least 4,000 strong.

On January 18, 1817, San Martín and his Army of the Andes left Mendoza bearing a sun-emblazoned flag that had been presented to him by the women of the town. San Martin carried that flag throughout the struggle for independence and was ultimately laid to rest under it. In feigning a crossing via the Planchon pass, San Martín duped the numerically superior Spanish (about 7,600 regular troops and 800 militia) into dividing their forces and concentrating their defense on Talca. Meanwhile, the Army of the Andes doubled back and made the more-demanding crossing via Putaendo and Cuevas. Some 5,000 troops and 10,900 horses and mules began the steep climb. When they reached Villa Nueva on February 7, perhaps as few as 3,000 troops and 4,800 horses and mules had survived the trek to engage the royalist forces they encountered and pushed back.

On February 12 at the Battle of Chacabuco, San Martín’s advancing army faced off against 1,500 troops commanded by the Spanish general Rafael Maroto. San Martín separated his forces into two wings under O’Higgins and Miguel Estanislao Soler. O’Higgins attacked prematurely, and the Spanish infantry drove back his contingent, but the arrival of Soler’s troops and the successful grenadier charge led by San Martín against the Spanish cavalry gave O’Higgins’s forces time to recover and attack the Spanish flank. The Spaniards were driven into rout. On February 14 the patriots entered Santiago,whose citizens hailed San Martín as the liberator of Chile and elected him governor. He refused the office, which then went to O’Higgins. The struggle’s final victory would come at Maipú on April 5, 1818.


In 1814, having been instrumental in the establishment of a popularly elected congress in Argentina, José de San Martín began to consider the problem of driving the Spanish royalists from South America entirely. He realized that the first step would be to expel them from Chile, and, to this end, he set about recruiting and equipping an army. In just under two years, he had an army of some 6,000 men, 1,200 horses and 22 cannons.

On January 17, 1817, he set out with this force and began the crossing of the Andes. Careful planning on his part had meant that the royalist forces in Chile were deployed to meet threats that did not exist, and his crossing went unopposed. Nonetheless, the Army of the Andes (as San Martin's force was called) suffered heavy losses during the crossing, losing as much as one-third of its men and more than half of its horses. San Martin found himself allying with Chilean patriot Bernardo O'Higgins, who commanded his own army.

The royalists rushed north in response to their approach, and a force of about 1,500 under Brigadier Rafael Maroto blocked San Martín's advance at a valley called Chacabuco, near Santiago. In the face of the disintegration of the royalist forces, Maroto proposed abandoning the capital and retreating southward, where they could hold out and obtain resources for a new campaign. The military conference called by Royal Governor Field Marshal Casimiro Marcó del Pont on February 8 adopted Maroto's strategy, but the following morning, the Captain General changed his mind and ordered Maroto to prepare for battle in Chacabuco.

The night before the clash, Antonio de Quintanilla, who would later distinguish himself extraordinarily in the defense of Chiloé, confided to another Spanish official his opinion of the ill-chosen strategy: Given the position of the insurgents, the royalist forces ought to retreat a few leagues towards the hills of Colina. "Maroto overheard this conversation from a nearby chamber and either couldn't or refused to hear me because of his pride and self-importance, called on an attendant with his notorious hoarse voice and proclaimed a general decree on pain of death, to whoever suggested a retreat."

All Maroto and his troops had to do was delay San Martín, as he knew that further royalist reinforcements were on the way from Santiago. San Martín was well aware of this as well, and opted to attack while he still had the numerical advantage.

San Martín received numerous reports of the Spanish plans from a spy dressed as a roto, a poverty-stricken peasant of Chile. The roto told him that the Spanish general, Marcó, knew of fighting in the mountains and told his army to "run to the field", which refers to Chacabuco. He also told San Martín the plan of General Rafael Maroto, the leader of the Talavera Regiment and a force of volunteers of up to 2,000 men. His plan was to take the mountainside and launch an attack against San Martín. [5]

On February 11, three days before his planned date of attack, San Martín called a war council to decide on a plan. Their main goal was to take the Chacabuco Ranch, the royalist headquarters, at the bottom of the hills. He decided to split his 2,000 troops into two parts, sending them down two roads on either side of the mountain. The right contingent was led by Miguel Estanislao Soler, and the left by O’Higgins. The plan was for Soler to attack their flanks, while at the same time surrounding their rear guard in order to prevent their retreat. San Martín expected that both leaders would attack at the same time, so the royalists would have to fight a battle on two fronts. [6]

