The Spanish Invasion and Colonial Chile
Christopher Columbus’s so-called “discovery” of the “New World” was one of the signal events of human history. While he may have bungled his way into fame—according to geographer Carl Sauer, “The geography in the mind of Columbus was a mixture of fact, fancy and credulity”—the audacious Genoan sailor excited the interest and imagination of Spaniards and others who, within barely half a century, brought nearly all of present-day Latin America under at least nominal control.
Europeans had roamed the Caribbean for more than three decades after Columbus’s initial voyage, but the impulse to conquer South America came from Mexico and especially Panama, which Francisco Pizarro and his brothers used as a base to take Peru. From Peru, in 1535, Pizarro’s partner and rival Diego de Almagro made the first attempt to take Chile, but his poorly organized expedition ended in failure as most of his personnel, retainers, and even livestock died. Four years later, after defeating an uprising by Almagro, Pizarro designated Pedro de Valdivia to undertake the conquest of Chile.
By 1541, Valdivia had founded Santiago and, in short order, La Serena, Concepción, Valparaíso, Villarrica, and his namesake city, Valdivia. He finally met his match, his own former Araucanian slave Lautaro, at the Battle of Tucapel, but before dying he had laid the groundwork for what was to become Chile.
The Spanish Imposition
From the beginning, Spain’s American presence had contradictory goals. Most Spanish invaders just meant to get rich, but others were Christian idealists who sought to save the souls of millions of Indians (putting aside for the moment the fact that these millions already had their own elaborate religious beliefs).
Consequently, the Spanish crown obliged its forces to read a statement known as the requerimiento, which offered their opposition the option to accept papal and Spanish authority over their lands in lieu of military subjugation. Whether or not they accepted, the indigenes became subject to a Spanish colonial system that, if less overtly violent than military conquest, was stacked against them.
Many prisoners of war became Spanish slaves and were shipped elsewhere in the Americas. Others who remained had to provide labor for individual Spaniards through the repartimiento, an ostensible wage system not always distinguishable from slavery. The repartimiento, in turn, is not easy to distinguish from the encomienda, a grant of Indian labor and tribute within a given geographical area. In principle, the Spanish encomendero was to provide reciprocal instruction in the Spanish language and catechization in Catholicism, but the distant Spanish administration could rarely enforce these requirements. The encomienda, it should be emphasized, was not a land grant, though many encomenderos became large landholders.
Spanish institutions were most easily imposed in those areas that had been under Inka influence, as a tradition of hierarchical government allowed the Spaniards to place themselves atop the pyramid. Subjects accustomed to paying tribute to the Inka’s representative now paid it to the encomendero, the Spanish crown’s agent. This was different, however, with the unsubjugated Araucanians.
The Demographic Collapse and Its Consequences
One of the invasion’s apparent mysteries was how so few Spaniards could dominate such large populations in so little time. Spanish weapons were not markedly superior—it took longer to reload a harquebus than a bow, for instance, and the bow and arrow were probably more accurate. Mounted cavalry gave Spaniards a tactical edge in open terrain, but this was only occasionally decisive. The Spaniards took advantage of local factionalism, but that was not the entire story either. The Spaniards’ greatest allies may have been microbes.
Ever since rising sea levels closed the Bering land bridge, the Americas had been geographically isolated from Europe and Asia. Disease that had evolved and spread in the Old World, such as smallpox, measles, plague, and typhus, no longer took a catastrophic toll there, but when the Spaniards inadvertently brought them to the New World they encountered immunologically defenseless human populations and spread like the wildfire. One statistically sophisticated study concluded that introduced European diseases reduced highland Mexico’s population from 25.2 million in 1518 to just a little over one million in 1605.
Similar disasters occurred throughout the Americas, though in general the effect was heaviest in the humid tropical lowlands. In the cooler, drier highlands, disease spread more slowly, but it was still overwhelming. In some parts of South America, it even preceded direct contact with the Spaniards—Huayna Capac’s death may have been the indirect result of smallpox. For this reason, historian Murdo Macleod has called introduced diseases “the shock troops of the conquest.”
The demographic collapse strongly influenced the development of Chilean society, especially in the Norte Grande and the heartland. While the population was large, encomiendas brought wealth to those who held them (including the Catholic church). As the population plummeted, encomiendas lost their value—dead Indians paid no tribute.
Meanwhile, the encomienda also came under political, legal, and judicial assault, as pro-Indian clergy such as the Mexico-based Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas argued for the institution’s reform. The result was Charles V’s so-called “New Laws” of 1542, which theoretically dissolved encomiendas on the death of the encomendero. While local enforcement was lax, the days of the encomienda days were numbered.
In the absence of large Indian populations to exploit, Spaniards took economic refuge in large rural estates, or haciendas, but lacked labor to work them. Over time, though, unattached Spanish men formed unions—formal and informal—with indigenous women; their resulting mestizo offspring brought a demographic rebound.
As long as the indigenous or mestizo population was small, land conflicts were few; as numbers recovered, though, the oligarchy’s latifundia (large landholdings) contrasted dramatically with the minifundia (smallholdings) of peasant cultivators who struggled to eat, especially as average farm size declined with recovering populations. This divided the country into haves and have-nots, based on their access to land—a situation that would contribute to late-20th-century upheavals.
South of the heartland, the situation was different, as the mobile Araucanians, assisted by their adoption of the Spanish-introduced horse, staved off the Spaniards and their Chilean successors for more than three centuries. In fact, the area south of the Río Biobío was widely known as a separate country called “Arauco.” In far-off Patagonia, tentative Spanish colonization efforts failed disastrously because of poor planning and extreme environmental conditions.
The Dissolution of Colonial Chile
Colonial Chile was an audiencia subdivision of the Viceroyalty of Peru; Spain had three other viceroyalties, in New Spain (based in Mexico), Nueva Granada (Colombia), and the Río de la Plata (Buenos Aires). The Audiencia of Chile was larger than the current republic, as it included the trans-Andean Cuyo region (now Argentine) and much of present-day Argentine Patagonia. Its capital was Santiago del Nuevo Extremo, now known as Santiago de Chile.
Appointed by the Spanish crown, all major viceregal officials governed from the capital, and economic power was also concentrated there. Even Santiago formally depended on distant Madrid for legitimacy, but provincial bosses created their own power bases. With Napoleon’s early 19th-century invasion of Spain, the glue that held the colonies together began to dissolve.
Contributing to this tendency was a changing sense of identity among Chile’s people. In the early generations, people identified themselves as Spaniards; criollos (American-born Spaniards) soon began to differentiate themselves from peninsulares (European-born Spaniards). While the mestizos and even the remaining indigenous population may have identified more closely with Chile than Spain, independence appealed most to the criollo intelligentsia.
The South American independence movements commenced on the periphery, with figures such as Argentina’s José de San Martín, Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar, and, of course, Chile’s Bernardo O’Higgins. Chile marks its independence from 1810, when a local junta took over government in the name of Spain’s Fernando VII, but it was nearly eight years more before a formal declaration. As Bolívar and San Martín converged on Lima for final victory over the Spaniards, O’Higgins remained in Santiago to consolidate Chile’s self-determination.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition