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Ambrosio O'Higgins, 1st Marquis of Osorno
Irish-Spanish colonial administrator

Ambrosio O'Higgins, 1st Marquis of Osorno

Ambrosio O'Higgins, 1st Marquis of Osorno
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Irish-Spanish colonial administrator
A.K.A. Ambrose Bernard O'Higgins, Ambrós Bearnárd Ó hUiginn
Was Military personnel Politician
From Ireland Spain
Field Military Politics
Gender male
Birth 1720, Ballynary, Ireland
Death 19 March 1801, Lima, Peru (aged 81 years)
The details (from wikipedia)


Ambrosio Bernardo O'Higgins, 1st Marquess of Osorno (c. 1720 – March 19, 1801) born Ambrose Bernard O'Higgins (Ambrós Bearnárd Ó hUiginn, in Irish), was a Spanish colonial administrator and a member of the O'Higgins family. He served the Spanish Empire as captain general (i.e., military governor) of Chile (1788–1796) and viceroy of Peru (1796–1801). Chilean independence leader Bernardo O'Higgins was his son.

Early life

A member of the O'Higgins family, Ambrose was born at his family's ancestral seat in Ballynary, County Sligo, Ireland; the son of Charles O'Higgins and his wife (and kinswoman) Margaret O'Higgins, who having lost their lands in Sligo migrated and became tenant farmers at Clondoogan near Summerhill in County Meath ca. 1721. Along with other members of his family Ambrose worked in the service of the Rowley-Langford family of Summerhill House. In fact Ambrose is said to have been employed by Lady Jane Rowley.

In 1751, O'Higgins arrived at Cádiz, where he dedicated himself to commerce as an employee of the Butler Trading House. As an Irishman and a Catholic, he was able to emigrate legally to Spanish America in 1756. Once there, and for some time, he was an itinerant trader in Venezuela, New Granada, and Peru, but, being investigated by the Inquisition, he moved to La Plata Colony, in present-day Argentina, where he tried some commercial ventures. From there, O'Higgins proposed to open easy communication between Chile and Mendoza by a way over the Andes, and, his proposition being accepted, he was employed to supervise the project.

In Chile

About 1760, O'Higgins enrolled in the Spanish Imperial Service as draughtsman and then engineer. He was directly responsible for the establishment of a reliable postal service between La Plata colony and the General Captaincy of Chile. On his first harrowing journey over the Andes mountains separating Argentina and Chile during the winter of 1763–64, O'Higgins conceived the idea of a chain of weatherproof shelters. By 1766, thanks to O'Higgins' efficient execution of this plan, Chile enjoyed all-year overland postal service with Argentina, which had previously been cut off for several months each winter.

In 1764, John Garland, another Irish engineer at the service of Spain who was military governor of Valdivia, convinced him to move to the neighbouring, and less established, colony of Chile as his assistant. He was initially commissioned as a junior subaltern in the Spanish army. In 1770, now in his late forties, the Governor of Chile appointed him captain of a column of cavalry to resist the attacks of the Araucanian Indians, whom he defeated, founding the fort of San Carlos in the south of the province of Arauco. He gained the good-will of the Indians by his humanity and benevolence, and recovered big swathes of territory that had been lost by the Spaniards.

He rose quickly in the ranks. As a consequence of his services viceroy Manuel de Amat appointed him, on 7 September 1777, a colonel in the army. He soon rose to be brigadier, and viceroy Teodoro de Croix appointed him Intendant of Concepción in 1786. In 1788, in return for his efforts in South America, King Charles III of Spain created O'Higgins as 1st Barón de Ballinar (a title of the Spanish Crown not to be confused with the family's existing Gaelic title), and promoted him to major-general. Soon afterward he became Captain General and Governor of Chile.

As Governor of Chile

As governor of Chile, one of the most troublesome, poor, and remote of Spanish outposts, O'Higgins was extremely active, promoting the construction of a definitive road between the capital Santiago and the port of Valparaíso (part of the layout of which is still in use today), continued the building of the Palacio de la Moneda in Santiago, improved roads, and erected permanent dikes along the banks of the Mapocho river which regularly flooded Santiago. He founded cities including San Ambrosio de Ballenary, now Vallenar (1789); Villa de San Francisco de Borja de Combarbalá, now Combarbalá (1789); Villa San Rafael de Rozas, now Illapel (1789); Santa Rosa de los Andes, now Los Andes (1791); San José de Maipo (1792); Nueva Bilbao, now Constitución (1794); Villa de San Ambrosio de Linares, now Linares (1794), and Villa Reina Luisa del Parral, now Parral (1795).

