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

At the dawn of the 19th century, every inch of the continent of South America was claimed by either Spain or Portugal. Thirty years later, these Iberian empires had collapsed spectacularly, leaving the many and varied South American nations that are still with us today.

The Chilean war of independence, culminating in a declaration in February 1818, is a microcosm of this extraordinary and little-known time in world history.

The Spanish decline

The Spanish Empire at its height – the territories in red were lost between 1808 and 1833

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.

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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 painting of Toro Zambrano.

“Take it and rule”

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.”

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.

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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.

José Miguel Carrera, the flawed dictator.

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. With a lot of British help, Spain 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.

The Battle of Rancagua, 1-2 October 1814, where O’Higgins and his army were decisively defeated.

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

Resurgence

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. 

O’Higgins overlooks his forces as the Battle of Chacabuco.

Chacabuco and a British helping hand

After a bold and daring crossing of the great mountain range, they managed to engage the Spanish forces and win a decisive victory at the battle of Chacabuco in February. Chilean independence was now looking like it could become a reality.

Over the next year, Santiago was consolidated for the rebels and San Martín was offered the role of Supreme Director of the new country. Graciously, the Argentinian declined and instead offered the post to his friend O’Higgins, who would hold it until 1823.

On the anniversary of Chacabuco O’Higgins produced a carefully prepared document declaring that Chile was now an independent nation.

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Though the war was not over, the arrival from Britain of the famous “sea wolf” Captain Cochrane to command her navies helped swing the pendulum even further in the rebel’s favour.

In 1820 Cochrane stormed the Spanish stronghold of Valdivia with a tiny number of men in one of the most daring naval actions in history, and all trace of resistance had been vanquished by 1826. It had taken many years, but the liberation of Chile was a great success.

A painting of the Capture of Valdivia by Cochrane’s forces in the Chilean Naval and Maritime Museum.

The country was not recognised by Spain until 1844, but survives to this day to hug the mountainous Pacific coast.