O’Higgins was born on August 20, 1778 to an Irish father and a Spanish mother. His father, Ambrose, was elected Prime Minister of Chile in 1788, paving the way for his son to become an important figure in Chile’s history. Bernardo left for Peru to attend college, later travelling to England and Spain. By 1801, he returned to Chile after his father’s death. When he returned, he became involved in politics and was a key member of the nationalist movement.
In 1808, Spain was in turmoil as French armies swept through the country. Seeing their opportunity, many South Americans rose up against imperial rule. Two years later, politicians in Santiago announced independence and elected new leaders of the rebelling nation. The initial process was peaceful, as Chilean nationalists did not bother with relations to the Viceroyalty of Peru (one of Spain’s two American colonial regions). However, Spain returned with force in 1814 and attempted to reclaim Chile and other rebellious nations. At the Battle of Rancagua on Oct 1-2, Bernardo O’Higgins led Chilean troops against veteran Spanish forces of the Napoleonic Wars. O’Higgins was crushed. Without reinforcements from Santiago, the Chileans suffered some 1,000 casualties out of an initial force of 2,000. This battle marked the beginning of the Reconquista of America.
O’Higgins fled to neighbouring Argentina where he and Argentine nationalist, Jose de San Martin, began forming a new army. In January 1817, the two returned to Chile with their new force, the Army of the Andes. San Martin’s tactical genius and O’Higgins’ decisiveness won the Battle of Chacabuco. The Battle of Maipu was on April 5, 1818 near Santiago. The 5,000-strong Army of the Andes attacked Manuel Osorio’s Spanish force. Using his grenadiers and cazadores to his advantage, O’Higgins countered Spanish attacks while San Martin attacked with the main force and artillery. The victory at Maipu is viewed as the decisive battle for Chile’s independence.
O’Higgins went on to create the Chilean Navy later that year, as well as becoming the leader of Chile itself. While in power, he tried removing power of the oligarchy, but failed to do so. Regular attacks on Spanish Royalists and other supporters tainted his reign, as his campaigns became known as the Guerra de Muerte. O’Higgins abdicated in 1823 after losing popular support, and was exiled to Argentina. Years later, O’Higgins and his family were allowed to return but cardiac issues caused him many problems. He became an avid supporter of the navy and colonization before his death in 1842. His last words were “Magallanes…magallanes” which showed his pro-colonisation ideals. Chile did control the Strait of Magellan later on after his death.
O’Higgins is revered in Chile to this day. Massive celebrations occurred on the bicentenary of his birth in 1978, and a Chilean football team is named in his honour. While not as remembered as Bolivar, O’Higgins was an advocat of Latin American independence, one of Chile’s most important founding fathers, and a bold general to be remembered.