A Brief History of Chile

By Tim Lambert

Early Chile

The first human beings arrived in Chile at about 12,000 BC. At first, people lived by hunting and gathering but in North Chile, they were farming by 2,500 BC. However, agriculture began much later in Southern Chile.

The Incas conquered northern Chile in the 15th century but they were themselves conquered by the Spanish in 1533. However, in the South was a people called the Araucanians. In 1540 a Spaniard called Pedro de Valdivia invaded southern Chile and he founded Santiago in 1540. However, in 1553 the Mapuche, known to the Spaniards as Araucanians rebelled led by men called Lautro and Caupolican. They sacked the Spanish settlements except for Concepcion and la Serena.

The Spaniards managed to regain control but the Araucanians continued to resist Spanish rule until the 19th century and there was frequent strife between them and the Spaniards.

Despite that by the end of the 17th century, the population of Chile was about 100,000 and by the end of the 18th century, it was nearly 500,000 most of whom were mestizos or people of mixed race.

Independent Chile

In 1808 Napoleon occupied Spain and deposed King Ferdinand VII. He made his brother, Joseph, king of Spain. So in Chile, the leading citizens elected a junta in September 1810. They claimed they were ruling on behalf of the deposed King Ferdinand but they introduced several reforms and moved towards independence.

However, Peru remained loyal to Spain and went to war with Chile to bring her to heel. In October 1814 a royalist army defeated the Chileans and occupied Santiago.

Meanwhile, Napoleon had abdicated and the Spanish king had been restored. The king then clamped down on Chile and introduced a repressive regime, which simply alienated the people.

A man named Jose de San Martin led an army that defeated the royalists at Chabuco on 12 February 1817. Chile became formally independent from Spain on 12 February 1818.

However, the early years of independent Chile were troubled by political instability. However, in 1829 the Conservatives took power and introduced an authoritarian regime. They were led by Diego Portales who never became president himself but who nevertheless was very influential.

In 1833 a new constitution for Chile was drawn up. There followed a long period of relative stability in Chile. There was also economic growth and the first railways were built.

However after 1873 Chile was plunged into recession and exports of wheat, silver, and copper dropped dramatically.

Finally in 1879 war began between Chile on one side and Peru and Bolivia on the other. For years Chile and Bolivia had a border dispute. Chile finally agreed to recognize the disputed territory as Bolivian as long as Bolivia did not increase the export tax on Chilean nitrate companies operating there. When Bolivia did raise the tax it led to war. Peru joined the war on Bolivia’s side.

In 1879 the Chileans captured the Hudascar Peru’s greatest warship. The Chileans then invaded southern Peru. In 1881 they captured the capital, Lima. The war with Peru ended in 1883 and the war with Bolivia ended in 1884. Chile gained territory at the expense of Peru and Bolivia.

Afterward in the last years of the 19th century exports of nitrate from Chile boomed and the country was prosperous again.

However, the Chilean Congress then argued with the president. In 1890 congress refused to accept the president’s budget for 1891. The president announced he would use the 1890 budget again in 1891. Congress claimed that was illegal and fled. A short civil war followed and the president’s army was defeated. He committed suicide.

Congress then became much stronger and the president’s power was sharply reduced. Meanwhile, the Chilean economy prospered and industry grew.

Unfortunately when the First World War began in 1914 exports of nitrates collapsed leading to much unrest in Chile.

Modern Chile

The military decided that only a strong presidency would be able to deal with the crisis in Chile and from 1924 they intervened in Chilean politics. In 1925 a new constitution was drawn up. However, the depression of the 1930s meant an economic collapse in Chile. It also led to political instability with many strikes and changes of government. Stability was restored in 1932 when Arturo Alessandri became president of Chile again. (Alessandri had been president before).

Afterward, Chile became a multi-party system with right-wing, left-wing, and liberal parties. However, in 1958 the Socialist Salvador Allende only narrowly failed to win the presidency, greatly alarming the right-wing.

In 1964 a Christian Democrat called Eduardo Frei was elected president. He introduced several reforms such as a minimum wage. However, his reforms were not enough for some people while for others they were too much. Chile became increasingly divided between the left and the right.

Then in September 1970, the Socialist Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile. Allende nationalized industries but that depleted foreign currency reserves. He also began radical agrarian reform. However, government expenditure far outstripped its income causing a huge deficit. The world copper price also fell, which cut the government’s revenues even more. Inflation also rose very rapidly and food shortages became common. Furthermore, in October 1972 a truckers strike brought Chile to a halt. Finally, on 11 September 1973, the army staged a coup led by Augusto Pinochet.

Pinochet introduced a brutal military dictatorship in Chile. The worst instrument of repression was his secret police the DINA.

Nevertheless, Pinochet did, at first, have economic success. Inflation in Chile was curbed and unemployment fell. However, in the early 1980s, Chile entered a recession. It did not recover until the end of the decade.

Meanwhile, in 1980 Pinochet drew up a new constitution. Under it, he would continue in power till 1988. Then the people would decide if they wanted the military rule to continue or if they wanted an election.

It was no surprise when the majority of Chileans voted against continuing military rule. In the election that followed in 1989, a Christian Democrat named Patricio Aylwin became president.

During the 1990s Chile enjoyed rapid economic growth, which continued in the early years of the 21st century. Today poverty in Chile is declining rapidly and the country is much more prosperous. Chile is also a stable democracy. In 2010 Sebastian Pinera was elected president. Also in 2010, Chile joined the OECD. Today the economy of Chile is growing steadily. Chile has a bright future. In 2024 the population of Chile was 19 million.

Last revised 2024