How Napoleon’s Conquest of Spain Led to Revolution in Chile | History Hit

How Napoleon’s Conquest of Spain Led to Revolution in Chile

Celeste Neill

12 May 2023
Chilean Declaration of Independence by Pedro Subercaseaux Errázuriz (1945)
Image Credit: Pedro Subercaseaux, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At the dawn of the 19th century, Spain and Portugal held firm control over South America, with their empires extending across the entire continent. However, the tide of change was inevitable, and the seeds of independence began to take root. The Chilean war of independence emerged as a pivotal event, showcasing the spirit of resistance against colonial rule.

The declaration of independence on 12 February 1818 marked a turning point in Chilean history, giving birth to a new nation.

The ripple effects of Chilean independence were felt throughout the region, inspiring other South American colonies to take up arms and fight for their own liberation. It ignited a wave of revolutionary fervour that swept across the continent, leading to the eventual downfall of Spanish and Portuguese rule.

The Spanish decline

Like with many a country in Europe, radical change to the status quo in Chile was brought about by the emergence of one man – Napoleon Bonaparte.

At the start of 1808 the relatively small and impoverished Spanish colony was one of the Empire’s most loyal and ably-governed, but Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and deposition of King Ferdinand later that year radically changed the situation.

Furthermore, Chile’s popular and experienced Captain-General Luis Muñoz de Guzmán died in February, giving the King no time to replace him before he ended up in a French jail.

King Ferdinand VII of Spain (cropped). Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: Vicent López Portaña, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Carrasco creates further instability

The post was seized by the Guzmán’s most senior military commander, Francisco García Carrasco, who was a rough-mannered corrupt and incompetent leader who managed to insult and alienate all the local elites, massively increasing their levels of unease and uncertainty.

The situation did not improve, and by the summer of 1810 Carrasco and the office of Captain-General had lost the remnants of authority that they had left, with Spain now clinging on for its existence. Carrasco responded to his weakened position with brutality, arbitrary arrests and deportation to Peru, making him so unpopular that he was forced to resign in July 1810.

The next most senior commander, Count Toro Zambrano, was 82 years old, feeble, and even less suited to the office than his predecessor. All the while, whispers in favour of greater autonomy for Chile, which had barely existed two years earlier, began to grow louder and louder.

A unique opportunity

Over the course of that year, a party known as the Juntistas – who wanted Chile to have its own Junta (ruling council), became more and more popular. By September they had hassled Zambrano so much that he agreed to hold a meeting to discuss their demands in the capital of Santiago.

They exploited this opportunity to grow even more forceful with him, until the old man slammed his ceremonial baton on the table and shouted “take it and rule.”

Portrait of Francisco García Carrasco (cropped). Image credit: Chilean National History Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Radical though this must have seemed at the time, the new Junta were careful to swear loyalty to the deposed King Ferdinand, and elect Zambrano as President to avoid the appearance of a coup.

In truth however, he had precious little power, and the Junta introduced nationalistic policies for Chile such as a national militia and new trade laws and tariffs.  Three parties began to develop as the new body matured, including the Exaltados, who wanted the highest degree of autonomy for Chile.

Their leader was the real power behind the throne in the country – Juan Martínez de Rozas. De Rozas was not seen as bold enough by the most radical Exaltados who were enjoying their taste of real power, however, and these men appointed José Miguel Carrera, a war veteran recently returned from Spain as their leader.

In 1811 Carrera decided to act, and after two attempted coups managed to depose De Rozas and begin a dictatorial regime.

Once he was firmly lodged in power, Carrera – supported by his deputy Bernardo O’Higgins- published a highly radical provisional constitution in 1812 which tellingly banned the taking of “any order that emanates from outside the territory of Chile.”

The Spanish Reconquista

Unfortunately for him, this was at a time where Spanish fortunes were beginning to revive. The country was no longer in danger of ultimate defeat by 1813, and its government was able to turn its eyes back to the wavering empire.

With rebellions in both Chile and Argentina, José Fernando de Abascal – the Viceroy of Peru – was ordered to restore imperial control.

He sent an amphibious force to the former, and Carrera’s incompetent leadership ended with O’Higgins engaging the enemy on his own with a fraction of the Chilean forces and suffering a spectacular defeat.

Utterly ruined, the rebel leader was forced to retreat to independent Argentina with the remnants of his army.

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Chile at this point was still very politically divided, and if the Spanish had treated those on the fence with grace then they might well have retained control of the colony. However, their treatment of potential rebels and political dissidents was extremely heavy-handed, and alienated many important figures who had not been pro-independence until this point.

O’Higgins, meanwhile, had formed an alliance with José de San Martín, the leader of the Argentinian rebels, and they were planning an exhibition to reconquer Santiago.

While they raised the men and arms they charged a patriotic lawyer, Manuel Rodríguez, with mounting a guerrilla campaign to tie down and harass the Spanish troops.

He did this with considerable success and became the romantic hero of the revolution, famously dressing up as a beggar and getting money off the Spanish governor himself, who failed to recognise the man with an enormous price on his head. By 1817, O’Higgins’ Army of the Andes was ready for a Reconquista. 

Bernardo O’Higgins, ‘libertador’ of Chile. Image credit: José Gil de Castro, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Chacabuco and a British helping hand

After successfully crossing the formidable mountain range, the rebels achieved a significant triumph over the Spanish forces at the Battle of Chacabuco in February, signaling the potential realization of Chilean independence.

In the following year, the rebels solidified their control over Santiago, and José de San Martín, the Argentine general, was offered the position of Supreme Director of the newly emerging nation. However, he graciously declined and instead recommended his friend O’Higgins for the role, which O’Higgins held until 1823.

On the anniversary of the Battle of Chacabuco, O’Higgins presented a meticulously prepared declaration affirming Chile’s independence as a sovereign nation.

Furthermore, the arrival of Captain Cochrane, a renowned British naval commander, significantly tipped the scales in favour of the rebels. Cochrane’s leadership bolstered the rebel forces, and in 1820, he audaciously captured the Spanish stronghold of Valdivia with a small number of men, effectively eliminating any remaining resistance. By 1826, the liberation of Chile was complete, marking a remarkable achievement after years of struggle.

Tags: Napoleon Bonaparte

Celeste Neill