Irishman became Viceroy of Peru

Ambrose O’Higgins was born at Ballinrig or Ballenarry, a little to the north of Summerhill, Co Meath round about the year 1720. His family were prosperous tenant farmers who were on good terms with the local landlords. A tradition survives that young Ambrose was trusted with errands and messages by the local landlords wife. His education in Ireland was of as high a quality as a Catholic could aspire to during the Penal Era.Ambrose set his heart on a military career, but unusually, he sought to pursue this initially within the British Army. In the mid 18th century, at a time when Charles Stuart was planning an invasion to regain the throne which he felt was his by right of inheritance, the promotional prospects of an Irish Catholic were extremely limited. Young Ambrose thus left the army and the British Isles for Spain.

Ambrose sails to SpainHe was accompanied there by his brother William. Any attempt to join the Spanish army must have proved in vain for Ambrose eventually ended up in the port of Cadiz on Spains southern coast working in a variety of clerical jobs. The humdrum nature of his employment was not his taste and when his brother announced a desire to travel to Paraguay in South America, Ambrose seized the opportunity to accompany him. They parted company on arrival on Buenos Aires, Ambrose heading west across the Andes to modern day Chile and Peru where he established a small business.For the next decade he oscillated between the continents of America and Europe, attempting to gain contacts in the Spanish Court that would allow him to return to a prestigious career back in the Americas - his various commercial undertakings usually ending in failure. He found work as a draughstman in Chile, working with another Irishman, John Garland. They specialised in designing military fortifications. He was also given occasional military commands leading local forces fighting the still restless and unconquered Araucanians. As he approached his fifties his position in Chile was comfortable enough, but far from spectacular or secure, yet it was only in later middle age that his career truly took off.

Chile, an undeveloped backwaterChile, like most of Spain’s colonies, had been neglected for over two centuries. The handful of settlers who had arrived had been content to grow rich through the wasteful exploitation of local resources, while the mother country provided practically nothing in return by way of investment. This policy was reversed in both Spain and Portugal in the second half of the eighteenth century, as both governments sought to develop their colonies economic potential - and extract higher taxes as a result.Ambrose O’Higgins skills as a military engineer and soldier had brought him to the attention of the Spanish viceroys. Ambrose (or Ambrosio as he had been since becoming a naturalised Spanish subject) had plenty of ideas for improving colonial infrastructure and in the 1770s he was charged with putting these into practice. He improved the condition of Chile’s roads and built a series of mountain huts (or casuches) for travellers in the Andes. Once implemented this allowed a mail and goods services to operate from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic.Any military ambitions he maintained were also gratified with promotions in the army in which he rose to the rank of brigadier. In 1786 he was named governor of the province of Concepci and in 1788 captain-general and governor of the whole of Chile. He was in his late fifties, but he had plenty of energy still in hand.

O’Higgins as governor of ChileHis experience as a military engineer compelled him to improve the roads linking the long silver of land that was Chile. Communications were not easy; towns in the interior were often separated from the coast by high mountains. There were numerous rivers, but most were too fast-flowing for navigation, and anyway they frequently burst their banks causing disastrous floods. O’Higgins instituted a program of bridge building, along with the construction of breakwaters along the Mapocho river in Chile’s central valley.

Economic reformsThe economy had stagnated for decades and O’Higgins supported irrigration with land grants, as well as the introduction of new crops such as cotton, tobacco and sugar. These in turn spurred small industries in urban areas. He also encouraged improved trade with the colonies further north in the Spanish Empire such as Mexico. During his term as Captain-general he founded six new towns and set about rebuilding many others. One of these was Osorno. He was entranced by the rugged natural beauty of the surrounding region with its high snow-capped mountains and volcanoes and its wide lakes. When he was granted noble status in 1796 he took as his title Marqus de Osorno.

A friend of the IndiansThe original inhabitants of Chile, the Araucanians, had put up a determined resistance to the Spaniards. This continued into the eighteenth century as Spanish colonisation had pushed further south. Although the scale of fighting had lessened the Araucanians were still capable of being violent and destructive, if it was localised uprisings. Ambrosio pursued a policy of paternalistic firmness, often playing off one tribe against another. He ended the hated encomienda system, in which Indians had been compelled to provide onerous and unpaid labour services for settlers. He set up a school for Araucanians, which was briefly attended by his natural son Bernardo; and he instituted a policy of holding parlamentos or colloquies between the leading colonists and the heads of the various Araucanian tribes at which matters of outstanding disagreement, such as disputed rights of movement, could be resolved. He also encouraged greater trading contracts between the Europeans and the indigenous peoples.Ambrosio never married, probably because he had few prospects when of a young, more marriageable age. He was far from handsome - his lack of physical stature and pinkish-red skin earning him the not very complimentary nickname of el camarrn (the shrimp). When he began his rapid if belated rise to prominence he visited the house of Sim n Riquelme, a local notable in the southern town of Chill n, where he was captivated by the beauty of his hosts daughter Isabel, who at the time was only fourteen. He proposed marriage and was accepted, but there was a problem. As a servant of the Spanish crown he was legally prohibited from contracting marriage with any colonist. This could be waived only through direct petition to the Spanish monarch himself. There is no evidence that Ambrosio ever sought this, even after Isabel gave birth to a son christened Bernardo. Ambrosio took full responsibility for his sons upbringing, having him educated both locally and in Europe. His parentage was an open secret, yet Ambrosio kept his son very much at arms length. He only saw him once and never replied to Bernardos many letters.

Ambrosio hits the big timeIn 1796 Ambrosio was appointed viceroy of the vast province of Peru, one of the highest positions in the Spanish colonial administration. It was a considerable achievement for a man who was not even Spanish by birth. On moving from Santiago to Lima he continued his interest in improving the provinces infrastructure. He enunciated a plan (never completed) to build a road from Lima to the old Inca captain at Cuzco, deep in the Peruvian interior. He also oversaw the provision of a second tower to Lima’s cathedral.But time was running out for Ambrosio in more ways than one. Bernardo had been sent to England to complete his education where he had fallen under the influence of the well-travelled Venezuelan agitator Francisco de Miranda who was espousing the independence of Spain’s American colonies. Bernardos very existence was embarrassing enough, but the probability that he was mixing with the Spanish governments biggest enemies could not be of credit to his father. In an effort to disassociate himself from his distant offspring he disinherited him and cut off his allowance. Throughout his career Ambrosio had had to fight against his non-Spanishness, but what annoyed him even more was that he was wrongly dubbed. Un ingles instead of Un Irlandes. He was also in his late seventies, and had not always been in the best of health.Late in 1800 his enemies at the Spanish court achieved his dismissal on grounds of age. Yet in January 1801, before notice of his entrenchment had made its long journey by sea to Peru he suffered a brain haemorrhage. He lingered in semi-lucidity for two months before dying on March 18, Although he had shortly beforehand cut off all assistance to Bernardo he left him a considerable amount of money and lands in his will.Ambrosio O’Higgins was a man of remarkable strength of character who seemed to positively flourish in strange environments. His fellow Irishman, Don Juan MacKenna (who knew him well) even compared him to Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. It is ironic that he should be viewed as a model administrator of the Spanish colonial system which his son is remembered as helping to destroy.