San Martín sent his troops down the mountain starting at midnight of the 11th to prepare for an attack at dawn. At dawn, his troops were much closer to the royalists than anticipated, but fought hard and heroically. Meanwhile, Soler's troops had to go down a tiny path that proved long and arduous and took longer than expected. General O’Higgins, supposedly seeing his homeland and being overcome with passion, defied the plan of attack and charged, along with his 1,500. What exactly happened in this part of the battle is fiercely debated. O’Higgins claimed that the royalists stopped their retreat and started advancing towards his troops. He said that if he were to lead his men back up the narrow path and retreat, his men would have been decimated, one by one. San Martín saw O’Higgins premature advance and ordered Soler to charge the royalist flank, which took the pressure off O’Higgins and allowed his troops to hold their ground.

The ensuing firefight lasted into the afternoon. The tide turned for the Army of the Andes as Soler captured a key royalist artillery point. At this point, the royalists set up a defensive square around the Chacabuco Ranch. O’Higgins charged the center of the royalist position, while Soler got into position behind the royalists, effectively cutting off any chance of retreat. O’Higgins and his men overwhelmed the royalist troops. When they attempted to retreat, Soler's men cut them off and pushed towards the ranch. Hand-to-hand combat ensued in and around the ranch until every royalist soldier was dead or taken captive. 500 royalist soldiers were killed and 600 taken prisoner. The Army of the Andes only lost twelve men in battle, but an additional 120 lost their lives from wounds suffered during the battle. [6] Maroto succeeded in escaping, thanks to the speed of his horse, but was slightly injured.

The remaining royalist troops headed down to the southern tip of Chile where they would set up a mini Spanish Chile. They were reinforced from the sea and proved to be a problem for the Chilean nation until they were finally forced to retreat by sea to Lima. [7] Interim governor Francisco Ruiz-Tagle presided at an assembly, which designated San Martín as governor, but he turned down the offer and requested a new assembly, which made O'Higgins Supreme Director of Chile. [8] This marks the beginning of the "Patria Nueva" period in Chile's history.

Perú: A long and revolutionary history fighting for independence

A woman waving a banner of the revolutionary ‘Che’ Guevara takes part in a protest against a U.S. mining project in Lima in July 2012.

What is now Perú was the home, not only of one of the largest empires in the world at one point, but of the largest Indigenous empire. The Incas had evolved and built from earlier Andean groups such as the Chimu, the largest ancient Peruvian civilization directly succeeded by the Incas.

The Incas were a large umbrella encompassing different tribes. The empire extended from the north of Chile to the middle of Ecuador to the east of Bolivia and all of present-day Perú. Over 10 million people from different tribes and cultural backgrounds belonged to this empire, with over 40,000 languages spoken, the elite language being Quechua.

Known as Rumaisimi, “people’s language,” Quechua is still the official language of Perú, along with Spanish. In 1975, Perú was the first country in the world to officially recognize an Indigenous language. Twenty-five percent of the Peruvian population speak Quechua while others learn it in school as a second language.

Indigenous resistance to colonization

The Incan Empire is believed to have risen around 1200 Common Era, continuing until 1532 CE, when Francisco Pizarro and Spanish military forces began a campaign to conquer the vast and highly developed empire. As Incan forces battled the invaders, resistance against the colonizers was aided by the last Incan state of Vilcabamba, where the leader Manqu Inka Yupanki set up a refuge for the remaining Incas. Manco Inca’s three sons, Sayra Túpac, Titu Cusi Yupanqui and Túpac Amaru I, continued to fight for decades until they were defeated or killed.

As Spanish invaders attacked, they also began bringing kidnapped people from the West African coast to Perú as enslaved workers. The Spanish forced some enslaved Africans to fight against the Indigenous people, who at the same time were also being forced into slavery. As European diseases began killing Indigenous people, the colonizers needed more enslaved African people as workers, in a parallel to other colonized “New World” lands.

The Spanish, with their system of enslavement, created a racist caste and class system in the land that was now Perú, effectively separating and dividing workers into lower classes. The European Spanish were the most elite then Criollos of Spanish descent born in the colonies Mestizos who were Spanish and Indigenous Mulattos who were African and Spanish Indios who were Indigenous Negros who were African and Zambos, the lowest on the conquerors’ list, who were of Native and African descent. (Described in “Colonial Perú, the Caste System, and the ‘Purity’ of Blood,” by David Gaughran.)

