History of Chile


Politics and War in a Frontier Society

Chile's first known European discoverer, Ferdinand Magellan, stopped there during his voyage on October 21, 1520. A concerted attempt at colonization began when Diego de Almagro, a companion of conqueror Francisco Pizarro, headed south from Peru in 1535. Disappointed at the dearth of mineral wealth and deterred by the pugnacity of the native population in Chile, Almagro returned to Peru in 1537, where he died in the civil wars that took place among the conquistadors.

The second Spanish expedition from Peru to Chile was begun by Pedro de Valdivia in 1540. Proving more persistent than Almagro, he founded the capital city of Santiago on February 12, 1541. Valdivia managed to subdue many northern Amerindians, forcing them to work in mines and fields. He had far less success with the Araucanians of the south, however.

Valdivia (1541-53) became the first governor of the captaincy general of Chile, which was the colonial name until 1609. In that post, he obeyed the viceroy of Peru and, through him, the king of Spain and his bureaucracy. Responsible to the governor, town councils known as cabildos administered local municipalities, the most important of which was Santiago, which was the seat of a royal audiencia from 1609 until the end of colonial rule.

Seeking more precious metals and slave labor, Valdivia established fortresses farther south. Being so scattered and small, however, they proved difficult to defend against Araucanian attack. Although Valdivia found small amounts of gold in the south, he realized that Chile would have to be primarily an agricultural colony.

In December 1553, an Araucanian army of warriors, organized by the legendary Mapuche chief Lautaro (Valdivia's former servant), assaulted and destroyed the fort of Tucapel. Accompanied by only fifty soldiers, Valdivia rushed to the aid of the fort, but all his men perished at the hands of the Mapuche in the Battle of Tucapel. Valdivia himself fled but was later tracked down, tortured, and killed by Lautaro. Although Lautaro was killed by Spaniards in the Battle of Mataquito in 1557, his chief, Caupolicán, continued the fight until his capture by treachery and his subsequent execution by the Spaniards in 1558. The uprising of 1553-58 became the most famous instance of Araucanian resistance; Lautaro in later centuries became a revered figure among Chilean nationalists. It took several more years to suppress the rebellion. Thereafter, the Araucanians no longer threatened to drive the Spanish out, but they did destroy small settlements from time to time. Most important, the Mapuche held on to their remaining territory for another three centuries.

Despite inefficiency and corruption in the political system, Chileans, like most Spanish Americans, exhibited remarkable loyalty to crown authority throughout nearly three centuries of colonial rule. Chileans complained about certain policies or officials but never challenged the regime. It was only when the king of Spain was overthrown at the beginning of the nineteenth century that Chileans began to consider self-government.

Chileans resented their reliance on Peru for governance, trade, and subsidies, but not enough to defy crown authority. Many Chilean criollos (creoles, or Spaniards born in the New World) also resented domination by the peninsulares (Spaniards, usually officials, born in the Old World and residing in an overseas colony), especially in the sinecures of royal administration. However, local Chilean elites, especially landowners, asserted themselves in politics well before any movement for independence. Over time, these elites captured numerous positions in the local governing apparatus, bought favors from the bureaucracy, co-opted administrators from Spain, and came to exercise informal authority in the countryside.

Society in Chile was sharply divided along ethnic, racial, and class lines. Peninsulares and criollos dominated the tiny upper class. Miscegenation between Europeans and the indigenous people produced a mestizo population that quickly outnumbered the Spaniards. Farther down the social ladder were a few African slaves and large numbers of native Americans.

The Roman Catholic Church served as the main buttress of the government and the primary instrument of social control. Compared with its counterparts in Peru and Mexico, the church in Chile was not very rich or powerful. On the frontier, missionaries were more important than the Catholic hierarchy. Although usually it supported the status quo, the church produced the most important defenders of the indigenous population against Spanish atrocities. The most famous advocate of human rights for the native Americans was a Jesuit, Luis de Valdivia (no relation to Pedro de Valdivia), who struggled, mostly in vain, to improve their lot in the period 1593-1619.

Cut off to the north by desert, to the south by the Araucanians, to the east by the Andes Mountains, and to the west by the ocean, Chile became one of the most centralized, homogeneous colonies in Spanish America. Serving as a sort of frontier garrison, the colony found itself with the mission of forestalling encroachment by Araucanians and by Spain's European enemies, especially the British and the Dutch. In addition to the Araucanians, buccaneers and English adventurers menaced the colony, as was shown by Sir Francis Drake's 1578 raid on Valparaíso, the principal port. Because Chile hosted one of the largest standing armies in the Americas, it was one of the most militarized of the Spanish possessions, as well as a drain on the treasury of Peru.

Throughout the colonial period, the Spaniards engaged in frontier combat with the Araucanians, who controlled the territory south of the Río Bío-Bío (about 500 kilometers south of Santiago) and waged guerrilla warfare against the invaders. During many of those years, the entire southern region was impenetrable by Europeans. In the skirmishes, the Spaniards took many of their defeated foes as slaves. Missionary expeditions to Christianize the Araucanians proved risky and often fruitless.

