Chile Through Time

Chile’s remote location has influenced much of its history. Indigenous peoples of the area lived on the distant fringe of the Inca civilization. Stretching from what is now Ecuador to middle Chile, the Inca Empire preceded the Spanish Empire in the Andes region. The Incas conquered Chile’s northern natives and most of the natives occupying middle Chile. Under Spanish colonial rule, Chile was a neglected outpost on the edge of mineral-rich Peru and Bolivia. As an independent nation, the country has relied on far-off external powers—Britain in the nineteenth century and the United States ever since—for trade and economic progress. Nevertheless, Chile’s isolation contributed to a stable society. In turn, this stability has led to the development of one of Latin America’s most successful democratic nations.


Several groups of indigenous peoples, or Indians, with differing customs and economies inhabited the region that is now Chile. In northern Chile, the Chango Indians occupied the coastal desert from Arica to the Choapa River. They were a nomadic people who depended on fishing from sealskin canoes for their main food supply. They also collected shellfish, hunted wild game, and gathered seeds, berries, and nuts on the marine terraces of the coast range.

Farther inland were the Aymara Indians, who were sedentary, meaning they lived in permanent villages. In canyons that cut into the western edge of the altiplano, the Aymaras dug irrigation ditches and grew maize (com), kidney beans, quinoa (a native grain), and squashes. On the edge of the altiplano, other Aymara villages grew potatoes and grazed flocks of llamas. Farther south, beyond the Loa River, Atacameno peoples practiced a similar way of life on alluvial fans and in nearby Andean canyons. In Chile’s semi-arid region, the sedentary Diaguita tribe occupied villages, grew crops, and grazed llamas and alpacas next to the permanent streams that cut across the Central Valley. Altogether, about 80,000 natives lived in northern Chile at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Araucanian tribes occupied middle Chile, the Lakes District, and Chiloe Island. The tribes spoke the same language, but had different livelihoods. The Picunche were settled in the northern part of middle Chile. More advanced than the other groups, they lived in large permanent villages and built small irrigation canals for their crops. The Mapuche occupied the southern part of middle Chile and the northern Lakes District. The Huilliche Indians lived separately in the Lakes District, south of the Bio Bio River. The Mapuche and Huilliche were shifting cultivators. They lived in small villages made up of three to eight huts (rukas) with one household (consisting of one or more families) sharing a hut. The dwellings were usually dispersed in valleys along streams.

As shifting cultivators, the Mapuche and Huilliche burned small areas of forest near their villages to grow crops. Clearing the natural vegetation allowed life-giving sunlight to reach the crops. Just as important, the resulting ash added nutrients (plant food) to the soil. The crops used up soil nutrients in just three or four years, so the natives had to burn new fields elsewhere. This process would be repeated every few years and resulted in the occasional relocation of villages to be closer to the increasingly distant fields. The Picunche, Mapuche, and Huilliche Indians grew crops, including maize, kidney beans, squashes, quinoa, chili peppers, and white potatoes. They also raised llamas for meat and wool and developed highly skilled pottery and textile weaving techniques.

A fourth Araucanian tribe was the Cuncos. This group depended mainly on fishing and gathering shellfish. They inhabited the island of Chiloe and nearby mainland shores. The Araucanian cultural area was small, but it had a benign climate, fertile land, and abundant resources that supported a large number of people. Estimates of the total Araucanian population at the time the Spaniards arrived range from 500,000 to 1,500,000. A common language and high population density promoted much trade and interaction among the Araucanian tribes.

South of Chiloe, numerous small populations in the Chilean archipelago managed to survive through hunting, gathering, and fishing. Unlike the Araucanian tribes, the southern indigenous groups were nomadic, meaning they moved their villages repeatedly. They had different languages, and they were more divided culturally. They included the Chono, Alacaluf, and Yamana (or Yahgan) tribes. They lived on fish and the resources of the rainforest. Two additional nomadic groups—the Tehuelche and Ona tribes—lived in Chilean Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, respectively.


The Spaniard Francisco Pizarro conquered what is now Peru and northwestern Bolivia, the main area of the Inca Empire, in 1532-1533. The king of Spain rewarded Pizarro for his conquests by placing him in charge of this area and any additional lands that he might conquer. Pizarro was too busy founding Lima (Peru) and amassing Incan gold and silver for shipment to Spain to conquer more land. He assigned the task of conquering Chile to Pedro de Valdivia.

