Bernardo O'Higgins: The Rebel Son of a Viceroy
By Alfredo Sepúlveda



Crossing of the Andes by San Martín and O´Higgins, 
by Martín Boneo (1865)
(Instituto Nacional Sanmartiniano)

Osorio's forces were highly superior. The patriot forces held on for two days, until the royalists decided to set fire to the city. O'Higgins desperately called for José Miguel Carrera's division, still north of Rancagua. But Carrera either betrayed O'Higgins or O'Higgins did not understand the coded message Carrera sent him. From the bell tower of Rancagua's church O'Higgins saw Carrera's division advancing and then turning around and leaving. Carrera claimed that in the coded message he had told O'Higgins to leave, and as he approached the town he believed that he was leading his men to certain death. O'Higgins maintained that Carrera had compromised his forces by leaving.

Thousands of O'Higgins' men died that day. O'Higgins himself, in one of the acts of bravery for which he was famous, pushed forward with a few men and managed to escape.

What followed in Santiago was hellish. The patriots were defeated, the city ransacked, the public treasury lost. Most of the men committed to the cause of an independent Chile fled to Mendoza in Argentina. It was a disastrous exodus through the snow on a virtually unpassable track that even the mules found difficult to navigate. O'Higgins and Carrera would never again speak to each other, but would meet again in Mendoza, then under the command of José de San Martín.

Alliances: O'Higgins and José de San Martín

From their very first meeting, O'Higgins and San Martín found in each other kindred spirits. O'Higgins was humble and well-mannered, and had no problem in acknowledging San Martín's authority on the eastern side of the Andes, unlike Carrera. Rivalries between the two Chilean factions came to a head in Mendoza. Carrera managed to keep a small army and stationed himself in a Mendoza neighbourhood. Carrera even took some police in Mendoza prisoner when they arrived to investigate a raucous and drunken 'meeting' between Chilean soldiers and beautiful cuyanas.

O'Higgins, on the other hand, was considered by San Martín to be the leader of the Chilean emigrés. The Argentine leader took O'Higgins' side, believing that the defeat at Rancagua was Carrera's fault. Mendoza was now in danger. The Viceroy could launch an attack on the United Provinces from Chile any minute.

The United Provinces had been trying to secure their position by attacking Peru from Bolivia, but had so far been unsuccessful. During 1815 and part of 1816, the governor of Mendoza tried to convince the authorities in Buenos Aires to organise the invasion of Chile. It was not an easy task and required something that had never been done in terms of military logistics, making four thousand men safely cross the Andes, properly dressed, armed and fed. It was a monumental job, and a very expensive one. With Supreme Director Pueyrredón in power in Buenos Aires, San Martín finally had real support. The expedition would cross the Andes in the summer of 1817.

The expedition was successful. O'Higgins commanded two battalions mostly formed by black slaves from Cuyo who would earn their freedom if they survived the fighting. The Army of the Andes crossed the mountains and on 17 February 1817, clashed with the royalists in Chacabuco, a few kilometres north of Santiago. It was a clear victory, but O'Higgins charged when he was not supposed to and compromised the whole operation. The royalist forces fled Santiago and then disbanded. Some went to Lima, some to Talcahuano. San Martín hesitated in pursuing them, leaving the royalists able to win back strength in Talcahuano.

Battle of Chacabuco, 1817
(Colección Biblioteca Nacional)

When San Martín declined the position of Supreme Director of Chile, O'Higgins stepped into the fray. But soon he left town and moved south to engage in war. O'Higgins attempted to manage state affairs as best as he could. He stayed at Concepción, which had been occupied by the Patriots, and participated, in the midst of the rainy and cold winter, in the siege of Talcahuano (as well as battling the Mapuche, who had allied themselves with the royalists).

