Latin American Studies Chile's Struggle for Independence
by
Juan Luis Ossa
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0153

Introduction

Chile’s struggle for independence is known as the period in which Chile became a separate country from Spain. It usually covers the years 1808–1830, and it is much related to events in Europe and in other regions of South America, especially Peru and the area of the Río de la Plata. As in most parts of the American continent, the French invasion of Spain and the abdication of Fernando VII in 1808 provoked a political crisis in Chile that began to be resolved when, after ousting governor Francisco García Carrasco, the Santiago elites created an administrative junta on 18 September 1810 that claimed to govern the territory on behalf of the imprisoned king but declared its autonomy from the political bodies in Spain. Although the change of government in Chile was less violent and less radical than elsewhere, differences between political factions aiming to control the juntista movement in the period 1811–1812 provoked frictions between supporters of José Miguel Carrera (military chief of Santiago) and followers of Juan Martínez de Rozas and Bernardo O’Higgins (leaders of Concepción). But when the Peruvian viceroy, José Fernando de Abascal, decided to intervene militarily in Chile in late 1812, in order to stop the radicalism of the Chilean autonomists, differences between Carrera and O’Higgins subsided and gave way to a conflict between Chilean-formed armies representing the interests and goals of insurgents and royalists. The counterrevolutionary program envisioned by the absolutists in Spain and supported in Spanish America by officials like Abascal triumphed in late 1814, thus forcing the Chilean insurgents to escape to the province of Cuyo, on the other side of the Cordillera. In Mendoza, Bernardo O’Higgins sealed an alliance with José de San Martín and the so-called Logia Lautaro to re-conquer Chile and to attempt an attack on Lima, the center of the counterrevolution. The Central Valley of Chile was re-conquered from the royalists in April 1818 in the battle of Maipú, an event comparable in importance to the declaration of Chilean Independence on 12 February 1818. However, the south of the country remained in the hands of the royalists until well into the 1820s. San Martín’s Army of Peru, meanwhile, set sail from Chile in mid-1820. Formed by men from the Army of the Andes and the Army of Chile, they secured Peru’s Independence in July 1821, although the military conflict lasted until December 1824, when the battle of Ayacucho determined the fate of all of Spanish South America. This war brought about two important consequences for Chile: first, it allowed the military to become the most powerful political figures of the period; second, it provoked a series of public debates on whether the new Spanish American states should adopt a republican form of government or follow the European monarchical example. Beyond that period, discussions focused on the role of the state and individuals in shaping the new republic.

General Overviews

Chile’s 19th-century historiographical tradition of independence was both nationalistic and apologetic of the role played by the military and by men of letters who, according to the classic view, led the revolution to its “glorious” conclusion. Amunátegui and Amunátegui 1912, Barros Arana 1863, and Vicuña Mackenna 1972 display the anti-Spanish sentiment expressed in most works of the generation of scholars who began to write or became recognized in the 1860s. In the 20th century, this anti-Spanish approach was somewhat moderated, as the study of Eyzaguirre 1957 proves. Although the author Eyzaguirre did not dedicate an entire book to the full period of independence, his work sheds light on the influence of Spanish institutions on Chile’s republican system, stressing the importance of order to attain political stability. The contributions of Eyzaguirre 1957 are contested by liberal historians like Collier 1967, Heise 1978, and Jocelyn-Holt 1992, which agree that it was liberty rather than order that provided Chile with a successful political organization after Independence. In the 1990s and 2000s, meanwhile, this period was approached from a less political perspective and, in keeping with the historical schools of the time, focuses on the social forces. Salazar 2005 introduces common soldiers, slaves, inquilinos, and artisans in the general narrative of independence. In so doing, this work claims that independence was not a revolution—at least not in the sense that the French Revolution was—but simply a movement to strengthen the privileged position of the elites. In more recent years, however, political studies have once again become popular among historians. The current works on independence combine general narratives with the idea that the building of Chile’s national state was the starting, not the departing, point of independence. Thus, independence is viewed from a non-inevitable perspective and as the result of unexpected events in the context of a “revolutionary civil war.”

