BERNARDO O Higgins is known as the Liberator of Chile and the man who led the country to independence from Spain but, strangely, his father had been Spanish Governor of Chile and one of the most important Spanish officials in the New World.
Ambrose Higgins was born in Sligo. Following the Cromwellian War, the family lost their lands and moved to become tenant famers in Meath. From there he went to Spain and then to the Spanish colonies in South America where he lived as a travelling trader, eventually settling in Argentina. He then went as assistant military governor to Chile where his successes led to a title from the King of Spain. He was appointed Governor of Chile and later Viceroy of Peru.
He met the daughter of a well-known Chilean family and they had a son, Bernardo. The existence of an illegitimate son would have ended any ambitions Ambrose had for advancement in the Spanish administration with the result that he never met his son or recognised him as his heir. Nevertheless, he did pay from him to be sent to Europe to be educated. While in London, Bernardo Francisco de Miranda became a firm believer in South American independence from Spain. On his father’s death, he inherited lands in Chile and property in Peru. Bernardo then settled down to the comfortable life of a landlord.
With the start of the Napoleonic Wars, Bernardo and other like-minded South Americans decided to seize their opportunity and rise against the Spanish. They managed to gain control of the local government and Bernardo became one of the leaders of the militia, where he was supported by another Irishman, John McKenna. As well as fighting those loyal to Spain, their forces sometimes fought among themselves – against the Carrera group. Following a setback, he retreated to Argentine where he regrouped and re-armed. They also recruited fresh troops among Chilean exiles and in 1818 crossed the Andes back into Chile, where he defeated the loyalists in two battles which guaranteed independence for the country.
Bernardo became Supreme Director of Chile and continued the fight leading to freedom for Peru. As ruler of Chile, he brought about many reforms including abolishing slavery. Initially his government worked well. They established courts, schools, hospitals and libraries. They aimed to set up a professional army and navy to defend the country. However, reportedly, he had a darker side and did not hesitate in disposing of his enemies, including the Carreras and leaders of the other wing of the liberation struggle. A move to end titles turned the aristocratic landowners against him, he fell out with the Catholic Church and when the country went bankrupt, the business community opposed him. These, together with his attacks on his internal enemies, led to him being forced from power by a group led by one of his former supporters.
He was left with no other option other than exile and he sailed from Valparaiso, intending to return to Ireland. En route he stopped in Peru, was persuaded to remain there and he died in Lima in 1842.
Bernardo O Higgins, liberator of Chile and son of Sligo landowners, was declared Supreme Director of Chile on February 16, 1817 – 195 years ago this week.