Bernardo O'Higgins
The Rebel Son of a Viceroy

By Alfredo Sepúlveda



In the small hours of 9 July 1824, Bernardo O'Higgins, the man who had ruled newly-independent Chile with an iron fist, was recovering from malaria in Trujillo, Peru. He had relinquished power. His lifelong second-in-command Ramón Freire, who had served under him in almost every battle of the Chilean independence campaign, had banished him. It had been a bitter argument. The Chileans were on the verge of a civil war, and O'Higgins ultimately decided that there was no point in going to a war against Freire, who had become ruler of the southern province of Concepción.

Bernardo O'Higgins (1778-1842), by Narciso Desmadryl 
(Colección Biblioteca Nacional)

Although it was not what he wanted, in January of 1823 O'Higgins surrendered power. It was a heated meeting with the Santiago leaders. Knives and swords were concealed among the audience, yet when Bernardo resigned, the small crowd roared in approval and saluted the brave men who had led the independence process.

O'Higgins now found himself in Trujillo, Peru, experiencing a second exile. From Chile he had planned on travelling to Ireland, the land of his father Ambrose, a Sligo-born and Meath-raised man who at the age of thirty had gone to Spain, worked in commerce, travelled thence to South America, joined the Spanish Army in Chile and ended his eighty-year-old life as Viceroy of Peru. Shortly after leaving the Chilean port of Valparaíso, O'Higgins changed his mind. He disembarked in Callao, the main Peruvian port, and stayed in that country with his family: his mother, his half-sister and his two children, a boy and a girl.

He was not a stranger in that country. Along with the Argentine general José de San Martín, O'Higgins had set up a naval force that sailed from Chile and defeated the Spaniards in Peru. He was welcomed, given property and a military title. However, the Spanish forces had re-taken Lima, and soon O'Higgins and his family were forced to flee northwards.

In Trujillo one day ran into another until O'Higgins received a letter. It was a warm-hearted message from Simon Bolívar, the leader of the South American independence process. He was seeking Chilean support, in the hope that O'Higgins few remaining friends in Chile might be interested in helping him to re-conquer Peru. 'A brave general like yourself,' wrote Bolívar, 'feared by enemies and experienced among our officers and leaders, cannot do anything more than give a new degree of appreciation to our army […] I offer you command […] appropriate to the distinction of any leader who wants to distinguish himself in the battlefield, a Colombian regiment under your orders must achieve victory.' (Valencia, 1980: 420) [1] 

Still suffering the after-effects of his bout of malaria, O'Higgins gained a new lease on life. All of a sudden, the excitement of the battle was upon him once again. Respected by friends and foes alike in battle for his bravery almost to the point of insanity, O'Higgins did not excel in many other fields. He was not a gifted politician, nor was he a member of the colonial aristocracy who ruled the central valley of Chile and controlled Chilean politics. O'Higgins had not married, but briefly kept a lover who gave him a son and then left him. He lived with his mother and sister. Neither was he a brilliant strategist. 'General O'Higgins was brave to the extreme,' wrote José de San Martín, one of his closest friends, many years later. 'But his military knowledge was nil.' (Ruiz, 2005: 228)  [2] In battle, he stopped being Bernardo and became General O'Higgins, a man who fought side by side with officers and peasant-soldiers alike, who was shot and almost died, who had undertaken the incredible crossing of the Andes from neighbouring Mendoza into central Chile.

Letter from Bernardo O'Higgins to his mother Isabel Riquelme, 17 March 1812
(Colección Biblioteca Nacional)

From Trujillo, O'Higgins departed in search of Bolívar's army, somewhere in the Peruvian Andes. The journey took him an entire month, during which the sick man crossed scorching deserts and high mountains on a trip that seemed to have no end. His ambition was to once again engage in battle against the detested 'godos' or 'sarracens' which was the derogatory title that the American independence fighters bestowed upon their foes-. When O'Higgins finally located Bolívar's army, he found that he had no place in it. Stunned, Bolívar gave O'Higgins the highest formal honours, but delegated to him only menial jobs. The General ended up as the special court-martial judge for Chilean volunteers. The rainy season was approaching and Bolívar did not plan on attacking the royalists. He suggested that O'Higgins return to Lima, which had by then been reconquered by the patriots. In the Peruvian capital O'Higgins learned of the battle of Ayacucho and the confirmation of Peru's independence. General O'Higgins was cordially invited to a celebratory banquet in Lima a few weeks later. He went as a civilian and declared that his days as a soldier were over. 'Seńor,' he toasted, addressing Bolívar, “America is free. From now on General O'Higgins does not exist; I am only Bernardo O'Higgins, a private citizen. After Ayacucho, my American mission is over.' (Valencia, 1980: 430) [3] 