A noted figure in resistance against the Spanish was a Mestizo man claiming to a descendant of Túpac Amaru I. Born José Gabriel Condorcanqui in 1738, known as Túpac Amaru II, he organized a rebellion of over 60,000 Indigenous people at the peak of Spanish colonization. The rebellion kidnapped colonial leaders, held them for ransom and executed them in ways similar to Spanish tactics against the Incas.

Indigenous populations supported the rebellion, which was nearly successful until Túpac Amaru II was captured in 1781. Because of his heroism and success, his name adorns many streets and a long highway in Perú, and he remains a beloved figure.

War for independence from Spain

The Peruvian War of Independence (1811-1826) came as European empires were beginning to lose other colonies. The thirteen “American” colonies had kicked out England the successful Haitian Revolution had defeated France and Spain had lost the Dominican Republic and its power in Argentina.

Leading the first struggles for Peruvian independence was José de San Martín, the son of Spaniards, born in Argentina, and a soldier in the Spanish military from the age of 11. He left that army when Argentinians began rising for independence, and became the highest ranked Spanish officer to join a revolutionary movement in the Spanish colonies. His proclamation in Lima on July 28, 1821, was the first formal declaration of Perú’s independence from Spain. After de San Martín’s death, Simón Bolívar completed Perú’s liberation, as well as being integral to that of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama.

The unknown history for many is that these liberation struggles were aided by Haiti after the successful Haitian Revolution. In 1815, Simón Bolívar made his way to Haiti to seek aid from the first Haitian president, Alexandre Pétion. Haitians helped rebuild Bolívar’s army, gave food and shelter, and sent over military supplies.

Pétion gave all this with only one request in return: that all slaves be liberated. In response, Bolívar said: “Should I not let it be known to later generations that Alexander Pétion is the true liberator of my country?” (

Colonialization and capitalism

Since independence from Spain, Perú has been plagued by reactionary military rule, austerity and capitalism, to this very day. According to Peru Reports, the top 20 percent of the population owns half the wealth of the country. That wealth is concentrated in Lima, the capital city, whereas the poverty rate in the rest of Perú approaches 30 percent.

Misogyny is rampant in Perú. The Ministry for Women noted that in 2017 there was a 26 percent increase in gender-based violence. Seventy-five percent of Peruvian women asserted being victims of psychological and/or physical assault.

Racism has been poorly combated in Perú. When, in 1940, the Peruvian government took away race as a government census category to create an “all-Peruvian” identity, this amounted to the state saying inaccurately: “We don’t see color.” Though in 2009, the Peruvian government released an apology for “abuse, exclusion and discrimination” against Afro-Peruvians, the lack of official recognition of Afro-Peruvians has given a way to deny racism against them and made it difficult to report racism in public institutions.

In 2013, the Ministry of Education released a survey that showed 81 percent of Peruvians believed there was rampant discrimination in the country. Only 17 percent of Quechua and Aymara people reported belief in the Peruvian state’s performative “appreciation” for their culture.

Since the 2017 return of Afro identity on the state census, it is now estimated there are between 1.4 to 2.5 million Afro-Peruvians.

Because of these conditions, ongoing since the age of colonialism, movements have taken place in Perú to fight for socialism. In 1983, the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) was formed, born out of groups such as the Peruvian Communist Party-Marxist Leninist, the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Socialist Party and Revolutionary Left Movement. The MRTA operated in two wings, legally and illegally, calling for a Marxist revolution in Perú.

Struggles for socialism

The biggest focus of the MRTA’s work was to combat imperialism within Perú as well as oppose tactics maneuvered by the United States. The MRTA declared war on the U.S. within Perú and attacked every aspect of U.S. presence in the country. The MRTA kidnapped business executives and robbed banks. The director of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Perú claimed that the company “received ‘almost daily’ demands from the MRTA during January and February 1991 for ‘war taxes,’ and one director has left the country to avoid being kidnapped.” (

While MRTA probably numbered only about 1,000 people, in 1991 the CIA claimed the MRTA was “one of the greatest terrorist threats to U.S. interests in South America.” The CIA also compared MRTA to the Cuban guerrilla fighters and the National Liberation Army in Colombia and Bolivia. According to the CIA, the MRTA had received training and aid from Cuba and Libya in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (

The last attack organized by MRTA was in 1996 on the Japanese Embassy in Lima, when ambassadors from Japan came to celebrate their emperor’s birthday in Perú. The MRTA kidnapped and held hostages at the embassy, declaring an overthrow of the dictatorship of the current U.S.-backed president, Alberto Fujimori, who was of Japanese descent.

