Bernardo O'Higgins: The Rebel Son of a Viceroy
By Alfredo Sepúlveda



During this time he got in touch with Venezuelan independence leader Francisco de Miranda, an experienced revolutionary who had fought against the English in the American Revolution and served under the flag of the French Republic. Miranda was trying to form a network of young South American revolutionaries.

De la Cruz finally got the young man back to Spain, but more complications followed. Bernardo tried to return to Chile but his ship was captured by the English and he ended up in prison in Gibraltar. Eventually he made his way to Cádiz only to fall seriously ill with yellow fever. He almost died. By this time Ambrose had written to De la Cruz that he was no longer responsible for his son. It is to be supposed that Bernardo's affiliation with Miranda was by then known in Madrid. However, Ambrose died while Bernardo's answer was on its way to Lima, and surprisingly left his son a generous inheritance, 'Las Canteras,' a sizeable tract of land in Southern Chile on the frontier with the Mapuche lands where Bernardo had been born.

From Landlord to National Leader

For a number of years, Bernardo was more landlord than revolutionary, although he continued writing letters to 'radical' friends he had met in Cádiz and who now lived in Buenos Aires. It was in those days that he befriended one of his most important mentors, Juan Martinez de Rozas, a former aide to his father and by then the most powerful man in Southern Chile, and a strong force in colonial politics. In 1811, Bernardo had to go to Santiago.

A few months before, due to Ferdinand VII's imprisonment in Bayonne, France, Santiago's aristocrats had formed a 'junta' that was to organise a National Congress that would rule in lieu of the captured king. Bernardo was sent as a representative of Los Angeles town to this congress. However, his role was small and menial. He served as a puppet of Martinez de Rozas. He subsequently got sick again and pretty much disappeared from local politics.

José Miguel Carrera (1785-1821)
(Colección Biblioteca Nacional

In the first year or so of the Chilean independence process, Martinez de Rozas and his party were in conflict with José Miguel Carrera, a hot-tempered young aristocrat who defied the establishment and claimed power for himself. Carrera and his two brothers were more radical than Martinez de Rozas in terms of leading the revolution. Soon regional tensions between Santiago and Concepción were impossible to overcome, and Martinez and Carrera were on the verge of war. Though O'Higgins put many of his peasants at the service of Concepción's army, Martinez awarded him only a minor military position, probably because his illegitimate origin. O'Higgins' health became increasingly problematic, and by the end of 1812 he had abandoned everything and moved back to his estate.

In 1813, Peru's viceroy had decided to crush the revolutions in his domains (although technically Chile was not part of the Viceroyalty), and sent a professional army to return the situation to the status quo ante. Bernardo joined the army under the command of Carrera. He had never received any professional training, but managed to obtain advice from Irish-born colonel John Mackenna, also a former associate of Ambrose. Mackenna never trained O'Higgins, but in a long letter told him who to contact: 'any dragoon sergeant.'

Now the war was for real. This was no longer a war between 'Chileans' and 'Spaniards,' but rather a civil confrontation between Chileans who did not recognise any authority from Lima and Chileans who supported Lima, aided by fresh troops from Peru and some Spanish-born officers. O'Higgins did not excel in the first stages of the campaign, although he did fight bravely at the disastrous siege of Chillán, where the patriots upheld their positions during a particularly rainy, cold and muddy winter.

The siege could not make Chillán surrender, dissipating Carrera's support in Santiago. Then came the battle of El Roble. In the middle of the fighting, Carrera fled while O'Higgins took command and surprisingly won the battle, allegedly shouting 'To die with honour or live with glory!.' The Santiago junta took command of the army away from Carrera and gave it to O'Higgins.

In the battlefields things were a little more complicated. Carrera enjoyed a high level of support among his men, as did O'Higgins. Bernardo was now assisted by John Mackenna. Martinez had died in exile in Mendoza. O'Higgins met Carrera in Concepción, where Carrera finally surrendered the army command to Bernardo and left the city. However, en route to Santiago, the royalists kidnapped and jailed Carrera in Chillán.

