By strange coincidence this date marks two events that represent the beginning and the end of the Spanish rule of Chile. On this date in 1541 the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia founded the city of Santiago, establishing a permanent Spanish colony, and on this date in 1817 Argentine and Chilean troops defeated Spanish royalist troops at the battle of Chacabuco, effectively ending Spanish rule (although there was another year of fighting). One year later on this date – not by coincidence – Bernardo O’Higgins declared Chile an independent nation.
According to archaeological investigations, it is believed that the first human groups settled in the Santiago basin in the 10th millennium BCE. The groups were mainly nomadic hunter-gatherers, who traveled from the coast to the interior in search of guanacos (Lama guanicoe) during the time of the Andean snowmelt. About the year 800 CE, the first inhabitants began to settle due to the formation of agricultural communities along the Mapocho River growing mainly maize, potatoes and beans, and herding domesticated camelids.
The villages established in the areas belonging to ethnic picunches groups (called promaucaes by Incas), were subject to the Inca Empire throughout the late 15th century and into the early 16th century. The Incas settled in the valley of mitimaes, now in the center of the present city, with fortifications and sacred sites at Huaca de Chena and El Plomo. The area was the center for the failed Inca expeditions southward along the Inca Trail.
Pedro de Valdivia reached the valley of the Mapocho on 13 December 1540, having been sent by Francisco Pizarro from Peru and having made the long journey from Cuzco through the desert rather than face crossing the Andes. Valdivia’s troops camped by the river in the slopes of the Tupahue hill and slowly began to interact with the picunches who inhabited the area. Valdivia later summoned the chiefs of the area to a parliament, where he explained his intention to found a city on behalf of king Carlos I of Spain, which would be the capital of his governorship of Nueva Extremadura. The natives accepted and even recommended the foundation of the town on a small island between two branches of the river next to a small hill called Huelén.
On 12 February 1541, Valdivia officially founded the city of Santiago del Nuevo Extremedura in honor of St James and of his native region of Spain. Following the norms of colonial rule, Valdivia entrusted the layout of the new town to master builder Pedro de Gamboa, who designed the city with a standard grid layout. In the center of the city, Gamboa designed a Plaza Mayor, around which various plots for the Cathedral and the governor’s house were selected. In total, eight blocks from north to south, and ten from east to west, were built. Each solar (quarter block) was given to the settlers, who built houses of mud and straw.
Valdivia left months later to go south with his troops, beginning the War of Arauco. Santiago was left unprotected. The indigenous hosts of Michimalonco used this to their advantage, and attacked the fledgling city. On 11 September 1541, the city was destroyed by the Michimalonco, but the 55 members of the Spanish garrison managed to defend the fort. The resistance was led by Inés de Suárez, a mistress to Valdivia. When she realized they were being overrun, she ordered the execution of all native prisoners, and proceeded to put their heads on pikes and also threw a few heads at the Indian forces. In face of this barbaric act, the Indians dispersed in terror. The city was be slowly rebuilt, giving prominence to the newly founded Concepción, where the Royal Audiencia of Chile was then founded in 1565. However, the constant danger faced by Concepción, due partly to its proximity to the War of Arauco and also to a succession of devastating earthquakes, would not allow the definitive establishment of the Royal Court in Santiago until 1607. This establishment reaffirmed the city’s role as capital. Until 1817 Chile was part of Spanish viceroyalties in South America.
In 1814, having been instrumental in the establishment of a popularly elected congress in Argentina, José de San Martín began to consider the problem of driving the Spanish royalists from South America entirely. He figured that the first step would be to expel them from Chile, and, to this end, he set about recruiting and equipping an army. In just under two years, he had an army of around 6,000 men, 1,200 horses and 22 cannons.
On January 17, 1817, he set out with this force and began the crossing of the Andes. Careful planning on his part had meant that the royalist forces in Chile were deployed to meet threats that did not exist, and his crossing went unopposed. Nonetheless, the Army of the Andes (San Martín ‘s force) suffered heavy losses during the crossing, losing as much as one-third of its men and more than half of its horses. San Martín ended up allying with Chilean patriot Bernardo O’Higgins, who commanded his own army.
The royalists rushed north in response to their approach, and a force of about 1,500 under Brigadier Rafael Maroto blocked San Martín ‘s advance at a valley called Chacabuco, near Santiago. In the face of the disintegration of the royalist forces, Maroto proposed abandoning the capital and retreating southward, where they could hold out and obtain resources for a new campaign. The military conference called by Royal Governor Field Marshal Casimiro Marcó del Pont on February 8 adopted Maroto’s strategy, but the following morning, the Captain General changed his mind and ordered Maroto to prepare for battle in Chacabuco.
The night before the clash, Antonio Quintanilla confided to another Spanish official his opinion of the ill-chosen strategy: Given the position of the insurgents, the royalist forces ought to retreat a few leagues towards the hills of Colina. “Maroto overheard this conversation from a nearby chamber and either couldn’t or refused to hear me because of his pride and self-importance, called on an attendant with his notorious hoarse voice and proclaimed a general decree on pain of death, to whoever suggested a retreat.”