Most European relations with the native Americans were hostile, resembling those later existing with nomadic tribes in the United States. The Spaniards generally treated the Mapuche as an enemy nation to be subjugated and even exterminated, in contrast to the way the Aztecs and the Incas treated the Mapuche, as a pool of subservient laborers. Nevertheless, the Spaniards did have some positive interaction with the Mapuche. Along with warfare, there also occurred some miscegenation, intermarriage, and acculturation between the colonists and the indigenous people.

The Colonial Economy

The government played a significant role in the colonial economy. It regulated and allocated labor, distributed land, granted monopolies, set prices, licensed industries, conceded mining rights, created public enterprises, authorized guilds, channeled exports, collected taxes, and provided subsidies. Outside the capital city, however, colonists often ignored or circumvented royal laws. In the countryside and on the frontier, local landowners and military officers frequently established and enforced their own rules.

The economy expanded under Spanish rule, but some criollos complained about royal taxes and limitations on trade and production. Although the crown required that most Chilean commerce be with Peru, smugglers managed to sustain some illegal trade with other American colonies and with Spain itself. Chile exported to Lima small amounts of gold, silver, copper, wheat, tallow, hides, flour, wine, clothing, tools, ships, and furniture. Merchants, manufacturers, and artisans became increasingly important to the Chilean economy.

Mining was significant, although the volume of gold and silver extracted in Chile was far less than the output of Peru or Mexico. The conquerors appropriated mines and washings from the native people and coerced them into extracting the precious metal for the new owners. The crown claimed one-fifth of all the gold produced, but the miners frequently cheated the treasury. By the seventeenth century, depleted supplies and the conflict with the Araucanians reduced the quantity of gold mined in Chile.

Because precious metals were scarce, most Chileans worked in agriculture. Large landowners became the local elite, often maintaining a second residence in the capital city. Traditionally, most historians have considered these great estates (called haciendas or fundos) inefficient and exploitive, but some scholars have claimed that they were more productive and less cruel than is conventionally depicted.

The haciendas initially depended for their existence on the land and labor of the indigenous people. As in the rest of Spanish America, crown officials rewarded many conquerors according to the encomienda system, by which a group of native Americans would be commended or consigned temporarily to their care. The grantees, called encomenderos, were supposed to Christianize their wards in return for small tribute payments and service, but they usually took advantage of their charges as laborers and servants. Many encomenderos also appropriated native lands. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the encomenderos fended off attempts by the crown and the church to interfere with their exploitation of the indigenous people.

The Chilean colony depended heavily on coerced labor, whether it was legally slave labor or, like the wards of the encomenderos, nominally free. Wage labor initially was rare in the colonial period; it became much more common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Because few native Americans or Africans were available, the mestizo population became the main source of workers for the growing number of latifundios, which were basically synonymous with haciendas.

Those workers attached to the estates as tenant farmers became known as inquilinos. Many of them worked outside the cash economy, dealing in land, labor, and barter. The countryside was also populated by small landholders (minifundistas), migrant workers (afuerinos), and a few Mapuche holding communal lands (usually under legal title).

Bourbon Reforms, 1759-96

The Habsburg dynasty's rule over Spain ended in 1700. The Habsburgs' successors, the French Bourbon monarchs, reigned for the rest of the colonial period. In the second half of the eighteenth century, they tried to restructure the empire to improve its productivity and defense. The main period of Bourbon reforms in Chile lasted from the coronation of Charles III (1759-88) in Spain to the end of Governor Ambrosio O'Higgins y Ballenary's tenure in Chile (1788-96).

The Bourbon rulers gave the audiencia of Chile (Santiago) greater independence from the Viceroyalty of Peru. One of the most successful governors of the Bourbon era was the Irish-born O'Higgins, whose son Bernardo would lead the Chilean independence movement. Ambrosio O'Higgins promoted greater self-sufficiency of both economic production and public administration, and he enlarged and strengthened the military. In 1791 he also outlawed encomiendas and forced labor.

The Bourbons allowed Chile to trade more freely with other colonies, as well as with independent states. Exchange increased with Argentina after it became the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in 1776. Ships from the United States and Europe were engaging in direct commerce with Chile by the end of the eighteenth century. However, the total volume of Chilean trade remained small because the colony produced few items of high unit value to outsiders.

Freer trade brought with it greater knowledge of politics abroad, especially the spread of liberalism in Europe and the creation of the United States. Although a few members of the Chilean elite flirted with ideals of the Enlightenment, most of them held fast to the traditional ideology of the Spanish crown and its partner, the Roman Catholic Church. Notions of democracy and independence, let alone Protestantism, never reached the vast majority of mestizos and native Americans, who remained illiterate and subordinate.

Chile History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress