As heir to the intendencias of Santiago and Concepción, administrative subdivisions of the Viceroyalty of Peru, independent Chile comprised only the area from around Copiapó in the north to Concepción, in the south. A few other outliers, such as the city of Valdivia and the Chiloé archipelago, were nominally under Chilean control, but the Araucanians (Mapuches) still ruled the countryside.
To some degree, though, this worked to Chile’s advantage. Compared to sprawling Argentina, where provincial warlords fought a weak central government, the compact Chilean polity and its fairly homogenous population were easy to govern. Nevertheless, despite Chile’s reputation for liberal democracy, nearly all of the 19th-century leaders (and many of the 20th) were military men.
O’Higgins himself was the first of these, but his own authoritarian tendencies and opposition from the landholding oligarchy undercut his position. After his resignation and exile in 1823, there were several years of instability before the wealthy merchant Diego Portales emerged as the power behind the executive, under a constitution that he himself wrote. Portales’s constitution, which created a unitary state with Roman Catholicism as the official religion and instituted a property requirement for voting, even survived his death in a military mutiny in 1837. By the time Chile adopted a new constitution, in 1925, Portales’s document had been in force nearly a century.
Favorable economic developments assisted Chile’s stability. In the 1830s, the discovery of a bonanza silver mine at Chañarcillo, near Copiapó, helped make the country solvent. Shortly thereafter, the California gold rush kindled demand for Chilean wheat, making Valparaíso one of Pacific America’s premier ports. Simultaneously, Chile developed a navy to project its power elsewhere on the continent.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition