Bernardo O'Higgins was born on August 20, 1778. He was
the illegitimate son of Ambrose
O'Higgins, an ambitious Irishman employed in the Spanish colonial service and Isabel
Riquelme, a member of a wealthy family of Spanish colonists. By 1788 Don Ambrosio, as
Bernardo's father was known, had been appointed Governor-General of Chile. He was
determined that his son would have a formal education. Bernardo was sent first to Peru -
where he attended the exclusive San Carlos College, then to Spain and finally to England.
He spent four years studying at Richmond, near London and while he was in England
Bernardo met Francisco Miranda, one of the key thinkers in the movement for Latin
American independence. At the age of 20 O'Higgins returned to Spain. In 1801 news reached
O'Higgins that his father had died. He decided to return to Chile.
Bernardo inherited his father's properties and began his
life in Chile as a gentleman farmer.
He entered local politics and at the same time became involved in the first organized
campaigns of the nationalist movement. The invasion of Spain by Napoleon had an important
effect on the Spanish colonies. On September 18, 1810, a meeting in Santiago opted for
limited self-government until the Spanish throne was restored. For many people, including
Bernardo O'Higgins, limited self-government was not enough. They wanted complete
Bernardo was a wealthy man and could afford to form two
cavalry companies with the
peasants who worked his estates. He was aware of his lack of military awareness and so
was given essential military training by Colonel Juan MacKenna. At the Sorpresa del Roble
in 1813 he led a cavalry charge against the royalist factions. His words - "¡O vivir con honor
o morir con gloria!, ¡El que sea valiente que me siga!" (We can live with honour or die with
glory! If you have the courage, follow me!) are part of Chilean history.
The low point in O'Higgins' military career came the following
year at the Battle of Rancagua
where O'Higgins' troops were defeated. They were outnumbered by a better-trained and
better-equipped royalist army, and were forced to take refuge in Argentina. They needed to
regroup, retrain and plan a strategy that would lead to independence for Chile.
In January 1817 the Argentine general José de San
Martín led an army of 5,000 over the
Andes. At the battle of Chacabuco they routed the royalist forces and took Santiago.
Bernardo O'Higgins became Director Supremo de Chile. He created a new government, a
republic, and laid the grounds for peace and order. He instituted economic and social
reforms. He also set up the Chilean navy.
Don Bernardo was a determined and energetic leader. He
established colleges, libraries,
hospitals and cemeteries. However, his reforms met opposition. The powerful elite that ran
Chile turned against him. In 1823, he agreed to resign and left the country with his mother,
his sister and his son, to settle in Lima. Even in exile he continued in his support of the
independence of other South American countries.
Eventually he was given permission to return to Chile,
but his health had weakened. He
suffered a heart attack and doctors advised him not to travel. Despite his deteriorating health,
he was still interested in matters concerning his homeland. He urged the government of Chile
to colonize the Straits of Magellan and to increase the strength of the Chilean navy.
O'Higgins died in Lima on October 24, 1842. His last words
Magallanes...!". He was buried in Lima. In 1866 his remains were brought back to Chile by
the Chilean navy and buried in the Cementerio General de Santiago.
The bicentenary of his birth, 1978, was named the Year
of the Libertador Bernardo
O`Higgins. In 1979, on his birthday, his remains were moved, with pomp and ceremony to
the Altar de la Patria.