Thus the road to victory was opened up for O'Higgins and his supporters. The war, a savage campaign fought mostly by poor peasants in rags with no option but to fight alongside their landlords, had left the land exhausted: no money, no food, no stock to feed the thousands of men in arms. Both sides signed a treaty by the Lircay river in May 1814 to end hostilities. O'Higgins was one of the signatories. In his prison cell Carrera cursed him.

Feuds: O'Higgins and José Miguel Carrera

For years, Chilean historians were divided between those who supported Carrera and those who supported O'Higgins. The Irish-Chilean eventually won out. Santiago's main street is named after O'Higgins, as is the Military Academy, and an entire administrative region a few kilometres south of Santiago bears the name of 'Sixth Region of the Liberator, General Bernardo O'Higgins.' Bernardo's grave is situated in front of the Presidential Palace, while Carrera's skull has allegedly been recently discovered in the basement of a private house in Santiago.

The hatred between the two men was not extinguished by their deaths. Supporters of O'Higgins claim that the general was tricked by Santiago's junta, and that he actually wanted to keep waging war because by May 1814, he thought he could win it. Carrerians despise O'Higgins because he accepted as one of the treaty's points the restitution of the Spanish flag and the King's coat of arms. However the treaty included the liberation of all prisoners. Soon Carrera and his brother Luis were in route to Talca, where O'Higgins' army was located, instead of being shipped to Valparaíso as had been agreed. Carrera was now a bigger threat to the junta than the royalists, and in July 1814 he staged a new coup d' état that resulted in Mackenna being exiled to Mendoza as O'Higgin's ally.

O'Higgins decided to ignore the royalists in Southern Chile and moved the whole patriot army to Santiago, to defy Carrera. They clashed in the infamous and often forgotten battle of Tres Acequias, where O'Higgins was defeated, though he suffered only minor losses. While he was preparing to attack Carrera the next day, O'Higgins received a message. The Treaty of Lircay had been ignored by the Viceroy and a powerful army of professional soldiers fresh from Lima, as well as volunteers from Chile's southern and staunchly royalist provinces of Chiloé and Valdivia, had disembarked in Talcahuano, a few kilometres from Concepción. Carrera always thought that O'Higgins had had some sort of secret agreement with the Chilean royalists in order to attack him. But the Viceroy, who saw all supporters of independence as dangerous revolutionaries did not make any distinctions. The two men decided to put an end to their differences and prepare to battle the enemy, led now by a new royalist leader, General Mariano Osorio.

Battle of Rancagua, October 1814 in: El ostracismo del jeneral D. Bernardo O'Higgins, by B. Vicuña Mackenna (Valparaíso, 1860). 
(Colección Biblioteca Nacional)

It was a weak alliance. O'Higgins agreed to renounce his position as Army commander and serve under Carrera. Preparations for the mother of all battles followed. The army was in a disastrous condition. Tres Acequias had destroyed most of the canons. Carrera raised a group of neophyte recruits, who in the space of a few weeks became officers. Most of the veterans had already died or deserted. The battle was to be in Rancagua, 90 km south of Santiago a strategic location for Central Chile. None of its resources had been touched by the war. The successive waves of patriot divisions sent to the war down south had still had their own resources when they arrived in Rancagua, and thus the city and its neighbouring farms had not been pillaged.

In the last days of September 1814, O'Higgins was sent to the city, although Carrera was not completely convinced of the location. He wanted to fight in Pelequén, a stretch of land comprising two mountain ranges south of Rancagua. But the patriots had not had time to fortify the Pelequén hills, and therefore O'Higgins and Carrera's brother Juan José agreed to wait for Osorio in Rancagua.


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2006

Online published: 1 October 2006
Edited: 07 May 2009

Sepúlveda, Alfredo,
Bernardo O'Higgins: The Rebel Son of a Viceroy' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 4:4 (October 2006). Available online (, accessed .


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