Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Chilean territory was inhabited by about 500,000 Indians. Although the different peoples had an ethnic and linguistic relationship, the northern tribes (Atacameños and Diaguitas) showed greater cultural development, due to the contact they maintained with the Inca empire. South of the Bío-Bío River lived the indomitable Araucans, who resisted colonization for centuries.
Spanish conquest. In 1520, Fernão de Magalhães sighted the Chilean lands during his circumnavigation trip. Diego de Almagro, Francisco Pizarro’s collaborator, obtained authorization from Carlos V (I of Spain), to go south, in search of the “other Peru”. His first expedition returned disappointed at not having found precious metals. In 1540, after the death of Almagro, Pedro de Valdivia, at the head of 150 Spaniards, began colonizing the region. In 1541 he founded Santiago, after taking possession of the territory of Nueva Extremadura (Copiapó). Life in the new colony was very difficult, due to the resistance of the Indians.
In 1550, when the region was pacified, Valdivia continued its march towards the south. That same year he founded the city of Concepción. Three years later, the advance was prevented by the opposition of the Araucans, who, led by chief Lautaro, captured and killed Valdivia. Thus began a bloody war that would last until the end of the 19th century, when the Indians were definitively subjugated. Despite these difficulties, colonization did not stop. At the end of the 1550s, during the government of García Hurtado de Mendoza, the conquest of Chilean territory ended until the southern limit of the Bío-Bío River. In the last years of the 16th century, the Chilean coast was plundered by pirates like Francis Drake, who, protected by the British crown, tried to break the commercial monopoly of the Spanish empire.
The lack of precious metals forced the colonizers to dedicate themselves to agriculture. Within the empire, Chile was a poor colony, without mineral resources and not even trade, and so the crown had to allocate economic resources to it to maintain the government and the army. This lack of attractions explains that, at the end of the 16th century, there were no more than five thousand Spaniards in the colony.
According to Relationshipsplus, Chile was part of the viceroyalty of Peru. Within the colony, the captain-general had absolute power over the population, although, theoretically, it was possible to appeal to the viceroy or the king of Spain.
As in other parts of the Spanish empire in America, in Chile there was an intense mixture of Indians and whites, which explains the ethnic homogeneity of its population. At the end of the colonial period, there were some 300,000 mestizos, 175,000 whites (Spaniards and Creoles) and 25,000 blacks, mostly slaves. The social structure was based on the racial division: the Spaniards and Creoles occupied the most important posts; further down were the mestizos and Indians; and the hardest jobs were aimed at blacks.
The population was concentrated in the so-called “birthplace of the Chilean nation”, along the Aconcagua valley, and between Santiago and Concepción. In these regions, cereal farming was practiced, with the use of indigenous labor. Morgadios, granted to members of the Spanish nobility, were established in the best lands in the country, which gave rise to the later structure of land ownership. The colony lived in isolation from the rest of the empire; the first newspaper was founded shortly before independence, as was the Real and Pontifical University of San Felipe in Santiago.
Struggle for independence
Despite the isolation in which the colony lived, the events of the late 18th and early 19th centuries favored the formation of a national conscience. Among these events, the independence of the Anglo-American colonies and Haiti stands out, the French revolution and the weakening of the metropolis, which was revealed in the British invasion of the Viceroyalty of Silver, the intensification of commercial smuggling and the occupation of Spain by Napoleonic troops.
In 1810, after an open cabildo formed by representatives of privileged groups met in Santiago, a provisional government formed by local leaders was formed. Between 1810 and 1813, this government carried out important reforms, such as the proclamation of commercial freedom and the encouragement of education. However, dissensions soon arose among the Creoles over the extent of the reforms. Meanwhile, Spain, which in 1813 had expelled the French from their territory, began to regain control over the colonies. In October 1814, after the defeat of the patriots in Rancagua, Chile returned to Spanish rule.
The independence leaders had to go into exile. In Argentina, Bernardo O’Higgins got the support of José de San Martín, who, helped by the revolutionary government in Buenos Aires, was recruiting an army to liberate the South American-Spanish cone. In addition, discontent with the colony government grew in the interior of the country. In January 1817, taking advantage of the adverse internal climate, San Martín and O’Higgins crossed the Andes and, on February 12, defeated the realists in Chacabuco. San Martín resigned from power and O’Higgins became the supreme head of the new country.