Biography of Ambrosio O’Higgins:
Ambrose ("Ambrosio") O'Higgins was an Arish businessman, explorer, soldier and functionary in the service of the Spanish colonial government. He rose to the high post of Viceroy of Peru, but is best remembered as the father of Chilean Independence leader Bernardo O'Higgins
. Ambrosio was a serious, dour man who was nevertheless a capable administrator and on friendly terms with local native groups.
Early Life of Ambrosio O’Higgins:
Ambrose Higgins was born in 1720 to a family of minor Irish nobility in the town of Summerhill, County Meath. Although his family had little money, he got a good education. As there were few opportunities in Ireland at the time, he went to Spain. At that time, Catholic Spain and Ireland were close due to their common animosity with the British and Irishmen could go to Spain or the Spanish New World colonies. Ambrosio worked in Spain for a while before going to the New World, where he started a small business in Lima.
In the Service of the Crown:
The business did not go well, and he decided to try for a position in government, as those jobs were more secure and better paid. He worked as a draughtsman in the military, which included a commission as Second Lieutenant. For a while he worked alongside his friend John Garland improving military fortifications in southern Chile. He first came to the attention of the colonial authorities when he proposed and designed a series of shelters across the Andean passes linking Chile and Argentina. The shelters worked very well, providing regular mail service between the two regions.
Rise in the Ranks:
O’Higgins saw battle in some skirmishes against the Indian tribes that still ruled most of Southern Chile. Unlike other officers, he believed that the natives should be shown respect and fairness. He rose in the ranks, first to Lieutenant colonel, then brigadier, then chief military officer of the frontier region. He was then appointed Governor of the city of Concepcion. After showing that he was a capable administrator, he was appointed to the high post of Captain-General of Chile.
Captain-General of Chile:
As Captain-General, the highest position in Spanish Chile, O’Higgins made some important changes. He abolished the encomienda system, which was basically slavery. He developed Chile’s industries, including rice, mining, tobacco, fishing and more. He ordered the rebuilding of the city of Osorno, which had been destroyed by Indians. It was about this time that he sent to Ireland for fake evidence of noble ancestry: with this, he thus became Don Ambrose O’Higgins, Baron of Vallenar.
A Friend of the Natives:
As a frontier officer and as Captain-General of Chile, O’Higgins was in favor of cordial relations with the tough tribes of Indians that still inhabited Chile’s frontiers. He treated the Indians with respect, inviting local chieftains to meetings. He even scandalized Santiago society by inviting a handful of high-ranking Indian chiefs to a celebration of the accession to the crown of King Charles IV. In 1793 he sponsored a famous council on the Plains of Negrete, attended by 161 native chiefs who swore their allegiance to the King.
Viceroy of Peru:
Although O’Higgins was very old by this point – he was 75 when he was appointed Viceroy in 1796 - he was still energetic and organized. The King granted him the rank of Marqués, and he was then known as the Marqués of Osorno, the city he had helped to rebuild. He energetically battled idleness in Lima and built up the military to defend against what he thought was an almost certain British Invasion of western South America. He died suddenly after an illness in 1801.
Ambrosio and Bernardo:
Bernardo O’Higgins was born of a brief affair between Ambrosio and Isabel Riquelme, some 40 years his junior, in 1778. They never married, and Bernardo was illegitimate at a time when that carried a great social stigma. Bernardo never knew his father: they met only once, when Bernardo was about ten years old, but Bernardo did not know that the man he met was his father. Ambrosio, fearful of a scandal that would strip away his accomplishments and positions, provided money and education for Bernardo from afar. While a young man in Spain and England, Bernardo often wrote to his father, who never answered.
Legacy of Ambrosio O’Higgins:
Ambrosio's biggest claim to fame is the fact that his son Bernardo went on to become the great Liberator of Chile, and it is in this capacity that he is mostly remembered. It's a little unfair, for two reasons: first of all, because Bernardo had almost no contact with his father whatsoever, and second because Ambrosio's life would have been remarkable anyway. It's ironic that Ambrosio is remembered for his son, who he ignored his whole life, and not remembered for his duties as an administrator which was really his life's work. That he fathered the Liberator of Chile is almost a coincidence given the cruel neglect with which he treated his son.
Ambrosio should be remembered as an able administrator with high standards and a stern work ethic which he imparted to those under him. For such a rigid man, he was remarkably open to the then-novel idea of treating Indians with respect as a way of bringing them into Chilean society. His journey from near-poverty in Ireland to the position of Viceroy of Lima is an inspirational one, especially given that he was in his late forties by the time he began seriously rising in rank in the New World.
His greatest failure was as a father. For those who like tales of Karma, there is this: after two decades of denying the existence of his son Bernardo and sending him only the minimum amount he needed to get by, Viceroy O'Higgins was eventually indirectly brought down by this very neglect. Around the end of 1800 or in the beginning of 1801, it was discovered that not only did Ambrosio have an illegitimate son living in London, but Bernardo had been spending a lot of time with none other than Francisco de Miranda, the great Venezuelan Patriot and rebel who was one of his tutors. This news would have been enough for the removal of Ambrosio as Viceroy, and in fact the order had been given to replace him, but he died before it could be implemented. On his deathbed, Ambrosio recognized Bernardo, leaving him a modest inheritance.
Concha Cruz, Alejandor and Maltés Cortés, Julio. Historia de Chile Santiago: Bibliográfica Internacional, 2008.
Harvey, Robert. Liberators: Latin America's Struggle for Independence Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2000.