"Those who know not their past are as children": Cicero

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Alfredo Sepulveda, a correspondent from Santiago, Chile, has sent me this short story on the O’Higgins family, whose origins were in Co. Sligo. It is another almost incredible success story of an Irish emigrant who achieved greatness in the land of his adoption and therefore merits inclusion in our 'History' section. Alfredo is writing a biography of Bernardo O’Higgins and would like to correspond with anyone who has any information on the subject. His email address is at the bottom of this page:

Bernardo O'Higgins: A Short Bio, by Alfredo Sepulveda

Barnardo O'Higgins

Bernardo O'Higgins, the son of Ambrose O'Higgins, an Irishman born in Killmactranny parish in Co. Sligo, was Chile's independence main figure. His father, who served as a military engineer for the Spanish crown, came to be Peru's viceroy. When Bernardo was born in 1778, Ambrose was the Spanish governor of Chile. It is supposed that Bernardo never knew his father: he was an illegitimate son. His mother, Isabel Riquelme, was the daughter of a wealthy landlord in Chile's Chillan province –and much younger than Ambrose.

As a child, Bernardo lived with a family close to his grandfather Riquelme. Only when Isabel married – not with Ambrose-- did Bernardo lived with his mother.

The illegitimate son jeopardized Ambrose's political ambitions in the Spanish colonial administration; soon the governor had young Bernardo shipped to school in Peru, Spain and ultimately England . In London the young Bernardo met Venezuelan revolutionary leader Francisco de Miranda, who became his mentor and initiated him into the Lautaro masonry – a secret organization of Latin Americans who wanted independence from Spain .

When Ambrose died in 1801, he left Bernardo his lands in southern Chile. Until 1810, Bernardo lived a quiet life as a landlord. But then Napoleon invaded Spain and installed a puppet king, and men in the Spanish colonies rallied in favour of the deposed monarch and established government “juntas”, local co-governments that were supposed to rule until the French left Spain.

The allegiance to the Spanish king proved weaker than expected. Soon the “patriots”, as those who wanted to break from Spain were known, took over the moderate ones. In Chile, Bernardo became one of the commanders in the patriot militia. His lack of formal military preparation – he was trained in Chile by John Mackenna, an Irish mercenary who would fight beside him till the end of the Independence process -- didn't matter at first: Bernardo obtained sound victories against the loyalists. Bernardo's first military defeat, though, was against the forces of rival patriots commanded by the Carrera brothers. When fresh Spanish troops arrived from Lima in 1814, Bernardo joined forces with the Carreras, but was wiped out by the Spaniards at Rancagua, 90 kilometers south of Santiago. This defeat brought the loyalist side back into power. Surprisingly, Bernardo, who was courageous to the point of madness, fled from the site of Rancagua and managed to escape to neighbouring Mendoza, in Argentina. There he received support and resources from Argentine military leader and governor of Mendoza Jose de San Martin, also a member of the Lautaro masonry and a Carrera's foe.

UN secretary general Koffi Annan at the "Altar de la Patria" a huge monument in Santiago, in front of the government Palace, in which O'Higgins grave is located.

In the Eastern side of the Andes mountains, O'Higgins and San Martin prepared a military invasion of Chile. With fresh troops recruited across what is now Argentina, and Chilean exiles, San Martin, a genius in military terms, managed to cross the Andes in the summer of 1818.

The “Liberation Army”, as it is known today, clashed with the loyalists at Chacabuco, in the western flank of the Andes, some miles north of Santiago, and defeated them. The loyalists tried to hit back some weeks later at Maipu, a few miles SW of Santiago, but were defeated again. This battle sealed Chile 's independence.

After Maipu, Bernardo became “Supreme Director” of Chile. Pushed by San Martin, who thought that only after defeating the Spaniards in Peru would the independence of the former colonies be secure, O'Higgins devoted himself – and his almost-empty government treasury -- to the building of a fleet that would sail from Chile to support San Martin's advance. San Martin and O'Higgins succeeded. The fleet, commanded by Englishman, Thomas Cochrane, defeated the Spaniards at Callao ( Peru ) and Valdivia (in what is today Southern Chile ).

A plaque on O'Higgins monument erected in Sligo town 1994

Bernardo was the first authority of an independent Chile. As such, he abolished nobility titles, formally ended slavery, and took a number of other “liberal” measures. He also had a darker side: he agreed to the killing of his political rivals – the aristocratic General Jose Miguel Carrera and his brothers; and popular guerrilla leader Manuel Rodriguez.

Bernardo was not popular among the Chilean elite, nor outside Santigo. Accused of being a dictator, he was forced to resign in 1823, and went to exile in Lima, Peru. There he died in 1842. Bernardo had at least two children. Demetrio, his only acknowledged son, and Petronila, a daughter he had with an Indian woman which only recently became known to Chilean historians thanks to a documentary filmed by a descendant of Petronila.

My project

I am writing a biography of Bernardo and am in the first stages of researching. In 2010, Chile will celebrate its bicentennial and I plan to publish the book then.

It is very important for me to thoroughly research everything I can on Ambrose. I think that Bernardo's father's life is fascinating, and there's so little published in Spanish about him. I think it is interesting that that the powerful father hid for so many years this son – sending him to Europe and, almost on his deathbed, granting him an inheritance and restoring his last name. Had this something to do with Bernardo's wanting to destroy everything his father represented: the Spanish domination.

So if any of you in Ireland, or elsewhere, can help me in gathering information about Ambrose's life in Ireland, before going to Spain, I'll be really grateful. Anything: stories, anecdotes, genealogical data, sources of information in books, magazines; historians who have worked on the subject in university papers... anything.

What I know so far about Ambrose's Irish years:

--He was born in a place called Ballinary in Killmactrany parish, Co. Sligo, around 1720.

--He moved to Spain in 1749-50 (was it common for Catholics going to Spain pursuing a military career?)

--That he possibly worked under the service of a Lady Rowen, near Summerville, Co. Meath.

--That he could have had land in Co. Meath. (But if he did, why did he leave it?)

I am a journalist, and I plan to write this book as a journalistic investigation on Bernardo's life. I may be contacted at: alfredorsepulveda@yahoo.com

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