Removed from office in 2001, Fujimori was put on trial in 2007, the charges eventually including crimes against humanity for the mass murders of students and farmers and the organization of a death squad, Colina Group. (Alberto Fujimori).

Sentenced to 25 years in prison, Fujimori was given a “humanitarian” pardon by then-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in 2017. Kuczynski had won the Peruvian presidency against Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko Fujimori, on the platform of making sure justice was served against Alberto Fujimori. Upon this betrayal, Peruvians protested by the tens of thousands in cities all over Perú and internationally.

While Perú has a long and revolutionary history fighting for independence from foreign empires, Perú has remained a victim of capitalism and imperialism. The U.S. is still its colonizer, with Perú functioning as its proxy in South America. The hand of the U.S. in Perú’s internal affairs promotes groups and government officials that put self-interested profit over the needs of the people. The Peruvian government cracks down on labor organizers and monitors socialists through “anti-terrorism” units.

But the people continue to rise against conditions that oppress them — continue to rise in opposition to corruption, wealth inequality, gender-based violence and racism, against foreign companies’ exploitation of Peruvian land and resources.

The first goal is the expulsion of foreign interference in Perú, especially that of the U.S. Then, a return to the land and communal living as practiced by our Indigenous ancestors a serious process of decolonization to address systemic and cultural flaws left by colonization and the building of socialism.

Happy July 28th! Happy Perú Independence Day! ¡Viva el Perú, carajo! Long live Perú, dammit!

Kayla Popuchet, a Peruvian citizen, is the daughter of Haitian and Peruvian immigrants, of Indigenous Quechuan descent.

History in Chile

Little is known of Chile's history before the arrival of the Spaniards. Archaeologists have reconstructed what they can of Chile's indigenous history from artifacts found at burial sites, in ancient villages, and in forts. Because of this, much more is known about the northern cultures of Chile than their southern counterparts: The north's extraordinarily arid climate has preserved, and preserved well, objects as fragile as 2,000-year-old mummies. Northern tribes, such as the Atacama, developed a culture that included the production of ceramic pottery, textiles, and objects made of gold and silver, but for the most part, early indigenous cultures in Chile were small, scattered tribes that fished and cultivated simple crops. The primitive, nomadic tribes of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego never developed beyond a society of hunters and gatherers because severe weather and terrain prevented them from ever developing an agricultural system.

In the middle of the 15th century, the great Inca civilization pushed south in a tremendous period of expansion. Although the Incas were able to subjugate tribes in the north, they never made it past the fierce Mapuche Indians in southern Chile.

In 1535, and several years after Spaniards Diego de Almagro and Francisco Pizarro had successfully conquered the Inca Empire in Peru, the conquistadors turned their attention south after hearing tales of riches that lay in what is today Chile. Already flushed with wealth garnered from Incan gold and silver, an inspired Diego de Almagro and more than 400 men set off on what would become a disastrous journey that left many dead from exposure and famine. De Almagro found nothing of the fabled riches, and he retreated to Peru.

Three years later, a distinguished officer of Pizarro's army, Spanish-born Pedro de Valdivia, secured permission to settle the land south of Peru in the name of the Spanish crown. Valdivia left with just 10 soldiers and little ammunition, but his band grew to 150 by the time he reached the Aconcagua Valley, where he founded Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura on February 12, 1541. Fire, Indian attacks, and famine beset the colonists, but the town nonetheless held firm. Valdivia succeeded in founding several other outposts, including Concepción, La Serena, and Valdivia, but like the Incas before him, he was unable to overcome the Mapuche Indians south of the Río Biobío. In a violent Mapuche rebellion, Valdivia was captured and suffered a gruesome death, sending frightened colonists north. The Mapuche tribe effectively defended its territory for the next 300 years.