In 1540, seeking slaves and gold, Valdivia led his expedition from southern Peru into Chile. He met little resistance from Chile’s northern Indians. As Valdivia advanced, he captured the natives and sent most of them to work as slaves in the silver and gold mines of Bolivia. He went as far as middle Chile, where he defeated the northernmost Araucanian tribe, the Picunche Indians, and founded the town of Santiago in 1541. Six monthslater, the Mapuche Indians attacked from the south and nearly wiped out the settlement. The Spaniards held on, and six years later, their numbers had grown to several hundred. Although Valdivia found small amounts of gold, he realized Chile would have to be an agricultural colony. As a result, he started the Spanish policy of keeping captured Araucanian Indians as agricultural laborers rather than sending them to mines in Bolivia. The Spanish Crown appointed Valdivia the first governor of Chile for his efforts, but he was killed by the Mapuche in 1553. By then, however, he had founded the important settlements of Concepcion, Valdivia, and Villarica. These southern outposts protected middle Chile from Indian attacks and enabled the development of a future Chilean society there.

The Spaniards, and Chileans after them, became deadlocked in a guerrilla war against the natives for the next three centuries. The Bio Bio River, which marks the transition between the rain forest to the south and scrub vegetation to the north, became the line separating the two cultures. The Araucanians were mobile, ready to fight, and familiar with the forest. The Spaniards and Chileans found out that these factors made subduing the native peoples difficult.

Middle Chile was cut off to the north by desert, to the south by the hostile Araucanian Indians, to the east by the Andes Mountains, and to the west by the Pacific Ocean. In addition to the area’s isolation, it lacked valuable metals. Nevertheless, Spanish settlers were drawn there. The area’s fertile soil and attractive climate reminded them of southern Spain, the area from which most of them had come. Middle Chile was soon divided among the Spaniards into large agricultural or pastoral estates (latifundios). The owners of these estates created an aristocracy, or wealthy ruling class. Those who wanted wealth in the form of gold went elsewhere. The early colonial society that developed in middle Chile was similar to that of other Spanish colonies. There were three main social groups. The most privileged group consisted of the Spaniards who owned the large landed estates. This group included the petiinsulares and criollos. The peninsulares were Spaniards bom in Spain, which is part of the Iberian Peninsula, hence the name. The Spanish Crown reserved all important government jobs and other positions of influence for this group. Criollos were Spaniards bom in America. Colonial policy forbade them from holding important public offices. Both subgroups could legally own land and other property, including African slaves.

Mestizos made up the group that held the middle position in society. A mestizo is a person whose heritage includes Spanish and Indian backgrounds. Because few Spanish women came to the New World, Spanish men, especially those of the lower classes, married or had informal sexual relationships with Indian women. The resulting mestizo children soon outnumbered the Indian population, because many of the natives died through epidemics, forced labor abuses, and warfare.

Unlike in Peru and Bolivia, where the Indian population remained the majority, in Chile the mestizo group quickly grew to outnumber all the other groups. At the bottom of the social ladder were a few African slaves and the shrinking population of American Indians.

According to the Spanish Crown, Indians were supposed to provide labor for Spaniards. The Crown devised the encomienda system for this purpose. The system allowed an individual Spaniard to use natives for labor in a particular area. In return, the Spaniard, with help from Catholic missionaries, was supposed to give the natives lessons in the Spanish language and religion. (The Spaniard hardly ever kept his part of the bargain.) The Spaniards developed an encomienda system in northern Chile (then part of Peru). In middle Chile, however, there were few natives because of interracial mixing. As a result, Spaniards had to employ mestizos. Landless and homeless, mestizos soon became cowboys (ranch hands) and tenant farmers (inquilinos in Chilean terminology) on estates. The estate owner gave the inquilinos little or no pay for their labor. He did give them permission to build a small family cabin, to graze the few livestock they were able to own, and to cultivate a small garden. As the mestizo population grew, more and more of them became part of a floating landless population that served as day laborers in harvest or other times of peak labor demand.


Chile sought to break ties with Spain for the same reasons that the rest of the Spanish colonies did. First, throughout the Spanish Empire there had been a growing hostility between the American-born criollos and the peninsular Spaniards. The latter controlled the political lives of the former. The Crown would only appoint a peninsular Spaniard to be a governor, judge, mayor, tax collector, and so on. Nor could peninsular and American-born Spaniards legally intermarry. The Crown supported this separation because it feared that criollos had a bond with the land in which they had been bom. Such a bond, the Crown reasoned, weakened criollos’ allegiance to Spain. The only way to preserve the empire was to deny them access to political power. This policy led criollos to the irreversible conclusion that only independence from Spain would give them political rights equal to their peninsular cousins.

