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An isolated strip of land: 16th - 18th century

Chile consists of a long narrow strip lying between the high Andes and the Pacific. It is some 2650 miles from top to bottom, but only the central section of 500 miles or so is easily habitable. To the north of this is continuous desert, including some of the driest recorded places in the world with only 1.5 mm of annual rainfall. To the south, until modern times, there has been dense forest. Moreover, unlike Peru and Bolivia beyond the northern desert, Chile conceals no enticing veins of gold or silver.

As a result, although colonized by Europeans from as early as the 1540s, Chile remains sparsely settled and a poor relation within the Spanish empire.

In this it is similar to Argentina, and like Argentina it has an easy start on its path to independence in the early 19th century. As in Buenos Aires and just four months later (on 18 September 1810) an open town meeting in the capital, Santiago, elects a junta of local worthies to replace the Spanish governor.

For four years the junta governs successfully, introducing liberal measures of reform. As yet there is no intervention by Spanish royalist forces from neighbouring Peru. But an invasion in 1814 results in defeat at Rancagua for a Chilean army commanded by Bernardo O'Higgins (son of a Chilean mother and of an Irish officer in the service of Spain). O'Higgins escapes across the Andes into Argentina, where he finds an ally in José de San Martín.

Chile and San Martín: 1817-1820

For three years San Martín and O'Higgins gather and train an army for an invasion of Chile. By January 1817 they are ready. They lead a force of 5000 men on a twenty-day march through two high passes in the Andes. As many as 2000 of their force fall by the wayside, whether from death or illness in the extreme cold and high altitude (though the season is summer). Even so, the arrival of the survivors in Chile is so surprising that the Spanish have little time to gather troops in defence of Santiago.

The battle of Chacabuco is fought near the capital on 12 February 1817 and is won by the revolutionaries. San Martín and O'Higgins enter Santiago three days later.

San Martín is greeted as the liberator of Chile and is offered the role of governor, but he urges instead the appointment of O'Higgins - who becomes 'supreme director' of the nation. With royalist forces still a threat, independence is not formally proclaimed until 12 February 1818. The need for caution is demonstrated by the fact that the conclusive battle, finally securing Chile's independence, is fought only a few miles from Santiago - at Maipu on 5 April 1818.

Meanwhile San Martín is preparing the next stage of his campaign of liberation. Another army is being gathered, against Peru. And an envoy is sent to London to invite a brilliant buccaneer, Thomas Cochrane, to create a Chilean navy.

San Martín and Peru: 1818-1821

Cochrane, an eccentric Scottish nobleman, has made a dashing reputation for his exploits at sea during the Napoleonic wars but he has been dismissed from the British navy because of financial fraud. He accepts the Chilean invitation and arrives at Valparaiso in November 1818.

The Chilean navy consists of just seven ships, ranging from fifty to fourteen guns. The Spanish fleet on the Pacific coast is more than twice as powerful, but over the next two years Cochrane harries the enemy and attacks coastal forts in Peru until the advantage changes. His most famous exploit is stealing from Callao harbour, one dark night in November 1820, the Esmeralda - the largest and fastest frigate in Spain's Peruvian fleet.

Ten days previously Cochrane's squadron has landed near Lima an invading army of 4200 men, transported up the coast from Chile under the command of San Martín. The mere news of their arrival causes an entire Spanish battalion of 650 local Creoles to change sides and come over to the rebel cause. In this atmosphere, and to the fury of Cochrane, San Martín decides to wait for a Spanish withdrawal from Lima rather than attack the capital city directly.

Eventually, on 6 July 1821, the royalist garrison begins a retreat inland to a more secure position in the Andes. San Martín enters Lima on July 9 and proclaims Peruvian independence (on July 28) with himself as 'Protector'.

O'Higgins, Freire and Portales: 1817-1837

With San Martín away in Peru, Bernardo O'Higgins is now unmistakably the strong man of Chile - of which he has been the 'supreme director' since 1817. Allowed the powers of a dictator, O'Higgins begins to put into effect his liberal principles.

