Last week I had the pleasure to attend in the London Borough of Richmond the celebration of the anniversary of the birth of Bernardo O’Higgins. O’Higgins was the illegitimate son of an Irishman from Sligo who rose to prominence in the Spanish colonies of Latin America. Ambrose O’Higgins, known in South America as Ambrosio, at the age of 57 seduced a beautiful young girl of eighteen having promised to marry her. On 20 August 1778 Isabel Riquelme gave birth to a child, christened Bernardo because he was born on the feast of St Bernard. The monstrous old man, having taken advantage of the girl, now abandoned any pretence of intending marriage and resumed his official duties elsewhere. Her father made no scandal, probably from fear of the powerful seducer.
Bernardo’s father never publicly acknowledged his son’s existence because he was afraid it would limit his career. He rose to the extraordinary position of Viceroy of Peru, becoming very wealthy. From time to time he would intervene in his son’s life, always through intermediaries. When Bernardo was 16 his father sent him to London to study. He spent four years in Richmond studying history, law, the arts and music. But it was also there that he met Francisco de Miranda, who was at the centre of a London circle of Latin Americans opposed to the Spanish crown. Bernardo went by his mother’ surname, Riquelme, but de Miranda knew who his father was and groomed him as a potential courier. Perhaps it was here in Richmond that the young Bernardo set out on the path that was to make him one of the Liberators of his native Chile as an independent nation.
In 1998 the people of Richmond, helped by the Chilean Embassy, the Anglo-Chilean Society of which my wife is the current Secretary, and some major businesses, erected a bust of Bernardo O’Higgins in O’Higgins Square next to a bridge over the River Thames.[i]
This marked the 200th
anniversary of the year O’Higgins left Richmond after a four-year stay. Every year on his birthday, the Ambassador of Chile and the Military Attaché lay a wreath representing the Chilean flag in O’Higgins’ honour. The Mayor of Richmond also lays a wreath as do other associated bodies. This year Mary Higgins, four times great grand-daughter of the great man also laid a wreath. Everyone remarked on the similarity of her nose and her vivid blue eyes to the portraits of O’Higgins that we have seen.
Colonel Sergio Gutiérrez, the Military Attaché, spoke solemnly of the importance of General and President Bernardo O’Higgins to the foundation and independence of the Chilean nation. After the ceremony we repaired to York House, the municipal headquarters of Richmond Council, though actually in Twickenham, for a Vin d’Honneur though obviously the Vin was Vino Chileno. There were more speeches; from the Ambassador, David Gallagher who was born in Chile but of Irish origin, so he has a particular interest in O’Higgins; from the Mayor of the London Borough of Richmond, Councillor Nancy Baldwin, who spoke sincerely of the pride Richmond has in this unusual association; from Mary Higgins who admitted to making her first public speech but did it very well and also showed her pride in her ancestor’s achievements; and from her cousin James Higgins of University College, Dublin.
After leaving Richmond Bernardo went to Spain as the French Revolutionary Wars delayed his return to the Americas. His father died in 1801 leaving him a large tract of land near the Chilean city of Los Angeles. He returned to Chile in 1802 now adopting his father’s surname and took up the life of a gentleman farmer. In 1806, he was appointed as the representative of Laja to the cabildo, the Captain-General’s advisory council.
In 1808, Napoleon seized control of Spain, which sparked a sequence of events in South America. In Chile, the commercial and political elite elected to form an autonomous government to rule in the name of the imprisoned king Ferdinand VII. Napoleon kept him under guard and placed his brother Joseph as king. In Chile, as across Latin America and Spain herself, this was not widely accepted. The criollo[ii]
leaders in Spain in Chile formed a limited self-government, but with the aim of restoring the legitimate Spanish throne. Nevertheless this date is recognised as Chile’s Independence Day, 18th
Among others, these efforts were led by Juan Martínez de Rozas, an old friend of Ambrosio O’Higgins who had also become friendly with the young Bernardo. He was more radical than most of the others but believed that the path to true independence lay through negotiation. O’Higgins by contrast saw correctly that Chile needed to establish an effective army to consolidate her independence. He also strongly recommended that a national congress be created, and was elected a deputy to the first National Congress of Chile as a representative of the Laja district.
Rivalries developed between those favouring the restoration of legitimate royalty which included O’Higgins, and those more in favour of Chilean nationalism. But there were also geographic differences, the former based in the southern city of Concepcion and the latter in Santiago. O’Higgins also supported a broader Latin American focus led by the influential Argentine José de San Martin. The rival group was led by José Miguel Carrera, with whom O’Higgins would come into increasing rivalry. But at this stage Carrera and his brothers were dominant, mounting several coups to seize power.
In 1812 De Rozas gave O’Higgins his first military appointment, but a quite junior one. Perhaps this was because of his illegitimate birth, his occasional bouts of poor health or his lack of military training. And he was still only 34! But while he lacked formal military training he had received instruction from Juan Mackenna, another immigrant of Irish descent and a former associate of Ambrosio’s, who focused mainly on the importance of cavalry. Mackenna also urged O’Higgins to learn the use of carbine, sword and lance from a sergeant of dragoons, to learn to ride to the required military standard, and then to learn how to command.
Ferdinand having been restored in 1813, the Spanish sent a force under Brigadier Antonio Pareja to reconquer Chile. O’Higgins, after a brief time in the army had retired through poor health back to his estates, but when he heard of the invasion he mobilised his local troops and joined up with Carrera who was in charge of the new army. Carrera sent O’Higgins to cut off the Spanish at Linares; O’Higgins succeeded and was promoted to colonel. He was now to fight with obvious if sometimes reckless bravery that brought him fame. Fighting at the Battle of El Roble under Carrera, O’Higgins took effective command at a crucial moment and gave one of his more famous orders:
“Lads! Live with honour, or die with glory! He who is brave, follow me!”
There followed a chaotic period in which, after beating the Spanish, O’Higgins and Carrera turned to fighting each other. The Junta in Santiago gave command to O’Higgins. Carrera was captured and imprisoned by the royalist forces. But once released he overthrew the Junta in a coup in July 1814. Again O’Higgins and Carrera fought this time with defeat for O’Higgins. They decided to reunite the army but were badly beaten by the Spanish at the bitterly fought Battle of Rancagua. O’Higgins managed to break out with a few of his men, with the order:
“Those who can ride, ride! We will break through the enemy!”
Carrera, O’Higgins and the remaining nationalists retreated to Argentina where they had to wait for three years while the royalists were in control. In exile O’Higgins joined forces with San Martin and together they took an heroic expedition over the Andes in 1817 winning the first battle of this new campaign at Chacabuco. 500 Spanish soldiers were killed and 600 taken prisoners. The Patriot forces lost 12 men in the battle, though 120 more died later of their wounds. The next battle at Cancha Rayada in 1818 went to the royalists but at the decisive Battle of Maipu the Patriots gained the ultimate victory. Now Chile was free it offered the top position of power to San Martin. He turned it down because his business was not finished elsewhere in South America. O’Higgins accepted the position instead as Supreme Director. He was not yet 40 years old. On 12 February 1818 Chile proclaimed itself an independent republic.
For six years O’Higgins’ government largely functioned well. He established courts, colleges, libraries, hospitals, cemeteries, markets, and started major improvements in agriculture. He made important military reforms too, founding the Chilean Military Academy in 1817, aiming to professionalise the officer corps. He also founded the modern Chilean Navy under the command of the Nelsonian officer Lord Cochrane. Cochrane had won important victories against the Spanish and later helped the Brazilians and the Greeks gain their independence from Portugal and Turkey respectively. [iii]
But sadly O’Higgins started to alienate key forces, the Church, large landowners and then business people as he tried to introduce more wide-ranging reforms such as the establishment of democracy and abolition of titles of nobility. The government became bankrupt and he sent someone to the UK to negotiate a £1 million loan – Chile’s first foreign debt. To keep power O’Higgins established a new constitution but this only antagonised his opponents more and they rallied round Ramón Freire, formerly one of O’Higgins most loyal officers, but who had increasingly turned away, resigning in 1822.
January 1823 O’Higgins was deposed by a conservative coup. O’Higgins abdicated in characteristically dramatic fashion. He bared his chest and offered up his life should his accusers demand it of him. In return, the junta declared they held nothing against O’Higgins, and saluted him. In consolation they gave him the governorship of Concepción, once held by his father, but he only stayed in the role briefly. He decided to leave Chile.
In July 1823 he took the British corvette Fly
bound for Ireland. However, the ship called in at Lima where he was invited by the greatest of all the Liberators, Simón Bolivar, to join the nationalist effort there. Bolivar’s government granted him estates near Lima and he lived in exile there with his family. In 1842 the National Congress of Chile voted to allow O’Higgins to return to Chile. He set out on the journey but was overcome by cardiac problems. His doctor ordered him to return to Lima where he died on 24th
October, 1842 aged 64.
His body was returned to Chile where it lies in the new underground Crypt of the Liberator in Santiago. There are memorials to Bernardo O’Higgins in many parts of Chile. As well as place names, parks and statues there is even an administrative region named Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins Region in his honour. As well as the bust in Richmond there is a plaque in his honour in both Dublin and Sligo in Ireland, the birthplace of his father. There are also sculptures or plaques in Argentina, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Spain and Australia. The Chilean Navy has named several successive ships after him and more recently the Chilean Base General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme research station in Antarctica was named in his honour.
Like all heroes some myths and legends have grown up around him. Every nation needs its mythology. It is part of the human psyche. But there is no question about the crucial role Bernardo O’Higgins played in the liberation of Chile from colonial rule and her foundation as an independent nation. His Excellency David Gallagher, the Chilean Ambassador, even speculated in his speech what might have transpired if O’Higgins had stayed on the Fly
instead of getting off at Lima. If he had reached Ireland might he have wanted to get involved in the politics of what was then still part of Britain?