During most of 1817 and the beginning of 1818, O'Higgins' job was waging war. He fought in the mornings and afternoons, then went home to Concepción. There he met Rosario Puga, a good-looking married woman, and they became lovers. The sexual mores of the colonial era were gone, and the war made possible this very unlikely union. Puga later bore Bernardo a son, Demetrio. [4]

After a failed attempt to take Talcahuano in early December 1817, and facing the arrival of new royalist troops from Lima and Spain, again commanded by Osorio, O'Higgins, on the advice of San Martín, who had managed to recover in Santiago, left Concepción. The strategy was one of terra nullius: the whole town of Concepción was evacuated and its inhabitants began a sorrowful journey towards Santiago. Meanwhile, O'Higgins managed to move the Army to Talca. There he engaged in a disastrous battle against Osorio. At first, the Patriots were winning. Then they stayed the night at a place called Cancharayada, but didn't suspect that Osorio would counter-attack. O'Higgins almost died that night - a bullet destroyed his right elbow.

There were rumours of a tragedy in Santiago, Mendoza and Buenos Aires. O'Higgins and San Martín were presumed dead, and many Chileans began preparing for a change of government. Then Manuel Rodríguez, Carrera's friend who ironically had served as a guerrilla leader and a spy for San Martín during the Spanish rule that followed Rancagua, threatened to stage a Carrera-sponsored coup. His famous cri-de-guerre 'Citizens: we still have a fatherland!' motivated the depressed patriots in Santiago. All this was more than O'Higgins could muster. On the verge of death, pale and sick due to loss of blood, he left San Fernando, where he was recovering, and in a hurried journey arrived in Santiago in less than two days. Exhausted, he got to the presidential palace and almost fainted. Rodríguez' coup was successfully quashed.

While O'Higgins was delirious, San Martín rallied a force of 4,000 to attack Osorio at Maipú. Now a Santiago suburb, Maipú was a war at Santiago's gates. The people began hearing the canons on the morning of 5 April 1818. A feverish O'Higgins heard them too. He instantly mounted his horse and headed to the battlefield. When he arrived, the fight was over and had been won by San Martín, and the two men embraced. It had been a massacre for Osorio. Almost all of his 5,000 men where either dead or captured. Spain would never again organise such a force to attack Chile.

Supreme Director

Chilean independence was now complete, except for the southern region. Talcahuano, Valdivia and Chiloé remained royalist strongholds. Bandits roamed the countryside. O'Higgins tried to restore order and give some sort of national presence to his government. Although a theoretical democrat and admirer of the English monarchy, he soon decided that the best form of government in Chile at the time was a dictatorship. His dictatorship.

Tired of so many wars, most Chileans supported O'Higgins, and Carrera's support base disappeared. Two Carrera brothers, Luis and Juan José, who were held captive in Mendoza after they tried to sneak into Chile to overthrow O'Higgins while he was waging war in the south, were tried and executed. O'Higgins always claimed that he had pardoned the two men, but that the letter of clemency had arrived in Mendoza just hours after the Carreras died. Then Manuel Rodríguez, who had been offered a position in a foreign embassy but refused, was shot dead near Santiago. O'Higgins again claimed that he had no responsibility for the killing, which had been carried out by soldiers, but never fully managed to prove that he had not given the order.

At the beginning of his administration, the Lautaro Lodge, a clandestine Argentine pro-independence organisation to which O'Higgins had been affiliated in Mendoza, had some influence. Then internal quarrels among the 'brothers' led to its dissolution.

First Chilean armada in 1818, by Thomas J.  Somerscales
(Colección Biblioteca Nacional)

O'Higgins greatest obsession was the building of a fleet that would sail to Peru and depose Viceroy Pezuela. However, Buenos Aires was in anarchy and therefore no more money would be forthcoming in the wake of the battle of Maipú. Moreover, San Martín had been ordered to return to Buenos Aires and fight in the civil war. He refused and instead stayed in Chile and began preparing the invasion of Peru.

O'Higgins decided that securing Chilean independence was more important than rebuilding the country, and understood that the existence of a Viceroy in Lima made matters uncertain O'Higgins took out a British loan that seriously compromised Chile's finances and finally got together a force of twenty-five vessels commanded by Lord Thomas Cochrane, a British officer who had proven himself in the eyes of the Supreme Director by taking Valdivia, a Spanish stronghold in Southern Chile, some months before. Cochrane would sail to Peru and San Martín would command the troops in combat. The naval expedition sailed from Valparaíso on 20 August 1820, O'Higgins' forty-second birthday.

Meanwhile O'Higgins founded the Military Academy, the Naval School, a public market for Santiago, and instigated important developments in agricultural infrastructure. At the same time, he fought fiercely against Santiago's aristocracy and church, particularly on the issue of taxes. Santiago's archbishop was exiled.

O'Higgins had few close friends and most of the time he took refuge in the patio of the government house where he had a green parrot whom he used as a confessor. In 1821 his nemesis José Miguel Carrera, who had fought with the federal forces in Argentina's civil war, formed a gang of Chilean soldiers and indigenous peoples and began stealing from the estancias in Argentina. He was eventually caught in Mendoza and shot. O'Higgins was not directly responsible, but did not spare Carrera's life.

Rosario Puga had been acting as Bernardo's wife while still legally married to another man. The relationship did not prosper and Rosario was soon engaged to a supporter of Carrera and became pregnant. During all this time, O'Higgins' family was his mother Isabel and his half-sister Rosa, who lived with him in the government palace. Isabel and Rosa became social figures in the small Santiago world - Rosa was a of patron of the arts, and engaged in the financing and production of many plays. When Puga left O'Higgins, she took away Bernardo's son Demetrio.

Problems with the aristocracy, the church, the Carrerians and the virtual bankruptcy of the government were exacerbated by an earthquake in 1822 and a controversial autocratic constitution passed by O'Higgins that same year. Ramón Freire, formerly his closest ally, suddenly rallied the province of Concepción against O'Higgins. Soon the province of Coquimbo followed. With civil war pending, O'Higgins resigned from government in January 1823 and departed for Peru with his family.

Exile and Breakdown

As O'Higgins had informed Bolívar's guests at the banquet, after 1824 he had become a farmer, but was not very successful. He kept in touch with some friends, but his dreams of a political comeback were impossible to achieve. After briefly courting Mariscal Andrés de Santa Cruz, the ambitious Bolivian general who created the Peruvian-Bolivian confederacy and then went to war against Chile, O'Higgins descended into anonymity.

In 1842 he was finally re-installed in the Chilean rank of officer and was given permission to return. While Bernardo O'Higgins was preparing to board the ship, he fell seriously ill and died in October 1842.

His body was not brought back to Chile until 1869. His soul probably still haunts the Chilean countryside were he gave the best part of his life among the mud, horses and blood of so many battles.


Alfredo Sepúlveda



[1] Un bravo general como usted, temido de los enemigos y experimentado entre nuestros oficiales y jefes, no puede menos que dar un nuevo grado de aprecio a nuestro ejército… Ofrezco a usted un mando… propio a distinguir a cualquier jefe que quiera señalarse en un campo de gloria, porque un cuerpo de Colombia a las órdenes de usted debe contar con la victoria.

[2] El general O'Higgins era bravo hasta el extremo, pero sus conocimientos militares eran nulos.

[3] Señor, la América está libre. Desde hoy el general O'Higgins ya no existe; soy sólo el ciudadano particular Bernardo O'Higgins. Después de Ayacucho mi misión está concluida.

[4] According to Pamela Pequeño's documentary La hija de O'Higgins (2001), Bernardo O'Higgins had a daughter, Petronila, by Patricia Rodríguez, his mother's nanny. As Ambrosio had done to him, Bernardo O'Higgins never acknowledged any of his children.



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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 .


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