Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
The visitor to Chile’s capital, Santiago, can be forgiven for doing a double take upon noticing the name of one of the city’s main arteries: Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins.
O’Higgins? That sounds Irish!
And indeed it is. The O’Higgins clan was, and still is, Gaelic nobility from Sligo. For their loyalty to Ireland, the O’Higgins family lost much of their wealth under English domination in the 17th and 18th centuries. So much so that one of its scions, Ambrose, left Ireland for Spain in 1751 and eventually for Spanish America. Initially he did business in Peru and New Granada, today’s Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. Then he moved to La Plata, a stone’s throw away from Buenos Aires in today’s Argentina, to get away from the Inquisition.
Finally Ambrose, now Ambrosio, arrived in Chile. Here in 1778 he would have an illegitimate son with a daughter of a prominent local family, named Bernardo. It was in this remote corner of the Spanish empire that O’Higgins’s star finally began to rise. In 1788 King Charles III of Spain made him a baron and then governor of the colony of Chile. As governor Ambrosio built roads and founded cities, setting the country up for its future development.
His son, meanwhile, grew up with his mother’s family and never met his father. But Ambrosio paid for his education, which, when Bernardo was 17, took him to London. Ironically, it was here that Bernardo learned about the ideas emanating out of North America in the wake of the American Revolution. Shortly before Bernardo returned to South America in 1802, Ambrosio died and left his son with a large estate.
In 1808 Napoleon occupied Spain. The Chilean colonial elite decided in response to form a self-governing regime in resistance against the French. Bernardo duly joined the revolt and was elected a deputy to the first National Congress of Chile.
But the Chileans soon split between royalists and republicans who wished for independence. In 1813 the Spanish government, now out from under the French yoke, tried to reconquer Chile. In the ensuing war between the empire and the colonials, O’Higgins came to prominence, often at the expense of his originally much better known rival, Jose Miguel Carrera. The royalists were victorious by 1814, and O’Higgins went into exile in Argentina, where he befriended the man whose name is everywhere in Buenos Aires, Jose de San Martin. The two invaded Chile together in 1817 and eventually defeated the royalists.
San Martin left Chile after this war to fight for independence for the rest of South America. So O’Higgins became the “Supreme Director” of Chile, with dictatorial powers. In 1818 Chile declared itself an independent republic.
But past is prologue. As though foreshadowing the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973, the junta and the Pinochet regime that were to come, even these early days of independence were days of blood and intrigue. O’Higgins’s old rival Carrera came back to haunt him only to be captured and executed by O’Higgins supporters in 1821. O’Higgins did nothing to stop his execution. Indeed he began to show dictatorial tendencies, even as key segments of supporters were peeling away. In 1823 a coup deposed him.
In July, 1823, O’Higgins set sail from Valparaiso, the port city not far from Santiago that was Pablo Neruda’s favorite. His destination was his father’s homeland, Ireland. But while passing through Peru, he met Simon Bolivar, “the Liberator” of Spanish America, and Bolivar persuaded him to join the nationalist cause in Peru. O’Higgins ended up living out the remainder of his days in that country until his death in Lima in 1842.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."