Early Chile was a colonial backwater of no substantive interest to Spain, although Spain did see to the development of a feudal land-owning system called an encomienda. Prominent Spaniards were issued a large tract of land and an encomienda, or a group of Indian slaves that the landowner was charged with caring for and converting to Christianity. Thus rose Chile's traditional and nearly self-supporting hacienda, known as a latifundo, as well as a rigid class system that defined the population. At the top were the peninsulares (those born in Spain), followed by the criollos (Creoles, or Spaniards born in the New World). Next down on the ladder were mestizos (a mix of Spanish and Indian blood), followed by Indians themselves. As the indigenous population succumbed to disease, the latifundo system replaced slaves with rootless mestizos who were willing, or forced, to work for a miserable wage. This form of land ownership would define Chile for centuries to come, and traces of this antiquated system hold firm even in modern Chilean businesses today.

Chile Gains Independence

Chile tasted independence for the first time during Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808 and the subsequent sacking of King Ferdinand VII, whom Napoleon replaced with his own brother. On September 18, 1810, leaders in Santiago agreed that the country would be self-governed until the king was reinstated as the rightful ruler of Spain. Although the self-rule was intended as a temporary measure, this date is now celebrated as Chile's independence day.

Semi-independence did not satisfy many criollos, and soon thereafter Jose Miguel Carrera, the power-hungry son of a wealthy criollo family, appointed himself leader and stated that the government would not answer to Spain or the viceroy of Peru. But Carrera was an ineffective and controversial leader, and it was soon determined that one of his generals, Bernardo O'Higgins, would prove more adept at shaping Chile's future. Loyalist troops from Peru took advantage of the struggle between the two and crushed the fragile independence movement, sending Carrera, O'Higgins, and their troops fleeing to Argentina. This became known as the Spanish "reconquest." Across the border in Mendoza, O'Higgins met José de San Martín, an Argentine general who had already been plotting the liberation of South America. San Martín sought to liberate Chile first and then launch a sea attack on the viceroyalty seat in Peru from Chile's shore. In 1817, O'Higgins and San Martín crossed the Andes with their well-prepared troops and quickly defeated Spanish forces in Chacabuco, securing the capital. In April 1818, San Martín's army triumphed in the bloody battle of Maipú, and full independence from Spain was won. An assembly of prominent leaders elected O'Higgins as Supreme Director of Chile, but discontent within his ranks and with landowners forced him to quit office and spend his remaining years in exile in Peru.

The War of the Pacific

The robust growth of the nation during the mid- to late 1800s saw the development of railways and roads that connected previously remote regions with Santiago. The government began promoting European immigration to populate these regions, and it was primarily Germans who accepted, settling and clearing farms around the Lake District.

Growing international trade boosted Chile's economy, but it was the country's northern mines, specifically nitrate mines, that held the greatest economic promise. Border disputes with Bolivia in this profitable region ensued until a treaty was signed giving Antofagasta to Bolivia in exchange for low taxes on Chilean mines. Bolivia did an about-face and hiked taxes, sparking the War of the Pacific that pitted allies Peru and Bolivia against Chile in the fight for the nitrate fields. The odds were against Chile, but the country's well-trained troops were a force to reckon with. The war's turning point came with the capture of Peru's major warship, the Huáscar. Chilean troops invaded Peru and pushed on until they had captured the capital, Lima. With Chile as the final victor, both countries signed treaties that conceded Peru's Tarapacá region and Antofagasta to Chile that, incredibly, increased Chile's size by one-third with nitrate- and silver-rich land, and cut Bolivia off from the coast. More than a century later, Bolivia and Peru are still rallying against the Chilean government for wider access to the coastal waters off northern Chile.

The Military Dictatorship

No political event defines current-day Chile better than the country's former military dictatorship. In 1970, Dr. Salvador Allende, Chile's first socialist president, was narrowly voted into office. Allende vowed to improve the lives of Chile's poorer citizens by instituting a series of radical changes that might redistribute the nation's lopsided wealth. Although the first year showed promising signs, Allende's reforms ultimately sent the country spiraling into economic ruin. Large estates were seized by the government and by independent, organized groups of peasants to be divided among rural workers, many of them uneducated and unprepared. Major industries were nationalized, but productivity lagged, and the falling price of copper reduced the government's fiscal intake. With spending outpacing income, the country's deficit soared. Worst of all, uncontrollable inflation and price controls led to shortages, and Chileans were forced to wait in long lines to buy basic goods.