A second reason Spanish colonies sought independence was the criollo merchants’ resentment of Spain’s rigid mercantilist trading system. In such a system, colonies had to ship products directly to the mother country, not anywhere else, not even if the merchant could sell his products at a better price. To avoid illegal smuggling, the Spanish Crown required that merchants transport all products through government customs houses on their way to and from the colony. Government agents collected taxes on the products at the customs houses.

In South America, all exports and imports had to go through the customs house in Lima, Peru (or Buenos Aires, Argentina, beginning in 1778). Criollo merchants felt that the Crown’s burdensome taxing system was holding back economic growth in the colonies. They also knew that direct shipments to the closest colonial ports would reduce transport costs and thereby raise profits. In Chile, the merchants wanted to use the port of Valparaiso for shipments of goods.

The intellectual climate in Europe and European colonies was a third reason for independence movements among Spanish colonies. The American colonies’ independence from Great Britain and the French Revolution’s spirit of equality caused colonists to question the right of Spain to control their affairs. Moreover, events in Europe were weakening Spain’s control of its colonies. Spain made an alliance with France. Together, the two countries declared a costly and an ill-fated war against Great Britain in 1804. The French, under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded Spain in 1808. The Spanish king, Charles IV, was taken out the country by the French and put under house arrest. Napoleon placed his bother Joseph on the Spanish throne. Napoleon’s unseating of the Spanish king gave Spanish American colonists a political excuse to seek independence from Spain. Up until then, many colonists had reasoned that their allegiance was to the Spanish king. Now, with the Spanish Crown under the control of a foreign power, they changed their allegiance to establishing independent nations.


Several rebel armies united to force Spain from South America in the early nineteenth century. Chile’s war of Independence lasted from 1810 to 1818. A combined force of Chilean and Argentine rebels liberated the country. The rebels were under the leadership of the Chilean Bernardo O’Higgins and the Argentine General Jose de San Martin. O’Higgins, who had an Irish father and Spanish mother, became dictator of Chile from 1818 to 1823. Determined to strengthen Chile as a nation, he built a navy, improved cities, promoted trade and agriculture, and opened public schools and libraries. He also prohibited bullfights, because they offended British merchants, Chile’s new partners in foreign trade. In 1823, Chile became the first Spanish American country to abolish slavery. In the same year, O’Higgins’s political rivals forced him to give up power and go into exile in Lima, Peru. Chileans often refer to Bernardo O’Higgins as the George Washington of their country.

Chile was a success story among former Spanish colonies by the mid-nineteenth century. The country’s one central cluster of people gave it a distinct plus in nation building. Unlike the other colonies, disputes and political rivalries involved a single, compact region. Thus, diplomacy was more effective in solving problems. What is more, landowning aristocrats lived on their estates, enabling them to take part in the life of rural communities. Their presence and paternal role narrowed the social gap between themselves and the large class of landless mestizo peasants. Chile’s stability was unusual among South American countries. Most countries had periodic outbursts of interregional warfare and wealthy landowners usually resided in cities.

Diego Portales dominated politics from 1830 until his murder in 1837. He was never president, but he ruled from behind the scenes as a cabinet minister. He achieved his objectives by using dictatorial powers, censoring the press, and controlling elections. Although he used dubious methods to govern, his rule gave Chile a stable regime at a critical time.

For almost 100 years after Portales’s rule, the country enjoyed a series of presidents who served out their terms. This fact reflects the political stability that the country enjoyed. In contrast, civil wars and political assassinations were destabilizing most South American countries during the same period. Adding to Chile’s stability and the Chileans’ growing identity as a nation were two wars that the country fought and won during the nineteenth century. From 1836 to 1839, Chile fought a war against the Peruvian-Bolivian Confederation. Chile was afraid that the merger of these two countries would threaten its security and stability. The victory left Peru and Bolivia as separate nations once again. From 1879 to 1884, the War of the Pacific (also known as the Chile-Peruvian War) erupted. Chile was pitted against its former rivals, Peru and Bolivia. The dispute was over control of the nitrate fields in the Atacama Desert. At the time, Chile’s northern border was farther south than it is today, so that the nitrate ores lay inside Peru and Bolivia. Chilean companies and workers, however, did most of the mining.

Chile’s victory pushed the country’s northern border to its present position and increased its national territory by onethird. The new border shut off Bolivia from direct access to the Pacific, leaving it landlocked. Taken together, Chile’s two war victories made the country the dominant military and commercial power along South America’s west coast.

