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Who was Bernardo O'Higgins?

Of all South American nations, Chile dishes up the most surprising street and plaza names. Say goodbye to the predictable who’s who of Spanish staples and say hello to out-of-place Scottish and Irish surnames coupled with improbable Spanish first names: Juan Mackenna, Patricio Lynch and Carlos Condell are all worth a mention, but no-one beats the splendid (and ubiquitous) Bernardo O’Higgins.

Picture: Eduardo Escarez

But it’s not just his name which is unlikely. Although he’s considered to be the greatest hero of the Chilean independence movement, O’Higgins was no great military tactician nor was he an exceptionally healthy man. What he lacked in physical and mental conditioning, he made up for with unfailing belief in the notion of Pan-American independence and awe-inspiring bravery (some might call it foolishness) in the heat of battle.

His public life was forever colored by an ongoing feud with fellow independence fighter and arch-rival Jose Carrera. O’Higgins’ major drawcard was his friendship with the great Argentine Liberator San Martin. When the time came to select a Supreme Director of independent Chile, San Martin nominated O’Higgins and the rest, as they say, is history.

Picture: William Murphy

O’Higgins’ directorship started off well, and he made significant improvements to the Chilean government, economy and welfare system. His feud with Carrera would prove his downfall, however: when supporters of O’Higgins executed Carrera in 1821, public sentiment turned against him and he was subsequently deposed by a coup two years later.

O’Higgins lived out the remainder of his life in exile in Peru. Just before his death he was granted permission to return to Chile, but he was too ill to undertake the journey. That said, his name lives on in the streets, plazas, parks and statues of modern day Chile, and is pronounced by locals with an endearingly guttural initial ‘H’ sound.

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