Meanwhile, the United States (led by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger) was closely monitoring the situation in Chile. With anti-Communist sentiment running high in the U.S. government, the CIA allocated $8 million (£5.3 million) to undermine the Allende government by funding right-wing opposition and supporting a governmental takeover.

On September 11, 1973, military forces led by General Augusto Pinochet toppled Allende's government with a dramatic coup d'état. Military tanks rolled through the streets and jets dropped bombs on the presidential palace. Inside, Allende refused to surrender and accept an offer to be exiled. After delivering an emotional radio speech, Allende took his own life.

Wealthy Chileans who had lost much under Allende celebrated the coup as an economic and political salvation. But nobody was prepared for the brutal repression that would haunt Chile for the next 17 years. Pinochet shut down congress, banned political parties, and censored the news media, imposed a strict curfew, and inexperienced military officers took over previously nationalized industries and universities. Pinochet snuffed out his adversaries by rounding up and killing more than 3,000 citizens and torturing 28,000 political activists, journalists, professors, and any other "subversives." Thousands more fled the country.

Pinochet set out to rebuild the economy using Milton Freeman-inspired free-market policies that included selling off nationalized industries, curtailing government spending, reducing import tariffs, and eliminating price controls. From 1976 to 1981, the economy grew at such a pace that it was hailed as the "Chilean Miracle," but the miracle did nothing to address the country's high unemployment rate, worsening social conditions, and falling wages. More importantly, Chileans were unable to speak out against the government and those who did often "disappeared," taken from their homes by Pinochet's secret police never to be heard from again. Culture was filtered, and artists, writers, and musicians were censored.

The End of the Military Dictatorship

The worldwide recession of 1982 put an end to Chile's economic run, but the economy bounced back again in the late 1980s. The Catholic Church began voicing opposition to Pinochet's brutal human-rights abuses, and a strong desire for a return to democracy saw the beginning of nationwide protests and international pressure, especially from the United States. In a pivotal 1988 "yes or no" plebiscite, 55% of Chileans voted no to further rule by Pinochet, electing centrist Christian Democrat Patricio Alywin president of Chile, but not before Pinochet promulgated a constitution that allowed him and a right-wing minority to continue to exert influence over the democratically elected government. It also shielded Pinochet and the military from any future prosecution.

It is difficult for most foreigners to fathom the unwavering blind support Pinochet's followers bestowed upon him in spite of the increasing revelation of grotesque human rights abuses during his rule. Supporters justified their views with Chile's thriving economy as testament to the "necessity" of authoritarian rule and the killings of the left-wing opponents. Following Alywin's election, Pinochet led a cushy life protected by security guards and filled with speaking engagements and other social events. What Pinochet hadn't counted on, however, was the dogged pursuit by international jurists to bring him to trial, and when in London in 1998 to undergo surgery, a Spanish judge leveled murder and torture charges against the former dictator and issued a request for his extradition.

Sixteen months of legal wrangling ended with Pinochet's release and return to Chile, but the ball was set in motion and soon thereafter Chile's Supreme Court stripped Pinochet and his military officers from immunity in order to face prosecution. Pinochet began pointing fingers, and old age and dementia shielded him from prosecution -- but not from public humiliation. In 2004, it emerged that Pinochet had stashed $28 million (£19 million) in secret accounts worldwide, quashing his support by even his closest allies given that Pinochet advocated austerity and rallied against corruption as proof of his "just" war. Endless international news reports and the publication of torture victims' accounts furthered the humiliation that many believe caused Pinochet more harm than any trial ever could.

The election of Chile's first female president, Michele Bachelet, in 2006 grabbed headlines around the world and proved how far Chile had come since the brutal repression of Pinochet. Bachelet, a Socialist who was tortured and exiled during Pinochet's rule, is also a divorcee who worked her way up the political ranks, including a post as the Minister of Defense. Shortly after Bachelet's election, Pinochet died at age 91.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

Further Reading

The standard biography of San Martín is Bartolome Mitre, The Emancipation of South America (trans. 1893 new introduction, 1969), a good starting place for understanding the liberation of Chile and Peru. A popular short biography by an Englishman is John C. J. Metford, San Martín: The Liberator (1950). Other biographies include Anna Schoellkopf, Don José de San Martín, 1778-1850: A Study of His Career (1924) Margaret H. Harrison, Captain of the Andes (1943) and Ricardo Rojas, San Martín: Knight of the Andes (trans. 1945).

Watch the video: Chiles war of independence (December 2022).

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