Chile as a nation became even stronger as the government brought outlying regions under control. The country’s triumph in the War of the Pacific secured its northern region. A treaty with the Mapuche natives in 1881 finally brought the southern region under Chilean rule. The country’s transportation network also expanded outward from Santiago, literally tying the periphery (outer regions) to the center. William Wheelwright, an American industrialist, adopted Chile as his new home. In 1840, he created the first steamship line, which ran between Valparaiso and Panama. He also built the country’s first railroad in 1851, connecting the mining centers of Caldera and Copiapo. Wheelwright also oversaw construction of the first telegraph line between Santiago and Valparaiso. These were the first links in an expanding trade and communication system that helped Chileans from the north, middle, and south to unite as a single nation by the late nineteenth century. Much of the nineteenth century unity and stability came from Chile’s steady economic growth. Nitrates and other minerals exported from northern mines generated income for Chileans and huge tax revenues for the government. Middle Chile became an important exporter of wheat and flour. These exports went first to gold rush California and then to Great Britain. Industries, notably flour milling and breweries, grew in Santiago and Valparaiso, its trading port. The new urban factories needed laborers. Santiago grew from about 40,000 inhabitants in 1800 to more than 250,000 in 1900. Similarly, Valparaiso increased from 6,000 to 130,000.

Merchants from Great Britain became the country’s primary trading partners. British companies also invested large sums of money directly in the Chilean economy, particularly in nitrate mines and railroad construction. In addition, economic prosperity attracted a modest numbers of settlers from abroad. Immigrants came from all over Europe. People also emigrated from the Middle East, Peru, and Bolivia. Some of the immigrants joined the new urban middle class. Most of them ended up as laborers in cities. A minority, mostly German immigrants in the south, succeeded in farming.

Despite Chile’s progress, the nineteenth century ended on an unstable note. The economy was beginning to fail. The number of unemployed nitrate miners and landless mestizos was growing. In addition, a power struggle between the president and congress, which had been brewing since the 1830s, came to a head in 1891. Congress gradually had been asserting more and more authority over the budget and cabinet ministers.

Among other things, President Jose Manuel Balmaceda proposed to fund new programs by raising taxes in the mining sector and cutting expenditures to the navy. His political enemies were concerned, because a narrow majority in congress appeared to support his proposals. Influential members of congress (many of whom were large landowners) and the navy organized a rebellion. This was Chile’s first major revolt since 1823. The rebels defeated progovernment forces in two battles and seized the city of Santiago. Balmaceda took refuge in the Argentine embassy. He remained in the embassy until the end of his legal presidential term and committed suicide there. The government remained democratic at the end of the crisis, and a newly elected president and congress took office after the uprising. Despite the brief 1891 revolt, Chileans finished the nineteenth century with a long history of political stability. They took take pride in their representative form of government, and many looked with contempt on their more chaotic neighbors.


If the nineteenth century was known for its democracy and stability, the most recent century is in many ways recognized for its periodic challenges to democracy. Economic problems that had been brewing in the late nineteenth century finally boiled over at the opening of the twentieth century. Chile’s economy and foreign trade depended almost solely on the nitrate mining industry, which had been in decline since the 1880s.

The first serious sign of trouble came in northern Chile. In 1907, nitrate miners organized a strike for better pay and conditions. The miners and their families traveled to Santa Maria de Iquique, a remote mining town, to meet with government officials in order to discuss their complaints. The government did not send emissaries to the town as it had promised. Instead, it sent troops with orders to put down the strike by force. As the strikers assembled in the town plaza and church, a barrage of gunfire killed about 200 unarmed men and women. The hail of bullets also wounded hundreds of others.

This bloodbath radicalized Chilean politics. In 1912, groups of dissatisfied workers in the cities, the mines, and countryside united to form the Chilean Socialist Workers Party. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, it was the basis of the Chilean Communist Party. Up to this time, political parties simply represented opposing views held by members of the ruling class. Now, Chile’s politics began to reflect the nation’s long-standing but largely ignored economic and social problems.

Many of the problems lay at the feet of the aristocracy. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the ruling class was allowing agricultural production to stagnate. It was investing money in mines and urban-based factories instead. This policy was a formula for disaster, because jobs on estates employed 75 percent of Chile’s rural population. What is more, the days when the gentile landowner lived on his estate and showed compassion for the tenant workers who toiled on his land were over. Businesslike managers were now operating the estates.

Meanwhile, estate owners lived in luxurious houses in Santiago. They lived a lavish urban lifestyle, formed social clubs, attended the opera, and sent their children to the finest schools in Europe. They ignored Chile’s declining economy and rising poverty in the cities and mining towns as well as the countryside. Indeed, in the first decade of the twentieth century, the ruling class spent more money on the purchase of luxury items from Paris (champagne, jewels, silk, and perfume) than they did on new agricultural and industrial machinery.

