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Occupation of the Araucanía

Of the indigenous groups inhabiting the southern regions of South America when the Spanish arrived on the Pacific coast of South America in the 16th century, the Mapuche peoples—also known as the Wallmapu amongst themselves and the Araucanian people by the Spanish colonizers— developed the most successful strategies of resistance.

In the sixteenth century, Spanish soldier, nobleman, and poet Alonso de Ercilla (1533-1594) wrote a highly influential historical poem, La Araucana (The Araucaniad). This epic poem traces the early years of the Arauco War, a semi-permanent state of belligerence between the Spanish Conquistadors and the Araucanian or Mapuche peoples.

The beginning of the poem reads:

In the famed Antarctic region,
respected by far-off nations
as fierce, foremost, and puissant;
the people it produces so illustrious,
so proud, so gallant, and so bellicose
no king nor any foreign power
has ever ruled or conquered them (trans. Dave Oliphant)


For 350 years, the Mapuche retained their epic reputation for effective resistance, managing to evade domination by the invaders. But in the mid-nineteenth century, the Chilean government launched a national drive towards modernization on the European model. One goal of this modernizing project was to establish settler colonies of European immigrants in southern Chile. After a fierce war that dragged on for over two decades (1861-1883), the Mapuche became the last of Chile’s indigenous ethnic groups to concede their territory.

The Occupation of the Araucanía remains one of the most controversial episodes of late-nineteenth-century Chilean history. As we assess the impact of British and American influence in Chile during the nineteenth century, therefore, we must recognize the context in which the Chilean government granted the territory to foreign colonists. The British were not innocent bystanders but played an active role in the highly debatable process known as either the Pacification or the Occupation of indigenous land.

Southern Chile in the 1800s:
Pacification or Occupation?

By the 1880s, Chile had been an independent country for over half a century. The north of Chile, already profitable for its copper and nitrate mining, became increasingly well settled after the War of the Pacific (1879-1883). The Chilean government then turned their gaze southward, calling for the Pacification and subsequent colonization of the territory south of the River Bio- Bio and north of the River Toltén.


Map of Arauco and Valdivia (1870). Source: Biblioteca Nacional Digital

In fact, cities like Valdivia in Chile’s south-central region had already begun the transition to settler colonialism after the government provided incentives to encourage immigration of German farmers, beginning in the 1860s. The Mapuche, long-settled between the rivers Itata and Toltén, faced intense pressure in Chile and Argentina from midcentury onwards when both governments actively lured European immigrants to settle in the new nations.

From 1861 to 1883, General Cornelio Saavedra’s peacekeeping plan paved a more formal route for European immigrants to seize and occupy Mapuche territory. The Chilean government saw the Araucanía as a new frontier to be “pacified” once and for all. Actively recruited by the Creole Chilean government, clusters of European immigrants settled in Mapuche homelands in south-central Chile. At the same time, following the “civilizing” ideology of the time, the Chilean army worked to systematically displace native inhabitants.

Both Chile and Argentina were particularly eager to promote the integration and development of this Southern region—still effectively held by indigenous peoples—into a white-dominated national territory, because in the age of settler colonialism, colonies of Europeans were seen to bring civilization, progress, and modernity to the American wilderness.

In 1882, the integration of the Araucanía into Chile’s formal administrative system crumbled the Mapuche social structure by confining them within territories delimited by the Chilean government (Biblioteca Nacional Digital). Hence the Araucanian conflict, as the new Chilean government sought the dismantling of the Wallmapu (ancestral Mapuche territory that comprised part of southern Chile and Argentina).