In the central political issue of the early 19th century, liberal versus conservative, a strong liberal policy means a serious attack on the privileges of the landed aristocracy and the Roman Catholic church (see Liberal and conservative). O'Higgins takes steps to abolish titles of nobility. And he attempts to reduce Chile's vast agricultural estates by banning the principle of mayorazgo, which reserves the entire property for the eldest son.

If these measures offend the aristocracy, O'Higgins has similar shocks in store for the church. He asserts the right of the state to supervise ecclesiastical appointments; he attempts to limit the number of saints' days; he favours secular schools rather than Catholic ones; he allows Protestants as well as Catholics to be buried in the nation's cemeteries; he encourages the import of foreign books.

These liberal measures may perhaps please as many as they offend, but O'Higgins also commits a cardinal error in any ruler; he fails to pay the wages of the army. By 1823 he is so unpopular that he is forced to resign. He spends the rest of his life in neighbouring Peru.

In the confusion after O'Higgins' departure another liberal, Ramón Freire, wins power and rules as a dictator until 1830. As hostile as O'Higgins to the church, Freire attempts in 1828 to impose on Chile a liberal and anti-clerical constitution. This has the effect of clarifying the struggle at the heart of Chilean politics by provoking the emergence of two parties - the conservative pelucones ('bigwigs') and the liberal pipiolos ('novices').

By 1830 the hostility between these two groups has escalated into civil war. Freire and the liberals are decisively defeated in a battle at Lircay in April of that year.

The conservative victory at Lircay introduces an uninterrupted thirty-year rule in Chile by the pelucones. The most powerful man from the start of their administration is Diego Portales, a classic example of the south American caudíllo. Using strong-arm methods to silence any opposition, he introduces in 1833 a constitution with a highly centralized bureaucracy, designed to operate in the oligarchic interests of aristocracy and church.

Portales' autocratic rule stabilizes the nation and improves the economy. And in 1836 he makes a strong gesture of national confidence when he takes Chile into the first of two 19th-century wars against Peru and Bolivia.

Triangular conflicts: 1835-1884

During the first few decades of their existence as the independent nations of Peru, Bolivia and Chile, the three Andean provinces of the old viceroyalty of Peru engage in two bouts of war.

The issue on the first occasion is a straightforward attempt at dominance by a typical Latin American caudíllo. Andrés Santa Cruz establishes himself from 1828 as dictator in Bolivia - after failing in an attempt in the previous year to be elected president of Peru. In 1835 he takes steps to correct this error of judgement by the Peruvians. He marches into Peru with an army from Bolivia.

During 1836 Santa Cruz successfully wins control in Peru and proclaims a new Peruvian-Bolivian confederation with himself as president. But the potential strength of this new neighbour alarms Chile, which goes on the offensive. Three years of warfare end in a Chilean victory. In 1839 Santa Cruz is thrown out of both Peru and Bolivia.

The next serious conflict between the three nations is by contrast entirely economic in origin. In the 1860s valuable deposits of nitrates are discovered in the Atacama desert. This region is so arid that it has previously been considered useless except as Bolivia's only access to the sea (the coast around Antofagasta is at first included in the newly independent republic of Bolivia).

A mutual distrust of Chile causes Peru and Bolivia in 1873 to make a secret alliance which later drags them both into war. In 1878 Bolivia attempts to impose increased taxes on Chilean enterprises in Bolivian territory, following this with a threat of expropriation. Chile, retaliating in February 1879, seizes the port of Antofagasta. By April all three nations are at war.

Two Chilean naval victories over Peru later in the year (off Iquique in May and Angamos in October) are followed by an invasion. In January 1880 Chilean forces take Lima. They remain in the city until a treaty is signed in 1883 at Ancón. A separate truce follows a year later between Chile and Bolivia.

The outcome of this conflict, known as the War of the Pacific, is a disaster for both Bolivia and Peru. Bolivia cedes to Chile its Pacific coastline and the nitrate-rich province of Antofagasta, while Chile in return merely agrees to build a railway from La Paz to the coast and to guarantee the unrestrained passage of Bolivian goods to certain ports. Peru loses the equally valuable minerals of the Tarapacá province, stretching up the coast north of Antofagasta.

With this increase in territory, and the prestige of its two successive victories, Chile replaces Peru as the main Pacific power in south America.

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