He focused on developing the resources of the country, with an enlightened policy that accomplished much for Spanish interest, but also paved the way for later events in the country's history. He improved communications and trade with other Spanish colonies, based on a growing agricultural base. He abolished the encomienda system whereby natives were forced to work the land for the crown, an act reinforced by royal decree in 1791. He was made lieutenant-general in 1794.

Malaspina Expedition

In February 1787, the frigate Astrea under the command of Alessandro Malaspina called at Talcahuano, the port of Concepcion, in the course of a commercial circumnavigation of the world on behalf of the Royal Philippines Company. O'Higgins was military governor there at the time, and six months before had recommended that Spain organize an expedition to the Pacific similar to those led by Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse and James Cook. O'Higgins had made this recommendation following the visit of the Lapérouse expedition to Concepcion in March 1786, and he presumably discussed it with Malaspina while the Astrea was at Concepcion. Following the Astrea's return to Spain, Malaspina produced, in partnership with José de Bustamante, a proposal for an expedition along the lines set out in O'Higgins' memorandum.

A short time later, on 14 October 1788, Malaspina was informed of the government's acceptance of his plan. José de Espinoza y Tello, one of the officers of the Malaspina expedition, subsequently confirmed the importance of the information sent by O'Higgins in stimulating the Government to initiate an extensive program of exploration in the Pacific. The prompt acceptance of O'Higgins's and Malaspina's proposal was also stimulated by news from St. Petersburg of preparations for a Russian expedition (the Mulovsky expedition) to the North Pacific under the command of Grigori I. Mulovsky that had as one of its objectives the claiming of territory on the northwest coast of America around Nootka Sound that was also claimed at the time by Spain.

Huilliche Rebellion of 1792

In 1784 the Governor of Chiloé, Francisco Hurtado, and Ambrosio O'Higgins had been ordered to open a way between Maullín and Valdivia over Huilliche territory. This caused alarm among the Huilliche of the Llanos de Osorno (flatlands of Osorno) who decided to ally with the Huilliche Aillarehues of the Río Bueno valley and those around Lake Ranco to the north and ask for the intervention of the Governor of Valdivia, Mariano Pusterla. Mariano Pusterla had good relations with the Huilliches of Río Bueno and Ranco because of his support for pacific contact and missionary campaign, refusing to establish any new fort in the territory. On the other hand, the Governor of Chiloé, Francisco Hurtado, supported instead a hard line against the Huilliches and threatened with a military invasion.

In February 1789 the Treaty of Río Bueno was signed between Huilliche chiefs and colonial authorities. This treaty diverted a possible invasion from Chiloé and gave the Huilliches of Osorno support against the malones of the Aillarehue of Quilacahuín from the authorities of Valdivia. At that point the Huilliches offered to facilitate the opening of the new Camino Real and to allow Spaniards to occupy Osorno, a city that had been abandoned in 1602. In 1792 O'Higgins rebuilt the city of Osorno, and as a reward was created 1st Marquess of Osorno by King Charles IV of Spain in 1796.

The treaty also allowed Spaniards to settle and form haciendas north of the Bueno River. Abuses from the Spanish and their fast advance in establishing new haciendas made several chiefs change their minds. The caciques Tangol from Río Bueno, Queipul and Catrihuala decided to form an alliance. The Huilliche Rebellion of 1792 began with this event, and they soon started to pillage haciendas and missions with the ultimate aim of assaulting Valdivia, which despite being well defended from north and west, seemed vulnerable for a land attack by the southeast.

Despite the limited extent of the rebellion, that never became a real threat to Valdivia, the Spanish authorities responded to it with rigour. Governor O'Higgins chose captain Tomás de Figueroa to lead the reprisal. Figueroa set fire to rucas and croplands where his troops passed and arrested a large number of male Huilliches as suspected rebels. After that, the Spanish considered it convenient to sign a new treaty with the Huilliche leaders, for which a parliament was held in Las Canoas, in what is now Osorno, in 1793. While in the treaty of Río Bueno the Spanish had been allowed to form haciendas north of Bueno River, establishing that watercourse as a de facto frontier, the Spanish now went on to set up haciendas south of it.