All Maroto and his troops had to do was delay San Martín, as he knew that further royalist reinforcements were on the way from Santiago. San Martín was well aware of this as well and opted to attack while he still had the numerical advantage. San Martín received numerous reports of the Spanish plans from a spy dressed as a roto, a poverty-stricken peasant of Chile. The roto told him that the Spanish general, Marcó, knew of fighting in the mountains and told his army to “run to the field”, which refers to Chacabuco. He also told San Martín the plan of General Rafael Maroto, the leader of the Talavera Regiment and a force of volunteers of up to 2,000 men. His plan was to take the mountainside and launch an attack against San Martín.
On February 11, three days before his planned date of attack, San Martín called a war council to decide on a plan. Their main goal was to take the Chacabuco Ranch, the royalist headquarters, at the bottom of the hills. He decided to split his 2,000 troops into two parts, sending them down two roads on either side of the mountain. The right contingent was led by Miguel Estanislao Soler, and the left by O’Higgins. The plan was for Soler to attack their flanks, while at the same time surrounding their rear guard in order to prevent their retreat. San Martín expected that both leaders would attack at the same time, so the royalists would have to fight a battle on two fronts.
San Martín sent his troops down the mountain starting at midnight of the 11th to prepare for an attack at dawn. At dawn, his troops were much closer to the royalists than anticipated, but fought hard. Meanwhile, Soler’s troops had to go down a tiny path that proved long and arduous and took longer than expected. General O’Higgins, supposedly seeing his homeland and being overcome with passion, defied the plan of attack and charged, along with his 1,500. What exactly happened in this part of the battle is fiercely debated. O’Higgins claimed that the royalists stopped their retreat and started advancing towards his troops. He said that if he were to lead his men back up the narrow path and retreat, his men would have been decimated, one by one. San Martín saw O’Higgins premature advance and ordered Soler to charge the royalist flank, which took the pressure off O’Higgins and allowed his troops to hold their ground.
The ensuing firefight lasted into the afternoon. The tide turned for the Army of the Andes as Soler captured a key royalist artillery point. At this point, the royalists set up a defensive square around the Chacabuco Ranch. O’Higgins charged the center of the royalist position, while Soler got into position behind the royalists, effectively cutting off any chance of retreat. O’Higgins and his men overwhelmed the royalist troops. When they attempted to retreat, Soler’s men cut them off and pushed towards the ranch. Hand-to-hand combat ensued in and around the ranch until every royalist soldier was dead or taken captive. 500 royalist soldiers were killed and 600 taken prisoner. The Army of the Andes lost only 12 men in battle, but an additional 120 lost their lives from wounds suffered during the battle. Maroto succeeded in escaping, thanks to the speed of his horse, but was slightly injured.
The remaining royalist troops left Chile and retreated to Lima by ship. Interim governor Francisco Ruiz-Tagle presided at an assembly, which designated San Martín as governor, but he turned down the offer and requested a new assembly, which made O’Higgins Supreme Director of Chile. This marks the beginning of the “Patria Nueva” period in Chile’s history.
Chilean cuisine shares much with South American cuisines, being a mix of indigenous ingredients and cooking methods, and those imported from Spain, overlaid by other European elements. But it is definitely distinctive. I’ve been to Santiago many times because it is a hub for local airlines, and I have had frequent long layovers (including one overnight on the way to Easter Island), giving me the chance to sample local specialties. The typical cazuela of Chile is very popular but it’s pretty ordinary – meat, potato, pumpkin, rice, and corn in a stew. Let’s go out on a limb. Here’s caldillo de congrio: conger eel stew, an absolute classic. I’ll give the recipe in Spanish because I miss speaking Spanish. Hit the translate button if you are challenged. If you can’t find conger eel you can substitute white fish but, of course, it’s not the same. This is the simple recipe. More traditionally, a fish stock is prepared first using eel and fish heads, onions, and garlic. Then it is strained and used as the cooking broth.
Caldillo de Congrio
1 cebolla cortada en pluma
2 zanahoria pelada y cortadas en rodajas
1 churadita de aji de color
2 tomates cortados en cuarto
1 hoja de laurel
2 rama de perejil
1 pizca de oregano seco
sal y pimiento
gotas de salsa aji
4 medallones de congrio sin piel
1 taza de vino blanco
¼ taza de crema liquida
En una olla, calendar a fuego medio el aceite. Agregar la cebolla y zanahoria y concinar 10-15min
Agregar el aji de color y revolver mezclar.
Anadir los tomates, hoja de laurel, rama de perejil y oregano y cocinar — 5min.
Sazonar con sal, pimento y gotas de salsa aji.
Anadir los medallones de congrio, vino blanco y agua
Hervir la mezcala, reducer el calor y cocinar 10-20min
Quite la cabeza de pescado de caldo. Saque las mejillas de pescado y añadir
A ultimo momento verter la crema.
Adorne con cilantro.