Country Listing

Chile Table of Contents



Early History

Chile's indigenous Mapuche people established themselves as tenacious warriors in the fifteenth century. An attempted invasion by the forces of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (1438-71) in 1460 was held off by the Mapuche in the Valley of Coquimbo. The Incas withdrew, defeated, six years later. A second effort at invasion, this time by Huayna Cápac, son of and successor to Yupanqui, enjoyed greater success in 1491, penetrating as far as the Central Valley (Valle Central) of Chile before it, too, was turned back by the Mapuche.

The first Spanish attempt at conquest, led by Diego de Almagro in 1535-37, was undertaken by a force of 500 to 700 Spaniards and as many as 15,000 native Americans. Although this expedition penetrated as far as the Río Maule, Almagro's forces, finding no sign of hoped-for riches and constantly harassed by the Mapuche, retreated across the Atacama Desert and returned to Peru without establishing any permanent settlements. In 1540 Pedro de Valdivia launched a much smaller but longer expedition, leading some 150 Spaniards and 1,000 native Americans. Valdivia's expedition succeeded in establishing the first permanent European settlements in Chile. However, Araucanian (particularly Mapuche) resistance kept Valdivia from penetrating to any significant degree beyond the Río Bío-Bío. In a Christmas Day battle in 1553, an Araucanian army of warriors on foot, led by Lautaro, a legendary chief, met and defeated a force of Spanish cavalry commanded by Valdivia. Lautaro had studied the Spaniards and their tactics when he was a slave for Valdivia during a period of captivity. After that initial success, the indigenous warriors adapted rapidly to European-style warfare and soon, using captured horses and weapons, fielded their own cavalry against the invader.

The Araucanians were contained only with difficulty throughout the next three centuries. The Río Bío-Bío remained the effective southern frontier throughout the colonial period. The Araucanians made frequent incursions northward, one of which threatened to destroy the Spanish settlement in Santiago in 1554. In an attempt to defeat these native Americans, Alonso de Rivera created a Chilean army of sorts in 1603. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Araucanian wars had already cost the lives of more than 40,000 Spaniards and untold thousands of native Americans. Throughout this period, the coastal region was also subjected to sporadic attacks by English, French, and Dutch buccaneers.

The Hispano-Amerindian society that evolved in Spanishcontrolled Chile thus developed in an environment that was under a constant shadow of real or potential external threat. These circumstances produced a people for whom military defense and prowess were important attributes. During the latter years of the colonial period, Chile depended for its defense principally on a militia, which numbered 16,000 by the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Spanish colonial administration was overturned with relative ease in 1810, and a small volunteer militia, consisting of one battalion of infantry, two squadrons of cavalry, and four companies of artillery, was established.

Data as of March 1994