Sep 112017

On this date in 1541, Michimalonco and a large band of local Indians attacked the newly founded Spanish settlement of Santiago (now in Chile) after seven caciques were taken hostage by Spaniards following an uprising. Michimalonco is a bit of a shadowy figure because the historical records for this period are so sparse. Michima means “foreigner” and lonco means “head” or “chief” in the Mapudungun language. He was an indigenous chief said to be a great warrior, born in the Aconcagua Valley but educated in Cusco under the Inca Empire. Hence he was known in Quechua as a “foreigner” because he was not an Inca (and spoke Quechua with an accent). His actual name is not now known. When he first presented himself to the Spanish he was naked and covered with a black pigment. He had seven wives and lived between the Jahuel Valley and Putaendo Valley at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Santiago in 1541 was a new settlement founded by Pedro de Valdivia, who led Spanish forces south to Chile from Peru to conquer the region. He was accompanied by his mistress Inés Suárez, (c. 1507–1580), eventually a conquistador in her own right, and one of the leaders of the Spanish in Santiago at the time of Michimalonco’s attack. Suárez’s husband had died before she reached Peru (she told a compatriot that he died at sea) and the next information that is known of her is from 1539, when she applied for and was granted, as the widow of a Spanish soldier, a small plot of land in Cuzco and encomienda rights to a number of Indian slaves. Shortly afterwards she became Valdivia’s mistress which later caused considerable scandal because he was married at the time (and was eventually forced to leave her and bring his wife to Chile from Spain). I am not entirely sure why the Spanish nobility were so up in arms about the affair since this kind of thing was perfectly normal among the European aristocracy.

The earliest mention of Suárez’ friendship with Valdivia was after he returned from the Battle of Las Salinas (1538). Although they were from the same area of Spain and at least one novelist relates a tale of long-standing love between them, there is no real evidence that they had met prior to her arrival in Cuzco. In late 1539, over the objections of Francisco Martínez and encouraged by some of his captains, Valdivia, using the intermediary services of a priest, requested official permission for Suárez to become a part of the group of 12 Spaniards he was leading to the South. Francisco Pizarro, in his letter to Valdivia (January 1540) granting permission for Suárez to accompany Valdivia as his domestic servant, addressed the following words to Suárez, “…as Valdivia tells me, the men are afraid to go on such a long trip and you very courageously put yourself in the face of that danger…”

During the long and harrowing trip to the south, Suárez, in addition to caring for Valdivia and treating the sick and wounded, found water for them in the desert, and saved Valdivia when one of his rivals tried to undermine his enterprise and take his life. The Indians, having already experienced the incursions of the Spaniards, (Diego de Almagro, 1535–1536) burned their crops and drove off their livestock, leaving nothing for Valdivia’s band and their animals.

In December 1540, eleven months after they left Cuzco, Valdivia and his band reached the valley of the Mapocho river, where Valdivia was to establish the capital of the territory. The valley was extensive and well populated with natives. Its soil was fertile and there was abundant fresh water. Two high hills provided defensive positions. Soon after their arrival, Valdivia tried to convince the Indians of his good intentions, sending delegations bearing gifts for the caciques.

The Indians kept the gifts but, united under the leadership of Michimalonco, attacked the Spanish and were at the point of overwhelming them. Suddenly, the Indians threw down their weapons and fled. Captured Indians declared that they had seen a man, mounted on a white horse and carrying a naked sword, descend from the clouds and attack them. The Spaniards decided it was a miraculous appearance of Santo Iago (Saint James the Greater who had already been seen during the Reconquista at the battle of Clavijo) and, in thanks, named the new city Santiago del Nuevo Extremo. The city was officially dedicated on February 12, 1541.

In August 1541 Suárez uncovered another plot to unseat Valdivia. After the plot was put down, Valdivia invited seven caciques to meet with him to arrange for the delivery of food to the settlement. When the Indians arrived, Valdivia had them held as hostages for the safe delivery of the provisions and the safety of outlying settlements. On the September 9, Valdivia took 40 men and left the city to put down an uprising of Indians near Aconcagua.

Early on the morning of September 10, 1541, a young yanakuna (Inca servant) brought word to Captain Alonso de Monroy, who had been left in charge of the city, that the woods around the city were full of Indians. Suárez was asked if she thought that the Indian hostages should be released as a peace gesture. She replied that it was a bad idea because if the Indians overpowered the Spanish the hostages would provide their only bargaining power. Monroy issued a call for a council of war.

Just before dawn on September 11, mounted Spanish soldiers rode out to engage the Indians, whose numbers were estimated first at 8,000 and later at 20,000, led by Michimalonco. In spite of the advantage of their horses and their skill with their swords, by noon the Spanish were pushed into a retreat toward the east, across the Mapocho River; and, by mid-afternoon, they were backed up to the plaza itself. All day the battle raged. Fire arrows and torches set fire to most of the city. Four Spaniards were killed along with dozens of horses and other animals. The situation became desperate. The priest, Rodrigo González Marmolejo, said later that the fight was like the Day of Judgment for the Spanish and that only a miracle saved them.