From Chillán to Europe

Bernardo O'Higgins was born on 20 August 1778, in Chillán, a small village in southern Chile. His father, Ambrose Higgins, a Sligo-born 58-year-old military factotum in the service of the Spanish crown, was the most powerful man in what was known as 'the Frontier,' the region around the Bio-Bio river in southern Chile, no-man's land claimed by both the Spanish and the Mapuche. Though formally Ambrose's position was strictly military, by 1778 he had achieved renown in the eyes of the Spanish civilian authorities by defeating indigenous rebellions, and had been given carte blanche to operate in the region.

The previous summer, Ambrose O'Higgins had briefly camped on the estate of Simón Riquelme, a quiet, faint-hearted man who owned some land near Chillán. There he met and briefly courted Isabel, Simón's eighteen-year-old daughter. Soon Isabel was pregnant. It is possible that Ambrose had given Simón a promise to marry his daughter. The reason for a delay in the engagement was that as a European officer O'Higgins had to ask permission to marry a local woman.

Ambrose never fulfilled his promise; there are no records of the marriage, and he was soon thereafter to be found south of the border in a military campaign. He never saw Isabel again. Nor did he see his son. Isabel was hidden from public view, and the baby given to a local matron. Isabel was married shortly afterwards to an old friend of her father who died two years later. From that marriage a girl was born, Rosa.

The presence of the illegitimate child haunted Ambrose O'Higgins at first and later became an obsession. He soon took the baby away from Chillán and the Riquelmes, and put him in the care of a friend in Talca, some 250 km north of Chillán. Later the young Bernardo was sent back to Chillán, to a school run by the Franciscans for the Mapuche aristocracy. The monarchism of the priests in Chillán was in opposition to new ideas born of the French revolution, which, even in this remote part of the world, were beginning to wield influence. In Chillán Bernardo briefly saw his mother again, but was soon moved on again by his father, this time to Lima, the viceregal capital, where the young Chilean was educated at the best schools available. At one school, the Convictorio Carolino, Bernardo probably first heard the ideas of the European enlightenment: one of the priests, Toribio Rodríguez de Mendoza, was a remarkable enlightenment man, who believed in the power of mathematics and in the notion that he and his students were more Peruvian than Spanish. But yet again Bernardo had to leave, this time for a pressing reason. Ambrose had been nominated Viceroy of Peru, and an illegitimate son was not good for his reputation.

Timothy Eeles's [Eales] Catholic school in Richmond 
(Ejército de Chile)

Young Bernardo then left for Europe. It remains a mystery whether Ambrose intended to place his son in the army, in a commercial company or to make him engage in further studies. At first he lived briefly in Cádiz, in the care of Ambrose's friend and former business partner Nicolás de la Cruz, a Chilean-born and extremely wealthy merchant. Then Bernardo moved or was moved to London for reasons unknown. We know for certain that he lived in Richmond-upon-Thames, in the 'care' of Spencer and Perkins, two watchmakers who may have had an entrepreneurial connection with De la Cruz. Only a handful of documents have survived from this period of Bernardo's life. We know that in the last months of his London life, he attended and possibly lived at a private Catholic academy in Richmond run by a Timothy Eeles or Eales. Tradition has it that Bernardo courted Mr. Eales' daughter Charlotte, but the relationship ended abruptly. His last months in England were chaotic. Probably because of financial problems, or Bernardo's hectic social life, the watchmakers stopped supporting him and kept De la Cruz' money to pay off his debts. O'Higgins was left penniless and had to live with friends.


1 - 2 - 3


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 .


The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

 Copyright Information