Dissatisfied factory and mine workers formed trade unions in the opening decades of the twentieth century. They organized themselves to pressure the government for change. They went on labor strikes. They held rallies in the streets. Some of the rallies deteriorated into violent riots. Responding to the rising tide of social unrest, the government created the Constitution of 1925. Conservative groups in Chile believed that the government was given too much power. The result was a military coup in 1928 that gave Colonel Carlos Ibaftez dictatorial powers. This coup pushed aside Chile’s democratic tradition, as would happen again in the 1970s. Ibanez’s government did not survive the Great Depression, which swept the world with the Wall Street crash in 1929. Widespread unemployment and street riots forced him to resign in 1931, and democracy was restored the next year.

From 1932 to 1973, Chile was the only country in Latin America to sustain an electoral democracy. Parties and party alliances tended to appear and disappear over time. Marxist parties led the workers, as they did in the rest of the region during this period. Chile had two prominent political camps. The Socialists and the Communist parties were in the first camp. They included liberals or leftists. Leftists wanted the state to play a greater role in social and economic improvements. They also included a minority of radical full-blooded Marxist-Leninists. These people sought an armed struggle to overthrow the government and the establishment of a oneparty communist system.

The second camp was the Christian Democrat party.

Christian Democrats were conservatives or rightists. Rightists had strong backing from women (who gained the right to vote in 1949) and the Catholic Church. Christian Democrats were anticommunist. Both camps shared the common goals, such as the reform of landownership and nationalization of U.S.owned copper mines. As a result, factions of these two groups often crossed over from one camp to the other. They formed temporary political parties (left-wing or right-wing coalitions) to win elections.

For nearly 50 years, Chile went through a sustained period of democracy. Nevertheless, the country was plagued by rising inflation, dependence on foreign markets and capital, and unequal income distribution. A series of presidents formed coalitions and tried to deal effectively with Chile’s problems. Solutions were difficult to find, and politics became increasingly radical. Desperate for a fresh approach, in 1970 Chileans elected a Marxist, Salvador Allende Gossens, a former physician, as president. Allende led the Popular Unity party. This party was a left-wing coalition of socialists, communists, radicals, and Christian Democrats. As a Marxist, Allende called for reforms that smacked of a socialist state similar to the former Soviet Union. He sought the state ownership (nationalization) of most private industries and banks. He also called for the state’s takeover and reorganization of privately owned estate lands into collectivized farms. (The former Soviet Union organized agriculture into state-run collectivized farms in which farmers worked for the state. The state owned all land and other capital—such as tractors, animals, and houses.)

Allende was the first Marxist ever elected president in a democratic country. His government faced daunting problems. The United States government was afraid that he would turn Chile into a communist (one-party) state. What is more, Allende had convinced the Chilean congress to nationalize the U.S. copper mines, although he had not made the move to do so. Richard Nixon, the U.S. president, responded by secretly financing Allende’s political opposition. Moreover, a majority of Chileans did not support his leadership. In a multicandidate race, only 36% of the electorate voted for him. There were also massive street demonstrations because of shortages in food and other consumer items. In addition, there was much talk among Allende’s supporters that Chile was following a “peaceful road to socialism.” Yet most Chileans and leaders of the military—who were mostly sons of the ruling class—did not want a communist-run state. Because of these factors, a military coup overthrew Allende in 1973.

General Augusto Pinochet emerged as the leader of the military government. He dissolved congress, banned leftist parties, and suspended all others. Initially, the regime kidnapped, tortured, and murdered political opponents. Gradually, the regime allowed greater freedom of assembly, speech, and association. Political parties began to function openly again in 1987. Pinochet gave up his power in 1990, after Chileans voted him out of office. Freely elected governments have ruled Chile ever since.

Chile continues to deal with the legacy of Pinochet’s brutal regime. In 1990, one of Patricio Alwin’s first acts as president was to establish the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission’s purpose is to find out what happened to members of Pinochet’s political opposition. The Commission’s findings have led to the arrest and prosecution of former army officers and former leaders of the Pinochet’s secret police. The Commission’s work eventually led to the house arrest of Pinochet himself. The Santiago appeals court closed the case in 2003. The court declared the former dictator unfit for trial for health reasons.

Tens of thousands of Chileans are still dealing with the loss of close family members torn from them by Pinochet’s henchmen. Chilean artists continue to express the plight of victims in crafts, dance, paintings and theater. Without a doubt, Pinochet’s brutal rule has left an indelible imprint on the people and culture of the country.