He was the illegitimate son of an Irish soldier who rose to become the governor of Chile and the viceroy of Peru. But he never met his father or received his recognition.
He was the brave and charismatic general who led a ragtag army of rebels against the mighty Spanish empire. But he had no formal military training or experience.
He was the visionary leader who liberated Chile from colonial oppression and founded a new nation. But he was ousted by his enemies and died in exile.
He was Bernardo O’Higgins, the founding father of Chile and one of the heroes of Latin American independence. And he had a secret Irish heritage that shaped his destiny.
O’Higgins was born in 1778 in Chillán, a town in southern Chile that was then part of the Spanish colony of Peru. His father was Ambrosio O’Higgins, a native of County Sligo who had joined the Spanish army as a young man and climbed the ranks to become a powerful colonial administrator. His mother was Isabel Riquelme, a prominent local lady who never married Ambrosio.
O’Higgins spent his early years with his mother’s family and was never openly acknowledged by his father. He was sent to Lima and then to Spain and England for his education. In London, he became influenced by the ideas of Latin American independence and joined a secret Masonic lodge led by Francisco Miranda, a Venezuelan revolutionary.
In 1802, O’Higgins returned to Chile and inherited a large estate from his father, who had died in 1801. He became a gentleman farmer and a member of the local town council. He also joined the Patriotic Society, a group of intellectuals and reformers who advocated for more autonomy from Spain.
In 1810, Chile declared its independence from Spain after Napoleon invaded the Iberian Peninsula and deposed the Spanish king. O’Higgins joined the rebel army and fought against the loyalist forces. He proved to be a brave and charismatic leader, despite having no formal military training.
He collaborated with José de San Martín, an Argentine general who had liberated Argentina and Peru from Spanish rule. Together, they defeated the royalist army at the Battle of Chacabuco in 1817 and entered Santiago, the capital of Chile. O’Higgins was proclaimed Supreme Director of Chile, the first head of state of an independent Chilean nation.
O’Higgins faced many challenges as Supreme Director. He had to deal with internal divisions among the patriots, economic difficulties, social unrest, and external threats from Spain and its allies. He also implemented many reforms to modernize Chile, such as abolishing titles of nobility, promoting education and agriculture, creating a national flag and anthem, and abolishing slavery.
However, his authoritarian style and unpopular measures alienated many sectors of society. He faced several rebellions and conspiracies against his government. In 1823, he was forced to resign and go into exile in Peru. He never returned to Chile and died in Lima in 1842.
O’Higgins is widely regarded as one of Chile’s founding fathers and a hero of Latin American independence. He is also celebrated for his Irish heritage and his contribution to the cultural diversity of Chile. His legacy is honored by many monuments, streets, schools, and institutions that bear his name.