The drive for independence from Spain was precipitated by usurpation of the Spanish throne by Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte. The Chilean War of Independence was part of the larger South America war of independece movement, and it was far from having unanimous support among Chileans, who became divided between independentists and royalists. What started as an elitist political movement against their colonial master, finally ended as a full-fledged civil war between pro-Independence criollos who sought political and economic independence from Spain and Royalist criollos, who supported the continued allegiance to and permanence within the Spanish Empire of the Kingdom of Chile. The struggle for independence was a war within the upper class, although the majority of troops on both sides consisted of conscripted mestizos and native Americans.
The beginning of the Independence movement is traditionally dated as September 18, 1810 when a national junta was established to govern Chile in the name of the deposed king Ferdinan VII. Depending on what terms one uses to define the end, the movement extended until 1821 (when the Spanish were expelled from mainland Chile) or 1826 (when the last Spanish troops surrendered and Chiloe was incorporated to the Chilean republic). The independence process is normally divided into three stages: Patria Vieja, Reconquista, and Patria Nueva.
Chile’s first experiment with self-government, the “Patria Vieja” (old republic, 1810-14), was led by Jose Miguel Carrera an aristocrat then in his mid-twenties. The military-educated Carrera was a heavy-handed ruler who aroused widespread opposition. Another of the earliest advocates of full independence, Bernardo O’higgins , captained a rival faction that plunged the criollos into civil war. For him and for certain other members of the Chilean elite, the initiative for temporary self-rule quickly escalated into a campaign for permanent independence, although other criollos remained loyal to Spain. Among those favoring independence, conservatives fought with liberals over the degree to which French revolutionary ideas would be incorporated into the movement. After several efforts, Spanish troops from Peru took advantage of the internecine strife to reconquer Chile in 1814, when they reasserted control by winning the Battle of Rancagua on October 12. O’Higgins, Carrera and many of the Chilean rebels escaped to Argentina.
The second period was characterized by the Spanish attempts to reimpose arbitrary rule during the period known as the Reconquest of 1814-17 During this period, the harsh rule of the Spanish loyalists, who punished suspected rebels, drove more and more Chileans into the insurrectionary camp. More members of the Chilean elite were becoming convinced of the necessity of full independence, regardless of who sat on the throne of Spain. As the leader of guerrilla raids against the Spaniards, Manuel Rodriguez became a national symbol of resistance.
In exile in Argentina, O’Higgins joined forces with Jose de San Martin. Their
combined army freed Chile with a daring assault over the Andes in 1817, defeating the Spaniards at the Battle of Chacabuco on February 12 and marking the beginning of the Patria Nueva. San Martín considered the liberation of Chile a strategic stepping-stone to the emancipation of Peru, which he saw as the key to hemispheric victory over the Spanish. Chile won its formal independence when San Martín defeated the last large Spanish force on Chilean soil at the Battle of Maipu on April 5, 1818. San Martín then led his Argentine and Chilean followers north to liberate Peru; and fighting continued in Chile’s southern provinces, the bastion of the royalists, until 1826.
A declaration of independence was officially issued by Chile on February 12, 1818 and formally recognized by Spain in 1840, when full diplomatic relations were established.