Four decades after Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America, the Spanish conquistadores came to what they called the new world in search of gold and wealth for the crown. For the inhabitants of Chile, the image of men on horseback was strange, in addition to being invasive. The Arauco War lasted for three centuries, with the Spanish and their descendants fighting Chile’s Mapuches.
Probably influenced by the Renaissance spirit, for Europeans Chile represented the end of the world, the end of the planet, but at the same time, a new world. The first to arrive was the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, who united the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the strait that was to later bear his name.
In 1536, fifteen years after that trip, Diego de Almagro made his attempt by land from the north and reached Copiapó, which began the Spanish conquest and domination, along with the Arauco War. Motivated by the search for gold, Diego de Almagro’s expedition was comprised of 500 Spaniards and a hundred natives and slaves. The Andes crossing decimated the column, either from the cold or desertions, frustrated at being unable to find gold or other riches.
De Almagro moved toward the south and had his first confrontation with the Mapuches. The native peoples already knew about invaders because they had resisted Incan attempts to occupy their lands for almost 100 years. At a military disadvantage, the Mapuches imitated some of the enemy’s strategies and developed their own methods to surprise and harass the invaders. The Spaniards dealt with that first confrontation between De Almagro and the Mapuches swiftly and they soon decided to return to Peru.
Conquest and dominion
In 1540, an expedition under the command of Pedro de Valdivia returned to Chile with the mission of definitively conquering the territory. Nueva Extremadura was the name that the conquistador had picked to christen these lands. In February 1541 he founded the city of Santiago.
Not much time went by before the Mapuches showed the first signs of resistance under the leadership of their military chiefs, called caciques or longkos. Some of the most renowned of these are Lautaro, Michimalonco, Galvarino, and Caupolicán. The confrontation established the Bio Bio River as the natural border between the two sides.
To the south of it was Mapuche territory, while to the north it was Spanish. In an attempt to extend his dominion, Pedro de Valdivia decided to found cities south of the Bio Bio and thus were born Concepción, La Imperial and Villarica. The conquistador was defeated and killed in the battle of Tucapel in 1553.
The epic poem La Araucana, by the Spanish soldier and chronicler Alonso de Ercilla, is a testimony to the war and the Mapuches’ indomitable spirit. Diverse war episodes featuring Caupolican, Galvarino and Lautaro show the native people’s boldness and strategic intelligence, their victories over the conquistador and the defeats that led to the deaths of the main longkos.
Spanish dominion was never complete; the native tribes remained active and rebelled against the invaders over and over again. Only decades after the country’s independence was it possible to set the foundations for peace south of the Bio Bio River.
In colonial times
Chile was a General Captaincy of the Kingdom of Spain as of the 17th century and colonial society was comprised of the Spaniards who held the main military and public positions. The children of Spaniards born in Chile were called criollos and dedicated themselves to agriculture, trade and productive activities. Unlike in other South American countries, the racial blending was very significant.
The Governor was the highest-ranking colonial authority and was in charge of the defense, economy and justice of the Captaincy General of Chile. Ambrosio O’Higgins, the father of one of the founders of the independent nation, was Governor of Chile and Viceroy of Peru. He promoted the construction of public works, among which the flood defenses of the Mapocho River stand out.