All day Suárez had been carrying food and water to the fighting men, nursing the wounded, giving them encouragement and comfort. The historian Mariño de Lobera wrote of her activities during the battle:

 …and she went among them, she told them that if they felt fatigued and if they were wounded she would cure them with her own hands… she went where they were, even among the hooves of the horses; and she did not just cure them, she animated them and raised their morale, sending them back into the battle renewed… one caballero whose wounds she had just treated, was so tired and weak from loss of blood that he could not mount his horse. This woman was so moved by his plea for help that she put herself into the midst of the fray and helped him to mount his horse.

Suárez recognized the discouragement of the men and the extreme danger of the situation; she offered a suggestion. All day the seven caciques who were prisoners of the Spaniards, had been shouting encouragement to their people. Suárez proposed that the Spanish decapitate the seven and toss their heads out among the Indians in order to frighten them. There was some objection to the plan, since several men felt that the fall of the city was imminent and that the captive caciques would be their only bargaining advantage with the Indians. Suárez insisted that hers was the only viable solution to their problem. She then went to the house where the caciques were guarded by Francisco Rubio and Hernando de la Torre and gave the order for the execution. Mariño de Lobera tells that the guard, La Torre, asked, “In what manner shall we kill them, my lady?” “In this manner,” she replied, and, seizing la Torre’s sword, she herself cut off their heads. After the seven were decapitated and their heads thrown out among the Indians, Suárez put on a coat of mail and a helmet and rode out on her white horse. According to an eyewitness, “…she went out to the plaza and put herself in front of all the soldiers, encouraging them with words of such exaggerated praise that they treated her as if she were a brave captain,…instead of a woman masquerading as a soldier in iron mail.”

The Spanish took advantage of the confusion and disorder engendered among the Indians by the gory heads, and spurred on by the courageous woman who now led them, succeeded in driving the now disordered Indians from the town. One historian wrote, “The Indians said afterward that the Christians would have been defeated were it not for a woman on a white horse.”In 1545, in recognition of her courage and valor, Valdivia rewarded Suárez with an encomienda. His testament of dedication said in part:

    …in battle with the enemies who did not take into account the caciques who were our prisoners, they that were in the most central place – to which the Indians came, …throwing themselves on you, and you, seeing how weakened your beleaguered forces were then, you made them kill the caciques who were prisoners, putting your own hands on them, causing the majority of the Indians to run away and they left off fighting when they witnessed the evidence of the death of their chieftains; …it is certain that if they had not been killed and thrown among their countrymen, there would not be a single Spaniard remaining alive in all this city… by taking up the sword and letting it fall on the necks of the cacique prisoners, you have saved all of us.

Had it not been for Suárez’ actions the city would have certainly fallen. You’ll have to decide for yourself what this episode says about the conquistadores. After the defeat Michimalonco fled to the Andes mountain valleys. He hid there for a couple of years but, feeling homesick, he went back to the valley and allied his forces with the Spanish and went to fight the Mapuches in the south. The ultimate success of the Spanish, in both Inca and Aztec territory, was achieved by a simple policy of using Indian forces against Indians, since the Spanish were seriously outnumbered in the early years of conquest. It’s the ages old policy of “divide and conquer” which the Romans knew all about 1,500 years earlier (“divide et impera”). If local Indian forces had been united against Spanish, British, French, or Dutch incursions into the Americas, the invaders never would have succeeded. Because they were divided among themselves they were easy prey.

Chilean cuisine, like all of South American cuisine, is a mix of local and European influences. The Spanish brought grapes, olives, walnuts, chestnuts, rice, wheat, citrus fruits, sugar, garlic, and spices. They also brought chicken, beef, sheep, pigs, rabbits, milk, cheeses, and sausages. The local Indians used corn in many of their dishes. The combination of the Spanish and indigenous ingredients resulted in popular corn-based dishes that are still part of the typical diet. Popular dishes include humitas (corn that is pureed and cooked in corn husks) and pastel de choclo (corn and meat pie).

Pastel de Choclo


4 cups frozen corn
8 leaves fresh basil, finely chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried, crumbled)
3 tbsp butter
1 cup milk
4 large onions, peeled and chopped
3 tbsp oil
1 lb ground beef
salt and pepper
ground cumin
1 cup black olives
1 cup raisins
2 pieces of cooked chicken breast, cut into cubes or strips
2 tbsp confectioners’ sugar


Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Heat the corn, basil, salt, and butter in a large pot. Slowly add the milk, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens. Cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Set aside.

Fry the onions in oil until they are soft. Add the ground meat and stir to brown. Drain the grease from the pan. Season with salt, pepper, and ground cumin to taste.

Use an oven-proof dish to prepare the pie. Spread the onion and ground meat mixture on the bottom of the dish, then arrange the olives and raisins on top. Place chicken pieces over the top. Cover the filling with the corn mixture, then sprinkle on the confectioners’ sugar.

Bake in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes until the crust is golden brown.

Serve hot.