  • Amunátegui, Miguel Luis, and Amunátegui Gregorio Víctor. La reconquista Española. Santiago, Chile: Imprenta Litografía y Encuadernación Barcelona, 1912.

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    This book claims that the so-called “Spanish Reconquista” (1814–1817) was led by despotic and dehumanized military officers whose aim was to turn the clock back to the status quo ante 1810. Its authors popularized the interpretation that the counterrevolutionary (a concept they did not use) regime was the bloodiest period of the civil war.

  • Barros Arana, Diego. Historia jeneral de la independencia de Chile. Santiago, Chile: Librería de Pedro Yuste, 1863.

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    This is one of first general histories published of Chile’s struggle for independence. Barros Arana narrates the principal events of the revolution, including a series of documentos justificativos that help the modern historian to know what contemporaries wrote and thought of the process they were going through. It is interesting that Barros Arana had begun his work in 1807 (i.e., when the first repercussions of the British invasion of Buenos Aires were felt in Chile) instead of the more common starting point of 1808.

  • Collier, Simon. Ideas and Politics of Chilean Independence, 1808–1833. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

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    Built upon an admirable amount of primary sources, Simon Collier’s work claims that the revolution was a long-term process that ended up creating a completely new political system. Collier traced the evolution in Chile of fundamental political concepts, such as social contract, popular sovereignty, representative government, and constitutionalism, thus trying to demonstrate that liberalism was the predominant ideology of the period.

  • Eyzaguirre, Jaime. Ideario y ruta de la emancipación Chilena. Santiago, Chile: Editorial Universitaria, 1957.

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    This book recounts the origins of Chile’s drive for home rule, arguing that the formation of Santiago’s Junta in 1810 was based on the Spanish Scholastic argument that, in the absence of a king, power should return to the people. According to Eyzaguirre, the concepts of freedom, limitation of royal power, and the participation of the people [pueblo] in politics were all principles rooted in the Spanish ideological tradition.

  • Heise, Julio. Años de formación y aprendizaje político. Santiago, Chile: Editorial Universitaria, 1978.

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    Heise challenges the classic view that the decade of the 1820s in Chile was a period of anarchy and political chaos. He argues that it was during those years of “political learning and formation” that Chileans consolidated a republican order through the Constitution of 1828. This document served, according to Heise, as the basis for the Constitution of 1833 (which lasted until 1925).

  • Jocelyn-Holt, Alfredo. La independencia de Chile. Tradición, modernización y mito. Madrid: Editorial Mapfre, 1992.

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    Jocelyn-Holts’s main contribution refers to the late colonial period. In his view, the Bourbon reforms did not obliterate the Creole elites, but rather empowered their position within the imperial system. This explains why the war that began in 1813 did not respond to a conflict of national liberation (Spain against Chile), as well as why independence was only one, and not necessarily the most popular, political option until well into de 1810s.

  • Salazar, Gabriel. Construcción de estado en Chile (1800–1837). Democracia de “los pueblos”: Militarismo ciudadano. golpismo oligárquico. Santiago, Chile: Editorial Sudamericana, 2005.

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    In this book, Gabriel Salazar argues that the political memory of Chile is filled with “statues and heroes,” an opinion that would explain why so little space has been dedicated to study the role of the people and the great masses. This, Salazar claims, has led to an interpretation that is not only apologetic of the figures who commanded the revolution, but that has also prevented the common citizens from having a “clear conscience of their sovereignty.”

  • Vicuña Mackenna, Benjamín. La guerra a muerte. Santiago, Chile: Editorial Francisco de Aguirre, 1972.

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    This is a very well researched work about a relatively unknown period of Chile’s struggle for independence: the War to the Death (1817–1823). Vicuña Mackenna reconstructs the lives and services of many soldiers and officers who, after the battle of Maipú, either escaped (that was the case of the royalists) or were sent by the Chilean state (that was the case of the revolutionaries) to the south of Chile to put an end to the military conflict.

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