Parliaments of 1793

The same year, 1793, a new parliament was held in Negrete on the northern frontier with the aim of ratifying and renewing the older Treaty of Lonquilmo from 1783. Copying older treaties, the King of Spain was confirmed as the sovereign of the Araucanía, while the possession of the land was reserved for the Mapuches, which resulted in a de jure sovereignty of the King of Spain but in a de facto independence of the Mapuche-controlled lands. The treaty celebrations were held from March 4 to March 7, with many banquets of wine and meat being held for the numerous participants. The whole treaty cost 10.897 pesos, which was, according to Diego Barros Arana, an enormous amount of money, considering the size of Chile's treasury.

As Viceroy of Peru

Memorial plaque, Lima

In 1796, O'Higgins was appointed Viceroy of Peru, comprising present-day Peru and Chile. As Peru was the second richest colony after New Spain (Mexico) in the Spanish empire, the Viceroyship was one of the most prominent posts in all of Spanish America.

When war was declared between England and Spain in 1797, O'Higgins took active measures for the defense of the coast, strengthening the fortifications of Callao and constructing a fort in Pisco. He projected and constructed a new carriage-road from Lima to Callao, and his principal attention during his short administration was directed to the improvement of means of communication.

He died suddenly after a short illness in 1801, and was interred in the Iglesia de San Pablo, now the Jesuit-run Iglesia de San Pedro, Lima.


Archives in Spain and Ireland show that Ambrose O'Higgins was the son of Charles O'Higgins, of Ballynary, County Sligo (son of Roger O'Higgins, of Ballynary, County Sligo, and wife Margaret Brehan), and wife and cousin Margaret O'Higgins (daughter of William O'Higgins and wife Winnifred O'Fallon). Charles O'Higgins' grandfather, Sean Duff O'Higgins, held the Gaelic territorial title of Tiarna or Lord of Ballinary, and he was married to an O'Conor, daughter of the Royal House of O'Conor of Ballintober Castle, which ruled Ireland until the year 1000.

The O'Higgins family were a sept of the O'Neill dynasty who migrated to Sligo in the 12th century. As Gaelic nobles they had owned great expanses of land particularly in the Irish counties of Sligo and Westmeath, but with the expropriations of Catholics by Oliver Cromwell, and the deportation of tenants to County Sligo after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland ca. 1654, the O'Higgins' lands became smaller and smaller.

Due to this encroachment into their land, the O'Higgins family migrated to Summerhill in County Meath, where they became lowly tenant farmers and worked in the service of the Rowley-Langford family. Their descendants remain in Summerhill however; Bridget O'Higgins who died in 1947 was the last in Summerhill to carry the family name as others had emigrated to the US and migrated to Dublin. The O'Higgins graves are located in The Moy and Agher cemeteries, both within the boundaries of the Roman Catholic parish of Dangan in Summerhill.


Isabel Riquelme
Bernardo O'Higgins

In 1777, Ambrosio O'Higgins became acquainted with the powerful Riquelme family from Chillán, and fell in love with the daughter, Isabel Riquelme, almost forty years his junior (she was 18 or 19 at the time, while he was 57 years old). He promised marriage, but colonial law forbade marriage between public officials and criolla women without authorization of the crown. To disregard this law was to risk career and position. It is not known why he did not seek permission, but no marriage ensued even when Isabel became pregnant.

Isabel gave birth to Ambrosio's only son, Bernardo, in August 1778. Bernardo O'Higgins would later lead Chile to its independence from the Spanish Empire. Two years later, Isabel married Félix Rodríguez with whom she had a daughter, Rosa Rodríguez Riquelme. Though Ambrosio O'Higgins never saw or officially recognised his son as his legal heir, he paid for his education in England and left him a portion of his possessions in Peru and Chile.

Bernardo O'Higgins led Chile as Supreme Director from 1818 to 1823 when he was forced to resign and go into exile with his mother, sister and son Demetrio O'Higgins in Peru. Demetrio, who visited his relatives in Summerhill in 1862, had no sons and consequently all his descendants are in the female line.


There are various towns, bays, and other Spanish discoveries in the Americas which were named after his birthplace during his time as Viceroy, such as Vallenar (originally named San Ambrosio de Ballenary, later Hispanicized to Vallenar) in Chile and Vallenar Bay in Alaska.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 15 Apr 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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