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Bernardo O'Higgins

Libertador de Chile - a red-haired Irish/Chilean


No one expected the illegitimate son of a young daughter of an aristocratic, Chilean family and an Irish engineer named Ambrose O'Higgins, who was in the service of the Spanish crown, to amount to much. His mother was Isabel Riquelme, the daughter of Don Simón Riquelme y Goycolea, prominent member of the Cabildo de Chillán, and Doña María Mercedes de Mesa y Ulloa, hidalgos from España. Theirs was an illustrious family and no doubt wanted to keep an illegitimate birth quiet, particularly when the father refused to marry the young girl. Two years after the boy's birth, Isabel married Don Félix Rodríguez with whom she had a daughter, Rosa Rodríguez Riquelme.

The boy, born on August 20, 1778, was known as Bernardo Riquelme, using his mother's surname. His early years were spent in obscurity as his father continued to rise in his profession.

Though Don Ambrosio, as he was known in South America, rarely saw his son, he made sure he was baptized and educated, first in Chile and Peru and then in England. In Richmond, Bernardo studied what would now be called a liberal arts course, with history, geography, music, French, painting and other subjects. In London, Bernardo met Sebastián Francisco de Miranda y Rodríguez, a young Venezuelan who became his mentor in revolutionary thinking. After his years in England, reported as unhappy and penurious despite his father's allowance, Bernardo moved to Spain.

There he met and formed a friendship with José de San Martín, later the liberator of Argentina. He lived in Spain until 1800 when he decided to return to Chile. His ship was turned back by the British, then fighting the Spanish and French, and he returned to Cadiz suffering from yellow fever. His return to South America was postponed until 1802, at which time he assumed his father's surname.

Bernardo inherited his father's estates, Hacienda Las Canteras in Las Laja near Los Angeles and began his adult life in Chile as a gentleman farmer. He was soon elected as a delegate from La Laja to the Cabildo in Chillan, and began his public life.

During this period, Napoleon invaded Spain and placed his brother Joseph on the throne. Loyalists formed juntas on the mainland and the Peninsular Wars went on for years. This caused confusion for the Spanish colonies who refused to acknowledge Joseph or the rebel leaders. On September 18, 1810, criollo leaders met in Santiago and and decided on limited self-government until the Spanish throne was restored. This date is now celebrated as Chile's Independence Day.

The first governor was a military leader named José Miguel Carrera Verdugo who provoked widespread antagonism. Although all ports were now opened to foreign trade, something the Spanish crown had forbidden, there were those who chafed at limited self-government and wanted complete independence, including Bernardo O'Higgins who was elected as the Deputy from Los Angeles to the first National Congress. Opponents of the independence, the royalists who wanted Chile to return to royal rule, began to foment opposition to the Congress. This period of Chilean history is termed the Patria Vieja.

Bernardo recognized the need for an armed militia and using his inheritance, formed two cavalry companies with the huasos, or cowboys, and peasants who worked his estates. Following instructions in military tactics from Colonel Juan MacKenna, he assumed the rank of colonel. His militia got the first taste of battle in the 1813 Sorpresa del Roble, where Bernardo distinguished himself for bravery in leading a cavalry charge against the royalist factions. His exhortation "¡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) lives in Chilean history.

Following this victory, Bernardo was named Commander in Chief of the Army and went on to several more victories. The campaigns went well until the middle of the next year when a series of losses led to Bernardo's being replaced as head of the army and culminated in the defeat of the Battle of Rancagua in October, 1814. Against superior enemy forces and armaments, the army fought for thirty-six hours before breaking out and taking refuge in Argentina.

The Patria Vieja was no more. The royalists, with help from Peru, were victorious and began the Reconquista, or the Reconquest of Chile.

Ahead lay years of revolution.

Please read the next page for Bernardo's parentage, and page three for the Wars of Independence.

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