Representing the Mapuche in 
The Valparaiso and West Coast Mail

In the 1870s, the time of most significant tension between the Chilean government and the Mapuche peoples, the Anglophone Victorian press in Chile seems simultaneously complicit with the modernizing interests of the State, insofar as the state defends the interests of British settler colonialism, and critical of how these interests are carried out. We see the first impulse in this article published in the newspaper the Valparaiso and West Coast Mail, which was published by British colonists living in Chile:

ARAUCANIA.—The “Meteoro” de Los Angeles relates another instance of cattle robbery by the Indians, remarking that according to appearances they are keeping their promise of seizing all the stock they can find in that region as an indemnity for the land taken from them by the Government. In the present instance they made their attack in the middle of the night and drove off about a hundred head of cattle, wounding the drivers, who endeavored to defend them [. . .] In addition to the scarcity of provisions and the drought, brigandage has made its appearance.

VWCM, 17 October 1867, No. 9, p. 3.

Indeed, during this period both the Anglophone and the national presses of Chile launched a passionate debate on whether the colonization efforts made by the Chilean Government were justified or not. In this article, also from the Valparaiso and West Coast Mail, we see the colony’s ambivalent response to the Chilean government’s attempts to create immigrant settlements in Mapuche territory—though it is crucial to note that “a Correspondent” reveals no apparent sympathy for the dispossessed Mapuche themselves:

THE IMMIGRATION QUESTION. (From a Correspondent.) I am quite willing to believe that the Government is sincere in its efforts to encourage immigration; that it is cognizant of the one great defect of Chile —want of population— and is willing and anxious to do all its power to remedy it by offering inducements to foreigners to settle; but I must certainly say its actions are not calculated to further the object it has in view.[…] But even supposing the evils which seem patent enough to me do not take place— that my apprehensions are groundless, that the purchasers of the land on terms so unprecedentedly favorable will not be speculators, but who intend to “settle” and cultivate their holdings: in what way will a stimulus be imparted to immigration? Will one person more be added to the population of the country; and does the Government believe that as the quantity of territory at its disposal decreases, it will be able to offer better inducements to foreigners to come and settle? The Government’s notion of immigration is certainly an original one, and is a wonderful  illustration of the compensating principle popularly known as “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

VWCM 10 March 1868, No. 28, p. 3.

1907 Census: Surveying the Mapuche

By the time of the 1907 census in Chile, nearly 10,000 settlers—mostly Germans, British, French, Italians, and Spanish—had arrived in the southern provinces of Chile, primarily in Llanquihue, Cautín, Malleco, and Valdivia.

Over the course of the preceding century, Spanish and Chilean officials had attempted to assess the number of Mapuche inhabitants in Chile, a feat of quantification that failed to produce meaningful results. During the eighteenth century, the Spanish had merely estimated the number of Araucanians, claiming there to be roughly 150,000 inhabitants of the Southern territories. Shortly before Independence, however, in 1796, Viceroy O’Higgins did conduct a census between the River Bio-Bio and Toltén and asserted there to be 95,540 indigenous peoples. The subsequent censuses of 1865, 1875, 1885, and 1895 variously claimed there to be anywhere from  80,000 to 100,000 indigenous peoples in the territory.  As a consequence, we virtually have no comprehensive survey of the ethnic identities of Chileans during the nineteenth century and consequently little objective evidence of the scope of Chile’s displacement of the Mapuche in the late nineteenth century.

The 1907 census marked the first attempt to classify the urban and rural indigenous populations of Chile—and with that classification, to incorporate the Mapuche within the body politic. In the course of the census-taking process,  the regions surveyed included Arauco, Biobio, Malleco, Cautín, Valdivia, and Llanquihue.

Mapuche census.png

Source: Biblioteca Nacional Digital

In total, the census found 101,119 people distributed between the River Bio-Bio and the Gulf of Reloncaví, primarily in the Malleco, Cautín, and Valdivia provinces—twice the number that Chilean authorities had originally estimated. Meanwhile, although increased numbers of European immigrants to be found in each region and although the Chilean government granted them land and civic authority, numerically the colonists remained a distinct minority, as can be seen in this chart:

Distrubution of Mapuche peoples.png

Source: Biblioteca Nacional Digital

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